Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Visit (2015) Review

The Visit

M. Night Shyamalan has had a rough path getting to The Visit. Shyamalan had been on a very slow and steady decline since his breakout smash hit The Sixth Sense but once the thudding failure salvo of Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender, and After Earth arrived it looked as if the once promising writer/director’s career was fast approaching it’s expiration date. He needed a hit and he needed it fast. After multiple attempts at more high-concept features that were met with a mixture of frustration and unintentional laughter, The Visit finds its creator returning to simpler and sturdier ground for this modest concoction of family and frights.

The film still bears marks of his signature style despite working within genre confines. The found footage approach seems as though it would rob Shyamalan of his careful sense of shot composition, something that even his weakest works bear, but the director gets around this by establishing the teenaged Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) as a film geek with the technical know-how to keep the damn camera steady. Rebecca wants to see the grandparents (Peter McRobbie and Deanna Dunagan) that she and her brother Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) never met before and form a documentary about their week-long visit to the family farm. Initial awkwardness aside, things start off fairly well between the estranged generations, although the siblings realize over time that something isn’t quite right with their older relatives.

While advertised as a straight horror ride of creep-outs, The Visit stands apart from the pack with its emphasis on the family dynamic that fuels its story. Shyamalan is unable to avoid all of the pitfalls that plague other found footage entries. The middle section of the film drags without much action to rely on and a sense of repetition creeps in. There’s a particularly hair-raising sequence just after the halfway mark involving multiple cameras and a kitchen knife that would have suitably raised the stakes had it occurred earlier in the plot. However, the filmmaker is able to soften the lull of this stretch thanks to his juggling of the parallel stories. The family tension at the heart of the story, which began with Rebecca and Tyler’s mother running away from home as a teenager, infuses a dramatic backbone for the film to rest itself on so that it isn’t relying on shallow jumps and temporary scares.

The cast of actors is also stronger than usual for the genre, with the confidence of DeJonge and Oxenbould’s performances standing out especially. The young duo are shorn of the affectations that bring down most child actor roles and carry their roles with natural charisma, something that is miraculous in Oxenbould’s case given that Tyler’s inclination to rap could have easily made him an annoying brat. McRobbie grounds the situations with his aloof humanity, even if something seems “off” with John, but it’s Dunagan who carries the real weight of the picture. She’s frequently at the center of the film’s most tense sequences and believably portrays a character who can be picture-perfect sweet one moment and then flip over into unhinged hysteria another time. Dunagan’s performance goes a long way in adding unpredictability to Doris’ presence; we’re never sure when she’s harmless and lucid or about to fly off her rocker.

Like with The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan is less interested in providing a constant stream of shocks and more with building a sense of creeping dread and unease, which is aided by keeping the level of danger created by the grandparents’ actions hazy. There is no left field rug pull to be found here, and the director admirably keeps things simple and avoids providing a far-out explanation for the grandparents’ actions. It isn’t until the climax that tensions reach a sustained fever pitch, and there’s a delicate balance to the proceedings that doesn’t put the children in danger in cheap ways or in unbelievable scenarios. There are some minor directorial decisions along the way that betray the handheld camera approach, like jarring establishing shots of the sky and the out-of-place use of music, but these quibbles are easily ignored with the vice of suspense tightening around the characters in the home stretch.

It has been rather dispiriting to see such a raw and original talent as Shyamalan devolve into self-indulgence and general incompetence in the last decade after the immense promise of his early work. But The Visit proves that there’s always room to allow for a fallen star to pick itself back up even after it crashed into the embarrassing lands of The Happening and The Last Airbender. Shyamalan will need to find the right inspiration before he can make another hit on the level of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable (and Signs too, which is much better than it’s remembered as), but The Visit proves that an idiosyncratic director such as himself can take familiar material and mold it into an effective work that fits into their wheelhouse of filmmaking.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Mad Max Fury Road (2015) Review

Mad Max Fury Road

Killing for gasoline is now passé in the Mad Max world; the only thing that really matters in this wasteland of scorched earth is survival. Basic humanity has been lost as the desert wretches scavenge off each other for food and water while the few in power rest atop their kingdoms and enjoy the spoils still left in the world. These powerful oppressors look down upon the masses as if they are ants under the magnifying glass, using their pressure points of desperation to wield control over them. But what if someone were to push back against that control? What if someone were to say enough is enough and hit these ruthless leaders in their own pressure points? What if these tyrants were revealed to be just as desperate as the wretches in their futile mission to cling onto dying societal values? This is the story of Mad Max: Fury Road.

Like its titular protagonist, the Mad Max series prefers to leave the past behind and forge new territory in an old world. For the post-apocalyptic film series, this means greater freedom to tell singularly completely tales in a malleable setting without the hassle of continuity weighing it down. For Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), the ex-cop who lost his wife, son, and other companions along the way, this means shutting off all hope for a better future in order to repress past pains and rely on base primal instincts for survival. Human connection is out of the question for Max, and his introduction as a longhaired, lizard-eating scavenger paints him as more animal than man. The muzzle that’s eventually placed on him isn’t just a metaphor for his caged emotions, it’s also to contain the beast within and reduce him to nothing more than a valued commodity.

Max is captured and brought to the Citadel of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) where he’s harvested for blood to keep Joe’s sick Warboy fanatics alive. He’s nothing more than an object to them, just like the prized wives that Joe keeps to himself in the hopes of one day having an heir. Joe, like his patriarchal Warboy society, is slowly dying but refuses to acknowledge this; his body is a festering mess of boils and scars held together by armor and a breathing mask that turns the Immortan into Darth Vader by way of Slipknot. But one leader in his army, Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), has had enough of Joe’s domineering leadership and takes the wives on a journey to the mythical “Green Place.” With all the pieces laid out on the table, moving at a pace that expects the audience to keep up with the frenetic insanity on display, this allows director George Miller to hit the gas on the vehicular mayhem without sacrificing the integrity of his thematic undercurrents.

Swarms of motorcycle gangs and spiked car rovers descend upon Furiosa’s War Rig while Joe’s military catches up from behind. The relentlessness of the action foregrounds the desperation of Furiosa’s quest for salvation and redemption, and the tentative alliance she forms with Max solidifies as they push through the trials of combat and hardship along their road trip. The potency of Miller’s wasteland vision extends beyond the practical explosions and death-defying crashes performed by real stuntman. Monochrome grays and browns that are visually typical of post-apocalyptic films are replaced by the searing orange heat of the desert sand and cool nighttime blues. The old adage that “less is more” doesn’t apply here, with wild vehicles built out of the scrap heaps of makeshift weaponry and twisted metal. A rocking thrasher with his own stage and flamethrower guitar accompanies the chase with his soundtrack of war, which invisibly melds with the thundering orchestration of Junkie XL’s score.

But amidst all the sound and fury is a human core that remains beating throughout. The extended chase through the unforgiving desert is carried forward by the motivations of the characters rather than contrived plot machinations. Even the despicable Immortan Joe, single-minded as he is, is a compelling presence brought to life by the booming voice of Keays-Byrne and the desires that drive this man to iron-fisted extremes. The action may be big but the emotions behind it are as human as they come. The villain is willing to sacrifice as many men as it takes in this hunt all for the goal of his treasured possessions rather than the continued destruction of the world. But the wives themselves transcend being mere damsels waiting to be saved from Joe’s wrath, and they display strength, weakness, empathy, and cynicism at critical moments.

Tying into Max and Furiosa’s mutual reclamation of their lost humanity is the evolution of turncoat Warboy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). Nux’s development provides the arc that properly expresses Joe’s toxic zealotry as he preys on the desperation of the Warboys’ lives and promises them glory eternal beyond death. But while Hardy and Hoult are strong enough actors to shade in the subtleties of their characters, it’s Theron’s Furiosa that runs away with the film. Sporting a prosthetic arm and shaved head that recalls iconic female action hero Ellen Ripley, Furiosa is a character that has seen and been through a lot in her life and those unsaid experiences shine through in the unshakable verve of Theron’s performance. In a rare scene of extended exposition, Furiosa explains to Max what brought her to this point and what she’s trying to achieve by saving the wives, and Theron plays the scene not with the dramatics of an actor trying hard to sell the emotion but with the haggard calm of someone at the end of their rope. This is her last shot to save the wives from Joe’s lecherous desire and herself from succumbing to a life of war and oppression, and it’s taking every last ounce of her energy to escape once and for all.

Everything that Miller and his co-writers Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris aim for with their story of carnage and female liberation crystallizes into the final mad dash of everyone’s trek. The obligatory third act battle is made purposeful here as the stakes rise and rise with each action beat and the film’s production team continues to push their mad imaginations to the limits. Heroic mistakes are made and the villains overwhelm the War Rig with their sheer numbers, and that’s before the team of violent pole swingers arrive to wreck more havoc. The immaculately choreographed mania of this climatic chase and the concluding scenes that follow provide a message for both the film and the action genre as a whole: don’t run away from the past and give up on a crumbling foundation. Reclaim and rebuild it anew. Forge new paths from old ruins and create something greater and more inclusive than before. Rediscover our better selves through the sins of our past and move forward from there. Live, endure, and live again on the glorious Fury Road.

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006) Review

The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006)

Tokyo Drift finds itself in a precarious position in the Fast and Furious movie series. When Paul Walker declined to return, the production wiped the slate clean with an entirely new cast and crew that almost completely ignored the previous two installments. This paved the way for director Justin Lin and writer Chris Morgan’s partnership to bend the movies to their creative wills for four straight entries. It’s also a bridge film of sorts between the grittier action movie approach of the later Fast films and the earlier, more colorful racing-focused phase of the series. Tokyo Drift represents both the end times (almost literally, considering its low box office) and the beginning of a new era, the first indication being that Lin and Morgan crafted by far the best movie in the series yet at that point in time.

Tokyo Drift is essentially the Halloween 3 of Fast and Furious movies: shunned by fans at the time of its release for not featuring the old characters, and then later accepted as a cult favorite. It takes the same combination of oversized egos and machismo and transplants them to a new setting where they feel right at home: high school. If The Fast and the Furious was Point Break and 2 Fast 2 Furious was Miami Vice, then Tokyo Drift is the Karate Kid of the series. Southern boy protagonist Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) is an outsider even in his hometown, and with a 1971 Monte Carlo as his early car of choice the movie establishes from the start that he’s a gear hound amongst a bunch of wannabe chest-pumpers.

But the movie serves as a subtle subversion of the series’ sense of bravado by having Sean mess up…a lot. Even when he beats the asshole jock in the opening he still ends up wrecking his car, and up until late in the game Sean’s ego is consistently brought down notches once he’s shipped off to Tokyo to live with his father and to quit racing. Of course he doesn’t quit, because there needs to be a movie, and he ends up losing badly to local racing celebrity “D.K.” (Drift King). Despite this, he catches the eye of racer Han Seoul-Oh (just roll with it). Han is an anomaly in this crowd; he doesn’t engage with the boasting attitude that permeates this mini-society, often standing to the side eating his snacks while everyone else talks their heads off.

Han is the true standout of Tokyo Drift, and much of this can be attributed to Sung Kang’s nonchalantly cool performance. He doesn’t need to say much because he knows that he can walk the walk while everyone else is too busy throwing horribly written insults at each other (the dialogue may debatably be the worst in the series, which is quite an accomplishment), and his Zen-master training helps Sean become a better racer. With all-due respect to the late Paul Walker, Lucas Black is a much more charismatic lead for these movies, capturing the cowboy fun and excitement of shifting into high gear and barreling through the neon-lit streets of Tokyo.

What pushes this particular Fast and Furious over the edge as one of the best in the series is the sense that Lin and Morgan are having fun with the material too. This is immediately apparent in the action sequences, each of which is different and wilder than the last and display a greater sense of rhythm than any seen in the previous movies. Lin’s set pieces crackle with reckless energy, particularly during an escape from D.K.’s goons and the final race along the winding mountainside roads. The addition of drifting into the mix is mostly just window dressing, though it allows for much more exciting scenarios than simple drag races. Lin’s more straightforward style is less reliant on gimmicky tricks to translate the adrenaline rush to his audience, letting the frenzied editing and camera do the work on their own.

The director understands how to project the thrill of racing better than his predecessors did, and it’s not hard to see why his and Morgan’s partnership on this series lasted for four movies straight. They understand that driving is in the blood of these characters; they live and breathe it. Sean’s romance with local schoolgirl Neela is best expressed not with words but when she takes him for a graceful ride along the countryside. Due to this and other factors, Tokyo Drift is arguably the only movie of the bunch that, at its heart, is truly about racing. Even the first and second movies owe themselves more to their crime genre influences than gear head classics such as Gone in 60 Seconds (1974), and when Sean finally owns up to his poor decisions to D.K.’s gangster father (martial artist Sonny Chiba), their agreement boils down to one final race to settle the rivalry.

The characters are played straight but the tone of their adventure is done with a subtle nudge and wink (Bow Wow’s annoying sidekick Twinkie literally winks at the camera when he enters an elevator full of women). The backdrop of Tokyo provides a colorful playground for the characters to roam in, and Lin relishes in the cartoonish little details of the racing world like Twinkie’s tricked-out Incredible Hulk car. The term “car porn” has often been applied to these movies and that has never been more true than here, basking in the sleek edges of international sports cars while admiring the raw power of American muscle. Tokyo Drift is about the bridging of cultures and worlds across the sea, all of which is given a nice bowtie when Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto shows up at the end to race Sean, a nice acknowledgement that the movie is not just The Fast and the Furious in name only. It would be a shame to toss the movie aside because of its hard-swerve into a new direction for the franchise, one that would set the course for the insane heights to come.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003) Review

2 Fast 2 Furious (2003)

Note: Check out my original 2009 review to see how much of a better writer I am now

2 Fast 2 Furious is exactly the type of sequel that one would expect to come from a movie such as The Fast and the Furious. There are more cars, more racing scenes, more beautiful women, and more dumb sequel titling. It’s the type of sequel that replicates the shiny surface details that defined the first movie without trying anything new or even understanding why that movie resonated on some level with its audience. The Fast and the Furious is not particularly good even by action movie standards, though it still merits a spot in the genre’s annals for the niche world it created and Vin Diesel’s authoritative role. Now with Diesel off working on his other iconic role, this 2 dumb 2 care sequel tries to keep cruising along a yet-to-be-defined series path even as it doubles down on the elements that didn’t work out last time.

With only Paul Walker returning to his part as Brian O’Connor, 2 Fast serves as a soft restart that allows for newcomers who can jump right in without missing a beat and also returning fans who want to see where undercover cop Brian’s story goes after letting Diesel’s Dominic Toretto ride off to freedom. He’s now fully integrated into the racing subculture on the Miami front with a whole new group of friends to call his own, including future “Fast and Furious Avengers” member Tej Parker. Knowing that Fast Five would fold back Ludacris’ character (and others) into the series got me wondering: why stop there? I say Devon Aoki’s Suki and her pink ride are long overdue for a return call, especially since she gets more to do and say than Letty did in installment one and yet I haven’t seen her get a death/revenge/resurrection storyline. (Spoiler?)

It’s a new world with a new director in John Singleton but done with the same old tricks, even the ones that failed before. The digital effects found in The Fast and the Furious’ opening drag race were excessive but Singleton, perhaps due to his lack of experience in action movies, pushes them to a higher, much more obtrusive degree. Not content to simply let the cars’ power and speed speak for themselves, the director opens the movie with a race through the Miami streets that’s filled with distractingly digital camera movements and unconvincing computer-generated vehicles. Even the sequence’s money shot, where Brian’s car flies over an opponent’s on a drawbridge, loses all impact due to its obviously faked nature. Real cars doing real stunts are viscerally exciting; fake cars doing fake stunts are just video game cut scenes.

One of the few set pieces that is mostly free of these distractions is a memorably crunchy race around the Miami highways so that drug kingpin Carter Verone can pick a couple of drivers for his operations. If the first movie was glorified Point Break redo then this one does the same for Miami Vice, complete with corrupt cops, undercover cops, loose cannon (ex)cops, and angry chief cops. It’s also written more in line with the buddy cop genre along the likes of Lethal Weapon rather than the serious crime thriller tone of the previous movie, bringing in Tyrese Gibson as Brian’s estranged old friend Roman Pearce. Brian and Roman’s reluctant alliance brings forth a history of bottled tension and also possibly the greatest repressed gay action movie romance since Maverick and Iceman played volleyball.

Their charged banter together is so laced with unintentional innuendo and Roman’s resentment of Brian’s attraction to undercover FBI agent Monica Fuentes is so strong that it’s hard not to pick up on it. But there’s no time for love when they’ve got to take down Verone for the FBI men that hired them to infiltrate the operation. The clearer goals give the movie a tighter focus and momentum than the slippery plotting of Rob Cohen’s entry, but they’re undercut by Cole Hauser’s apathetic performance as the lead villain. Hauser, who coincidentally costarred with Vin Diesel in Pitch Black, hits the same low pitch growl note for his personality-less performance in every scene, sapping away any sense of menace to the heroes. Mendes fares only slightly better given the lack of real material written for her, and yet she’s arguably more useful to the plot than any other female in the series until part six.

Walker and Gibson’s tense friendship (possibly more?) is the real backbone that keeps the movie going through its rough patches, and their chemistry together brings out a looser side to Walker’s performance that was previously missing. The free-wheeling sunny spirit of the movie itself is a virtue too as it moves along at a fast clip all the way up to its sprawling climax across the streets and swamps of Miami. But apart a Dukes of Hazzard-esque car jump 2 Fast 2 Furious is lacking in memorable values, and with a visual style that screams “USA Original Series” it loses the underworld mystique of its predecessor. Its biggest lasting merits wouldn’t come until years later when Fast Five brought Mendes (briefly), Tyrese and Ludacris back into the mix, so it is important to the franchise in a roundabout way, but as its own entity the movie lacks inspiration to stand out.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Fast and the Furious (2001) Review

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

Note: Check out my original 2009 review to see how much of a better writer I am now

The dirty little secret of the Fast and Furious series is that they were never really about the cars they so proudly displayed. Writer Gary Scott Thompson used the Vibe Magazine article “Racer X” as an inspiration for the first installment, but the series has proven itself to be a strange and ever-changing beast since entering the pop culture landscape 14 years ago. And then there’s the popular, rather true notion that the original movie is basically just Point Break with cars instead of surfboards, and we never talk about Point Break as a surfing movie. The Fast movies are an often lost and yet bizarrely coherent collection of pieces that have adapted to extenuating circumstances over time into something bigger and altogether more interesting than originally envisioned.

However, to understand the context of its zigzagging evolution we need to return to the beginning. The characters of The Fast and the Furious live apart from the rest of us with their unique world that’s powered by magically ready-made rolls of cash, a little elbow grease, and a lot of attitude. The movie presents a clear distinction between the “normal” world and the nightlife racing culture as the sun sets and the flashy neon cars light up the streets. Director Rob Cohen lovingly pans his camera across these cars with as much fetishistic glee as he does the scantily clad women that cling to the drivers like rock band groupies. Cohen and Thompson create this insular microcosm of people that all know each other and the code of respect that defines them, so when Paul Walker’s Brian O’Connor presses his way into this circle he immediately stands out like bleached-blonde sore thumb.

Walker’s severe stiffness as an actor almost works for the character; sometimes it’s hard to tell in the early scenes whether Walker is just trying to pull off a convincing line delivery or if the actor is playing this up to emphasize the undercover cop’s weariness. Walker’s lack of screen presence, intentional or not, is put into perspective every time he shares a scene with Vin Diesel’s Dominic Toretto. Before we even get to know Dom, Cohen and Thompson lay the bricks for his legend status in the racing community. Cohen stages his introduction in such a way that we already understand the type of person he is before Diesel opens his mouth. With his back turned to the camera and two crossed shotguns adorning the office wall, Dom is immediately established as the outlaw figure who only enters trouble when absolutely necessary.

In Diesel’s hands Dom is the ideal image of macho bravado without the toxic impulsiveness that undoes many of the other characters in this society, including those in his own crew. Even as the Fast movies found their voice late in life, their baritone lead actor never quite recaptured the same level of charisma he displayed here. The hyper-macho attitude extends to everyone else in the movie, with every guy trying to one-up each other in races and insults. So pervasive is the movie’s manly nature that one of its few prominent females, Michelle Rodriguez’s Letty, is so masculine that she takes the phrase “just one of the guys” to another level.

The only sensible way for these people to vent themselves is through the thrill of underground street racing, a life so in-tuned to their desires that they might be able to describe the accessories of their cars faster than Cohen can montage them. But Cohen has a few tools of his own; his computer-assisted journeys into the car engines have become a trademark element of the series. A character’s press of the NOS button is more than just a little boost, it’s an intricate mini roller coaster that gets to the literal heart of these speed machines and provides the movie’s audience with an adrenaline shot of their own. Cohen pushes the effects to such a degree in the first drag race that the cars feel like they’re gliding more on pixels than pavement as he relies too much on green screen effects when real driving would have worked to better effect.

This is certainly true with the botched truck robbery that comes right as everything starts falling to pieces for both the characters and the increasingly haphazard plot momentum. When looking at the larger set pieces to follow in the sequels, this sequence is rather stripped back in comparison, and to its advantage. Dom, against his better judgment, tries to save resident asshole crewmate Vince from the shotgun-wielding driver, whose faceless presence gives him an otherworldly quality, recalling the sinister and also unseen villain of Steven Spielberg’s classic Duel. The entire sequence is accomplished with nary a trace of digital trickery, allowing the tension to build naturally through a series of close-calls, daring maneuvers, and Dom’s refusal to let his friend go.

This drives at the heart of what this tight knit group of people is all about, which is the binding force of family. For all it’s races and clashes, of which there’s surprisingly little of for an action movie, The Fast and the Furious is much more concerned with its bromantic bonds and attitude than it is about getting the adrenaline pumping, which works both for and against itself. Like any outlaws, Dom and his crew live by a code; it’s just that this code is often expressed through the simple pleasures of a Corona and some barbeque with mates.  The outlandish world of street racing is made human, even as it retains its ridiculous nature with earnestly acted nonsensical dialogue such as, “I live my life a quarter mile at a time.” Try as it might, words and convincing emotion aren’t the movie’s strong suits.

This presents a problem later on when the drama feels like it should be hitting a peak and yet stalls out repeatedly in the third act. The plot continuously pivots around its multiple threads and never manages to bring them together in a cohesive fashion, leaving the disjointed climax to fizzle out before it can generate real excitement. The final drag race between Brian and Dom feels like a forced attempt to provide closure, especially when the impending threat of Brian’s LAPD superiors turns out to be a total non-starter. The perfect analogy for The Fast and the Furious is Brian’s first street race experience: he has the right tools and just enough bluster to carry himself through, but he sputters out wildly before hitting the finish line, leaving a trail of smoke and little else to show for it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×06) – “Five-O”

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×06) – “Five-O”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on March 11, 2015

How’s this for a change of pace? Last week, Better Call Saul shifted the perspective from Jimmy McGill to Mike Ehrmantraut for its closing minutes as it concisely put into focus the lonely and closed off existence that Mike has built around himself. The final beat had two officers from Philadelphia arriving to question Mike about a matter from his old home city, and although “Five-O” follows up on this, the majority of the episode details the tragic and noir-laced circumstances that led to the estrangement from his family and his eventual arrival in Albuquerque.

Aside from a brief appearance from Jimmy when Mike calls upon his services in custody, “Five-O” takes a notably serious side-turn from the lighter McGill saga. Jimmy does get some great moments in his limited screen time, from the coffee spill routine to the line, “I look like a young Paul Newman, dressed as Matlock,” though the meat of the episode rests in Mike’s relationship with his widowed daughter-in-law Stacey. The death of Mike’s son, who was also on the Philadelphia force, put a strain on them, explaining their apprehensive looks at each other last week. Their weathered existence with each other is reflected in the scene where Mike plays with his granddaughter Kaylee on the swings, where a high angle shot reveals the patchy backyard and difficult history is drudged up between them.


This difficult history is represented in the blue-tinted flashbacks that adorn “Five-O,” evoking the chilly, hard-bitten atmosphere of film noir. All of Mike’s actions that bring him to this present state are fueled by the revelations that spill out in a teary-eyed monologue to Stacey. Jonathon Banks already elevated Mike to iconic status during his tenure on Breaking Bad, but “Five-O” cracks open the hidden mysteries of his life in such a way that completely reinvents how this character is viewed. Banks too reveals greater depths in this man throughout his performance here, and the concluding monologue is a crowning moment for the storied character actor’s career.

I would be curious to know the reactions to this episode from Better Call Saul viewers who haven’t had the chance to go through Breaking Bad, and this is something that ran through my mind once I realized that the hour would be dedicating it’s time almost solely to this haggard man. Breaking Bad fans certainly gain a lot from seeing Mike’s past explored in detail, but what of the viewers who only know Mike as the amusing parking attendant? This is the ultimate problem with prequels in general and one that I hope the shows writers can sidestep in the future: prequels are written with the foreknowledge of what happens later, meaning that writers can have a tendency to place greater importance on elements that don’t hold as much weight for people who lack said foreknowledge. They’re taken along for the ride without entirely understanding the import of these events, especially when a show unexpectedly swerves to the side for an ancillary character at best.


This isn’t to say that the events lack the necessary weight, and once the episode transitions back to Philly again to Mike walking into a bar from a dark alley it’s become totally immersed in the iconography of film noir. The high contrast blue-tinged lighting and Mike’s boozy interactions at the bar fill out the generally chilly tone, one that turns especially dark once he exacts revenge on the two officers who murdered his son. Also interesting is how these events concerning Mike and his son strained his relationship with Stacey much like how Slippin’ Jimmy did the same with Chuck, adding in a thematic thread that ties Jimmy and Mike’s stories together in a way that will likely bring them closer together. To these two men, their stories are ones of repair and absolution in the face of greater disappointment, but seeing how this is only the beginning of their stories I highly doubt that their reaches for redemption in the eyes of family will last very long.

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×05) – “Alpine Shepherd Boy”

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×05) – “Alpine Shepherd Boy”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on March 4, 2015


There’s a point in “Alpine Shepherd Boy” where Jimmy McGill goes to see a new client after his billboard hero story and I wondered whether or not Better Call Saul was about to head down into a procedural route blended with the serialized storytelling. The premise of a lawyer with his sharp wit and wacky clientele could easily fuel a more episodic series; a form of television that is exceedingly becoming endangered as long-form stories become more and more popular. I’ve admittedly turned a blind eye to more episodic fare on occasion because for some reason it is fashionable to look down upon them these days, but in the right hands (and this show is surely in the right hands) the material for a case-of-the-week Jimmy/Saul show could be wildly entertaining.

Alas, it doesn’t look like my pointlessly overlong side note will come to fruition if “Alpine Shepherd Boy” is an indication of the direction this show is headed into. It does, however, spend the bulk of its running time with Jimmy meeting his oddball set of new prospects, tipping the tonal scale from light drama over into eccentric farce. Each of these vignettes, from the tycoon who wants to secede from the U.S. to the inventor whose child toilet trainer inadvertently turns sexual, are funny in their own right. Tycoon Richard Sipes is quite the impressionable character and one who I wouldn’t mind seeing pop up time and time again as a minor recurring character, though I doubt that will happen.


I bring up the notion of episodic stories because they can be a reprieve from the bigger arcs that can’t always sustain the episode orders made for TV seasons, and “Alpine Shepherd Boy” feels like it’s dallying with the idea of going down that path without fully committing. The interludes with the clients are little more than humorous space fillers until Kim and Jimmy get the call about Chuck in the hospital, only to go back to Jimmy seeing his clients, and then jump back to him dealing with Chuck. The episode doesn’t balance its structure and tone between the two approaches as smoothly as it could have. I’ve also found that I’m not as fully invested in the relationship between Jimmy and Kim as the show would like me to be, although this week allows the two of them to share more personal interactions outside of work and see their softer sides together.

The matter of Chuck’s “condition” is given much more attention though, with Clea DuVall’s doctor confirming our suspicions that his “condition” is more mental than physical, something that I saw as the case from the start but is nevertheless given a rather longwinded explanation. I got the sense that “Alpine” was making a conscious comparison between Jimmy providing for his brother and the ways that we take care of the elderly once they hit a certain point in life. Chuck’s existence at home isn’t so different from that of a lonely elderly person sheltered from the outside world, and the older décor of his house along with its spare spaces suggest the loneliness he feels. On another (much shorter) side note, Jimmy watches the older TV show Matlock to get a feel for how he should present himself to the older crowd, and I couldn’t help but see the coincidental similarity between the logo for that show and the one for Breaking Bad with its periodic table design.


Speaking of the lonely and the elderly, the final minutes of the episode take an unexpected left turn into the life of parking attendant Mike, who is even more isolated than Chuck is. He sits alone at the diner and can’t even get close to talk to the mystery woman who acknowledges his presence with familiarity (I assume this is his daughter since Breaking Bad made a point of Mike’s affection for his granddaughter). Before the episode ends with (presumably) Mike’s old police partner and several officers approaching Mike at home, his house and living is defined by cold stillness, a quality that actor Jonathon Banks has used to define the character himself since being introduced many years ago. Chuck and Mike both have tentative threads holding them to the lives of others, but with Mike’s partner returning and Slippin’ Jimmy threatening to undo Chuck’s trust, it looks like the past is coming back to haunt them both.

TV Review: Agent Carter (1×08) – “Valediction”

TV Review: Agent Carter (1×08) – “Valediction”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on February 25, 2015


Look, I love Captain America, and I love Captain America: The First Avenger; it’s one of the few Marvel movies that I actually like more each time I watch it. One of the reasons why it was such a success was the character Peggy Carter, whose strength as an independent character made her both stand out amidst other female comic book movie characters and established her as a viable subject for her own television series. She had both a compelling history and a captivating actress playing her in Hayley Atwell, and could command attention on her own terms without the need to be defined by her relationship with Captain America. So how did Agent Carter’s finale repay its lead? By making itself all about remembering Captain America and the man who couldn’t save him while pushing the heroine aside in her own story.

When the pilot contained scenes of Peggy haunted by Captain America’s disappearance after his noble sacrifice, I never imagined that the show would actually turn that into a major plot point that defined where the story lead to. And yet, somehow, despite never having any major thematic or story-based connection to Peggy’s investigation of Leviathan at the S.S.R., the specter of Steve Rogers’ death continually loomed overhead like a grey cloud that wouldn’t go away. Then, in a nakedly manipulative move, this all came to a head in the emotional climax of the finale where Peggy has to plead over the radio for a brainwashed Howard Stark to not gas New York much like she did the same when Steve Rogers decided to sacrifice himself to stop Hydra’s plan.


What makes this conclusion to the finale so disappointing is that the story shifts its focus from Peggy to Howard and suddenly the crux of our investment lies in Howard’s guilt over the weapons he invented and his failure to save Cap from his icy fate. Howard is certainly an integral figure in the Marvel Universe but to make the finale all about his salvation as well the heroes’ ability to move on from their sacrificial male icon feels like a disservice to the story about a female secret agent struggling to work against male dominance at her job. Atwell gives it her all as Peggy tearfully struggles to get through this déjà vu of events, but it’s not enough to distract from the unease of her serving Howard’s arc instead of the reverse.

Luckily, all of this stuff only happens in the last 15 minutes or so, and everything else surrounding it is pretty great even if Howard remains an attention hog both as a character and a focal point in the story. Dominic Cooper plays up Stark’s arrogance after turning himself in to the S.S.R. while still retaining his easy-going charm, particularly when he tells Thompson to say that they “are humbled by his brilliance” before a press conference. And of course, with him being Howard Stark, his numerous flings with women meant that Dottie once used that to get close to him for information. The sins of the past haunt Howard in more ways than one.

Dottie gets plenty of time to shine in this finale. She’s used her girlish persona to manipulate others into doing her bidding in both the past and present, but actress Bridget Regan takes the opportunity to infuse that into the character’s actual personality. During her much-anticipated clash with Peggy at the end, a breathlessly satisfying bout filled with hard punches and blunt instruments, Regan brings a childlike glee to the punishment Dottie brings down on Peggy. Her brief moments of triumph show delight in dishing out the violence, something that ends rather unexpectedly when Peggy kicks her out the nearby window. However, it looks like this won’t be the last we see of the nefarious Dottie Underwood.


As for the rest of the S.S.R., Thompson takes a backseat to the action as Sousa steps into the forefront. Following the boneheaded decision to literally stick his nose right in the midst of the dangerous gas, the disabled agent redeems himself when he saves Thompson from the clutches of Dr. Ivchenko and beats the bad Russian at his own hypnotic game. This doesn’t stop Thompson from taking the credit for the operation while Sousa and Peggy look on unrecognized for their heroism. Sousa tries to stick up for Peggy but, in one of the finest and most astute moments the show has conceived, she tells him to stand down, insisting, “I don’t need [their] approval. I know my value.”

In a show all about female empowerment, this was perhaps the most empowering bit of all, one that reasserts the character’s self-confidence and worth and helps to (slightly) alleviate the finale’s unfortunate shift in focus to the male characters, both living and frozen. There’s hope in the future as well, with Peggy and Sousa showing affection for each other even as she delays his advances, along with Peggy echoing the end of Titanic as she dumps Cap’s blood into the East River and finally learns to let go. Even with the bumps along the way, I’d rather not let go of Agent Carter, which provided a well-deserved spotlight for one of Marvel’s best female characters and the chance to elaborate on previously unexplored territory for the overarching universe.

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×04) – “Hero”

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×04) – “Hero”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on February 24, 2015


Last week, Better Call Saul showed us an earlier point in the McGill brothers’ lives when Jimmy was in jail and Chuck comes to see him, which set up a cyclical arc for Jimmy to reform himself after many questionable life decisions and then revert back to his old ways to Chuck’s disappointment. “Hero” follows through on that thread in a major by dedicating its entire run time to Slippin’ Jimmy’s ways of sticking it to the man and coming out on top. The cold open goes even further than last week’s by showing him and another man play out a scam for money, something that echoes the actions he undertakes over the course of the next hour.

Back in the present, we pick up immediately after the end of “Nacho” with Jimmy confronting the Kettlemans over the stolen money and once again offering his legal services. They once again refuse him, but offer a bribe instead to keep him quiet. Chuck previously taught Jimmy that the way up the lawyer ladder is to do good work and the clients will come, though Jimmy’s flippant reaction to this piece of advice gives some indication as to why he ends up taking the money. Jimmy wants to do good by his brother to atone for his past sins, but he also sees the reality of his current situation that he is a man scraping by on the skids with barely a penny to his name.


The bribe money emboldens him much like it did for Walter White before him (or rather, after him), inspiring a rise in confidence as he pays off old fees and gets a makeover to celebrate. This boost in self-assurance also prompts a deliberate jab at Howard Hamlin and the others at Hamlin Hamlin & McGill by imitating their billboard advertisement. Jimmy no doubt knows that what he’s doing is wrong and will immediately prompt a response from Howard but he doesn’t care; he just wants a chance to rile them up in an elaborate prank. In Jimmy’s eyes, getting a reaction from them is enough to validate himself as a worthy opponent.

Just as the first two episodes established Jimmy’s relationship with Chuck and the third gave he and Kim the time to interact, “Hero” brings forth Howard Hamlin as a possible villain for Jimmy to square off against. As played by underappreciated character actor Patrick Fabian (whose performance in The Last Exorcism is a standout) he’s not an out-and-out bad guy as Jimmy’s actions and scams are of course unethical, not the least of which is the rescue stunt pulled by “saving” the fallen billboard man. There’s plenty of resentment bubbling between them that gets pulled forth during the cease-and-desist scene, and Fabian plays the role with just enough pomp to keep the audience on Jimmy’s side without turning him into a cartoon bully.


Propping these men up as adversaries creates another dynamic between the characters with Kim as the middle-woman torn between her allegiances. As another person torn in their feelings, Jimmy attempts to hide his ‘hero’ story in the newspaper from Chuck to no avail, and the pieces are in place to clash against each other. “Hero” is mostly a transitional episode getting the characters from place to place and setting them in motion for events to come in the future. There’s not much to write home about and I doubt that this will be looked back on as a particularly memorable episode for Better Call Saul’s debut season, but it does an admirable and competent job of moving the pieces forward in entertaining fashion.

TV Review: Agent Carter (1×07) – “Snafu”

TV Review: Agent Carter (1×07) – “Snafu”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on February 19, 2015

agentcarter_snafu_meeting room

Remember when just last week I said that Agent Carter had its “shit’s going down” episode? Well, the ball just keeps on rolling in the latest installment: “Snafu.” With Peggy captured and the S.S.R. too busy prying her for information on Howard Stark, it’s time for Leviathan to make its deadly move against the good guys. They’ve mostly been lurking in the shadows for some time now mostly through covert work leading to the moment when they can properly strike a blow and make off with Stark’s weapons in the process. Last week revealed that Dr. Ivchenko is secretly plotting with Dottie to tear apart the S.S.R. right under their noses, and in “Snafu” they manage to succeed in more ways than one.

However, before we get to that, lets focus on Peggy’s side of the story, and by extension Jarvis’. As the show has well established, the men around the S.S.R. don’t treat her like an equal and are often oblivious to the fact that she is a perfectly competent agent, even if some like Thompson finally began to take notice later on. Getting caught as a conspirator with Stark certainly doesn’t help her case for respect, though she gets the opportunity to throw it back in their faces in the hour’s best scene. When the guys ask how she was able conduct her private investigation sight unseen, the feminist angle of Peggy’s characterization comes to the forefront in her wonderfully pointed response that she was able to get away with it precisely because she was invisible to them on a daily basis unless she was serving their needs.


It’s a canny way of showing how a woman’s achievements (in the 1940s and even today) are often perceived based on how they also benefit men rather than simply the woman’s needs, and it also shows how Peggy was able to utilize that ignorance to get the upper hand. Hayley Atwell particularly shines in this scene because she’s able to deliver the speech with Peggy’s usual cool conviction while also letting slip some cracks of emotion, which wonderfully shows how her mission is just as personal as it is professional. This is followed through later on when Jarvis comes in with a fake confession from Stark that he wrote and Peggy asks, “Do I have a say in this matter?” Jarvis’ attempt to remedy/delay their situation looks to have actually made it worse off instead of saving them, and Peggy is righteously irked that he may have bungled their chances.

However, a much more pressing and dangerous matter begins brewing when Dr. Ivchenko put his hypnosis charms on Dooley in order to obtain a weapon of some sort. Up to this point in the series, Shea Whigham has consistently been the most underutilized member of the cast, especially for an actor who plumbed complex depths as Eli Thompson on Boardwalk Empire. For an actor of his skill, the role of Chief Dooley has unfortunately often leaned more on caricature than anything else even though he’s gotten some moments in the last couple of weeks. But that changed with “Snafu,” in which arguably its best accomplishment is finally allowing Whigham to bring sympathy and pity to his character.


The first display of this comes towards the beginning when Dooley is on the phone talking about dinner with his wife and children, a scene that carries an air of dread as we see Ivchenko lurking in the background of the shot listening in. When the slippery doctor puts the chief under his spell, Whigham’s expression give hints that he knows that what he’s doing is wrong but he can’t do anything to stop himself, something that’s given greater resonance with the hallucinations he has of seeing his family again. Given the unfortunate end his character meets in this episode, it might as well have been titled “The Life and Death of Roger Dooley.”

By the end of “Snafu” the bad guys have won, with Ivchenko escaping the S.S.R. with a secret weapon and Dooley committing suicide to save everyone else from death by vest bomb. The final sequence with Dottie releasing the chemical weapon on unsuspecting movie theater patrons is creepy but also a bit of déjà vu for those who recently saw Kingsman: The Secret Service with its bonkers church scene. With only one episode left of the season there’s a bunch of threads that will need to be tied up and also some that still need to be answered for, such as the forced importance of Steve Rogers’ blood. Does Dooley’s death mean that Peggy might actually (somehow, I’m not sure how given her current situation) take his position and spearhead the creation of S.H.I.E.L.D.?

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×03) – “Nacho”

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×03) – “Nacho”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on February 17, 2015


A sense of foreboding hangs over the most recent episode of Better Call Saul, “Nacho,” which it establishes right at the start. Although knowing the eventual futures of characters in prequels often dissipates suspense, in the right hands it can be used as a useful storytelling measure. There are no half measures here. “Nacho” opens with Chuck McGill visiting Jimmy in jail for several offenses that include a possible sex offense. At first I expected this to be another flash-forward for the show like those from the series it originated from, but the reality of it being a flashback actually makes it more interesting to ponder. We already know that Jimmy will turn into a *criminal* lawyer by the time he makes his first appearance on Breaking Bad as Saul Goodman, so the dilemma of will he/won’t he with Nacho and the Kettleman’s money is never in question (then again would it have been anyway?), but this flashback seems to shed some light on how the dynamic between the McGill brothers will play out over this season.

Present day Jimmy is a do-gooder, a down on his luck and desperate do-gooder, but nonetheless one to the core, and it looks like it stems from his promise to Chuck at the jail to clean up his act. His hesitance to become a *criminal* lawyer rather than simply a criminal lawyer last week is now put into a different light beyond simple morality. He doesn’t want to let his brother down, who has clearly done a lot to repeatedly get him out of trouble throughout his life, but we know that’s about to happen sometime in the foreseeable. The flashback establishes a cycle of bad behavior for our protagonist, a point that’s further driven home by Bob Odenkirk’s more animated performance that feels more Saul than Jimmy.


Our foreknowledge also extends to Mike the parking man, though to a much smaller degree. We get glimpses of Mike’s true nature when Jimmy pushes him to far and customarily gets his arm in a twist, and later there are references to his past as a cop that are used to show how he begrudgingly understands Jimmy’s skepticism about the Kettlemans’ actions. So far, Better Call Saul has managed to avoid the pitfalls of most prequels, with a forced joke/scene that plays as “insider sports” for Breaking Bad fans. There are callbacks, for sure, but episode writer Thomas Schnauz weaves them in such a way that newcomers won’t feel out of the loop. The story beats work internally without having to lean on outside knowledge like a crutch.

But those moments are really only a small portion of “Nacho,” which primarily concerns itself with the impending robbery of the Kettlemans by Tuco’s man Nacho and Jimmy’s attempts to sabotage and then remedy the situation. Driving this mini-mystery/thriller is the fractured history between Jimmy and Kim Wexler (after their connection was only mentioned in passing last week), and also Jimmy’s previously mentioned apprehensiveness about aiding and abetting a thief. These two threads are sometimes intertwined to humorous effect, such as when Jimmy uses a paper towel roll to muffle himself while warning the Kettlemans and then later Kim asks if he did the sex robot voice.


But while Jimmy may not have too bright a mind he certainly has an intuition about him, even if it’s one fueled by his frantic desire not to fail Nacho and die. Nacho claims that although he performed surveillance on the Kettleman home he never kidnapped them, and using that claim in connection with clues in the house Jimmy deduces that the Kettlemans staged their kidnapping. He and Kim are at odds with each other given that they each represent both sides of the situation, though through their interactions springs forth hints of a reluctant understanding of Jimmy’s story on Kim’s part.

If the episode makes any misstep it’s in the song choice of Bobby Bare’s “Find Out What’s Happening” as Jimmy makes his trek through the hot New Mexico area in search of the Kettleman’s hiding place. Gilligan is no stranger to making pointed song choices, but there’s a time when being on the nose becomes too much. The song turns prophetic when Jimmy eventually stumbles across the family’s tent in the woods and the episode ends on an “a-ha” moment when he inadvertently spills the stolen money all over the place. Nothing’s ever too simple in this world.

TV Review: Agent Carter (1×06) – “A Sin to Err”

TV Review: Agent Carter (1×06) – “A Sin to Err”
Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on February 11, 2015

Every season of television has that one episode known as the “shit goes down” episode where all the plot threads converge, conflicts flare up, and/or everything falls apart, and “A Sin to Err” is that such episode for Agent Carter. It makes dramatic sense to place this after last week’s “The Iron Ceiling,” which was the show’s most thrilling hour in terms of pure popcorn entertainment, and since Agent Carter has the possibility of being treated as a miniseries rather than a long-form story it’s about time that everything came to a head. Although Peggy Carter has shown a knack for the art of being a double agent, serving her S.S.R. duties while aiding Howard Stark’s mission, the act can only last for so long before the ruse starts tearing apart.

Sousa’s private investigation into the mysterious blonde woman at the party finally places her as Peggy, leading Dooley to send the goon squad to apprehend her at the automat. She’s there with Edwin Jarvis as they work together in tracking down a female Leviathan agent that could have manipulated Howard’s playboy ways, and their scenes together remind me that Jarvis has unfortunately been missing for most of the previous two episodes, so it’s good to have him back in a sizable capacity. The fight sequence that ensues between them and Thompson’s S.S.R. squad is a standout that could go toe-to-toe with the best of the hand-to-hand bouts found in the Marvel movies (okay maybe not The Winter Soldier’s dynamically choreographed brawls, but most of the others at least). We’ve seen Peggy handle herself just fine in fights before, so to see her use those skills against the men who have underestimated her so much is especially exciting. The final knockout punch to Thompson is a real cherry.


Agent Sousa, however, doesn’t have it in him to pull the trigger on her. Sousa has always been an outlier of sorts within the S.S.R., not only because of his debilitating injury, but also because he’s the only one that doesn’t totally treat Carter like she’s beneath him. I’m not too sure that his decision is entirely consistent within character, as he’s already shown that he works hard to earn the respect of his peers and what better way to show that than to apprehend Carter after she’s revealed as an aide to Stark? Sure, there’s a parallel between them and their treatment within the S.S.R., but their actual goals in this story couldn’t be more different, so his decision to let her go feels fuzzy.

Meanwhile, as all this inter-spy fighting is going on, Leviathan is setting the stage for something more sinister and unexpected. Dottie, after acquiring a position, trains her sniper rifle on Chief Dooley’s office as he converses with extracted Russian Dr. Ivchenko and, in a clever bit of audience misdirection, uses the weapon to signal Ivchenko rather than assassinate him. See, the slippery doctor used his “rescue” last week as a means of infiltrating the S.S.R. to hypnotize and manipulate the agents. As far as the “villain gets caught on purpose” trope goes this one is pretty effective and much more so than when The Flash recently employed it in rote fashion.


Another nice surprise of the hour was seeing Angie prove herself as a capable and loyal friend to Peggy when the S.S.R. comes to interrogate her, elevating her status above “bubbly acquaintance oblivious to reality.” Angie’s previously just been an ancillary character who shows up rather frequently with little indication of where she fits in the overall story, so it was good to see the show writers realize this by finally giving her something notable to do besides chitchat with the heroine in her downtime. Girl power comes in numbers, and lord knows Peggy needs a close friend not connected to international conflict and espionage.

On the flip side, there’s Dottie making her play to kill Peggy for Leviathan and almost succeeding in doing so before Sousa and the S.S.R. halt those plans. Dottie has been shown as a rather twisted creation with her bed handcuffs and creepy investigation of Peggy’s apartment, and she continues that here as she delights in the lead-up to her would-be murder before flipping on a dime into clueless damsel for the agents. The deck is rather stacked against Peggy now that she’s in the custody of Dooley and Thompson and unmasked as a “traitor” working with the “enemy,” so either Jarvis will need to hatch an escape plan or Peggy will have to use her wits to convince the men of her right-doing. I’m betting on the latter.

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×02) – “Mijo”

TV Review: Better Call Saul (1×02) – “Mijo”

Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on February 10, 2015

Well it didn’t take too long for two-bit lawyer Jimmy McGill to get himself into a sticky spot. Not only that, but he happened to land in the clutches of everyone’s favorite psycho Mexican drug lord, Tuco Salamanca. It turns out that the old lady being scammed by Jimmy and the skateboarding duo is Tuco’s grandmother and Tuco quickly sees through the thin lies. Anybody who remembers Walter and Jesse’s encounters with Tuco on Breaking Bad knows that Tuco isn’t someone who is easily crossed, and he proves to be a difficult negotiator to work with for the flustered and out-of-his-depth Jimmy.

More than anything, Better Call Saul’s second episode “Mijo” finds director Michelle MacLaren and series creators, Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, tightening their coil of suspense over the viewer. The great thing about a volatile character such as Tuco is that he’s a walking/talking suspense generator: unpredictable and often over-dramatic to such a degree that every second spent in his presence is one more second spent thinking about an exit strategy. One wrong sentence could set him off without notice and get a gun pulled on you (word to the wise: don’t call his (or anyone’s) grandmother a “biznatch”). The uncomfortable knots in your stomach practically tie themselves when he’s nearby.


Jimmy’s desperation is especially more evident in this predicament as star Bob Odenkirk dials away all traces of huckster slickness while retaining his way with words. Jimmy McGill is far away from the smooth operator Saul Goodman, but the raw materials are certainly already there to be honed with more experience. Jimmy is used to dealing with general low-lifes of a less violent caliber, as it’s clear that he most likely hasn’t dealt with men as dangerous as Tuco and his gang before. The encounter is enough to shake a man to his very core, and he manages to lower Tuco’s punishment of the skateboarders from murder to a little leg breaking. The would-be scam artists don’t even have a chance to appreciate that Jimmy really is the “best lawyer ever” as they scream in pain at the hospital.


“Mijo” is divided into two halves with distinctly different tones, and the shift can initially be jarring. MacLaren has so effectively sustained the tension for the first half that once the episode leaves the desert it can take a moment to readjust to normalcy. However, it’s anything but normal again for Jimmy. His attempt to decompress is fraught with unease as the sounds of snapping breadsticks too quickly recall memories of snapping legs, and the beautiful date sitting before him isn’t enough to distract from the horrors rushing back to his mind. The breadstick scene is a great example of Gilligan and Gould’s ability to push their comic sensibilities to some dark places, and MacLaren’s handle on the editing and sound design of this sequence creates a cruel combination of chuckles and disgust.

Things take a lighter turn as Jimmy finds the inspiration to get back into the swing of things with a montage of in-and-out court clients and dealings with Jimmy’s true nemesis: Mike the “troll” parking attendant. Mike was often the secret weapon of Breaking Bad; a man who could fly under the radar with ease and then just as easily stand out due to Jonathon Banks’ completely no-nonsense performance. His tired eyes conveyed years of world-weariness and an irritated resistance to the highfalutin bullshit of the fools surrounding him. Better Call Saul can’t get these two characters together soon enough, and judging by the promo for next week’s episode, it looks like we’ll be getting that sooner than later.

TV Review: Better Call Saul Series Premiere

TV Review: Better Call Saul Series Premiere

Reprinted from The Young Folks as posted on February 9, 2015

Following up a television work as critically acclaimed and (later on) popular as Breaking Bad with a spin-off must have been a tricky proposition. Cynical skepticism can run high; why would creator Vince Gilligan go back to the old well, when Breaking Bad undoubtedly granted him enough clout to create whatever original project he wanted? Then again, if he were to make a spinoff about any character from the parent show, it might as well have been either shady lawyer Saul Goodman or no-nonsense hit man Mike Ehrmantraut, and as it turns out Better Call Saul will be delving into both of their back-stories. Amongst the bigger surprises of Saul is that it’s not actually all that different from Breaking Bad in the way it carries itself, and yet it still proves to be a worthy return to sun-kissed Albuquerque.

Like Breaking Bad, Saul’s premiere “Uno” begins with a confounding cold open. Who is this man? Why is he so paranoid and lonely? Why is this in black and white? Breaking Bad fans know that this man is Gene, Saul Goodman’s new identity after cutting himself off from the life that wannabe drug kingpin Walter White left in tatters, but the opening also works for newcomers interested in some mysterious foreshadowing. Rewind things back to 2002, and Saul is but a small-time public defender named Jimmy McGill on the edge of desperation. He has a rickety car, he scrambles for meager payments, and his office is located in the back of a salon. His overconfidence in a recent court case of juvenile delinquency is humorously undercut when the prosecutor wordlessly plays a video showing that Jimmy’s clients are obviously guilty (and a little twisted too).


Jimmy’s bluster doesn’t mean much when he has to weasel his way through life and avoiding paying just $3 for a parking ticket. Gilligan, co-creator Peter Gould, and star Bob Odenkirk successfully recreate the wily qualities that made this character such a delight while also bringing forth never before seen dimension. Jimmy is a down-on-his-luck sad sack with all the cards lined up against him, including his mental illness-stricken older brother Chuck (Michael McKean). Despite this, he has enough gumption and smarts to pull himself out of sticky situations, such as a pair of skateboarding scam artists that he later recruits. Gilligan and Gould conceive this particular story as a drama with a strong emphasis on comedy rather than an out and out laugh fest, cluing us in that they’re taking the material seriously rather than simply riffing on a lark.

In that sense, the show is subtler than those looking for the “Saul Goodman Comedy Hour” will be expecting. Gilligan, who directs this premiere, isn’t want to rush through introductions. “Uno” seemingly avoids overarching plot altogether and instead is purely rooted in character action. The black and white flash-forward contains nary a word of dialogue, and the transition to color in 2002 goes even further to near total silence as the irritated court waits for Jimmy to make his return. Gilligan’s assured pacing allows him to dole out character details while also flexing his visual storytelling muscles, something that six years of the heavily visual Breaking Bad helped to facilitate.


This doesn’t mean there isn’t still time for plenty of lightness, though it comes in understated bursts and often relies on Odenkirk’s central performance. The writers know that the central draw of the show is their leading man, and I can’t recall a single scene that doesn’t feature him. Each sequence is cannily constructed both to pull off a laugh and peel back another layer of Jimmy’s personality/predicament. But his mini-schemes and spirited recreation of Ned Beatty’s big scene in Network are in service of a man who’s not without a shred of integrity. Chuck’s law firm attempts to buy out Chuck’s share by sending a check of significant value that would surely help out Jimmy’s financial situation, and yet he responds by tearing it to shreds and dropping it off in their conference room.

While Mike Ehrmantraut will certainly become a bigger presence later on, it looks like Jimmy’s relationship with his brother will prove to be where the story finds its heart. It also proves that Better Call Saul didn’t need a Walking Dead mid-season premiere to prop itself up, and can stand alone without residing in the shadow of its parent show. There are callbacks and winks for old fans, but Gilligan and Gould are smart enough to avoid cloying fan service so that newcomers don’t feel out the loop. The show returns tonight for it’s second episode, so anyone still on the fence won’t have to wait a week to decide whether to add this to their TV schedule or not.