Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The teevee and the moving picture shows

Bird watching.
The finale of Better Call Saul was excellent. The best thing about that show is the fully-formed characters, in that you can see a number of different possible reactions and/or paths for them to take and all of them seem valid to one degree or another, such that none of them are easily predictable. You can't look at decisions that Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, Kim, Nacho, or Howard have made and say that they were obviously linear storytelling or that the actions were obvious because there was only one instinctive response to a situation. In many ways, I think Vince Gilligan's storytelling has only improved since Breaking Bad and it was already excellent there. I watched a few minutes of Talking Saul with Gilligan, Peter Gould (the other showrunner), and Jonathan Banks (Mike) as the guests. Gilligan was talking about the fact that Chuck had ended the season pulling a con on the ultimate con man (Jimmy) and he turned to the studio audience and asked: "Did you like that?" The response was a muted chorus of boos. Is that an example of the low expectations of much of the audience or of a writer willing to travel the rough road with his characters, or both? I think it, again, shows the well-rounded nature of these characters, in that it was perfectly reasonable for Chuck to have given in by now or, in fact, be taken in by his brother's shenanigans, given how disoriented Chuck has become. Instead, Gilligan and Co. have kept Chuck alive and in the game and given Jimmy a much larger hill to climb in season 3.

Also, despite the knowledge that nothing is going to kill either Mike or Hector (since both are still alive in Breaking Bad), there was a great deal of tension in the sniper scene, both in terms of Mike's target (Is he trying to take out Hector? Is Hector's condition in BB an aftereffect of being shot through Nacho?) and the car horn and note event. Even if Mike isn't going to be killed, being cornered by someone who's been able to stalk the canny Philly cop is enough to leave the scene with the eerie sensibility I think they were (ahem) aiming for. Plus, Mike's role in the show is one of slow transformation, just like Jimmy. You see how, step-by-step, his overwhelming pragmatism slowly erodes the moral barriers he puts in front of it and transforms him into the efficient fixer of Breaking Bad. As Banks said, he's not there yet, but this is the story of how it happens. Because we know the end result of both Jimmy/Saul and Mike, one of the more interesting characters of the show turns out to be Kim, the end result for whom we don't know at all. Does she finally get disgusted with Jimmy's excesses and leave before he becomes Saul or does she ride the con job and stay attached when he's in full flower? Does she get caught up in the Mike/Saul world and get killed? Some good things to think about while we await the return of Gus Fring to the TV world. Also, it still remains amusing that calm and cool Mike was once this guy:

"Don't you do it, Jack!"
Of 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop fame.

Who's "House Martell"?
I've been rather studiously avoiding most of the previews and trailers for Game of Thrones, mostly because my demeanor at the end of last season was pretty similar to Jon Snow's above, but I suppose I'll watch them this week and then write up a preview of sorts before Sunday. I was fairly demoralized by last season, since the problems with the storyline and its presentation (Dorne!) were numerous, which was new for this series. It is interesting to see the amount of Flounder coming from the cast during the promotional tour/interviews this year. Are they trying to reassure TV fans disenchanted with last season (of which I was far from the only one) or book fans worried about the uncharted waters without GRRM? Both? Was last season the point where GoT descended from being a cultural event to another series that dragged out too long?

What? Again?
On that note, I think I'm over The Walking Dead. It's not that this past season was bad or even worse than those before it. It's just that it's basically more of the same. I appreciate some of the moral introspection that Rick's group went through when they were slaughtering the Saviors, but it's not really that different from the "kill or be killed" quandary that they've been facing for 5 years now. While fans of the comic are enraptured by the introduction of Negan, I look at him and his band and see just one more charismatic menace, just like the Governor or even whatshisname from Terminus. Just because the threat to survival now has a new name and a weapon named after a famous blues guitar (Base Ball (bat) King...?) doesn't make it much different from the last one. That point was driven home when I tried to watch the first episode of the second season of Fear the Walking Dead and realized it was true for that series, as well (i.e. they're about to run into the true threat in the midst of the world being overrun by zombies: other living people.) It's basically the Gilligan's Island principle, right? How long can you keep making stories about the threat that the environment presents before you have to resort to the coconut radio or bring in aliens/crashed cosmonauts to introduce some variety to the situation? Except that said cosmonauts just want the same thing you do and are willing to step on you to make it happen. I mean, in the broader sense, that's the competitive perspective on the human condition in the first place. But it also reaches a point where one charismatic sociopath is the same as any other: they're both a threat that Rick's going to have to shoot if the show wants to continue.

I've been catching up on Oscar-season films lately, too, courtesy of the omnipresence of our Amazonian overlords.

Guess who the crazy twin is.
Legend was decent. There was a ton of story to try to pack into two hours and you could certainly tell where the editor had pulled out the machete. Tom Hardy, per usual, was brilliant as both of the Kray twins (the mannerly-looking one above is actually the less socially stable of the two.) But it seemed like there were too many stories to tell, so that many of them got shorted by the necessities of the medium. The fact that they didn't skimp on the Cockney slang at all is to their credit, as it originated as a way for East End gangs to keep the police from figuring out what they were saying, but it also slowed the pace of the film for the viewer, as you occasionally had to try to dissect what was being said. The fairly muddled shifts from the perspective of Reggie Kray to his girlfriend/wife, Frances (Emily Browning), didn't help. I was tickled to see Christopher Eccleston looking like a very senior Scotland Yard inspector, as he will forever be the Duke of Norfolk to me, but that's about the only genuinely memorable thing about the film. Except for Tom Hardy, of course, who is worth seeing in just about anything.

"Operator, I'm trying to reach some place without a bland ending."
Bridge of Spies... Ugh. Nathan and Kate tried to warn me off of this, but I was like: "Cold War themes! Good reviews! Dude won Best Supporting! I have to try-! ... Oh. Spielberg." There was a day when Spielberg films were actually progressive. When he was making things in the late 70s and the 80s, it seemed like he was willing to take risks with his storytelling approach and cinematography. I mean, he's never been a visionary, but it takes real drive to do something like his magnum opus, Schindler's List, with all of its stylistic approaches to a very sensitive topic. Most of what he's made since then have basically been him killing time. "Hello? Oh, hey. How ya doin'? Me? Just livin' on the residuals, man. Something new? Well, I guess that sounds like a middle-of-the-road topic. I could do that for a few months, sure." Hence, Bridge of Spies. There are no risks here. It's a completely linear story that finishes with the perfect Hollywood Spielbergian ending: hero safe, marriage secure, world and picket fence perfectly painted. Bleah. Admittedly, Mark Rylance's performance was the absolute highlight of the film and I can see why it earned him the nod for Supporting Actor, but the fact that his performance was so low-key and subtle may give you a clue as to how the rest of the film feels (and I still say Hardy got robbed for The Revenant.)

Unlike you and me, these people were actually working.
I liked Spotlight. I think it's a worthwhile film. I don't quite get the accolades it's received, since I have a feeling it could have worked almost as well as a documentary about the investigation and its aftermath. Yes, there was a fair amount of emotional tension and, yes, most of the performances were quite good. But I don't get the raving over Mark Ruffalo's role as the emotional guy on the investigatory journalist team. He was good, but the role was pretty much paint-by-number. I thought Michael Keaton's role had much more meat on the bone, even though Keaton preferred to handle it in his usual "I can out-subtle you without even trying" manner. When it came time for his character's turning point confession about an error in judgment from years before, it fell completely flat because he'd played an awesome statue to that point. Oddly, I thought the best performance was from Liev Schreiber because of its understated nature (and he's, uh, not the first guy I'd associate with the word "understated" in most films to date.) And it was nice to see John Slattery still doing semi-Roger things, post Mad Men.

Advantage of smoking: you can burn that damned blank page if it stares too long.
Likewise, I liked Trumbo. It's a topic that's kind of near-and-dear to my heart (both screenwriting and persecution for one's Marxist ideas) and Bryan Cranston has earned one of those passes that means I'll likely not regret losing the two hours of my life simply because he's onscreen. But, like Legend, I think there was a bit too much story here to really elaborate upon what needed to be told. Plus, the overall subject matter is one that's somewhat difficult to portray in a dramatic sense. Is there real tension between starting a screenplay and finishing one? Does the audience rise in anticipation as the last few keys on the typewriter are struck? No. Writing is a long and solitary process that doesn't really present moments of accomplishment until you're winning an award or someone's handing you a check; both of which in this story were muted because of the blacklist. It's an interesting quandary to be in as the writer of a screenplay about screenwriting and I'm glad that John McNamara was able to get something workable out of it. I just think the end result was kind of tedious because that's what watching a writer work can often be (no matter how cool it may be for the writer.) I thought Helen Mirren was her usually capable self as Hedda Hopper and Mark Stuhlbarg's turn as Edward G. Robinson deserves mention for some of the most emotionally-affecting moments of a film which didn't have many. Recommended for writers, at least.

Too small to be one of the actual plot holes.
I've gone on record before as stating that the Daniel Craig Casino Royale is the best Bond film every made, full stop. When I saw it (and saw it again. And again.) and realized that, for once, a screenwriter and director may have actually read a Fleming novel, I thought perhaps we were on our way to a new era with Daniel Craig able to shoulder the responsibility of being the ruthless assassin for the good guys. Quantum of Solace doused that fire almost instantly, as he went from ruthless to monotonous in very short order. Skyfall rescued it a bit, but not that much, and Spectre has now put the last shovelful of dirt on it, since it's obvious that they've decided that what works is Bourne over brains. I wanted so much more from this film, since they had run the gamut of old Bond schticks in new format with Skyfall and now were finally introducing his most famous nemesis, played by Christoph Waltz. But, no, it's just Bourne and, even worse, Bourne with added layers of technological improbability that induce installations in the middle of the Moroccan desert to spontaneously explode when their owner's plans go awry. Said owner's plans being universal control of all surveillance and information networks around the world, naturally. Didn't we leave this shit behind with Moonraker? Waltz really has nothing to do but look menacing and we can confirm that Lea Sèydoux is perhaps the least-convincing Bond romance of all time, since she and Craig have the chemistry of lead plus formica. Conclusion: Back to the books for the real Bond.

Hopefully, that's not something I have to say about GoT season 6 (especially since there is no book yet, George!)

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