Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Why Better Call Saul Season 2 Is some of the best TV this year (SPOILERS!)

Better Call Saul just finished its second season the other day, and I think this is one of the best shows I've seen in a long while. It's a prequel to Breaking Bad, for one thing, and I never thought I'd like a prequel this much. But here we are. I think the secret to this is pretty simple, a sort of Occam's Razor thing: Vince Gilligan and his team just know how to write characters and stories you want to see.


In a lot of prequels, the problem is that the stories aren't compelling – they're just paying lip service to the original thing they were based off of, but explaining really dumb, obvious things that never needed explanations, ruining the mystery and intrigue. Better Call Saul is a prequel in the sense that it's showing how Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad became the hilarious, sleazy, corrupt lawyer he is. But he's a character we want to see more of. I read once, somewhere I can't recall, that the secret to creating a long-lasting character – think Batman, Spider-Man, Sherlock Holmes, that sort of thing – is to make them so malleable that they can fit into multiple situations and you want to hear more stories about them. That's what Gilligan and co. have done with Saul Goodman.

This season has just been excellently done. The first season was good too, though it felt kind of like a first season – underdeveloped a tad and not quite firing on all cylinders yet, so to speak. It introduced Saul as his birth name, Jimmy McGill, and his brother Chuck, who has a sort of mental illness that makes him sick when he's around electricity or any kind of technology. It also introduced Kim Wexler, Jimmy's sometimes fuck-buddy and eventual girlfriend, and the law firm Hamlin, Hamlin & McGill, who Jimmy was trying to work for. At the end of that season, the big twist was that Chuck had actually been sabotaging Jimmy's career, believing his younger brother to be an incompetent con man who was unfit to practice at a real law firm.

The second season took that and just started running with it. Despite the fact that the show wants us to hate Chuck for his lies and betrayal, Chuck wasn't wrong about Jimmy – Jimmy is a con man, through and through. He constantly cuts corners and bends the rules to get what he wants, in this season even crossing over to straight up felony offenses like forging legal documents. He's a likable character and we want to be on his side. But art imitates life – as in real life, con men like Jimmy are only successful when you like them enough to buy into their act.

That's what Gilligan and co. did so successfully with Breaking Bad. They made characters who do horrible things to each other and those around them, but you want to keep watching. Gilligan understands human motivation and human nature. This second season of BCS exemplifies that. Jimmy, for all his (kinda flimsy) attempts to do right and walk the straight-and-narrow, is a criminal at heart. Kim helps him get a job at Davis & Main, a huge prestigious firm. He basically immediately begins to sabotage himself. Unwittingly or not: he doesn't really want to be there.

What I really just love about this season is that it never – never – just takes the easy, shitty path that most shows would take. Despite his reckless and ridiculous behavior at Davis & Main, Kim still likes Jimmy and they work things out like a real couple would. They have their problems – it's not some kind of blind adoration – but they work things out because they like each other. Jimmy gets Kim in trouble with her own firm when he goes behind his bosses' backs and makes a corny commercial without their consent. She's angry at him. But they make up from that, too. A lesser show would have had them exchanging dramatic soap-opera-y shouting matches and swearing they'd never be together again, taking half a season to resolve things in a predictable way, kiss-and-make-up. BCS has them resolve things quickly and quietly because they know you don't just throw out a good thing like that. Real people don't – relationships take work. So these characters don't let their relationship go to waste. It makes for refreshingly candid, unpretentious TV that comes off as rewarding in the way it isn't content with giving the viewers bottom of the barrel entertainment. It doesn't treat the viewers like jackasses or simpletons.

Again, and perhaps more tellingly: the second half of the season focuses on Kim and Jimmy breaking off into their own firm. Kim wants to take this big client from her old job with her, but Chuck and her boss, Howard, take it back by persuading them in a rather underhanded manner. Jimmy, seeing red, breaks into Chuck's house while he's in the throes of a panic attack and doctors his documents, humiliating him in court and losing him the client. In a stupider, less gratifying show, this would have taken many more episodes to play out – a bunch of stalling and game-playing before we see Chuck fuck up in court, and then at least another half a season before Chuck figures out what Jimmy did.

BCS didn't do that. Chuck figured it out the very next episode, and confronted Jimmy about it in the same episode. It's instant gratification, yes, but it's good storytelling. It doesn't keep the promise dangling above the viewer like a mouse toy for a frustrated cat. Breaking Bad was masterful at drawing out its plot and making callbacks to earlier seasons and plot threads at unexpected times. BCS, by contrast, is both simpler and more complex – it gets to the point of a plot thread right away without delay, but everything going on is rife with subtext and hidden character motivations and all kinds of shade and light. It's fascinating, complex writing.

In the finale, the first scene is Jimmy and Chuck in the past, sitting with their dying mother in the hospital. Jimmy pesters Chuck to go with him to get some lunch, as they haven't eaten in a while – she'll be fine when they get back, he says. He ends up leaving by himself, after saying he'll bring Chuck something. Their mother wakes up when Chuck is sitting there by himself, and she calls for Jimmy briefly, who isn't there. Then she dies. When Jimmy comes back and learns that she died, Chuck lies and tells Jimmy she didn't say anything before she died.

That is fucking great. There's so much going on in that sequence – Chuck was, on the one hand, being merciful by not guilting Jimmy and admitting that she said his name before she died, which would have surely made him feel bad for not being there. But on the other hand, Chuck also resents Jimmy because their mother called his name before she died, and as we know from the numerous other stories and tales told this season, Jimmy was a fuck-up all his life while Chuck tried his hardest to succeed in the name of the law. But Jimmy was the favorite. And it killed Chuck; that did. There's so much unspoken in that short three-minute scene that opens the finale.

And again, later on in the finale, we see Jimmy go to Chuck, who has turned his house into a certifiably crazy-looking mess of tin-foil walls to supposedly keep out any electric vibrations, or, well, some shit like that. Chuck breaks down in front of Jimmy, saying he's lost his mind and has to retire from the law because of the mistake he made on the case from earlier in the season. All this finally gets Jimmy to confess – with Jimmy exiting the room by saying it's his word against Chuck's. Chuck then uncovers the hidden tape recorder he'd been using to catch Jimmy confessing on tape.

Again, so much going on. Jimmy's hubris and recklessness are immediately laid bare – the whole “it's my word against yours” thing; wow. Wow. That's nuts that he thought he could just say that, basically flaunting his crime in Chuck's face. He had good intentions, yes – but the fact that he deceived his brother at all and committed a felony speaks volumes as to his character. He's surely put his feet as well as Kim's in the fire now, as the case he confessed to fucking with is the one Kim is currently trying to build her solo law practice off of. If you thought it was impossible for a show to make you care this much about what would in real life be boring legal stuff – well, BCS pulls it the fuck off.

And Chuck, well – part of Chuck's whole rant about his brain being fried and senile was rooted in his own fears. Chuck has done some terrible things in this show, and shown his own egomaniacal levels of conceit, but he's still a human being, and Gilligan and co. don't forget that. When he breaks down and cries that he's losing his mind, it's an act to swindle Jimmy like Jimmy swindled him. But I interpreted that scene as being partially rooted in Chuck's real fear, that he might just be going crazy. That's what I like about this show – no character is just doing one thing. There are always these hidden motivations that make them compelling to keep watching.

Mike's storyline, too – we see him in this season as a less professional version of who he'd be in Breaking Bad. Though he had the 'half measures' story back in Breaking Bad season 3, and we saw the story of why he's in Arizona last season, this year his story is again about him mixing up with criminals he doesn't fully understand and kind of underestimates, too. His parts here are short and often without many words. There's a very cool, pulp neo-Western feel to them. And I like how they're taking it slow with his character – it shows that a person isn't changed completely or defined utterly by one event only. A person is the sum of many different experiences. You can see that in Jimmy's transformation into Saul, too. The layering of these characters is what makes the drama rich and rewarding to watch, much more than just a mere series of suspenseful events happening in sequence.

It's great drama. The way these characters are written, and the way these scenarios play out, make for a cracking, heartfelt drama with depth and shading to match a classical work of art or a painting of some kind. There's no talking-down to the audience and no silly TV-show clich̩. What BCS is, is a real work of art and a masterfully unfolding story. The events in this season built on one another like a well-played game of Jenga. Next season, sparks will fly. I'll be there to witness that Рwill you?

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Monday, April 11, 2016

Snowpiercer (2013)

Snowpiercer is a movie about a dystopian future, which means it's full of buckets and buckets of important social commentary and symbolism! We should really listen to this movie, because it's Important with a capital I!

Director: Joon Ho Bong
Starring: Chris Evans, Kang-ho Song, Ed Harris

The movie begins with a bunch of poor, dirty looking people in rags living in the back of a giant train circling the wasted frozen carcass of the world forever. Boy, this gritty Thomas the Tank Engine reboot really isn't pulling any punches.

"My life is an endless train of misery..."

Our main character is Curtis, played by Captain America himself, Chris Evans, modeling for the 2013 Hobo Winter Catalog. He lives in the poor part of the train, apparently planning some kind of revolution, or something like that. In his spare time, he likes to try to negotiate with small children for food and he fails even at that. So this is truly a man I can get behind as the leader of a revolution.

"I'll give you five peanut shells and two mosquito wings for it!"

It turns out the police in this brutal train world are stealing the poor peoples' children from them for an unknown reason. One guy SURPRISINGLY has an issue with that, and tries to assault the main lady by throwing a shoe at her. They capture him and force him to stick his arm out the window into the freezing sub-zero weather, and then break his arm off. The crazy lady puts a shoe on the guy's head and delivers a terrible, annoying speech about how the poor exist to be stepped on and should be kept in their places. Wow, what a thinking man's movie this is. It's like the Hunger Games if it were told by a really angry teenager.

This whole time, they basically only haven't made a move because it's convenient for the script. Curtis, in all his wisdom, just keeps saying it's "not time" yet to make a move. Well, I guess their children getting kidnapped was enough incentive for them to finally make a fucking move, because they finally do. Glad you guys are so proactive! They figure out that apparently none of the guards who have been coming in have had bullets for some time now. They deduce that by saying that they've never seen them fire those guns. Well, good enough for me!

Next, they find this pair of badass Asian people who for some reason have been locked away in drawers for some time now. Naturally, given how they've been basically in hibernation for a while, the Asians prove formidable foes for Curtis and the others in the pointless fight scene that comes next. I sure am looking forward to the movie about the characters who have trouble beating up people who have been comatose in boxes for months. They also force Curtis to pay them in hallucinogenic drugs for their services, which, to be fair, is a pretty fucking good deal. That's the only way I'd hang out with this raggedy crowd.

I'm not sure why the bad guys they fight up next are dressed as ninjas. What on earth do you need ninja costumes for just to stand around guarding people on a train? What are you trying to blend in with by wearing those?

ISIS Junior Squad, at your service!

There's one part where they go into a classroom being taught by a woman who acts like a cartoon character. She has them reciting creepy cult-like chants about how the poor are all dogs and praising the holy hell out of the mysterious man who made the train. This whole sequence is about as entertaining as a pro-life protester outside an abortion clinic waving a bloody fetus picture in your face.

The dead soulless eyes, the vacant smile...yup, she does look like a pro-lifer.

Then we get a speech by Curtis detailing how awful it was living in the poor part of the train at first. He spins this whole dramatic story about how they had to start eating the weak, and how babies tasted the best. I think this speech really nails down what I hate about the movie, so bear with me here, I'm going to break character.

This whole scene is just so emotionally manipulative and trite. It's so over the top. They ate babies! They were killing mothers to steal their babies and eat them! Fuck off. My point is, every time a critic bashes an action movie, they get shit on for only wanting serious art house films or really depressing films, or whatever the strawman is. “Can't you just have FUN?” the detractors inquire. But movies like this, actual action movies, too often have these very serious overtones and overly grim, gratuitous parts. Lots of movies have some serious plot threads, that's how they keep you engaged – it isn't just something that French art house movies about postpartum depression made on shoestring budgets do or again, whatever the strawman is.

Snowpiercer's serious elements really want you to take away the pain and sorrow and unfairness of the way the poor people were treated. But it's so bad here. It's done in such a piss poor manner, with no subtlety or shade or nuance. They just shove it in your face. That would be fine if all this wanted to be was a loud, brutal action movie – but this very clearly wants to be a super grim social commentary and it wants you to take it seriously. You kinda need more complex writing if you want to do that. It's not really an optional thing.

This movie's only manner of getting you invested is to throw stories about dead babies at you. So, yeah, if I'm in the mood for horrifically depressing stories about bad things happening, I think I will take the pretentious indie arthouse flick next time. At least if my only other choice is Snowpiercer.

But I digress. They then immediately find the place where the Big Bad is, like right after that, because the script was getting long and they couldn't think of any more dead baby stories to tell. We find out that the man behind the curtain in this is actually Ed Harris with some 5 o'clock shadow going on, so they probably just dragged him out of his house while he was still groggy drinking his morning coffee, and just threw him on the set.

He just goes on and on for like fifteen fucking minutes about how it's necessary to keep everyone in their place on the train and everyone has to stay in their place. He says they have staged revolutions before and Curtis's was just one more to keep people in their place, because chaos needs to exist for people to be normal! Well, after even a moment of thought, that makes no sense. Ask the people in Brussels how well that chaos is helping them live normally. I guess I get what they were trying to say, but it comes off a bit weird to say the least...

He then gives Curtis the choice to choose whether or not to keep the train running. I don't know why he does this, maybe just because he's bored for shits and giggles. He says it's Curtis's destiny now, and he can either stop the train or keep it going by feeding it children from the poor section – yes, THAT'S why they were taking the kids in the beginning of the movie. I guess the movie wasn't quite out of dead baby stories yet. You know, those are the only way to have a deep story! Dead kids!

Then the movie ends in a true fitting fashion for such a thought provoking picture: Curtis beats the shit out of Ed Harris with his bare hands like a caveman. Yes. That really drives the point home: Ed Harris is bad. I think we've learned a lesson here.

Would've been better with the Captain America shield in the shot. You really missed that opportunity, you dumb movie, you.

The visuals are pretty good as the train comes off its tracks. So there is that. They crash land in some snowy mountainside, and I'm guessing most of the people who survived are just mad Curtis couldn't wait until they passed by the sunny tropics to crash the train.

I know the feeling.

Honestly, this movie sucks. It's just not a good story. While I liked the action and some of the visuals were nice, the writing was just terrible. Everything was suffocatingly grim and over the top, and the message conveyed was delivered in a clunky, cloying and overly obvious manner that left very little to the imagination. I can see this film was trying to do something a little different and I can appreciate that, but it just doesn't have the depth of writing or script needed to be really smart. Instead, it just comes off as grandiloquent, self-serving, huffing and puffing crap stuck up its own ass with how smart it thinks it is.

I just think this is telling about what the action movie genre's big problems are. You get movies like this and John Wick touted as these really great, serious new action movies, and it's a blurry line, because neither one is really that bad – they both have their moments. But the writing for both is just so shallow. There are very few relatable characters, very little of anything compelling or intriguing about the way these themes pushed forward. Both movies are as deep as kids' wading pools in a shitty hotel, littered with used condoms and beer cans. But people accepted them just because they were better than Michael Bay Transformers crap and something alternative to Marvel. Even though they aren't really that great.

I'm NOT saying these movies have to divert from the action to show us long artsy sequences of the characters' relationships or something. By all means, give us some great, high energy action scenes! More really good ones would be a plus! But if you're making these fucking dark, brooding, serious films, that frankly do carry themselves with the pretense of a social message or trying to be a “thinking man's movie,” then I think I'm in the right to expect some kind of quality writing or storytelling. Or are writing and storytelling arbitrary tools of the upper echelon bourgeoise, only for pretentious dickwads who hate fun? I dunno. Maybe they are, then.

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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

That Walking Dead Finale, Man

The season 6 finale of The Walking Dead, AMC's most popular show about undead shambling husks clinging to dear life and also about zombies, will no doubt have people talking. This season was supposed to introduce Negan, the next big bad character of the series who was infamous in the comics for reasons I don't need to spoil because you can find people talking about it on the shallowest surfaces of Google. It did that, but it also just created a whole new set of problems. Bad problems. Problems I'm going to talk about in here with SPOILERS attached!


Okay. Are they all gone yet? Did the people who don't want spoilers leave the website yet? They did? Sweet.

Basically what happens is, Negan shows up after this frankly pretty good finale full of tension and suspense, and the audience is shitting their pants with fear. The atmosphere and anticipation of what's about to happen was really through the roof, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan did a pretty good job overall. This character has been hyped for a while and everyone wanted to see what he would do. So he shows up, talks for a bit, makes everyone fucking sweat, and he raises a bat and kills... someone. We don't see who. It's a total cliffhanger. For the finale of this whole thing, a cliffhanger, and now we have to wait like five months to see that they no doubt killed off a character who won't affect the story in any major way for more than two episodes.

It especially sucks because I liked a lot of this season up until now better than anything this show has done in years. A ton of the episodes this time around were awesomely action packed, suspenseful and cool. I really was hyped for this finale, as I figured they could finally keep the momentum going. But instead the finale makes me see the show as that really cool friend that you liked, who came to your birthday parties early and bought you an extra drink at happy hour when you were down, but then you find out that he posted a status on Facebook asking why can't HE use the "N word" if rappers can do it, while you were asleep. It's a buzzkill.

It's just such cheap hack work writing. What the hell am I supposed to say? It reeks of social media pandering and bullshit hash tags and planned, calculated and focus-tested art. They've basically been given a license to keep pulling this shit over and over again – more cliffhangers dangling the prospect of death in front of you, more tricks and gimmicks to get their social media team something to do. It's bullshit. The idea of AMC putting up stupid polls asking who we think got killed and the hash tags and the fake suspense is nauseating, because you know they've probably already started by the time this blog post is up. It's anti-storytelling. Drama sucked out with a liposuction and replaced with corporate marketing. It couldn't be more transparent about that if we were talking about Casper the Friendly Ghost.

The Walking Dead just feels desperate with how often it does these ridiculous cliffhangers and drawn out “suspense” parts with disappointing returns. We should've seen the writing on the wall way back in early season 5 when they kept splitting up the narrative between Beth's hospital story and the rest of the gang – it was evident back then. They did it twice this season with Glenn's dumpster hiding extravaganza and then with Daryl getting shot in the previous episode – a complete non-story now, since he barely showed up in the finale. It's like we've all been enabling a drug addict, just going okay, he's not too bad, he was lucid at dinner last night so let's just not say a word. But then he steals Mom's jewelry she inherited from her dead aunt to pawn off for another ounce, and we look like fools all the more for it. And I know it's ridiculously hyperbolic to compare a TV show ending I didn't care for to a drug addict, but come on, it's the Internet and that is what we do here.

This really is the final nail in the coffin of network TV. It's done. That battle's over and Netflix's “put everything up at once” model has clearly emerged the winner if shows as big as TWD are resorting to desperate pandering garbage like this. It just shows how little integrity the show has left. They needed a way to compete with Netflix's juggernaut shows that come out all at once and are usually pretty fucking amazing. Since they have to wait another six months for another season while Netflix just pops out shows like the Octomom, well, we get cliffhangers and gimmicks to keep the audience abuzz on social media. A good story would have done the same, but when has that ever been in style? Someone is having a very good day at AMC's media marketing relations department, seeing the stats go up and up. I guess I'm not helping in that regard.

If it seems rather dramatic that I'm ranting about this, well, it's because I like the show when it isn't pulling dumb shit like this. When it doesn't fall back on the goofy cliffhangers and the ludicrous drawn-out parts, the show has a lot of good stuff going for it – strong acting, good characters, some good drama here and there and some good action. It's well worth watching, or it has been in the past anyway. But it sucks that the people running it are more interested in gimmickry and fake-outs than in real storytelling. The Walking Dead will remain successful, I have no doubt about that, but I think the illusion is over and we're kind of beyond the pale now – people will see the difference between this and really great TV.

I think overall, it's telling that the most cynical part about the nihilistic zombie apocalypse show is not the malaise of the main characters, but instead the marketing team's chokehold over the narrative, strangling the life out of it with these trash tricks and tomfoolery. That's depressing.