Saturday, October 12, 2019

The Life and Times of Jesse Pinkman: El Camino

El Camino, 2019.
directed and written by Vince Gilligan 

The best thing about Netflix release films, for reviewers, is having it right there, whenever you want it. For instance, should you watch El Camino, love El Camino, and then feel the need to rewatch it the very next day in order to better itemize the reasons why you loved it, it's right there in your house! Fans of the Breaking Bad series are well accustomed to the cinematic qualities director Vince Gilligan uses in his small-screen storytelling, and they're all present in El Camino, but one does get the feeling that such elements--shadowy shots at unconventional angles, time lapses of the New Mexican landscape, and even the opening credits--would be all the more impactful when viewed on the big screen of an actual theater. Either way, the El Camino experience is a fulfilling supplement to the original series which focuses on the story of chemist-turned methamphetamine empire boss Walter White's second-in-command, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

As we witness the aftermath of the series' resolution and the events leading up to it, it's easy to start feeling a little guilty--Jesse's story is sad and terrible and quite honestly, I had forgotten most of it in favor of the conclusion of Walter White. In the race (via train heist, via great escape northward, via oscillating machine gun antics) to the end of the show, Jesse's experiences got a little lost in all the big plot moments and took a backseat to the bigger picture but the beauty of El Camino is that it doesn't need to hurry. The film doesn't only make us remember Jesse's experiences, it walks us through Jesse's emotion, pain, and humanity in every scene. Multiple traumas and humiliations have rightly made Jesse desperate: his face is scarred, his voice is low and strained when he speaks, and his main goal is survival. We mourn for the old Jesse when we revisit his friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker), whose experiences with drugs and White have been significant, but no where near as damaging as Jesse's. Despite everything, their loyalty to their friend is touching, reiterating to us that in this unpleasant story, there are still people within drug culture still very much in touch with empathy and humanity.

The chronology rotates between flashbacks and the here-and-now in a lot of clever ways to expose little puzzles as the show once did--a phone book page, a hidden bundle of cash, a letter in an envelope-- specific objects refer to past events or are slyly referenced only to come back into the picture in very important ways. Pay attention or take notes if you feel like it might be helpful, just know that everything matters.

Do you need to do a complete re-watch of the series for El Camino? No, but you'll probably want to afterward. Definitely catch the recap Netflix provides and if you're really at a loss for the events, maybe rewatch the finale, which is also currently available on Netflix. Todd (Jesse Plemons), Mike (Jonathan Banks), Walter, (Bryan Cranston) and Pinkman's aforementioned buddies all factor into the story significantly but even if your memories of specific interactions between these characters isn't the greatest, the film is strong enough as a stand-alone to be an intensely compelling story. The late Robert Forester reprised his role as Ed, the escape-aiding vacuum salesman, and as with many of his other roles, plays his part straight-up, subtle, and with that deep genuineness that he was so adept at doing.

We'll miss you, Robert.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark

Sorry the formatting is all over the place on this one. I've tried a million times to put the text right and it's just not possible. Pro tip: a google document does not copy paste to blogger, like at all.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, 2019.
Didn't you traumatize me in fifth grade?
d. Andre Ovredal
written by: Dan Hageman, Kevin Hageman
starring: Zoe Margaret Colletti, Michael Garza, Gabriel Rush, Dean Norris 

“You like that scary stuff?” 
This is what the school librarian asked me the first time I brought one of Alvin Schwartz’s
short story collections to the checkout counter. It was the now-famous triology’s second
volume, More Scary Stories; the first had been lost or stolen and the third not yet released,
but I was still excited that my name had come up on the waitlist and I could finally get my
hands on it. I not only liked the scary stuff but thrived on it, and together with my younger
brother, sought it out regularly, anywhere I could. We eventually read all three of Schwartz’s
novels, and together with favorites such as Mother Bates, the beguiling Grady sisters of the
Overlook, and Pet Semetary’s Zelda, committed the stories and their creepy images (courtesy
of illustrator Stephen Gammel) to the depths of our horror-crazed memories. 

It was easy to get hyped for film adaptation--André Ǿvredal (Trollhunter) and producer
Guillermo del Toro are two brilliant, talented artists who have a solid grasp on the narratives,
techniques and themes of effective horror. Overall, the film delivered with a skillful mix of new
fear and old school ghost/monster horror (think Stranger Things or the recent It adaptations with
the music of Lana del Rey mixed in for fun), but I suspect true fans of the books, like me, would
happily trade a half hour off the film’s beginning or end for just one more of Schwartz’s stories. 

You don't read the book, the book reads YOU!

The vehicle of the stories--a group of awkward teenagers who steal a magical book out of a
haunted house--is intriguing, but it eats up a lot of time in setting up how and why everything
is going to go down. As it’s no longer unheard of to experience character development in horror
films, we get some, and it’s sort of nice, but not all that necessary; we came to the theater for
“The Toe” and “Me Tie Doughty Walker,” (not backstory) and we could forgive a few less
personal details in favor of a few more scary things from the books. 

Aesthetic detail, large and small, was what this film succeeded at best--the places and all the little pieces
within them gave a classic, almost John Carpenter feel to the story (rather fitting
considering all the hurting, maiming, and killing that begins on Halloween here). Dark and
shadowy nights alternate with gold, rusty days. It’s 1968, so the cars are huge, as are the
eyeglasses. Drive-ins are still a thing. Corn fields, haunted houses, and psychiatric hospitals
are pretty standard horror staples, and we see a lot of those, but we also get innocent little
objects like a music box, a wax cylinder recording, and a self-writing book that assume very
sinister properties in the context of the lighting, sound, and creature design of the film.

Without spoiling any of the story-within-a-story choices or accompanying villains,
I will tell fellow fans of the book to rest assured: you will recognize each “enemy” and
often cringe or shield your eyes because you know what’s coming next once it has been
introduced. I brought my kids to this film and afterward, each of us walked out having
been wickedly disturbed by a different character, so in addition to being well-designed
and true to the source, they’re a pretty broad reaching crew, as well.

Dust off the old books, grab a friend, and see this one for the nostalgia. If you, too, like
the scary stuff, let’s talk again next month after the second part of It, shall we?

Wednesday, April 3, 2019

The Twilight Zone: The Comedian

I started watching The Twilight Zone in the early 80s with my parents and brother when the old black-and-white reruns aired on channel 9 at 10 o'clock at night. The first time I really remember being scared as a child was during the episode, "The After Hours," when Marsha White realizes (with the help of a blaring tuba blast) that the saleslady who helped her in a department store was actually a mannequin. Later, after our family moved to town and my dad signed up for the Columbia House Video club that sent out a beta tape of four Twilight Zone episodes each month, my brother, best friend, and I would watch the entire tape in one sitting, freaking out over how cool it was that something so old could still be so scary. Most of our favorites focused on those chilling horror elements so well-done in episodes like "The Living Doll," "The Dummy," or "The Grave." Who could forget that shit? I hear the creepy laughs of ALL THREE OF THOSE VILLAINS in my worst nightmares, even now!

When Matt and I were first married I subscribed to my own video club (VHS then, thanks) and made it a mission to watch each episode and review it, from start to finish. It was a wondrous project that I loved dearly--it reminded me of my dad and some of the greatest experiences of my youth. Watching as an adult led me to the conclusion that in a lot of these episodes, people aren't very nice, or in a somewhat gentler way, people really seem to have trouble with bad decisions, and now, some sixty years later, it's both reassuring and troubling that not much has changed. I think creator Jordan Peele understands this concept only too well. My overall assessment: This series is going to be amazing.

The Comedian (2019) 
written by: Alex Rubens
directed by: Owen Harris 
starring: Kumail Nanjiani, Amara Karan, Diarra Kilpatrick, Tracy Morgan, Jordan Peele

Samir Wassan (Kumail Nanjiani) is a comedian who wants his standup routine to matter. He wants to entertain his audience yet he wants to inspire deep thought about important issues such as the second amendment or the shortcomings of the president. He also wants respect, followers, and money for his efforts. After a flat performance Samir meets comedy legend JC Wheeler (Tracy Morgan) at the bar where Wheeler shares what he's learned in the business. "The audience don't care about what you think, they care about you." Sharing deeply personal details, Wheeler implies, is necessary to win people over and gain followers, although he also warns (with a billow of vape-smoke) that this kind of sharing isn't without consequences. Samir continues to open each of his sets with the same oppositional rants but he eventually takes the advice and begins using material from his own life to win approval from the crowd. Wheeler was right---it works for Samir, instantly. The question is, just how long will Samir be able to continue feeding his audience, and at what cost?

"Once it's theirs, that shit
is gone, forever."
The technique used in telling this story pays great artistic homage to Rod Serling's original opening monolog (which creator Jordan Peele kept* and announced himself), namely the elements of light and shadow. As the majority of the scenes take place at night inside the comedy club or in the city streets surrounding it, shadows, lighting, and depth of field showcase beautiful darknesses that accompany these settings. Blues, blacks, golds, neons, and smoke look amazing throughout each scene.

The camera both takes its time revealing walls, ceilings, and corners (watch for HUGE Easter eggs from the original series on the opening mural and in fellow comedian Didi Scott's dressing room) and also overwhelms us with a series of rapid, manic shots when Samir, in the height of his success, goes on what can only be coined as a sharing-spree, firing off names and details with power and vengeance. Little musical effects punctuate shocking scene endings. At least three classic Twilight Zone episodes** are alluded to (via the comedy scene, the changing and vanishing of objects from the world, and the willful elimination of displeasing items), and The Shining is referenced through Samir's apartment corridors, the mural at the comedy club, and the mention of the family name, "Torrance," in a story that is told in passing. All of these technical elements show us that in addition to being an amazing writer and creator, Jordan Peele knows and loves his film and television ancestors; he's a smart guy who has a lot of interesting things to show us.

The theme present in this episode is very nostalgic for fans of the series--the issues being explored here are of the same vein as many of Serling's original episodes, but with modern updates and allowances for items such as social media, the commonness of curse words, and insight into the lives of people who aren't exclusively white and European. The theme overall that emerges is a common one, suggesting that age-old idea that things seem to go well for a while when an average citizen is granted a special type of power or control, but in the end, humankind never really can master that moderate middle ground between being satisfied with what is given and the constant need for wanting more. Samir could have stopped himself halfway through this episode, realizing he's good with the initial bounty of popularity, riches, and respect he finds, but he doesn't do this. The message that Peele is exploring here is that like Samir, humans rarely ever quit while they're ahead. Stephen King talks a lot in interviews about how he enjoys the idea in many of his stories of a "Pandora's Box," that once opened, facilitates the decline of lives due to the usually-fated tendency toward poor decisions that humans seem destined.

Also worth mentioning is the ethnic background and composition of the key characters in this story. Samir is an Indian-American comedian who competes with a white (presumably hetero) male, Joe Donner, and an African-American homosexual female, Didi Scott, onstage at the comedy club. Donner is identified early on as someone whose livelihood and future is effortlessly secured by his whiteness. He is overweight, vulgar, sexist, and guilty of a hit-and-run accident that resulted in the deaths of a woman and her infant, yet he is not only found innocent and allowed to continue performing comedy, he's a celebrated icon! Joe Donner is indicative of the larger (fat, criminal, white) system that calls the shots, controls the money, and largely influences the audience, who resemble his demographic more than any other. Joe Donner's character represents those who RUN THE SYSTEM.

Didi is an interesting character because she manages to remain true to herself and her values while at the same time functioning within a system that is stacked against her, knowing full well the rules and sacrifices that go along with what she's doing. She doesn't kiss anyone's ass, but she knows that she's subject to the obligations that go along with success and income, which largely involve playing to the white people with money. Didi's character represents someone who KNOWS THE SYSTEM and does what she can to FUNCTION SUCCESSFULLY WITHIN IT.

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have been
Samir Wassan!"
Samir is the wild card, the character who has two conflicting desires: he wants to make people think with his comedy but he also wants fame and riches. Peele's point via JC Wheeler's character is that Samir cannot have both of these elements at once, especially as an Indian-American (although this concept could have worked with a character of any ethnic background, really). A performer will eventually have to choose between keeping true to himself or making a living. Samir chose to make a living, and in the end, it ruins him. Samir was at first a FLUKE WITHIN THE SYSTEM, but then became just another cog in the machinery of entertainment, ultimately losing everything that made him an exceptional human being in the first place. And what of JC Wheeler? Is he Jesus (JC)? Is he the devil (vape smoke seems too aesthetic at the right moments to ignore)? It's open for debate, although Wheeler is definitely a knower, an influencer of the game, and someone who sets acts in motion. Samir mentions in their early discussion that Wheeler was everywhere, then just disappeared. What happened to him? Having found out the secret of successful stand-up, did Wheeler decide to just hang around and serve as a sentinel, a guide, to others that were following in his footsteps? Or is he more than that, someone always waiting, always watching, meant to escort young performers to their respective demises? Is the episodes's message that a skilled insider is controlling the system or is it rather that humans will screw themselves and take whatever bait is put before them?

Hard to say where the line is drawn, or if it is, at all.

* Peele's updated introductory monologue substitutes the words, "one," and "one's" for "man," and "man's."

** "The Dummy," focused around a comic and ventriloquist, "Shadow Play," involved a death row inmate who could change the elements of his surroundings at will (because the entire story was being dreamt, by him), and "It's a Good Life," brought us Anthony Freemont, who disposed of anything he didn't like into his family's cornfield.