Tuesday, October 15, 2019

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie



Director: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Aaron Paul, Charles Baker, Matt Jones, Jesse Plemons, Scott Shepherd, Scott MacArthur, Tom Bower, Kevin Rankin, Larry Hankin, Tess Harper, Marla Gibbs, Jonathan Banks
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: NR

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Warning: The Following Review Contains Major Spoilers For 'El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie' **

When Breaking Bad's last episode, "Felina," aired in 2013, it was one of the few examples of a legendary show sticking its landing, delivering a series finale that many considered a perfect send-off. Running five seasons and not a single episode longer than warranted, creator Vince Gilligan knew the story he wanted to tell, and while pieces on the board may have been moved along the way, you got the impression the eventual destination was always clear. It's also the rare finale that's grown in stature since it aired, with initial rumblings of Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) Mr. Chips to Scarface journey wrapping up a little too tidily beginning to dissipate over time. So the big issue becomes whether any part of this is worth toying with.

With a current prequel series in AMC's Better Call Saul creatively performing better than it has any right to, you'd figure Gilligan would want to get out while he can, further preserving the integrity of both shows. But there's always been that nagging Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) issue. When Jesse escaped that Nazi compound in the final minutes of the series, screaming in agony and joy as he drove that El Camino right through the gate, we were left to speculate what would become of him, while also wondering if we're better off not knowing. And whether our imaginations could provide a more satisfying conclusion for him than anything Gilligan could cook up, leaving it a thread better left unresolved. So the big question becomes whether any of this is even worth toying with.

With Netflix's feature film, El Camino, Gilligan takes a calculated risk in attempting to continue Jesse's story by adding an epilogue to "Felina," while also creating an entity that holds its own in the Breaking Bad universe he revisits. Is it necessary? Not terribly, as what happens in the 122 minute film to the embattled, traumatized Jesse following his escape is probably very similar to what fans envisioned in their minds. Does it in any way harm the series? Absolutely not, as the quality of writing and directing here is very much on the same level of the show at its peak with key differences being the narrative stakes and the absence of its previous protagonist/antagonist. This is Jesse's story now and probably the most impressive thing about El Camino is how far it leans into that, delivering a claustrophobic character study effectively doubling as a taught, suspenseful crime thriller. And for a series consistently praised for how cinematic it looked, the feature provides additional evidence as to why.

This doesn't feel like an extended episode of the series, or a forced reunion. There's a very functional structure to the screenplay, sharing commonalities with the show's best episodes that seamlessly alternate between character-centric flashbacks and present-day action scenes. And it does this while somehow feeling entirely different from all the episodes that preceded it. As a standalone movie, it's tremendous, even as its success as a continuation of the show will proabably be debated. But it's ultimately all about Aaron Paul's complex, nuanced performance as one of TV's greatest characters. Experiencing Jesse's desperation, it's easy to forget whether or not we "need" to return to this. It just simply feels great to be back.

Walter White is dead. Gaining revenge on the Nazis while sacraficing himself to save Jesse, the latter fled the compound in captor Todd Alquist's (Jesse Plemons) El Camino. Physically and emotionally scarred from his imprisonment, a bearded, dissheveled Jesse must now decide what's next, remaining a"person of interest" in the Heisenberg case.  Considered a dangerous fugitive with reports of the compound massacre all over the news, he manages to evade authorities long enough to make it to the two people he knows he can trust: good friends Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker). Far from criminal masterminds, the two burnouts come through in giving their pal a place to clean up and hide untill they come up with a plan. But with authorities rapidly closing in, Jesse quickly sets out on his journey with a very specific goal in mind. To get there, he'll have to make sacrifices, rely on his resourcfulness and come to face-to face with his past in order to even get a shot at starting over or having any kind of future ahead of him.

The narrative signposts in El Camino are always to clear to Jesse before becoming apparent to us, with Gilligan keeping the character a step ahead the entire time and completely driving the action. This keeps us on pins and needles anticipating his every move, often taking him on detours and destinations we rarely expect he'll go. In hindsight, each step makes sense, but in the moment we become Jesse's captive audience, wondering who or what he'll run into next, or how it'll tie to the ordeal he's been through.

It's to Gilligan and Paul's credit the psychological implications of Jesse's recent imprisonment isn't brushed over, nor is the very real possibility he'll be put into a situation where he'll need to kill again, if his survival depends on it. Considering everything he's been through, it makes logical sense that he's a functioning PTSD sufferer haunted by not only his own morally questionable past actions, but all the manipulation he endured at the hands of Walt. While the deaths of Jane (Krysten Ritter), Andrea (Emily Rios) and Mike (Jonathan Banks) haunt Jesse, they're never explicitly mentioned. We get it. And Gilligan gets that we do, letting Jesse's actions and a few carefully chosen flashbacks do all the work.

Since the finale was in many ways already an epilogue unto itself (with many still considering "Ozymandius" the true climax) rather than a continuation, it's a touchy subject which characters should reappear. If this was merely "fan service," it's safe bet we'd see Hank (Dean Norris), Skylar (Anna Gunn), Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), Marie (Betsy Brandt), Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), either in flashbacks or the present, depending upon their fates. Of course, it doesn't help that Jesse's business with those aforementioned characters is either extremely limited, non-existent, or finished. With only two encounters with Skylar during the series and not so much as a a scene with Walt Jr., there's little reason for them to intereact now.

Similarly, it would take too much work to be able to logically tie the post-BrBa events of Better Call Saul to Jesse's journey, so an encounter with Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) Cinnabon Gene alter ego was always going to be a long shot. If there are any complaints about Gilligan's creative decisions, it'll likely be regarding who does show up and why, since there's a big question mark surrounding what any potential returnee could add at this point.

Jesse Plemons' Todd wasn't likely topping anyone's prediction list to return considering his death in the finale, but here he is, in an extended flashback sequence that initially comes off as a curious use of time. After all, was anyone really begging for a deeper glimpse into Todd's disturbed, almost child-like psyche, especially considering our knowledge of how it turned out for him. But a funny thing happens as Gilligan keeps returning to this oddly specific flashback and Plemons' role grows larger, evolving into what amounts to a co-lead for what seems like half the picture. When the basis for Todd's inclusion presents itself and we how his imprint directly and indirectly impacts Jesse's present quest, everything starts coming together. It also easy to further appreciate Plemons' performance opposite Paul, and just how twisted their dynamic became while Jesse was imprisoned, revealing Todd as even more disturbed than originally thought. Gilligan's blueprint is clear: This will be about what Jesse needs to collect in order to move forward.

From then on, it's a pretty wild ride, with Jesse trying to evade capture and gather enough cash to reach what we should have known all along was his ultimate goal: A rescheduled appointment with Ed "The Disappearer" Galbraith (Robert Forster). Having missed his initial pick-up with the vacuum repairman, he's now looking for another chance at a new identity, just as Walt and Saul received before him. Hopefully, with better results. But it won't be easy since Ed has his principles and doesn't like being stood up, priding himself on doing business the right way.

Jesse's verbal interplay with Ed makes for the film's strongest section, as Forster reprises and significantly expands on the crucial role he so intriguingly played in the series' penultimate episode, "Granite State." All that occurs when Jesse enters this vacuum store is gold, with the extended sequence crackling with nervous tension, sarcasm and humor. Much will made made of this being Forster's final role (with the Oscar-nominated actor passing the day of its release), but regardless of that tragic irony, it's a carefully measured performance worthy of the highest praise, cool and calm as can be in the presence of Paul's manic energy. If the latter owns this movie, then Forster's the next best thing in it.

While it was never a question that Bryan Cranston would show up as Walter White, the "when" and "how" remained a well-guarded secret. It does kind of come out of nowhere, while managing to make perfect sense when considering every flashback and present-day encounter in the film centers around Jesse coming to terms with his past in order to build a future for himself. It's fitting we join the two when their partnership was at its early stage, predating when Walt's hubris poisoned it. He was still ex-chemistry teacher "Mr. White," and his cancer diagnosis made him as desperate for money as former cooking partner Jesse is now, looking to build a nest egg for his family when he's gone. That's how things started, and while we know how they turned out, it's intriguing that Gilligan picked this previously unseen diner conversation for Walt's cameo, with their trusted, duct taped RV parked in the lot.

Of course, Cranston slides right back into the role like he never left, playing a weak, uncontrollably coughing version of Walt who has yet to become the alpha in their partnership. Instead, he relies on Jesse, while expressing a genuine concern and disappointment at why his former student wasn't thinking about his own future, as a friend or father would. At first, the scene seems unnecessary within the context of this movie, but try not to marvel again at the surreal sight of them sitting across from each other again. Or deny that much of Jesse's survival now depends on the many lessons imparted and inflicted on him by Walt, the very person that caused his life to unravel. Wrong and arrogant about a lot, Walt's belief that Jesse was wasting his potential was always spot-on, even as the mentor failed to take his own advice, looking for success in all the wrong places. It just took all of this to go down for Jesse to finally realize it.

It's appropriate that the two characters Jesse gleaned the most from and forged his most meaningful human connections bookend his story. Mike and Jane may both be victims of Walt and while it's too late for them, he still has a shot if he can evade authorities and make it out of this alive. Fans complaining Walt had too tidy a resolution will likely have a field day criticizing Jesse's send-off, but it's unquestionably the right ending, and really the only one, even if you feel no further closure was necessary. But for a character whose screen time did become increasingly limited as the series drew to a close, it's no small feat that we know more about Jesse Pinkman now than we did going in.

To say no one needed El Camino more than Aaron Paul isn't a knock on his immeasurable talent, but instead an indictment on an industry that failed to give him the showcase he's deserved since the series concluded. Back in the role he belongs, we're reminded that in the six years since it would be highly unusual for him, or any other working actor, to get material at that level. And while it may be true that the series or its fans didn't need it, we'd be fools to complain about getting more, especially since it's about as accurate a representation of Breaking Bad's best that we'll ever get in feature form.           

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Yesterday



Director: Danny Boyle
Starring: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Ed Sheeran, Kate McKinnon, Camille Chen, Maryana Spivak, Lamorne Morrise, James Corden
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)  

If Oscars were handed out for story ideas and concepts, it's likely anyone involved with the one at the center of Danny Boyle's Yesterday would be preparing their speeches. Unfortunately for them, no such category exists, and for good reason. Movies still have to be written and directed, wherein we discover if the execution of those ideas successfully translate to the screen. It would seem the pairing of Academy Award winning Slumdog Millionaire director Boyle and Love, Actually screenwriter Richard Curtis on a film envioning a world where The Beatles never existed would be the closet thing to a sure bet there is. I'd even go as far to say it contains one of the best premises for a movie we've heard in years. Calling it a "can't miss" is likely underselling its potential, which seemed limitless from the moment it was announced.

While its theatrical trailer appeared to have given away too much, it's still fair to say expectations remained very high going in. Especially when they somehow found a way to license the Fab Four's entire catalogue, cleverly incorporating it as a plot device that guarantees we'll listen to the songs in a way we haven't before, watching the reactions of characters discovering it for the first time. It could also work as pop culture commentary, glimpsing how it would be received, marketed, and promoted in today's wildly different music landscape. We do get some of that. Kind of. Mostly in its promising first half, before veering way off course and making me about as frustrated as I can recently remember about a film's squandered potential. Despite being recommendable on just about every level, you can't help but be bothered by what it isn't, delivering what has to be the cruelest kind of tease. It succeeds due to a winning lead performance and a film's worth of Beatles' covers that are excellently performed and presented, but that inescapable feeling it could have been so much more still lingers after the credits roll.

Jack Malick (Himesh Patel) is a struggling singer-songwriter from Lowestoft, England whose manager and childhood friend, Ellie Appleton (Lily James) keeps encouraging him not to give up on his dream, even as he continues to perform in empty dive bars, coffee houses and music festival  tents. About ready to quit and return to teaching, Jack's hit by a bus during a global blackout, landing him in the hospital with multiple injuries. When he gets out and sings "Yesterday" for his friends, the realization sets in that they have no idea who The Beatles are.

When a quick Google search results in insects rather than the band, Jack's suspicions are confirmed, as he's awakened to a world where only he's heard of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Unsure whether they never existed or no one remembers them, Jack begins performing their songs and passing them off as his own, attracting the attention of pop star Ed Sheeran (as "himself"), who asks him to open on the Moscow leg of his tour. You could probably guess which song he picks.

It isn't long before Sheeran's cold, money-hungry agent, Debra Hammer (Kate McKinnon) gets her claws into Jack, signing him to her label and carefully orchestrates her newest superstar's meteoric rise. As his career takes off, it becomes clear something's missing: Ellie, who's opted to stay behind to continue teaching. As they wrestle with their feelings for one another, Jack reluctantly basks in the newfound fame while also wrestling with the guilt of having plagiarized The Beatles' biggest hits. Not to mention his fear of being found out.

If there's one thing this film does exceptionally well, it's incorporate The Beatles' music into the story in a natural, unforced way. It's a welcome change of course after the last major release to earn that legal right, 2007's Across The Universe, which attempted to shoehorn their songs into a single narrative, with wildly mixed and forced results. Having played more like a collection of music videos starring characters we cared little about, it was easy to understand the lukewarm notices. Dramatizing the lyrics and content behind their songs was always going to be an uphill battle so it's a relief that this film doesn't even attempt to try.

It's as a tribute to the band's music and legacy that Boyle and Curtis score the most points, its premise practically demanding a closer look at what they've meant, regardless of how well that idea's seen through until the end. But their biggest accomplishment is in finding a virtually unknown singer and actor who can deliver two hours straight of immensely innofensive Beatles covers that remind us just how fun their music can be. While it seems strange to need a reminder of that, there are times their legacy seems so daunting it would feel like homework for the uninitiated, if such a group exists. There's a lot to like in what's done with the arrangements of these songs and how the story necessitates their inclusion rather than the other way around. They're updated and tinkered with just enough and Himesh Patel has a really pleasant voice and presence for delivering them as intended, in addition to an everyday charm well suited to the monumental predicament Jack finds himself in. Of everything, the music was the one aspect the film absolutely had to nail, and it did.

The question of whether or to what extent the public would embrace the Fab Four's music if released by a modern artist in present times is handled fairly well, wisely observing that no matter how great art is, it still needs to catch on. And more often than not, people actually need to be told how good something is before they feel comfortable fully embracing it and spreading the word. In this sense, Curtis' script is accurate in so far as depicting that just singing these hits won't be enough. One of the best scenes involve Jack singing "Let it Be" for his disinterested family and receiving an even chillier reception when performing more of their classics for local patrons. Or Sheeran's insistance on changing the lyric of "Hey Jude" to "Hey Dude."

If there's anything to extract from this, it may be the realization that our culture actually does need agents, critics and the media to open our eyes to quality if it isn't otherwise receiving exposure. Would The Beatles be as revered if they came along in an era where TV wasn't simultaneously taking off in popularity and didn't have the platform of shows like Ed Sullivan's? If no one told us how great they were, would we ever know? Or is the music strong enough that it didn't matter? Maybe that philosophizing gives Curtis' screenplay more credit than it deserves, but the very idea does make the mind race with implications and possibilities. So there's that.

Casting Ed Sheeran as the unwitting mentor Jack leans on to get The Beatles' work to the masses makes for a strangely good fit. His role's actually larger than expected and the highest compliment that can be paid is that his presence doesn't feel like a celebrity walk-on, as he blends into the movie's hypothetical universe fairly well. And that him being presented as the modern songwriting bridge between The Beatles and Jack Malick doesn't come off as an abomination is likely the biggest victory he could have hoped for before signing on to this project. It doesn't require too much, while allowing the singer to poke fun at himself in a way that also matches the tone of the material. That's more than can be said for Kate McKinnon, whose caricature of a music exec seems to have been transplanted from another movie altogether.

Everything about McKinnon's character and performance as Debra Hammer is hideously misjudged, to the point that if she literally dressed up as a dollar sign it would seem subtle in comparison. If the intent was to broadly depict industry types as shallow, money hungry pariahs, this doesn't help the story in any way, especially when the agent in question doesn't seem like an actual person, much less someone Sheeran would even associate with. She has this terrible line where she tells Jack that he's just there to make her rich and the delivery is so ham-fisted and over-the-top way that you're not even sure what to make of it.

This isn't dark satire of the music industry or a parody of its many woes, so the character's mere presence causes a massive break in what was previously a fantastical, but well-grounded conceit. McKinnon somehow manages to play this at a volume of camp that's turned up about ten times higher than just described, her acting histrionics peaking at the film's finale. As she races backstage screaming something about money in a demonic voice better suited for an Exorcist reboot, you'll be asking whether it's too early to start thinking about Razzie nominations.

McKinnon's character does lead to an interesting boardroom scene where the marketing and promotion of Jack's album ("One Man Only") starts to take shape, with the hook being that he does everything on the album himself in a corporate age where few artists exercise their autonomy. While the irony of that title isn't lost on the guilt-ridden Jack, Curtis' script starts flying off the rails just when it should be delivering its biggest payoff, shifting focus to he and Ellie's somewhat clumsily handled romance. Like the "A" plot, it starts off promisingly, as their strictly platonic relationship develops into more as we anticipate they'll eventually realize their feelings through the circumstances of this extraordinary situation. Instead, the script forces the issue with convoluted confessions and break-ups, letting the actual story we're here for fade into the background.

Lily James is quirky and likable as usual, but it's not much of a role given that Ellie isn't really around for Jack's ascent, making it harder to invest in the relationship when she reemerges full force in the third act. Nothing really tops their enjoyable early scenes together with him as a struggling artist being unconditionally supported by his childhood friend and manager. Set against the Beatles' music, it could have made for a powerful love story, but it seems a more concerted effort was put into making sure James looks as dowdy as possible, as if to justify his delusion in only seeing her as a "friend."

Of course, the true stakes are in whether anyone finds out what Jack is doing, namely those who may somehow know of The Beatles existence, or maybe any of the surviving band members themselves, whomever they may be. The trailer doesn't spoil any of this, but I kind of wish it did since the tease we get there feels like it could have been infinitely more satisfying than what actually ended up on screen. In fact, there's more than a few details present in that trailer (like Ana de Armas' character) that didn't seem to make the final cut, implying that there may have been more production or editing issues than initially suspected.

Curtis does have a trick up his sleeve toward the end that can be considered shocking, and is probably the most satisfying in terms of delivering on the story's premise. But it's difficult to read just how we're supposed to react once you get past the actual shock value of it happening. The scene in question swings for the fences with mixed results, but about halfway through Yesterday, it was already obvious this had settled into the rom-com it was going to be. There would be no explanation for what happened or any real fallout for the main plot, as so much of what happens is in service of a fairly twee romance. The premise didn't have to go full Twilight Zone or anything, but by any standard, the resolution falls a bit short.

That audiences seem to have enjoyed the film considerably more than critics comes as little surprise since the public loves The Beatles and would likely jump at any opportunity to bask in their music, which this provides in spades. But it's almost maddening seeing a set-up with this much potential  compromised to appeal to a larger fan base, even if they found the right writer for that job. While Curtis is known for writing fluffy British rom-coms that do this, boy how I really wish he hadn't used this concept as a vehicle to do it. The bond between the two lead characters tends to function better when used as the backdrop to our relationship with The Beatles. So while it's easy to appreciate Yesterday for exactly what it is, it's still hard not getting carried away by all the possibilities of what could have been.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

 

Director: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Julia Butters, Mike Moh, Damon Herriman
Running Time: 161 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Very rarely has a single question swirled around a movie as prominently as the one hanging over Quentin Tarantino's ninth film, Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Will he go through with it? The "it" is of course the August, 1969 Manson murders that the director has sworn his picture wouldn't be about. And he's right. It's not. And yet, while not being about that at all, it still simultaneously manages to be completely all about it in ways that are sad, funny and unpredictable. There was great interest in whether he'd take us to one of the last taboo places left in mainstream American movies, and with good reason. The logic is that if anyone would do it, it's Tarantino, who's made a career out of over-the-top revenge fantasies. If there was ever an event ripe for his button-pushing brand of cinematic controversy and primed to offend, it's this. But the reality is that the director has always been at his worst when trying to do that, or rather when he repeatedly continues to, more often than not encouraging inferior imitations from others lacking his vision.

Of all Tarantino's films, this seems like the biggest outlier, almost as if it was made by someone else (maybe older), while carrying enough recognizable trademarks to still unmistakably be his. Yes, there are long dialogue stretches, but this time the material relies much more heavily on mood, atmosphere and performances to tell its story than the writing, which kind of rides in the backseat for a change. Part fairy tale, part bromance, he transports us to this year through the music, production design, and the tiny details you suspect only he would care enough to get right. You know it's accurate simply because it "feels" like it, regardless of its historical truth.

We already know Tarantino's cares about facts only so far as it reflects the period's authenticity, and as far as eras or settings go, this one ranks pretty high on the list of the coolest to hang in for over two and a half hours.While it's one thing to drop fictional characters into actual events, it's another entirely to place them squarely in the center, the axis around which this pivotal year revolves. You leave considering that even their situations were only small part of a much larger picture, the scope and breadth of which Tarantino captures like no one else could have.

It's Los Angeles, 1969, and actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of the 1950's TV series, Bounty Law, is complaining to his best friend and former stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), that he's now a washed-up has been relgated to guest starring villain roles. After an ugly personal incident left him blackballed from the industry, Booth spends his days working as Rick's driver and assistant, taking him to and from set while running any errands that need to be done. Having just landed another villainous role in the successful TV series, Lancer, Rick's may have to start seriously considering his agent Marvin Schwarz's (Al Pacino) advice to go make Spaghetti Westerns in Italy.

A glimmer of hope appears for Rick with the arrival of his new neighbor on Cielo Drive, acclaimed  director Roman Polanski, and his new wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who's riding high on the postive notices she's receiving for her recent big screen comedic turn in The Wrecking Crew opposite Dean Martin. Meanwhile, an aspiring musician named Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) is making waves of his own, establishing a hippie commune of sorts at the now semi-deserted Spahn Ranch, where Rick used to shoot Bounty Law. But when some of his female followers start bleeding over into town, hitchhiking and roaming the L.A. streets, one of them, named Pussycat, (Margaret Qualley) attracts the attention of a curious Cliff. Soon, all of their lives will intersect in ways both surprising and tragic.

The film works as a series of character sketches, alternating between the stories of Rick and Cliff, the Manson girls and Sharon Tate. Sandwiched in between and embedded in those are smaller moments with a wide variety of recognizable celebrity faces of the era portrayed by a myriad of different actors, some more recognizable than others. Most of the fun comes from being a fly on the wall and trying to spot everything and everyone, a game sure to be more rewarding with each new viewing, but holding enough curiosity for the uninitiated wanting to learn more about the real context behind these people. Whether it's dropping in to a party at the Playboy Mansion with Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis), Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf), taking in Sunset Boulevard or getting a look inside the infamous El Coyote Mexican cafe where Tate, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson) and Wojciech Frykowski (Costa Ronin) dined the night of August 8th.

All of 60's L.A. is vividly and painstakingly recreated by Tarantino and cinematographer Robert Richardson and set to a seemingly non-stop soundtrack of deep, sometimes obscure or overlooked songs unearthed by the director. Music is such an important component in these characters' lives that there's rarely a minute where there isn't a song playing or the sounds of KHJ radio ads blasting in one of the many driving scenes that further establish the characters in moments with minimal to no dialogue. It also marks a period in our culture where everyone was consuming the same output of music and movies simultaneously, lulling the public into a communal sense of security, however true or false that may have been. It's rare we're shown any part of the past in film we've never been fully exposed to before, and while all of those details would make a compelling enough picture on its own, it mostly serves as the compelling backdrop to Tarantino's actual entry point into the story: Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

With Dalton, we finally see what happens when Tarantino builds an entire character around one of those cult, veteran actors whose careers he's long specialized in resuscitating. But the catch is that this time in DiCaprio he's cast one of the world's biggest (and last?) contemporary movie stars as a performer whose big break already passed him by. Pigeonholed as a villainous heavy and still living off his one success eight years earlier, a creatively stifled and frustrated Dalton is afforded what could be his last chance at respectibility opposite a James Garner-like TV star in James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant). Of course, Rick doesn't see the potential in this, or really anything else in his life and career. By now, his life is his career and this has become just another job.

The irony is that by any standard other than a notoriously fickle industry, Dalton would be considered a giant success for his run on Bounty Law, and we're frequently told of its devoted following. But the fact he doesn't even feel comfortable talking to his new, substantially more famous neighbors isn't just a reflection of Hollywood's unspoken pecking order, but a testament to his deepening insecurity. The gate in front of the Polanski residence may as well be metaphorical for Rick, who deep down believes he should be the one behind it.

Rick's emotional and physical collapse on the set of Lancer comprises maybe the largest of the two or three extended chapters that comprise the story. Here, Tarantino stops just short of recreating an entire episode of the TV Western, with Rick struggling to keep himself together, forgetting his lines, drinking and basically self-sabatoging every scene in which he appears. But it's Rick's encounter with precocious child actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) that snaps him into a different reality, forcing him to come face-to-face with his own faults as he's inspired by a new generation of actor. At first, we're not sure what to make of this wise beyond her years 8-year-old, until the cameras start to roll and we realize their long off screen conversation has carried on screen, where they've both made the other substantially better.

While Trudi and the pilot's director, Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) gush over Rick's breakthrough, it's actually DiCaprio who gives one of his most movingly authentic performances as this semi-forgotten TV actor discovering he still has more in the tank. In Tarantino's world, no one's "washed up" and great work can pop up anywhere, even in a guest spot on a seemingly cheesy, forgotten 60's Western series. DiCaprio does so many little, nearly invisible things with the role and his role within the role that it's easy to overlook just how difficult it is. Take the stuttering. He slides this stuttering impediment into Rick's speech whenever he's worked up over something, subtly clueing us in that it's something he's needed to overcome to get to where he is. And it not only shows how much harder he's had to work, but the sacrifices we can envision he made to get there. And it's in Rick's tearful description to Trudi about that book he's reading about a brokedown broncobuster, that the emotional enormity of all those sacrifices and failures finally catch up to him.

If Rick biggest fear is becoming a "has been," then his stunt double and best friend Cliff has always operated on the fringes, partially due to his own sordid history involving an alleged murder and the fact he can't help but run his mouth off at the worst possible times. Relegated to driving Rick to and from sets, he looking for a way back in and one of the best things about Pitt's cooler than cool depiction of Cliff is that he isn't afraid to show just how badly he's screwed things up for himself, or how little he seems to care. Cliff is who he is. So it's somewhat jarring to see him return home to a run down trailer on the outskirts of Hollywood and spend the night watching TV on the couch and preparing a meal for his beloved pit bull, Brandy. Tarantino spends a lot of time on this, as transfixed by this daily ritual as we are. It may be where Cliff's most comfortable, and watching him alone gives us what might be the largest possible window into his personality.

This guy shouldn't be likable with all the baggage he brings, but with Brad Pitt playing him, Cliff can't help but come off as the coolest guy in the room, no matter what he's doing. And a few sequences really push the boundaries on this, providing laughs while also hinting at the World War II vet's capacity for violence simmering just below the surface, ready to emerge when necessary. The most tension-filled comes when he drops hitchhiker Pussycat back home at the Spahn Ranch movie set, where he's primed for a confrontation with the Manson Family. And that doesn't seem to bother him one bit. He's there to see George Spahn (Bruce Dern, taking over for the late Burt Reynolds), the ranch's owner and former Bounty Law co-worker, whom he suspects the brainwashed hippies are taking advantage of. We're not sure what will happen, and the moments leading up to, in front of, and inside the old man's shack are excrutiatingly suspenseful as he comes face-to-face with a scary "Squeaky" Fromme (an unrecognizable Dakota Fanning) and the rest of the infamous Mansonites. Forget about our uncertainty of whether he'll make it out alive, we're not entirely sure they will.

Conspicuous by his absence is Manson himself, who other than a brief, fleeting appearance in the film reeanacting a moment often referenced but rarely seen, hovers around the periphery like a spectre. He's played by Damon Herriman, who pulled double duty as Manson on Netflix's Mindhunter, where he was brilliant. But that was actually about him. This isn't, and if that character showed up here he would take over the proceedings, and the film would be all about Charlie Manson and nothing else. And trading everything else we do get to again put the power back in his hands would only further encourage his celebrity idolization, even in death. It's odd that for all the restraint we've seen in film and TV in terms of showing the actual killings, the myth of Manson (as well as the pull he had over his followers) still seems strangely overexposed and disgustingly glorified. Tarantino shows great instincts in attempting to correct that here, hardly giving him the time of day. And in this particular instance, it's completely called for, as he tightly clings to his vision of the story.

Bruce Lee's inclusion in this said "vision" has drawn controversy, as he's shown in a capacity that's very far removed from the reverential treatment everyone expected. If ever there seemed to be a safe bet for a heroic portrayal, it was him, as Tarantino's worship of the legendary martial artist and Green Hornet star is widely known. While expertly played by Mike Moh in capturing the late actors voice, body language and mannerisms, Tarantino turns his attitude up to eleven, offering an unflattering depiction that would sooner compete with Mohammad Ali in terms of arrogance and bravado than in an actual fight. Yes, it's bad, but the point most seem to be missing is that it's heavily implied to have only happened in Cliff's mind. And as much as we like the guy, he's a blowhard, and the very definition of an unreliable narrator, especially when it comes to details of his own life, which he isn't quick to dwell on. Why Tarantino chose to commit this image of Lee to film, even within a glorified fantasy sequence, we may never know, but the end result says more about the character of Cliff and his troubles than the already secured legacy of a pop culture hero.

For a truly bad cameo, witness Damien Lewis' brief, altogether pointless appearance as Steve McQueen, exposition machine, as "The King of Cool" gets reimagined as the tinsletown gossip, relaying the sordid details of the Polanski-Tate-Sebring triangle at the Playboy Mansion. Poorly conceived as the scene is, it's also a rough few minutes for Lewis, who seems all wrong for the role in every possible way. It's kind of shocking that Tarantino didn't cast Andre Brooks, who inhabited the icon inside and out in last year's underrated indie, Chasing Bullitt. Of all the things we thought we'd witness in this film, among the last had to be McQueen sulking about striking out with women.

Sharon Tate's legacy has been as a murder victim, her name synonamous with Manson's and the horror that unfolded on Cielo Drive. If we got even the tiniest glimpse of who she was as a person outside of that, it would more than what's been forced on us for the past fifty years. Despite somewhat ridiculous complaints that she isn't given enough dialogue, Margot Robbie and Tarantino's script spend the running length chipping away at the victim narrative that at this point has already been ingrained into our culture. That they succeed in getting us to think about her existing in any other way before that night in August is an accomplishment in itself, but that she provides such a stark contrast to the Old Hollywood of Rick and Cliff is what makes the character so intriguing. If there's a true hippie in the movie, it's her. Unlike them, she hasn't been around long enough to become jaded or cynical but, like Trudi on Lancer, she represents a changing of the guard, with a new kind of star is coming in to shake things up and eventually push the older generation aside.

Tate doesn't have much dialogue mainly because it just isn't necessary. Tarantino opts instead to show us who she is through her actions, whether she's befriending a hitchhiker while driving to Westwood Village as Buffy Sainte-Marie's "The Circle Game" plays over the soundtrack, or kicking her feet up in a theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew after sheepishly explaining to the staff who she is. In less capable hands, that latter scene could have gone wrong in so many ways, making Tate look like a vain, self-absorbed airhead. But Robbie plays it with total sincerity and wide-eyed amazement, leaving little doubt she's appreciative of the good fortune that's come her way, and basking in a moment she respects as being larger than most could hope to earn or deserve.

We can read all of this on Robbie's face by just watching her watch herself on screen. Only it isn't Robbie on screen playing the actress but, in a touching moment, actual footage of the real Tate in the movie, where she's really quite good. Anyone going into this thinking the actress or person may be shortchanged are in for the exact opposite, as Tarantino wisely doesn't put words in her mouth to explain who she is, letting Robbie fill in all the blanks and breathe life into someone only ever known for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. So even as the murder still hover uncomfortably over all these scenes, Tarantino is careful enough to know it, and insure it doesn't define her.

Much has been made about the dream team of DiCaprio and Pitt, and while their first on screen pairing exceeds every possible expectation, the biggest surprise is in how. Most of their scenes together could easily double for the kind of great comic interplay Crowe and Gosling shared in The Nice Guys, but Tarantino goes even further, having them tap into their characters' insecurities as aging, not entirely likable movie stars that couldn't be further removed from the images of the two big name actors playing them. And even as good as they are together, moist of their best work comes separately in those two huge aforementioned set pieces where each is given the space to really display what makes their characters tick.

It's easy to forget there's voice-over narration in the film (provided by Kurt Russell, who also appears briefly as a stunt coordinator), mainly because it's barely present early before returning in the third act. When it returns and why is important, preparing us for what we fully expect will be the absolute worst. Reaching a title card that reads "SIX MONTHS LATER," induces the sinking feeling that, yes, Tarantino's really doing this, and all the fun and games people rightly or wrongly perceived the 60's were are coming to an end. We know Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), Linda Kasabian (Maya Hawke) and Patricia Krenwinkel's (Madison Beaty) arrival on Cielo Drive will be brutal in some form or another, regardless of the outcome. This is Tarantino after all. And it's a good bet Dalton and Booth will somehow find themselves in the middle of it.

It's easy to start thinking that maybe this wasn't such a great idea after all. Manson's victims were murdered once the night of the crime, another when their personal lives were dragged through the media during the trial, and now a third time for a big screen dramatization?  But we also realize the possibility that Tarantino could have something else up his sleeve, perhaps planning to play historical disturber and rewrite history as he did in the interchangeable Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Deciding on what happens couldn't have been an easy decision, but does he ever commit to it once it's made. And in doing so adjusts our perceptions of how this period and its coinciding events have framed in our culture, both for better and worse. But there's even more going on here than that, all of which becomes clear in a tremendous final scene that in hindsight seems completely right, landing us exactly where it feels like we've been heading all long. It's suprisingly perfect, as if the literal culmination of its fairy tale title, providing the lost chapter we didn't know we needed until now.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Veronica Mars (Season 4)



Creator: Rob Thomas
Starring: Kristen Bell, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Percy Daggs III, Francis Capra, Ryan Hansen, Max Greenfield, Patton Oswalt, J.K. Simmons, Izabela Vidovic, Clifton Collins Jr., David Starzyk, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Dawnn Lewis, Ken Marino
Release Date: 2019

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

Veronica Mars is dead. No, that's not a spoiler for Hulu's newly resurrected fourth season of the series, coming five years after the Kickstarter-funded film and a full fifteen after its first episode aired on UPN. But as a viable franchise, it's felt deceased for a while now. Most of creator Rob Thomas' attempts at following up his groundbreaking first season about a teen detective investigating her best friend's murder has seen him trying to recapture a magic and creative spark that's long gone.

High school provided the perfect setting and backdrop for the outsider story Thomas was trying to tell, its moral and social complications playing directly to the strengths of one of the medium's greatest protagonists. Despite far lower viewership than deserved, critics and audiences expecting another teen drama discovered something far deeper, and were rewarded with a single season of "Peak TV" that could compete with the Breaking Bads and Mad Mens any day of the week.

Veronica Mars Title Card
Since then, Thomas has seemingly done everything possible to undo that achievement while simultaneously (and painfully) reminding us what once. And therein lies the problem. In trying to replicate that magic, he stalled, delivering "fan service" before the term, or even Twitter itself, existed. The fans can share in this blame by eating it all up, merely satisfied by having their favorite characters come back for a reunion or victory lap, as the focus irrelevantly remained on whether Veronica and Logan will stay together. That helped destroy the show, which isn't to say the 2014 movie wasn't fine for what it was. But it didn't move anything forward and it was suddenly becoming harder to envision a future for the character or series. To survive in any incarnation, it was clear a complete overhaul was needed. And if seasons two, three and the feature film were any indication, there was real concern Thomas wouldn't be interested in rocking the boat.

Well, he's done it. In bringing the show into current times, Hulu's 2019 Veronica Mars lets go of its complicated past, adjusting its style and format to the extent that it really is a full-fledged reboot. And aside from the timeliness of its central storyline, it's also a reflection of where the main characters would be now, notwithstanding all those unnecessary detours over the years. In adapting wonderfully to the streaming model his storytelling helped initiate over a decade ago, it's far and away Thomas' best effort since the first season. Crafting a tight, sophisticated mystery that maximizes its setting, we're also treated to its two most indelible characters front and center, working together again as they should. In a way, it addresses all the issues plaguing its start-stop comebacks, all while providing an entryway for new viewers who won't feel left out of the loop.

Kristen Bell has stated in numerous interviews that if she could play Veronica for the rest of her career, she would. For the first time, we can now actually envision a scenario where that's possible, as the series moves forward rather than relying on its past. While these 8 darker-leaning episodes are likely to infuriate some of those aforementioned fans who helped put the series in this predicament, it's exactly the eleventh hour save this franchise needed. With enough time having passed, new characters, better writing and a new platform to play on, the worthy follow-up we've been waiting fifteen years for has finally arrived.

Kristen Bell returns as private investigator, Veronica Mars
Taking place five years after the events of the film, Veronica (Bell) is still residing in the seaside town of Neptune, California, running Mars Investigations with her father, Keith (Enrico Colantoni), who's struggling with memory issues and walking with a cane due to injuries suffered from his accident. With business down, they're struggling to stay afloat as spring breakers descend upon Neptune with their wild beach parties. And many of them take place right outside the cramped one-bedroom boardwalk apartment Veronica shares with longtime boyfriend and Navy Inteligence officer, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring), who's temporarily back from active military duty.

With turmoil brewing between Neptune's elite and small-business owners reaping the financial benefits of spring break, the shocking Sea Sprite Motel bombing sends the town into a tailspin, and involves a number of key suspects and witnesses. They include hapless, murder and publicity obsessed pizza delivery guy Penn Epner (Patton Oswalt), the motel owner's teen daughter Matty Ross (Izabela Vidovic) and Alex Maloof (Paul Karmiryan), the wealthy nephew of up-and-coming Congressman Daniel Maloof (Mido Hamada).

When the congressman hires Veronica and Keith to investigate the case under Police Chief Langdon's (Dawnn Lewis) nose, the bombings continue, with all clues seeming to lead back to real estate magnate Richard "Big Dick" Casablancas (David Starzyk) and his old prison buddy and fixer, Clyde Pickett (J.K. Simmons). But the arrival of two mysterious Mexican Cartel hitmen (played by Clifton Collins Jr. and Frank Gallegos) looking to take out the bomber could mean even bigger problems for Veronica.

Veronica and Logan
The most notable difference in this incarnation is how much grittier it feels and its higher production values, recalling the strongest aspects of its inaugural season on UPN. But that's where the comparisons end since the Neptune here not only looks and feels slightly different, but seems far seedier it has in the past. And the idea of Veronica, having never fulfilled what many (including her father and Logan) believed was her true potential, very much plays into the position she now finds herself. Living in a cramped boardwalk apartment, she's literally trapped in this town by her own choice, as closed in and cut off as ever, despite not losing any of her wickedly sarcastic sense of humor about it.

The show's content, no longer restricted by the confines of broadcast TV standards, has officially caught up to Veronica's more adult sensibilities, allowing the writers some slack to have characters actually swear and include more graphic depictions of violence and sex when necessary. And none of it seems gratuitous, mostly due to the fact that it's expertly incorporated to fit the demands and tone of the plot rather than as a transparent attempt to seem "grown up" or be taken more seriously. Try as they did to market it as such, VM was never a teen show, or at least its first season wasn't. It was a great drama that happened to revolve around them. Now with the shackles off, it can finally be marketed and shown for the gripping character-driven mystery it always was, minus that stigma. It's only fitting that what's on screen reflects that evolution, as we now get to see Veronica and Keith in an actual shootout. With guns. There are decapitations, drug use, and a bunch of other nefarious goings on you woudn't expect on Veronica Mars. And none of it's for shock value, but rather the needs of the central mystery.

What might be most impressive is how well this revival performs and adapts to its new limited episode format, as if cashing in on expectations of what could have always been. Even a Breaking Bad-like subplot involving two Mexican cartel hitmen works better than anyone could predict, mostly because those involved are committed enough to the show's dark, noir-ish tone this time around that it doesn't feel like a tease. That's evident in the spectacular opening title sequence that feels like a trippy, hallucinatory mash of Neon Demon and True Detective, backed by Chrissie Hynde's slowed-down, synth cover of the show's theme, The Dandy Warhols' "We Used To Be Friends." I'd even go as far as to say the opening titles surpass the first season's, which energetically undersold the show as something lighter and less substantial than it actually was.

The Sea Sprite Motel bombing
That the titles only features Bell, Colantoni and Dohring is revealing in how it conveys just how tightly focused the season is. It's all about answering a single question: Who's the bomber? There's so much going on during the actual Sea Sprite bombing scene in the premiere, "Spring Breakers," you'd be forgiven for not being able to track it. We're introduced to a lot of characters all at once, but almost immediately, the writers expertly deconstruct that information, leaving us with who and what's important as the investigation forges forward with its many twists and turns.

When old favorite characters do show up, their presence is entirely contingent on whether it makes sense. This isn't a reunion. Veronica pal Wallace Fennel (Percy Daggs III), PCH gang leader Eli "Weevil" Navarro (Francis Capra), Veronica ex and current FBI agent Leo D'Amato (Max Greenfield), obnoxious B-movie actor Dick Casablancas (Ryan Hansen), sleazy P.I.Vinnie Van Lowe (Ken Marino) and even ambulance-chasing lawyer Cliff McCormack (Daran Norris) all appear, but in different, if not entirely unfamiliar capacities from when we last saw them. Most of the focus is on the newer characters, as it should be.

While it's a genuine thrill to see each of those returnees used really well, Weevil and Leo are  the two biggest beneficiaries. Both their relationships with Veronica are more complicated than before, as Thomas follows through with the film's promise of having Weevil return to the wrong side of the tracks, testing whatever loyalty they have left to each other. Leo, however, picks up almost exactly where he left off with Veronica, this time as a visiting FBI agent assisting with the case, and perhaps a pointed reminder of the career path she could have continued to follow. He's also presented as a potential thorn for a jealous Logan who's not entirely privy to their history. Bell and Greenfield don't miss a beat, employing the same easygoing chemistry and back-and-forth banter as in season's past, only now with a more serious backdrop.

Patton Oswalt as pizza delivery guy, Penn Epner
Most of the season's action is driven by the Emmy-worthy performances of Patton Oswalt and J.K. Simmons, both of whom deliver big in very different, but equally complex parts. The best thing Thomas did was get the two of them onboard, as it's almost surreal seeing already established actors of their caliber dropped into this universe he's created to shake things up. And do they ever.

As pizza delivery guy and true crime superfan Penn, Oswalt paints a portrait of this pitiable man seemingly thrust into the middle of a media whirlwind he willingly encourages. As the founder of a "Murder Head" web group, his behavior wildly fluctuates between hilarious, endearing, tasteless and even flat-out offensive depending upon the situation. Victim, liar or hero? We're never quite sure, but Oswalt (paying tribute to his late wife's true crime investigating with this character) makes it impossible not to care.

Simmons' ex-con, Clyde, is a little smoother with his manipulation, but no less confounding, as we spend most of the eight episodes wondering what angle he's working. We know he can't stay in the background for long as Big Dick's cleaner but there's also considerable intrigue in the bromance he strikes up with a now physically ailing Keith. Yes, they're working each other the whole time since he and his boss are key suspects, but there's also a real bond there between two tired older guys looking for someone to shoot the breeze with. He may be a criminal, but he's an honest one operating within his own code of ethics, and Simmons, legendarily capable of flipping between cold-blooded and kind-hearted in an instant, has us nervously stirring over which side Clyde will eventually end up on.

Oscar-winner J.K. Simmons as ex-con Clyde Pickett
With Veronica's long-standing abandonment and trust issues now carrying into her mid-thirties, friends aren't easy to come by or keep, especially in a line of work where mistrust is a prerequisite. Her relationships with Wallace and Weevil are strained and she even starts things off on the wrong foot with a returning Logan. While our beloved Veronica sure ain't easy to deal with, some relief comes in the genuine friendship she strikes up with local bar owner, Nicole Malloy (The Good Place's Kirby Howell-Baptiste). But when her cynicism and guilty conscience takes over, it isn't long before she manages to potentially sabatage that as well.

The idea of giving Veronica a sidekick of sorts in the form of 16-year-old Matty is a great one, and probably could have been executed in any of the show's seasons if the situation warranted it. But it makes the most sense now, as she'd want to latch onto someone she sees as a reflection of herself at that age, and has just suffered a similarly immeasurable loss where she needs to get at the truth. Like Penn, Matty also works as a conduit to show how Veronica's history with the Lilly Kane case continues to informs her every decision as an investigator and person.

While Izabela Vidovic more than holds her own as the rebellious teen absorbing Veronica's knowledge and making scary missteps along the way, her presence never comes off as the transparent spin-off audition it easily could have. Dawnn Lewis also makes a strong supporting contribution as Neptune's newest no-nonsense police chief Marcia Langdon, who proves to be the latest bureaucratic roadblock for the Mars' to overcome, albeit a fairly likable one.

Keith and Veronica on the job
A creative zenith is reached in the depiction of Veronica and Keith's relationship, a bond that was always at the heart of the show, but fell by the wayside in the two subsequent seasons and film, the latter of which hardly saw them working together at all. This is a welcome return to top first season form, with the two joking, bickering and watching each others backs like no time has passed at all. The Mars Investigations office also looks exactly as it should after being given a somewhat shoddy treatment production-wise in the movie. But the kicker is that the dynamic between these two has evolved considerably, with Keith struggling with physical limitations and memory loss, giving Colantoni a chance to bring a vulnerability to the character he hasn't been afforded since the show's peak.

Roles are now reversed, with Veronica having to protect her own father just as he protected her as a teen. Both from himself and others. There's a memorable moment that comes about three quarters through the season that signifies that massive shift while confirming the series is back firing on all cylinders. It's when Veronica has to pause midway through one of their elaborate ruses to check on her dad. He's supposed to be faking a heart attack, but she stops, and the look on her face speaks volumes. Given his current condition, she can't be sure it's not real and abandons her cover to check on him. Juxtapose that with the show's first season finale, where super sleuth Veronica, unharmed through twenty-plus episodes investigating a murder, finds herself in actual physical danger. A suddenly helpless teen in need of dad's help. The same terrified feeling we all had watching that returns, only this time our fears are for Keith.

Kristen Bell slides back into this like it's nothing, and with even more experience as an actress under her belt and better, more engaging material to work with, the results far exceed anything she's been handed after the first season. While we always knew she'd be a successful enough actress to never need the show again, she's still taken for granted in how she carried it, especially during its rougher creative patches. Here, she gets more help from the writers and supporting cast in her entirely believable portrayal of an older, more jaded and bitter Veronica who's over a decade removed from Lilly Kane's murder, and with some life already behind her. And we the impression much of it wasn't what she wanted. At no point during the series' run did Bell ever seem to be going through the motions but the show sure did, so it's nice having the content catch up to her talent again

Jason Dohring returns as Logan Echolls
Veronica's carrying a lot of baggage, most of it in the form of her relationship with Logan, which always felt like it was holding the series back, before eventually becoming the very reason it flew off the rails. This time, it rarely takes center stage and supplements rather than overwhelms the crime proceedings. The problems they deal with feel like real adult issues stemming from Veronica's past trauma and Logan's anger issues. To Jason Dohring's credit, this is probably his best work to date, as he internally struggles to decipher his current role in Veronica's life. And because he also now more closely resembles an Jack Ryan-like action hero than the Logan we remember, the show's able to exploit that by cleverly making him one.

The controversial season finale,"Years, Continents, Bloodshed," feels like the point where everything we always thought the show was, and what it should be now, converge. While it's not news that creators and showrunners often have to make incredibly difficult decisions, what's talked about less is how frequently they opt out of making them. Whether it's to please the fans or network, they take the easy way out, often to the show's creative detriment.

With a final, brutal twist, Rob Thomas tuned all of that noise out and made the decision that was right for the story and its characters. The one that would most insure the series' future viability, while putting an exclamation point on the darker ride these 8 episodes have taken us on.  Having previously written for the fans and and seeing it get the the series nowhere, he's now given the characters and audience what they NEED instead of want, recreating that same mixture of tragedy, triumph and uncertainty that defined show's initial run.

Season 4's shocking finale, "Years, Continents, Bloodshed"
It's entirely possible this was too big a risk and Veronica Mars ends up losing the decade-plus loyal following it has. If that does happen, which it won't, this was still entirely worth it, if only to experience the series performing at its peak for the first time since 2004. But if early indicators can be trusted, it's likely viewers who appreciate great TV have noticed these strides and we'll get more where this came from.

Not only does is it complete vindication for seasons two and three, but an invitation for anyone who hasn't seen them to just skip straight to this, which feels like the first season's true successor. With a tight, self-contained thrill-ride on a new platform, and unencumbered by the pressure to fill over twenty hours of story, the series feels creatively reborn, giving us something more to contemplate afterwards. It's the darkest hole yet for the resilient Veronica to claw out of, with the possibility of even bigger obstacles ahead. But it's great having her back.   

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Us



Director: Jordan Peele
Starring: Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke, Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Shahadi Wright Joseph, Madison Curry, Evan Alex, Ashley McKoy 
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Fittingly, Jordan Peele's Us begins with a prologue centered around one of the most frightening experiences that can happen when you're a child: Getting lost. Whether it's ten minutes or two hours, there's s very real sense of helplessness as a series of worst case scenarios start racing through the mind. Peele must be the first filmmaker to shoot a sequence like this with a clear understanding of those stakes and ability to fully convey them to the audience. We literally feel how petrified, yet strangely curious and excited this little girl is about the unfamiliar surroundings she finds herself in, and the uncertainty of whether she'll ever get back. It isn't until later that we realize the magnitude of this event and its far-reaching consequences, but not only for her. And with all the clues waiting to be deciphered and play out in the film's remaining length, Peele answers the question of whether he's capable of following up Get Out by delivering an effort that somehow feels even more ambitious and thought-provoking.

As the latest to affix his name to a Twilight Zone reboot, it may seem easier than ever for some to level the criticism, that as writer and director, Peele's "merely" churning out modern feature length versions of those episodes. But as anyone who's actually seen the original series could attest, that's a pretty high compliment. Layering his story with scathing social commentary sure to draw Get Out comparisons, this plays more subtly, requiring some work from its audience, and possibly multiple viewings, to fully absorb all of its ideas.

You could probably compose a solid list of Peele's influences here, ranging from The Shining to The Strangers to Funny Games to Black Swan, even as this creation seems to bare very little resemblance to any of them, at least narratively. But more importantly, it's scary. In fact, it's the first horror film in a long while that earns that label, taking a classic doppelgänger premise and flipping it on its head, subverting expectations in ways that likely would have earned the approval of Rod Serling himself. 

It's 1986 when young Adelaide Thomas (a revelatory Madison Curry) goes with her parents on vacation to Santa Cruz, but with her father distracted, she wanders off alone at night on the boardwalk before arriving at a desolate fun house on the beach. In it, she's confronted with a hall of mirrors and a double of herself who most definitely isn't a reflection. Eventually found by her parents, Adelaide is left traumatized by the encounter, unable to speak and possibly facing years of therapy sessions due to whatever may have occurred in those fifteen minutes.

Flash forward to present-day California and Adelaide (Lupita Nyong'o) is seemingly recovered, but reluctant to go to the family's Santa Cruz lake house with husband Gabe Wilson (Winston Duke) and their two kids, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex). But fear and trepidation really kicks in when they all head to the beach to meet up with their wealthy friends the Tylers, Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss).

Shaken by their beach outing, Adelaide returns to the house with her family, only to soon discover mysterious, threatening visitors standing in their driveway staring them down. A closer look reveals the shadowed foursome in red to be their physical counterparts despite acting, speaking and even looking differently from them. They're evil, but what they want and why they're here now is anyone's guess, as is their relationship to the event that shook Adelaide to her core as a small child. It's immediately clear the Wilsons will have to fight for their lives against intruders who believe everything is theirs for the taking. 

The idea that if there's an "us" there has to be a "them" is the foundation on which Peele's story is built. Wherever there are "haves," there are also"have nots," and sometimes the reasons as to how people find themselves in those positions boil down to pure chance and circumstance. Or do they? Life may not be fair, but the questions presented end up having more to do with whether it's truly the luck of the draw or society's collective ignorance causing that, or possibly a combination of both. Revealing any more would risk spoiling the surprises Peele's cooked up, or the tremendous technical expertise with which he delivers them, in the process creating an unmistakable sense of time, mood and atmosphere.

Opening in a 1986 Peele doesn't feel the need to advertise with posters, hit songs or crazy wardrobe choices because he's more interested in replicating a feeling and memory of that era, a commercial for the failed and mostly forgotten "Hands Across America" campaign against hunger airs on a retro TV set. We know it means something because it all does, including and a creepy title sequence featuring a myriad of rabbits, the first pieces of a puzzle that will slowly come together by film's end.

The present-day home invasion scenes are the closest the movie comes to traditional horror, with Peele milking a moment or scene to find as much fear in the tension of what will happen than what eventually does. Prior to this, the idea of of actors playing two different versions of their characters in a scene would be considered a stunt or digital distraction, but it's pulled off so seamlessly here that the idea of that isn't even given a second thought when they appear.

Taking full advantage of playing what amounts to twisted mirror versions of their characters, it's the award-worthy Nyong'o as "Red" who makes the strongest impression, employing a deep, demonic voice that any other actress probably couldn't pull off without invoking giggles. But it's as Adelaide that she does most of the film's heavy lifting in conveying the emotional trauma that still very much haunts her, as well as the fight and determination that kicks in when it comes time to protect her family from this inexplicable outside force with motives well beyond their complete comprehension.

Playing characters both physically threatening and psychologically unhinged, Winston Duke, Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex each bring something entirely different to the table as their evil counterparts, with personaities and ticks that hint at a shared history, and the anger at being denied a better life, perhaps through no fault of their own. Despite more limited screen time, Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker's work as Adelaide's snotty friends cuts to the bone of the film's themes, as an extended invasion sequence carrying echoes of A Clockwork Orange puts those characters' purposes front and center, exposing their ugliness in all its hideous and hilarious glory. Moss is particularly creepy throughout, but if ever there's an overlooked contributor, it's composer Michael Abels, whose eerie, hypnotizing score couldn't possibly provide a better backdrop or scene companion for the unfolding atrocity.

Following that centerpiece sequence, the film's focus shifts toward grappling with the larger issues, as Peele places himself in the unenviable position of having to pull back the curtain and deliver a dreaded exposition dump. And it's just about as satisfying a one as you'll see, begging for further analysis and repeated viewings. At some point, there needs to be an explanation, even if it leads to more questions. But the really big ones need answering. Who are they? Why are they here? How did it start?

Most filmmakers would buckle under the weight of having to connect the dots and deliver on the highest of expectations. Instead, Peele doubles down with a shocking reveal that urges viewers to rethink everything that came before. Not in terms of plot, but ideas and philosophy.  It isn't the clean conclusion viewers think they want, but it is a justifiably complicated one, beautifully showing more than it could ever tell. With Us, Peele proves himself much more than a one-hit wonder, forcing us to reasses our own allegiances as we stare directly into the face of humanity's ills.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Greta



Director: Neil Jordan
Starring: Isabelle Huppert, Chloe Grace Moretz, Maika Monroe, Colm Feore, Stephen Rea
Running Time: 98 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

It's not particularly easy to make an over-the-top suspense thriller like Greta without falling prey to some really dumb decisions for entertainment's sake. That writer/director Neil Jordan sidesteps a lot of them while managing to craft a tight, fairly efficient effort is an accomplishment considering the temptations to take shortcuts that have undermined so many mainstream entries like it. Of course, this isn't to say that dumb decisions aren't sometimes made, but they feel less like screenwriting contrivances than mistakes the lead character would make based upon what we learn of her. But better than that, Jordan has also cast three talented actresses who gamely juggle material that might elicit unintentional laughs in less capable hands.

At the risk of overpraising a film for merely managing to not mess up a good thing or embarrass anyone involved, there's still a great deal to be said for that, and reminding us that it isn't a prerequisite for all Hollywood thrillers to be brain dead. It simmers slowly, before piling on some complications that are pretty ridiculous without being entirely illogical. There are many points where you're sure the script's on the verge of deteriorating into a bad slasher before pulling back to make choices that aren't exactly unpredictable per se, but prove rewarding nonetheless. And in Chloe Moretz, they've found the perfect protagonist, her character's idealism quickly shattered when she lets her guard down, allowing us to join in her deer-in-headlights amazement at the quickly escalating craziness.

Frances McCullen (Moretz) is a young waitress living in New York City with her best friend, Erica Penn (Maika Monroe) while still coping with the death of her mother and strained relationship with her distant, workaholic father. Frequently rejecting Erica's offers to go out and loosen up, one day Frances finds a handbag left behind while riding on the subway. After discovering the bag belongs to a French woman named Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), she finds her address and delivers it in person. Extending her gratitude over coffee, Greta reveals she's a widowed piano teacher with a daughter living and studying in Paris. Soon, Frances begins spending time with this lonely, older woman, even helping her pick out a dog at the shelter.

Despite Erica's warnings that Frances is merely trying to fill the void left by her mother's passing, the two start spending a lot of time together, at least until Frances makes a chilling discovery that causes her to question Greta's true motivations. But when she tries to break it off, the calls and texts from Greta intensify, revealing her to be a seriously sick woman with more problems than Frances could have ever imagined. And she doesn't take rejection lightly, stalking Frances to the point of putting her life, as well as the lives of people she holds closest, in serious peril.

Without reinventing the wheel, Greta carries on the tradition of some of the more successful female-centric stalker films of the 90's such as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Misery, despite its narrative or asthetic never really dabbling in horror for its entire running length. Oscar-winner Jordan really takes his time setting everything up, firmly establishing the inner and outer lives of these two very different women who will undoubtedly be locking horns in the second half. The thrills come from watching the legendary Isabelle Hupert slowly unspool her antagonist's psychosis, taking Greta from being nice and harmless, to kooky, to a little clingy, until finally flying off the deep end.

The film is subtle until it isn't, correctly recognizing when to pull the trigger and embrace its craziness. We recognize this absurdity and go with it mainly due to the cativating match-up between Huppert and Moretz, which delivers every time they share the screen, aided by a script that contains clever nuggets like Greta terrorizing Frances and Erica with her flip phone. There comes a point in the story where we're sure we know where it's headed, but it toys with us a bit, keeping the body count almost shockingly low before saving most of its ammunition for an ambitious ending that plays with the roles of terrorists and victims. While still a potboiler that doesn't pretend to offer deep psychological meditation, it does gives its stalked leads a surprising amount of agency for a movie of its kind.

Acting opposite a force of nature in Huppert, Moretz also slowly takes Frances through the various stages of realizing she's in way over her head. Being a nice and naive may not be the most exciting of qualities for a thriller heroine, but we're with her and she's completely believable, as is Maika Monroe, who as Erica initially seems to be embodying the ultimate best friend cliche of airheaded party animal. But becuase of the actress's rising stock, you get the feeling there's more there, and that suspicion pays off, revealing her character to not only be the sole voice of reason, but possibly the film's most memorably relatable. You get the impresion that had Greta exclusively targeted her, it may not have been a fair fight. As a cat-and-mouse game capped with a clever Hitchcockian twist, Greta ends up equaling a little more than the sum of its parts, eventually revealing itself to be an entertaining throwback in the genre.

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Cobra Kai (Season 2)



Creators: Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald
Starring: William Zabka, Ralph Macchio, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo, Martin Kove
Release Date: 2019

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)


**Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Reveals Some Key Plot Details From The First Two Seasons of 'Cobra Kai' **


When YouTube Premium's Karate Kid sequel series, Cobra Kai, premiered last year, the big shock wasn't it being far better than anyone expected, but in how it made you re-examine the original film with fresh eyes, now working with the knowledge of what would become of All Valley Karate rivals Daniel Larusso and Johnny Lawrence thirty years later. Jumping off a very good idea that the latter viewed himself as the bullied victim in his high school war with Daniel, creators Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald's introduced us to a present-day Johnny frozen in '84, unable to fully move past his biggest defeat. And despite the fact Daniel's married with two kids and running a successful car dealership, something's missing, as he still struggles to find his way without the guidance of Mr. Miyagi.

As good a starting point as this was, there were many ways it could have gone terribly wrong. If their characters seemed to be a betrayal of who they originally were or the creators failed to recognize how much more the actors were capable of, it all could have been a disaster, joining the pitiful ranks of other reboot and sequel hatchet jobs. This represents the polar opposite, as the team behind this series use every minute of  second chance to deepen our appreciation of the franchise, while successfully pushing it forward. 

Cobra Kai's Hawk, Johnny and Miguel
Reluctantly taking a young pupil under his wing and resurrecting the Cobra Kai dojo as an unlikely sensei training a group of misfits, we got the Johnny we never knew we needed. And watching him again go face-to-face with Daniel under different, but not entirely dissimilar circumstances, we're reminded just how they bring out both the best and worst in each other. their feud trickling down to the new generation of characters we've grown to care about just as much.

Coming off a suspenseful first season finale, Cobra Kai has proven thus far to be the template for resurrecting an already existing property, delivering a second season that's just as strong, if not stronger. It's accomplished this by expanding the show's universe, further developing the characters and capitalizing off last season's tournament showdown that not only ended with a shocking twist, but the return of an infamous figure from Johnny's past who could again prove to be his, and Daniel's, biggest threat. But the series' more lasting accomplishment is what it's done with the newer characters, whose arcs take yet another turn in this year's finale, topping any previous episode in terms of adrenaline and suspense. Forget about measuring up to the original's legacy. You could easily make a case that this show is already well on its way to surpassing it. 

When last season concluded Johnny (William Zabka) had accomplished his liftetime goal of bringing the first place All-Valley Under-18 Karate Championship Trophy "home" to Cobra Kai after training bullied teen Miguel Diaz (Xolo Maridueña) to victory over his own estranged son, Robby Keene (Tanner Buchanan) in the final. But at what cost? With an injured Robby's new sensei, Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) looking on, Miguel wins by employing the same mean streak and cheap tactics the Cobras were known for over thirty years ago, in the process driving away his girlfriend (and Daniel's daughter), Samantha (Mary Mouser).

Johnny gets a visit from an old friend
Now with a tainted trophy and a relationship with his son seemingly broken beyond repair, the first glimpses of true regret come over Johnny's face as he realizes the Cobra Kai mantra of "No Mercy" may have corrupted Miguel just as it had him years ago. But before that feeling can fully settle in, a shadowy figure appears at the door: Presumed dead sensei John Kreese (Martin Kove), the founding father of Cobra Kai who led Johnny to his greatest heights as a teen, before turning on him. Declaring himself a changed man, the Vietnam vet memorably humiliated by Mr. Myagi in the parking lot all those years ago, is just looking for a second chance, and hoping his former pupil will give it to him.

Much to wife Amanda's (Courtney Henggeler) chagrin, Daniel leaves most of the responsibilities at LaRusso Motors to her as he doubles down on his efforts to open Miyagi-do Karate, making his inaugural students Samantha and Robby, who's now moved in with the LaRussos as the teens grow closer. Miguel meanwhile forms a bond with new bad girl Cobra Kai recruit, Tory (Peyton List), who's also taken Sam's best friend Aisha (Nichole Brown) under her wing. The violent, agressive direction of the group has also caused a further rift between bullied nerd turned badass, Eli "Hawk" Moskowitz (Jacob Bertrand) and his neurotic pal Demetri (Gianni Decenzo). With all these conflicts building toward an explosion as summer comes to a close, Cobra Kai and Miyagi need to somehow co-exist, before Daniel and Johnny's continuous feud threatens to hurt those closest to them.

One of the biggest highlights of last season was seeing a middle-aged Johnny trying to function in the 21st century and discovering it's exactly as we thought. The drinking, music, sexism and xenophobia confirmed Daniel's former bully wouldn't have a softer edge, at least at first. But he was trying, and if his scenes teaching a new class saw him initially coming off as politically incorrect as possible, the thought of a returning and bitter Kreese being dropped into this environment is sort of terrifying, not to mention ripe with creative possibilities, many of which are still not even entirely exhausted by the season's end.

The manipulative Kreese (Martin Kove) returns
Zabka and Kove play off each other so well that we do actually want to believe Kreese is a changed man and the backstory given to explain his absence sheds further light on the unrepentant figure who made Daniel and Johnny's lives a living hell in different ways. But the writers trust its audience enough to know that he hasn't returned to play nice and peacefully co-exist with Johnny.

Something's up, and this season will at least partially be about this disgraced mentor slithering back into his life when he least needs him. And we get this, because for all the misery the original Cobra Kai brought Johnny as a kid, it still holds for him a soft spot in that it provided an escape from his miserable home life. Kreese knows that all too well, pushing the right nostalgia buttons in him to get his foot back in the door. Johnny may resent him, but still can't help but seek his ex-mentor's approval.

Just as compelling is Johnny's students' reactions to Kreese, whose return becomes the driving force behind much of this season's drama, allowing well-traveled character actor Kove to give a different, more nuanced take of his classic, but previously somewhat one-dimensional role. It isn't long before his and Johnnny's dueling philosophies about where Cobra Kai's been and where it should go start to clash, with their students caught in the middle. And no one seems more conflicted than Miguel, whose emerging mean streak at the end of last season caught everyone, especially Robby and Daniel, off guard. But it also took Johnny by surprise, reminding him what Cobra Kai, at its most brutal, really means, and whether that's a road he ever wants to travel down again.

Some of Zabka's very best scenes again revolve around Johnny simultaneously trying to both relive and escape his past, coming to terms with his mistakes and attempting to be "the bigger man" by not getting sucked back into his feud with Daniel. Whether that's reuniting with his original Cobra teammates Bobby, Tommy and Jimmy (actors Ron Thomas, Rob Garrison and Tony O'Dell reprising their roles) for an emotional joyride, figuring out how to use a laptop or a dating app, or having a really awkward dinner with Daniel and Amanda, Johnny's impossible to dislike because we hold out hope he'll eventually get his act together. For the show's sake, it's probably the last thing we should want, but can't help ourselves because Zabka's so good at making us root for his redemption.      

Miyagi-do's Robby, Sam and Daniel
While not on as tumultuous a journey as Johnny, Daniel's determination to get Miyagi-do off the ground is as much planted in his fear of failing his late mentor as it is sticking it to his longtime rival. It's ironic that in trying so hard to live up to the Miyagi legacy, Daniel's training scenes with daughter Sam and temporary houseguest Robby end up being the most repetitive of the season until an influx of new recruits come in and join them,and Cobra Kai takes the feud to a whole new level of personal.

That there's more at stake with Sam and Robby's personal relationship than in Daniel's quest to carry on Miyagi's teachings is kind of the point since it's through his connection to the Larussos that Robby's able to momentarily shed his badboy reputation as Johnny's son. His Cobra Kai nemesis, Miguel, appears to also be on the edge of redemption until Tory enters the picture, tempting him in the worst of ways with a mean streak of her own.That we care as much about this high school rivalry as much as the one still raging between the two adult characters speaks to the writing and performances from Maridueña, Buchanan, Mouser and series newcomer, Peyton List. Really, the feuds become one in the same.

Tory and Sam's climactic face off in Ep. 2.10, ("No Mercy"')
Although Johnny resists Kreese's desire to bring merciless vengeance back to the dojo he founded, his reappearance gives Daniel another reason for justifying his contempt for all things Johnny Lawrence. And after undergoing one of the more drastic transformations last season, Jacob Bertrand's Hawk plays an even bigger role this time around, soon embodying Kreese's ruthless philosophies by becoming the very thing that forced him to adopt this persona, going so far as to turn on his closest friend (despite Demetri's crippling neurosis being the season's only grating element).

Daniel vs. Johnny. Miguel vs. Robby. Sam vs. Tory. Hawk vs. Demetri. Johnny vs. Kreese. Cobra Kai vs. Miyagi-do. All these feuds simmer throughout the season, before finally exploding in a school-set brawl that can best be described as the show's finest 20 minutes, both in terms of storytelling and martial arts choreography, ending with a shocking event that brings these characters the closest they've come to full-on tragedy. Shaking the show's foundation, it's a culminating moment that can be traced to the previous nineteen episodes, while also working as a logical fallout to last season's closer, setting the table perfectly for Season 3.

Johnny at a crossroads
The defining event finds Johnny back at perhaps an even darker, sadder place than when he was initially reintroduced, opening up a whole new set of possibilities for where his feud with Daniel could go, or even whether it should continue. While hints have been dropped since the beginning, the writers also lean even further into teasing a potential return many probably didn't think was possible when this story began, or rather began again, for these characters. It's basically the final piece of the puzzle fans have been clamoring for. And now that the timing feels completely right for this exciting development, there's good reason to believe it will be handled as expertly as everything else. It's a deserved show of faith for a series that's proven how little interest it has in merely delivering a glorified reunion.