Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Limetown



Creators: Zak Akers and Skip Bronkie
Starring: Jessica Biel, Stanley Tucci, Sherri Saum, Omar Elba, Alessandro Juliani, Louis Ferreira, Marlee Matlin, Sheryl Lee, Janet Kidder, Kandyse McClure, John Beasley, Hiro Kanagawa, Kelly Jenrette, Vera Frederickson
Release Date: 2019

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's a scene that comes late in Facebook Watch's thriller series Limetown where an actress is called upon to play a character who's acting. You know those scenes. A performance within a performance, in this case with her character withholding information someone else doesn't have, but the audience does. And it's a guilty, self conscious performance. Not from the actress, but the character, which is how it should be since characters are rarely capable of believable acting.

The performer doing it is Jessica Biel, who we're learning is very much an excellent actress, more so since finding her lane in dark, psychological TV dramas like 2018's The Sinner, which earned her an Emmy nomination. Since the talent was always there, even if the quality of projects weren't, she started developing her own and hasn't looked back, with viewers reaping the benefits. That series centered around a giant mystery many doubted could be satisfactorily paid off, until it was, in a revelatory gut punch of an episode that ranks alongside the most exciting hours of dramatic television in years.

Limetown is similarly built around a mystery, albeit one larger in scope, with far-reaching consequences familiar to anyone who listened to creators Zack Akers and Skip Bronkie's 2015 podcast on which it's based. A podcast that many, in a neat War of the Worlds callback, actually believed to be based on actual events. It isn't, but given the premise, it's not hard to understand why, as podcaster Lia Haddock attempts to unravel the story behind the mysterious disappearance of 326 people at a neuroscience research facility in Tennessee in 2003. The scenario feels like something that could have happened and fell through the cracks, and benefits by having a "host" that's the protagonist of her own story, nicely setting up a screen adaptation where the lead will have to do much more than sit behind a microphone talking about dates, details and evidence.

The series is both at an advantage and disadvantage in having to show rather than tell everything, since what's shown could easily fall short of our imaginations. Then again, so can anything. Those who haven't listened to the podcast won't be lost and have the added benefit of a clean slate, while the many that did will find it remains faithful to and improves upon it in welcome ways. But the big takeaway is that it's riskier, specifically in regards to the actions of its central character, a complex, polarizing female anti-hero sure to split audiences. And much like The Sinner, Biel takes her on a dark journey toward the truth, culminating in a season finale that lays all its cards on the table to reveal an awful lot of answers, even if our protagonist proves emotionally unequipped to handle them.

Lia Haddock (Biel) grew up in a household where she got used to tuning out the noise, escaping to her room with a tape recorder to avoid the sounds of her parents fighting. But she soon found a captive audience in her uncle, Emile (Stanley Tucci), a quite, reserved man who would often stand in as Lia's interview subject, encouraging her to use her imagination in the wildest ways possible. That is until one day Emile left for a mystery trip and never returned, forcing Lia to grow up without her beloved uncle. And whatever scenario her childhood imagination conjured up about his whereabouts couldn't ever come close to matching the real story that would occur in a place called Limetown in 2003.

Now an investigative reporter and APR (American Public Radio) podcast host, new witnesses and evidence have only heightened Lia's determination in finding out what happened to her uncle and the other residents who mysteriously vanished from what was part utopian village, part scientific research lab. Something big was happening and at the center of it all was their controversial cult-like leader, Dr. Oskar Totem (Alessandro Juliani), who was literally burned at the stake in a town of his own creation.

With pressure mounting from her editor, Gina (Sherri Saum) to can the story if she can't find any leads, Lia's given a hapless partner in Mark (Omar Elba), who tries keep her honest and on task as surviving Limetown residents begin emerging from the shadows over a decade after disappearing. Now they want to talk. Sort of. And with conditions. But doing so puts their lives and Lia's in immediate danger, each interview bringing her dangerously close to the truth of what happened. Even if the real question just may be how far she'll willing to go to get it.  

Broken into 10 half-hour episodes all directed by Rebecca Thomas, the format seamlessly synchronizes with a story that needs to gradually unspool information, yet do it at a fairly rapid pace, one witness and clue at a time. When alternating between Lia's present-day interviews with these people and flashbacks of their time in the village, the pieces come together. And many of the town-set scenes and the subjects' explanations of them end up being an acting showcase for supporting players such as Kelly Jenrette, Louis Ferreira, John Beasley, and Marlee Matlin, each of whom are afforded the opportunity to portray two variations on their characters in different timelines.

Those doubting whether the "world" of Limetown so thoroughly and realistically detailed in the podcast could translate to the screen, it does, as the production team succeeds in not only making it look and feel like a habitable (if appropriately cold and sterile) town, but a place where its subjects feel comfortable enough to stay, while still being frightened to leave. A somewhat infamous episode on the podcast, "Napoleon," is memorably adapted in the fourth episode, exploring the full scope of the Black Mirror-like experiment being conducted, with all its moral and social implications. This only grows in complexity as the series marches on, lending the town's adopted catchphrase of "I Have Heard The Future" a far more sinister and complicated undercurrent than its pro-technology optimism seems to preach.

Ultimately, this is Lia's story, or rather it becomes that when the podcaster's obsession starts to reveal more about her own emotional trauma stemming from her uncle's disappearance than the overarching Limetown mystery. They're not exactly one in the same. Who Lia is at her core becomes the biggest and most rewarding deviation from the podcast, as she evolves into someone who may not be worth rooting for anymore, manipulating and blackmailing to get to the truth regardless of how many more die in the process.

Lia's abject denial in the face of this gets scary enough that we eventually understand the true purpose of the goofy Mark character beyond the writers' need to give her someone to bounce theories off and provide comic relief. He's there to keep her sane, providing a rational moral compass as it becomes clearer hers is breaking. We don't fully grasp the extent of Lia's obsession until the final few episodes which find her going off the deep end in ways that are crazily unsettling. Better still is the argument that this proves she truly was the only person capable of making the sacrifices necessary to see this investigation through to its end.

An even stronger case can be made that Biel is the ideal choice to play Lia, completely owning this complex headcase with steely, unwavering determination. It helps that few actresses have a speaking voice as strong or authoritative, lending complete credibility to the podcasting scenes,  never letting us doubt this woman could spend a career behind the mic hooking listeners. But it's Biel's work in the interview scenes that paradoxically convey Lia's tremendous fear of her survivor subjects and whoever may still control them and the reporter's seemingly unshakeable commitment to getting her answers regardless of it.

With her bob haircut frequently buried under a hoodie or knit hat, wearing baggy clothes and looking as if she hasn't slept for days, Lia initially seems at surface level to be an entirely desexualized character. That is until we realize, in jarring ways, this isn't the case at all and her desires provide as much of an outlet as her work. She's a lesbian, even if that labeling seems pointless in the face of everything else Lia's carrying around, which the actress reveals to us in carefully modulated doses throughout. Like her troubled relationship with her estranged mother (played by Laura Palmer herself, Sheryl Lee). It's a high-wire, anxiety-ridden performance that perfectly compliments Stanley Tucci's calming, detached presence in the flashbacks opposite a young, impressionable Lia. The true measure of that impact is felt in the present-day scenes every time her adult counterpart hits a wall in the investigation and a depressing sense of hopelessness washes over Biel's face. She doesn't have to say anything. We get it.

The finale ("Answers") delivers all the unsettling revelations viewers have been waiting on, while supplying literal clock-ticking suspense when Lia comes face-to-face with her most important witness, an ex Limetown administrator played with terrifying matter-of-factness by Janet Kidder. It's basically a clinic on how skilled people can be at completely compartmentalizing whatever they wish, regardless of the consequences. The shock comes not so much in hearing about what caused the mess that is Limetown, but seeing it depicted on screen in painstaking, almost over-analytic detail from the perspective of someone incapable of framing it any other way.

Closing on a cliffhanger in the strictest sense, it's crisp, efficient storytelling that does something unusual in provoking a strong emotional response by bombarding us with cold, hard facts. That happened, then this happened, then that happened. We most commiserate with Lia during this reveal, perhaps lending justification to her mindset, while at the same time giving us pause as to whether she's now employing similarly sociopathic methods in her own quest for truth. You can't help but consider that while Limetown's story is entirely fictional, its timely context strikes a nerve that hits uncomfortably close to home.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Looking For Alaska



Creator: Josh Schwartz
Starring: Charlie Plummer, Kristine Froseth, Denny Love, Jay Lee, Sofia Vassilieva, Landry Bender, Uriah Shelton, Jordan Connor, Timothy Simons, Ron Cephas Jones
Release Date: 2019

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Mention author John Green's name and you're likely to receive varying degrees of responses largely dependent on that viewers' age, gender, familiarity with young adult lit and pop culture in general. And it's just as likely that bringing up the writer of bestselling teen weepies such as "The Fault in our Stars" and "Paper Towns" will also induce some groans and eye-rolling because he's often accused of pedaling fluff without the substance to back it up. As the YA genre's taken off in the past decade with his and other contemporaries seeing their works adapted into big money movies, Green's emerged as even more of a punching bag. And it's difficult to argue, with dialogue and plotting that isn't exactly subtle, leaving little doubt he's writing exclusively for that demographic, and has no plans to stop pouring all the emotion that entails directly onto the page.

"Looking For Alaska" was Green's first novel, dealing with heavy and disturbing enough themes to frequently land it on lists of challenged books by schools and libraries in the years following its 2005 publication. The O.C. and Gossip Girl creator Josh Schwartz has been trying to develop it into a feature film since, and now, almost fifteen years later, it arrives as an limited 8-episode Hulu series. Seemingly too late, and yet strangely right on schedule.

We'll never know the kind of movie the original incarnation could have been if it came out as John Green fandom was taking off, but it's hard to imagine it being very good. It feels like the material desperately needed this time, distance and breathing room so everyone could step back and assess our culture through the rearview mirror. Now, with the proper delivery, the entire series becomes a clever, meta commentary on what that movie was supposed to be and how many of its ideas can be flipped on its head a decade-plus later.

By setting the series in the mid-2000's time period during which the book was published, Schwartz does the unthinkable in invoking nostalgia for a period and its music we haven't yet been tested in harboring nostalgia for. It's his finest hour, or rather eight, as he follows in the footsteps of Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas by abandoning the traditional network model for Hulu earlier this year, to astonishing creative results. But if FOX trying to squeeze every last bit of juice it could out of The O.C. led to its early demise, the lasting legacy Schwartz's show left was its music. The mid aughts were kind of a last gasp for defining periods in music pre-smart phone, making the indie rock explosion so prominently showcased on that show ripe for reappreciation here.

That sound, an audio snapshot of the time, is something relived by these characters and us, with Schwartz pulling off the impossible in making Green's material seem cool, at its best giving off Stand By Me coming-of-age vibes. Subverting expectations, it invests nearly every supporting character with as much depth as its co-leads, while introducing us to young talents you can actually bank on becoming huge stars off the strength of their performances. A trip into the past well worth taking, it intelligently balances humor with an emotionally crippling tragedy, making for the rare adaptation that lacks the baggage and one-dimensional stereotypes populating this genre.

It's 2005 and nerdy, introspective teen Miles Halter (Charlie Plummer) is told by his parents that he's leaving his Orlando, Florida public school to attend Culver Creek Academy, a progressive private boarding school in Alabama that more closely resembles a sleepaway camp. While his father attended years ago, Miles isn't nearly as interested in school as he is last words. Famous people's last words, to be exact. It may be a strange, morbid obsession, but it does command the attention of his new roomate, Chip "The Colonel" Martin (Denny Love), who ironically nicknames him "Pudge," and the free-spirited, enigmatic Alaska Young (Kristine Froseth), whom Miles immediately falls for at first glance.

Along with Alaska and The Colonel's friend Takumi (Jay Lee), Miles is soon entrenched in the their long-standing feud with the "Weekday Warriors," a group of wealthy students they frequently pull pranks on. All this occurs while trying to avoid capture by the academy's strict, mustachioed headmaster, Mr. Starnes (Timothy Simons), aka "The Eagle," and taking in the philosophical insight of their ailing religion teacher, Mr. Hyde (Ron Cephas Jones). But it isn't all fun and games, as the days dwindle down and build to an accident that will forever alter who everyone grows to become.

The show lulls you into thinking it will be all about Miles' journey into young adulthood (i.e. William Miller in Almost Famous), as seen through his eyes as the awkward narrator. And it is at least partially that, but not to the extent you may have imagined, as that kind of one-dimensional storytelling approach doesn't really fly anymore, making for one of the many ways the series becomes the unlikeliest adaptation that would have spawned from it a decade ago. We get a lot of time with these characters and the rather originally unusual school setting inspired from an actual boarding academy Green attended in his youth. It works really well, simultaneously recalling high school and summer camp movies and helping to create a hazy nostalgia that runs pretty deep throughout.

The Colonel, named as such by Alaska due to his strategic, militaristic planning of pranks and schemes, serves as Miles' introduction into this world and it's a testament to the writing that there's an even more compelling backstory as to how he arrived at Culver than our narrator, whom he eventually draws out of his shell. The endlessly charismatic and dryly hilarious Denny Love outright steals the show in playing a character who doesn't easily suffer fools and isn't about to let his newest roomate become one, operating under a strict moral code, into which we get more insight with each episode.

There's a deep-seeded reason accounting for The Colonel's need to act as he does, but the writers are smart enough not to shove that explanation down our throats and instead let the talented actor show it, as we're never quite sure what will next set him off on one of his sarcastically truthful rants. And Miles, played with figgiting, befuddled excellence by Plummer, finds himself on the receiving end of many of them. If it seems insulting to only refer to Alaska as the object of Miles' obsession, or feel we should be past that tired trope, you'd be happy to know that Schwartz and the writers agree. Frequently going out of their way to slap him back into reality, they refuse to let him or us view her as any less than a completely messy and complicated character.

It helps that an Kristine Froseth is a revelation in the role, calling upon an entire spectrum of emotions to make Alaska at once disloyal and completely trustworthy, both abrasive and sweet, and a drinking, smoking literary-quoting narcissist on a path toward self-destruction, perhaps unintentionally taking her friends down with her.

To lift a phrase from the time, Alaska isn't a "Manic Pixie Dream Girl," whose entire existence is predicated on the shy, over-eager Miles winning her over, since, well, she's too challenging a personality for something like that, rarely knowing who she is herself. When viewers get Alaska alone (such as in one memorable local college excursion), she's so overcome by insecurity that merely functioning as a normal human being becomes difficult. Frequently, she can't, and yet, through all this, Froseth manages to outwardly maintain this girl's confident, likable facade throughout, frustrating everyone within her radius. Luckily for viewers, embracing this mercurial character isn't a prerequisite since we fully understand what she much she means to those who do.

The adults and other supporting characters are similarly drawn with depth and care, given time to their stories that couldn't have been explored in a 120-minute film version. So good in his Emmy-winning This is Us guest turn, Ron Cephas Jones does equally affecting work here as Culver's wise religious instructor, Mr. Hyde, another potentially contentious role that could have easily been a cliché in the hands of a lesser performer or writers. The performance sneaks up on you, culminating in a Thanksgiving episode that lays his full history on the table, giving Jones an hour to flesh this person out, and making all the surrounding characters that much richer for it.

The other faculty member, Timothy Simons' The Eagle, spends a lot of time playing a colder Rooney to the student Buellers, until the layers slowly start getting peeled back, culminating with his true motivations and fears bubbling to the surface in unexpected ways by series close.

Miles' Russian girlfriend Lara (Sofia Vassilieva), transcends her role as the inevitable third wheel in his Alaska infatuation with an agency and determination that eventually makes her incredibly relatable. The only supporting player arguably given the short end of the stick is Jay Lee's Takumi, who mainly serves as a sounding board for everyone, lacking any real purpose of his own until the big event ocurs. But once it does, his role comes more clearly into focus. Even the Colonel's mom, Dolores (Deneen Tyler), is written and performed intelligently enough that her backstory seems as substantial as just about anything else on screen.

Much of why this story initially draws you in is because the stakes are surprisingly low. It's fun just hanging out with these well drawn characters for six episodes and listening to them Dawson's Creek-speak about literature, philosophy and the meaning of life. And while that very prospect may have other viewers looking for the nearest window to jump out of, there is a clever, self-awareness to all of it that makes it feel more reminiscent of something like Dazed and Confused than the teen shows it's most likely to be compared.

Of course, the real language of the series can be found in its ipod-ready soundtrack, which contains a murderer's row of artists from the mid 2000's such as The Killers, Rilo Kiley, The Postal Service, Modest Mouse, The White Stripes, The Strokes, Spoon, Coldplay, The Hives, Outkast, Jet and Kelly Clarkson. And that's not even including the many stripped-down covers of songs from the era punctuating key moments, with Schwartz and music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas deserving credit for wisely picking their spots in not making any of it feel intrusive or distracting.

Early on, it's given away that we're careening toward a tragic death, and even those unfamiliar with the novel will quickly deduce whose, as we're all but told in the opening minutes. The surprise comes in how it's handled, when all pretense of the fun and comradarie this series is built on prior to episode six is extinguished in a matter of minutes. Taking its place is grief, some mystery, and a closure of sorts for all involved.

Shows in all genres tend to go out of their way to avoid dwelling on the immediate aftermath of a character's death because it's an audience downer, requiring the writers, directors and actors to tonally readjust. The fear of doing that has become so great that showrunners have even pulled out time jumps and flashforwards to exclusively avoid depicting prolonged grief on screen. Looking For Alaska runs toward what other shows avoid by realizing that a major character loss can work as a natural extension to what came before, resulting in a deeper exploration of the remaining ones as they wrestle with its consequences.

Having gotten so much time with these characters as a unit and individually, when the death hits, it really lands, as a full two episodes are spent watching an entire school of students and faculty grieve in wildly different ways. And yet the show still manages to adjust course once more, with a finale that somehow not only provides big laughs, but a genuine sense of finality. There won't be another season because there's literally no more story left to tell, making a limited series template the ideal vehicle in adapting Green's novel. But what couldn't have been anticipated was just how much it would improve upon it.   

Friday, October 25, 2019

Joker



Director: Todd Phillips
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen, Shea Whigham, Bill Camp, Glenn Fleshler, Leigh Gill, Marc Maron, Douglas Hodge, Dante Pereira-Olson
Running Time: 122 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

There's been a lot of discussion lately as to what constitutes a "realistic" take on a comic book or superhero property, if such a decriptor even exists. While great entertainment, the idea that Tim Burton's 1989 Batman was once praised for its dark grittiness seems downright laughable now. Christopher Nolan may have changed game entirely with his Dark Knight Trilogy, stripping away many elements that defined the genre with something more closely resembling a crime drama, but it was really Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning reinterpretation of the Joker as a nihilistic terrorist that left an imprint. Nolan was onto to something big with that approach until Marvel came along, reminding audiences worldwide that they love "fun" superhero movies, as interchangeable and corporately indistinct as they've since become. Soon, a future where every major property would be Nolanized with a healthy dose of realism and nuance fell by the wayside. 

Now, with Joker, comedy director Todd Phillips does what Nolan and everyone before him was either too tentative or flat-out forbidden in going all the way with, delivering a dark psychological drama that doesn't only subvert the form, but flat-out demolishes it. The credits read "Based on DC characters" and, finally, for the first time, we can say, "very loosely." It actually shares more in common with dark psychological dramas like Taxi Driver, The King of Comedy and Requiem For a Dream, channeling the tone, look and content of those films more than any aforementioned Bat project. And Joaquin Phoenix's chilling, disturbing reimagining of this character is a full-fledged introduction, going where so few actors have in really playing the man behind the facepaint, infusing him with a complexity this long limiting genre has frowned upon. The material's depth affords him that chance, as he creates a painfully real depiction of mental illness that would be too difficult to watch if it wasn't so gripping. 

It's 1981 and party clown and sometimes stand-up comedian Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) is living in a dilapidated apartment with his ailing mother, Penny, (Frances Conroy) in Gotham City. With crime and unemployment at a high, the city is also in the midst of a garbage strike and overrun with rats. Even as wealthy businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) vows to bring change with a mayoral bid, the rift between the haves and have nots of Gotham grows larger, with no signs of relief coming anytime soon. That's especially true for the mentally ill and socially awkward Arthur, who suffers from a clinical condition that causes inappropriate, uncontrollable laughing fits. Relying on social services for seven different medications, his luck worsens when, in full clown make-up and costume, he's jumped and beaten in an alley by a group of thugs while hawking electronics.

Implored by his co-workers to take measures insuring his safety on the streets, he discovers the most enjoyment watching "The Murray Franklin Show" with his mother. Both are enamored with its Carson-like host, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), whom Arthur dreams of someday meeting when his stand-up career takes off and he's asked to appear on the program. Things start looking up when he gets some club gigs and starts dating Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a cynical single mother who lives in the same building. But with his fragile mental state, Arthur's always one dangerous incident away from being pushed over the edge. And it's coming, no matter how often his mom tells him to "put on a happy face."

Despite taking place in "Gotham City," let's just call it what it is: late 70's, early 80's New York City. It not only looks and feels like it with the grafitti, garbage and porn shops, but the prevalence of the same socio-political issues as well. It's essentially a period piece, and more discussion should probably be centering around how that informs and even exacerbates the shocking events. And when talking about a mentally ill character, how it pushes him further over the edge when any or all of the few options available to him start to rapidly disappear. The idea of placing Arthur in this setting during that era was a masterstroke by Phillips, greatly heightening the intensity of nearly everything that occurs over the two hour running time.

Rarely does relief come from the feeling of being trapped in a powder keg ready to explode, and for someone like Arthur, it's a living hell. Phillips' and Scott Silver's script nails the idea that back then no one, aside from medical professionals, would recognize something as rarely talked about or acknowledged as mental illness. As a result, the surrounding characters pretty much write him off as merely a creepy "weirdo" no one would even think of considering a danger or threat on his worst day. It's this all too familar underestimation that helps leads to devastating consequences in a tumultuous city ripe for the picking. The setting also gives the movie an incredible out, allowing Arthur's behavior to rise to alarming heights before law enforcement get involved, albeit way late. And based on the time period and circumstances, it's believable, allowing a crucial suspension of disbelief most other films couldn't get away with. This does, and masterfully.  

A noticeably emaciated Phoenix has to walk a tightrope here, conveying a sincerity and almost childlike innocence and curiosity in Arthur when we first meet him. He takes his job seriously and believes he can go places despite the obstacles facing him, until it becomes too much for his emotional faculties to process. His laughing condition (a real life disorder ingeniously incorporated into the character) only magnifies the awkwardness of every already awkward encounter he has. Very few of his relationships are functional. Whether it's with his mom, co-workers, boss or girlfriend. The latter is especially rife with dysfunction, almost immediately sending out warning signs that something's amiss in this dynamic, possibly on both sides.

It's hardly a spoiler to state that once the Sinatra and Chaplin aficionado obtains a weapon for self-defense and gets his first taste of violence, Phoenix is able to take Arthur on a credible trajectory from someone who initially appears as if they couldn't hurt a fly to an unstable vigilante starting to get noticed and drunk with delusions of grandeur. His problems keep piling up, but because so many of Gotham's lesser off inhabitants can closely relate, he may eventually end up getting his time in the spotlight after all. Just like his idol, Murray Franklin. After all, what Arthur always craved most was attention and adulation. Echoing shades of Taxi Driver, he'll eventually get it, just not in the way that he or anyone else would have envisioned. 

Cleverly riffing on former co-star Jerry Lewis' role opposite his in The King of Comedy, De Niro delivers his most memorable supporting turn in years, proving to be a far more engaging presence as the fictitious talk show host than the notoriously guarded actor's been as a real life guest on them. How the media-obsessed Arthur's path eventually crosses with his should seem absurd, and it is, but it also ingeniously highlights the social divide in Gotham, giving this tragic clown a pulpit from which to preach. Police involvement in Arthur's crime spree may be much delayed, but in the midst of such turmoil, it's still easy for him to continue going undetected and unnoticed as a local celebrity, just as as he has his entire life. What occurs in the third act may be extremely violent and disturbing, but the inevitable path was paved for it the entire time.

The only references made to anything related to the Batman canon are passing ones and strategically placed Easter eggs that fans will notice and appreciate without alienating others completely unfamilar with the character or its history. Really, all of that can be thrown out the window since this is about as far removed from that universe as it gets. Even the inclusion of the Wayne family is mainly to further fuel the wealthy disparity crisis ripping apart Gotham. There's also a deeply personal angle to this involving Arthur that's strangely effective, adding a lot of fuel to an already burning fire.

While this isn't some kind of Joker "origin story" and thankfully exists independently from any scenario in which such a term would exist, some audiences will probably still reserve the option to view it as such. Let them, just as long as there's never a sequel to this, and it stands just where it is. There's a thrill in knowing the only goal was to serve this specifically memorable character and story rather than feed a studio machine just waiting to churn out inferior mainstream follow-ups that would only undermine the exceptional work done by Phillips and Phoenix.

Even in a long line of Phoenix performances, this is one for the ages, and as serious and unsettling an exploration of mental illness as you're likely to see on screen. Those in doubt need only look at the controversy surrounding its release and the real fears that some could view an examination of this protagonist's problems as a call-to-arms, and a provocation to commit violence. That it caused such a an uproar speaks to the massively discomforting chord this story strikes, albeit one we've unfortunately gotten all too familiar with. If anything, let Joker stand as a warning against us ever becoming numb to it.

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 psyche, especially considering our knowledge of how things 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 discover how he directly and indirectly impacts Jesse's present quest, it all starts coming together. This makes it easy to further appreciate Plemons' performance opposite Paul, and just how twisted their dynamic became while Jesse was imprisoned, revealing Todd as even more childlike and sociopathic than originally suspected. But 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, before 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, if not for that hint of condescension.  At first, the scene seems almost superfluous 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.