Review – El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie

FILM REVIEWEL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE. With Aaron Paul, Jesse Plemons, Robert Forster, Scott MacArthur, Bryan Cranston. Written and directed by Vince Gilligan. Rated TV-MA for profanity and graphic violence. 124 minutes.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie • Poster“Breaking Bad” aired its series finale six years ago last month, but it really had more like three final episodes, with the show’s waning weeks sneakily providing viewers every endgame imaginable for Bryan Cranston’s chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White. Personally, I like to think of him breathing his last all alone in that snowbound cabin with nothing to watch but “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” on DVD (two copies) while I know plenty of folks who prefer the absurd, robot-machine-gun blaze of glory with which Walter went out rescuing his onetime pupil and seemingly doomed sidekick Jesse Pinkman.

The show’s creator Vince Gilligan was lauded for making “Breaking Bad” one of the precious few popular programs to give fussy fans the closure they were looking for, in part by giving them all the endings they could possibly have ever wanted. Maybe that sense of oversaturation is why I’ve never quite cottoned to “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel series that’s gone back in time to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s on a fictional universe I already feel quite finished with, thanks. Recent, wonderful re-visitations to “Twin Peaks” and “Deadwood” wrapped up shows that had been abruptly canceled without being given the chance of a proper send-off. But did “Breaking Bad” really leave anything left unsaid?

As it turns out, no. But EL CAMINO: A BREAKING BAD MOVIE throws another ending onto the pile all the same. It’s a completely unnecessary and terrifically entertaining exercise in fan service answering questions nobody asked. When we last saw Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman he was (literally) screaming down the highway in a stolen car, having just been sprung from the cage where a bunch of scary Aryan Brotherhood bikers were making him cook meth according to Walter’s secret specs. “El Camino,” named after Jesse’s getaway vehicle, chronicles his attempts to get the heck out of Albuquerque.

It’s an agreeably stripped-down affair, more like an epilogue to the series than a standalone feature of its own. Written and directed by Gilligan, the movie conjures that familiar “Breaking Bad” mojo in which characters are constantly escaping out of a dangerous situation into an alternative that’s infinitely worse. So much of the story relies on reversals and surprises it’s probably only fair for me to say that Jesse’s on the lam and trying to come up with enough cash to buy a new identity and safe passage to Alaska from Robert Forster’s unassumingly sinister vacuum cleaner salesman.

Forster’s once again magnificent in a role that probably reads as ridiculous on the page, his gruff, flatline authority like a brick wall off which Jesse’s jumpy energy bounces in vain. His time in captivity has left Pinkman covered in scars and racked with PTSD, and Paul brings a hollowed-out sadness to the character that’s a far cry from the electric doofus routine he perfected on the program. In flashbacks (which are perhaps over-abundant and filled with star cameos from your favorites) it’s shocking to once again see the light that’s since gone out of his eyes.

“El Camino” has it’s share of white-knuckle set-pieces, and you’d swear at least 20% of the movie is Aaron Paul hunched quivering in the forefront of shots trying hard not to be discovered by folks milling around the back. Some of these situations call to mind Gilligan’s famous writers’ room trick of starting out by sticking the characters in the most impossible scenario they could come up with and then trying to write their way out of it. In fact, there are quite a few spots in the movie where I was expecting the show’s old cliffhanger commercial breaks.

I guess this is all a long way of saying that “El Camino” is often enormous fun to watch even if it’s rather redundant and has no real reason to exist. Cleverly bookended by contrasting shots of Jesse driving down the highway, the film ends on a quiet note of hard-won comfort and the hope that all these talented people will now move on and find new stories to tell.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

I filed this story a few hours before the news broke that the great Robert Forster had passed away at the age of 78. One of those guys who made you smile the moment he walked onscreen, Forster’s warmth and easygoing authenticity had a way of making whatever he was in that much better. He was the sweetest guy I’ve ever interviewed, and what better sendoff to a working actor of over fifty years than to still be stealing scenes on your dying day. He’ll be terribly missed.



Review – Lucy In The Sky

FILM REVIEWLUCY IN THE SKY. Starring Natalie Portman, Jon Hamm, Dan Stevens, Zazie Beetz, Ellen Burstyn. Written by Elliott Di Guiseppi, Brian C. Brown and Noah Hawley. Directed by Noah Hawley. Rated R for language and some sexual content. 124 minutes.

d7skgemwwaa2zdj“All that astronaut dick is making you soft,” says the 87-year-old, Academy Award-winning president of The Actor’s Studio Ellen Burstyn during one of the more dignified moments granted her by LUCY IN THE SKY, which is as puzzlingly terrible and pointless as any movie you’ll see this year.

Prestige television’s golden boy Noah Hawley has made a forehead-smacking mess out of the lurid real-life tale of Lisa Nowak, the former naval flight officer and Space Shuttle Discovery Commander whose attempted kidnapping of a co-worker’s new love interest made headlines back in the aughts because she wore adult diapers during a 900-mile drive to the scene of the crime. It’s one of those weird tabloid tidbits that lodge in a reader’s mind, in part because it’s such a sterling example of NASA ingenuity and mission discipline.

Attempting to inflate this tawdry true crime tale into some sort of metaphysical meditation, Hawley leaves out the diaper detail, which is a shame because the movie’s so full of shit it could’ve used one. Now named Lucy Cola and played by an up-for-anything Natalie Portman, our unhinged space oddity has been re-routed from the real-life astronaut’s Maryland upbringing to a generic “Hee-Haw” American South, with Burstyn as her potty-mouthed granny and Dan Stevens playing Ned Flanders of “The Simpsons” as her ineffectual cuckold husband. But once Lucy gets a glimpse of the cosmos she can’t go home again so easily, finding herself unable to re-adjust back to day-to-day life after seeing beyond the stars.

Hawley attempts to convey her dislocation by mucking with the aspect ratio, the screen’s width undulating sometimes according to Lucy’s moods and other times for no apparent reason at all. I suppose our expanding and contracting field of view is meant to represent how narrow she finds the world after being in the vastness of space, but then why switch to super-wide cinemascope for an establishing shot of a golf course? Like most of the creative decisions behind the film, this one doesn’t seem to have been thought through for more than five minutes.

Lucy can only find her equilibrium by throwing herself into a passionate affair with a co-worker played by Jon Hamm. The man who Tina Fey once described as looking like “a cartoon of a pilot” is almost too perfect for this movie’s louche, 1960s Playboy magazine idea of a hard-drinking, ladykilling space ranger. Hamm hilariously plays him as a cross between Don Draper and Buzz Lightyear, though the movie doesn’t seem to be in on the joke.

He and Portman indulge in lusty, inter-office encounters overloaded with phallic symbolism like launching rockets, their somber sex morosely laden with intonations of mortality. One of the more curious interludes finds a drunken, shirtless Hamm obsessively re-watching footage of the Challenger explosion like a character in Cronenberg’s “Crash,” while an earlier desktop cunnilingus scene is awkwardly intercut with a helmet breach that almost drowns Lucy in a training accident. (Both events appear to get her off.)

Probably presuming that she’d found her own “I, Tonya,” Portman goes all in on this nonsense with great gusto and a Holly Hunter honk. (She makes “spayce” into a two-syllable word.) I know I’m in the minority here but I love it when Portman lays on a big, broad accent like in “Jackie” or “Vox Lux.” She’s typically such a tight, over-controlled performer that wacky voices seem to liberate her entire physicality. It’s fun to watch her fling herself around, “y’all”-ing it up in sleeveless crop tops and denim skirts, even though her performance makes it impossible to buy for a second that Lucy would have a master’s degree in aeronautical engineering.

It’s also impossible not to wonder what the hell Hawley was trying to get at here, overloading every scene with show-offy camera tricks and heavy-handed intonations of meaningfulness that don’t actually seem to mean anything at all. I’ve enjoyed some of the Coen brothers cosplay on his TV adaptation of “Fargo,” while having reservations that Hawley entirely understands the film from which he’s working. “Lucy in the Sky” is a spectacularly incoherent text, with the general takeaways being that women are far too fragile to go to outer “spayce,” and that sex with Jon Hamm is so amazing it’s worth committing multiple felonies in order to try and keep having it. At least I believe the second part.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 1 out of 5.Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.




Review – Mary

FILM REVIEWMARY. With Gary Oldman, Emily Mortimer, Jennifer Esposito, Stefanie Scott, Chloe Perrin. Anthony Jaswinski. Written by Directed by Michael Goi. Rated R for some terror, violence, and language. 84 minutes.

maryMARY, despite its pedigree, is a conventional horror film crossed with a dysfunctional family drama of a kind we’ve seen many times. What makes it stand out are its cast including Oscar winner Gary Oldman, along with Emily Mortimer, and Jennifer Esposito. Why these actors chose this project is a discussion best left between them and their agents. Beyond the cast, what probably earned the green light for this movie was that director Michael Goi was nominated for primetime Emmys for his work on “American Horror Story” and “Glee,” plus a presumably tight budget given that the film consists primarily of two locations and was shot in and off the coast of Alabama.

The story begins with a detective (Esposito) questioning the survivor (Mortimer) of an explosion at sea. We the cut back-and-forth between extended flashbacks and the detective’s skepticism over her increasingly bizarre story. It seems that David (Oldman) has decided to set out on his own rather than work on someone else’s boat, having sunk the family’s money in a refurbished wreck he dubs Mary, after their younger daughter (Chloe Perrin). We get scenes between husband and wife about their marriage and his making the purchase without any discussion.

Soon, the family (including a teenage daughter played by Stefanie Scott) and crew are at sea, and strange things begin to happen. The film dutifully hits the expected beats and jump scares – mother finds Mary drawing a mysterious dark figure, one of the crew members (Owen Teague) turns unexpectedly violent, the family starts turning on each other as they discover that the ship is cursed – all of this leading to a “surprise” ending that should only surprise you if you’ve never seen a horror movie.

That’s the problem. The script, which is credited to Anthony Jaswinski (who wrote the tight shark tale “The Shallows”) is so formulaic that even with the story cutting between the police station and the flashbacks to the boat, it isn’t hard to connect the dots. That doesn’t make it a bad film, but it does make it a very basic horror entry. It’s the difference between having a fancy meal or generic fast food. This is very much the latter.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Joker

FILM REVIEWJOKERWith Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz, Frances Conroy, Brett Cullen. Written by Todd Phillips & Scott Silver. Directed by Todd Phillips. Rated R for strong bloody violence, disturbing behavior, language and brief sexual images. 121 minutes.

joker_ver3One of the most anticipated films of the year, JOKER is likely to divide moviegoers and critics alike. It may well develop a strong cult following, but for many it will come across as overwrought and disappointing. In spite of an intense performance by Joaquin Phoenix, the movie can’t overcome director/co-writer Todd Phillips’ character arc for him where the protagonist turning into a homicidal sociopath is what passes for a satisfying ending.

The movie is set in the “Batman” universe but focuses on Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) who works as a party clown for hire and aspires to be a comedian. The location is Gotham City and the time is unclear but from various cues seems to be sometime in the ‘70s or ‘80s. For three-quarters of the film’s two-hour running time we watch Fleck be abused and humiliated. Spinning a sign in front of a store, teens steal the sign, beat him with it, and then savagely attack him. The result is his boss telling him he must produce the sign, or it will be docked from his pay.

His mother (Frances Conroy), is a doddering old woman who keeps writing to businessman Thomas Wayne (Brett Cullen) asking for help. One of the few things brightening their bitter lives is Murray Franklin’s (Robert DeNiro) TV talk show. Fleck dreams of performing on Franklin’s show and gets his “break” in as cruel a manner as possible. Fleck also becomes attached to Sophie (Zazie Beetz), a single mom who lives down the hall. There are a number of twists in the story – none to be revealed here – that brings us to the final half hour where Fleck, having hit bottom, assumes the identity of the Joker.

The film has a number of problems. Its depiction of Gotham City is beyond bleak. Except for Sophie and the children we see (including future Batman Bruce Wayne played by Dante Pereira-Olson), everyone is evil or indifferent. There are two scenes where total strangers brutally attack Fleck, simply because they can. The city is in the midst of a garbage strike, so piles of refuse – and the rats it attracts – are the constant background. And Thomas Wayne, who is running for mayor, declares that those who do not help themselves are “clowns.”

As a psychological study of watching Fleck become so destroyed that it causes him to go mad, the film is of interest, but ultimately it makes Fleck the hero of the story by not providing any sympathetic viewpoint but his. It will be noted that the movie owes something to two DeNiro movies by director Martin Scorsese, “Taxi Driver” and “The King of Comedy.” Phoenix’s Fleck is kin to the De Niro characters in both films, both the borderline psychotic Travis Bickle of the former and the obsessive aspiring comedian Rupert Pupkin of the latter.

Director Phillips, best known for the inane “Hangover” movies, wants to show he can be serious and profound, but has bitten off more than he can chew here. His “Joker” is slow and ponderous, with moments that will work for some but not enough win over the general audience. If the intent is to pit Phoenix’s Joker against a newly cast Batman, this may serve as an overlong prologue. On its own, though, “Joker” is a disappointing gag that falls flat.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Running With The Devil

FILM REVIEWRUNNING WITH THE DEVIL. With Nicolas Cage, Laurence Fishburne, Leslie Bibb, Adam Goldberg, Barry Pepper. Written and directed by Jason Cabell. Rated R for violence and disturbing images, drug use, strong sexual content and language. 100 minutes.

running_with_the_devil_xlgIt’s not often you get to watch an actor out-hambone Nicolas Cage, but writer-director Jason Cabell’s RUNNING WITH THE DEVIL allows a deliriously twitchy Laurence Fishburne to go way over the top as a double-dealing wannabe drug kingpin with a sweaty, full-tilt brio that recalls his swaggering breakthrough performance in Abel Ferrara’s “King of New York.” Cutting his cartel stash to side-hustle a toxic cocktail of cocaine, fentanyl and heroin, this perpetually gacked, hooker-happy horndog is always trying to stay one step ahead of his employers, the feds and his ex-wife’s child support lawyers. As long as the movie sticks with Fishburne it’s a blast.

Unfortunately, Cabell has bigger ambitions. “Running With The Devil” aims to be a sweeping epic covering all facets and fallout of the cocaine trade, rather unconvincingly depicting interactions with peasants, police and politicians. When a Canadian druglord (played as a corporate shark in a suit by the always amusing Barry Pepper) discovers that his shipments are being tampered with, he calls an old partner out of semi-retirement to track and test the packages at every stop along the way from Colombia to Vancouver.

That partner happens to be a taciturn pizza chef played by Nicolas Cage with splendid sideburns and 1970s sitcom dad glasses, and a good chunk of the movie’s running time is given over to him threateningly inspecting bags of blow in various locales. There’s a pretty good joke in the disconnect between Cage’s doofus demeanor and his lethal reflexes, but it’s not enough to carry off the dry procedural nature of these sequences. Besides, we already know that the coke is being cut in Seattle and everything’s more interesting there.

Fishburne ropes a dumbbell buddy (an agreeably against-type Adam Goldberg) into his scheme, arousing the attention of a possibly psychotic DEA agent (Leslie Bibb) who just lost her sister to an overdose. Yes, this time it’s personal. I’m not sure if Bibb’s flat, laissez-faire line readings are a deliberate stylistic choice or just ordinary incompetence, but either way the performance brings a refreshingly counter-intuitive approach to police brutality.

“Running With The Devil” tries some narrative trickery and fake-out twists in its later reels, to ends more frustrating than entertaining. The further it gets away from Fishburne’s manic energy on the grungy Seattle streets the more rote the picture becomes. Meanwhile, as the merchandise slowly makes its way north you can’t help but wonder if there isn’t a more efficient way to traffic this stuff. (Maybe this is why we haven’t heard of too many Canuck drug lords?)

Cabell’s onscreen title cards announcing the increasing price of the product along its journey might leave you doing the math in your head, wondering what exactly the margins are on such an expensive operation. (Fishburne was in “The Mule.” Doesn’t he know you can just hire Clint Eastwood to drive your dope around?) Any credibility is off the cliff for good when the delivery hinges upon sending two out-of-shape guys in their 50s on a dangerous mountaineering trek through the snow. Distribution plans like this could single-handedly solve the drug problem.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 2 out of 5.Over the past 20 years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.

Review – Downton Abbey

FILM REVIEWDOWNTON ABBEYWith Michelle Dockery, Matthew Goode, Tuppence Middleton, Maggie Smith, Imelda Staunton. Written by Julian Fellowes. Directed by Michael Engler. Rated PG for thematic elements, some suggestive material, and language. 122 minutes.

downton_abbey_ver5People going to see DOWNTON ABBEY in theaters will fall into one of two categories: those who are devotees of the British television series which ran from 2010 to 2015 and engaged American viewers on PBS, and those who are coming into the movie knowing nothing about this world. Some of the latter will be dragged along by their significant others or, like this reviewer, are there because it’s one of this week’s major releases.

So if you find yourself encountering the Crawley family (and their relatives and servants) for the first time, here’s the good news: you may not be moved to track down the 52 episodes of the series, but the movie is a pleasant and entertaining story in the “Upstairs, Downstairs” mold. It is not difficult to follow for those encountering these characters for the first time. Others will have to judge how it plays to the show’s fans, but indications are that it does, and quite well.

To make the movie self-contained, writer Julian Fellowes, creator of the series, has set up a story where the King and Queen (Simon Jones, Geraldine James) will be staying overnight at the storied estate. This sets up a number of situations, such as Violet (series regular Maggie Smith) having to confront her cousin Maud (Imelda Staunton), who is in the Queen’s service, over the latter’s plans to leave her own properties to her companion rather than keeping it in the family.

For the servants, there’s the realization that the royal staff plans on taking over the household and considers those at Downton Abbey to be impediments to be brushed aside. The family had asked Mr. Carson (Jim Carter), the retired head butler, to return to service for this auspicious occasion. Now Mr. Bakewell (David Haig), leading the royal team, makes it clear that Carson and the other servants are deemed unworthy of serving the King and Queen.

There are numerous storylines going on which are easy enough to follow, but may especially resonate for those with long ties to the characters. One can see how this would appeal to those viewers fascinated with the British class system, where everyone knew their place, and how someone could take pride in being a servant, as with Mr. Molesley (Kevin Doyle), who can’t quite control himself when he finds himself in the presence of the royals.

A major attraction is Highclere Castle in Hampshire, England, which serves as the fictional title estate. Living a life of privilege in such surroundings is an alluring fantasy, even for those of us who likely would not be polished enough to, well, be hired to polish the silverware. It’s not clear if this is a one-off or if future films are planned, but there is a scene near the end where Violet anoints one of the family as the person who will keep the family and its household going into the future, while acknowledging that times inevitably change.

“Downton Abbey” is more about servicing fans of the TV series than in creating a work that stands on its own, but if you find yourself in the audience for it, it is an engaging and amiable look back at a slice of British life from a century ago.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.

Review – Auggie

FILM REVIEWAUGGIEWith Richard Kind, Christen Harper, Susan Blackwell, Simone Policano, Larisa Oleynik. Written by Matt Kane, Marc Underhill. Directed by Matt Kane. Not rated. 81 minutes.

auggie_ver2_xlgFelix Greystone (Richard Kind) is a middle-aged architect with a wife (Susan Blackwell) and adult daughter (Simone Policano). At the start of AUGGIE, he is being pushed into retirement. As a going-away present he receives a special pair of glasses which augments his perception of the real world by providing him with a “companion” who is invisible to everyone but him. This The film plays like a “Twilight Zone” episode about having to deal with the notion that one is no longer necessary to anyone else.

At first, Felix is skeptical about the glasses, especially when he sees someone seemingly talking to herself. Eventually he tries them on and a beautiful young woman (Christen Harper) appears, who is friendly, supportive, and attuned to Felix’s emotional needs. The fact that she’s a computer construct drawn from his own thoughts and memories falls by the wayside as Felix finds that Auggie, as she is called, fills the hole in his life left after he’s lost his job, his wife is finding new fulfillment in her work, and his work as a parent is done.

There’s a narrative trope of troubled men meeting a lovable pixie of a woman who seem to fulfill their desires and salve their bruised egos. “Auggie” might seem to be going in that direction but what it’s really doing is examining why that notion is so powerful and why men are susceptible to it. Rather than being a sexist fantasy with the woman as a magical creature with no other role except to solve the male protagonist’s problems, the story is about why it has such a powerful allure for men who are broken in one way or another.

Actor/writer Matt Kane makes his feature directing debut here, and he was fortunate to get character actor Richard Kind to take the lead. With his doughy face and hangdog look, Kind, perhaps best known for his comic TV roles (and as the voice of “Bing Bong” in Pixar’s “Inside Out”), is the perfect Everyman. Felix finds himself falling for imaginary Auggie, even buying add-ons that will allow him to experience physical as well as emotional stimulation. He doesn’t mean to be unfaithful, but he finds himself lonely and hurting and this fantasy woman is ready to fulfill his every need. Kind shows us how Felix is drawn deeper and deeper into a “relationship” that really only exists in his own mind.

Christen Harper’s Auggie is the perfect complement to Kind, turning into the dream companion who seduces him while remaining an innocent ideal. It’s a contradiction in terms that, indeed, is the whole point of the story. Auggie can only be a fantasy, even if turns out that there’s a real-life counterpart to her.

Kane’s script (with Marc Underhill) leads to a payoff that may seem abrupt, but which is, on reflection, an honest conclusion to the story. “Auggie” answers the age-old plaint of “what do women want?” with the question “what do men want?” And then leaves that issue for the viewer to answer.•••

North Shore Movies has given this film a score of 3 out of 5.Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His latest novel is Father of the Bride of Frankenstein. He is the 2018 recipient of the Skylark Award given by the New England Science Fiction Association. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.