Go Rent Better Call Saul

April 3rd, 2015

You’re lucky; you can binge watch it instead of waiting for each episode like I did!

Jonathan Banks plays Mike Ehrmantraut to Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman (Jimmy McGill).

Jonathan Banks plays Mike Ehrmantraut to Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman (Jimmy McGill) in Better Call Saul.

 

Anyone else watching Better Call Saul?

The spinoff from Breaking Bad is sort of a prequel to all the hullabaloo surrounding Walter White and his shenanigans as he broke from being good to being very, very bad. Except he’s not in this at all.

Yet.

But several of the people Walter associated with in Breaking Bad are here, depicted several years earlier. First up, there’s Saul Goodman, obviously, the ne’er do well lawyer. Bob Odenkirk plays Saul, but he is now called Jimmy. Or, he was called Jimmy; we’re dealing with the past here.

We get a quick glimpse of him in present day (hint: remember back in “Bad” when he went on the lam and said something like, “best-case scenario, I’m managing a Cinnabon in Omaha?”). But then the first season is taken up with his back story. And it is riveting television. We even get a hint as to how he got his new moniker, Saul Goodman.

Vince Gilligan, the creator of both shows employs his old wonderful cinematography to wonderful affect. The long, slow pans, the color palette, the dead space between dialog, all of these and more make for great, iconic storytelling.

Michael McKean

Michael McKean

I want to say that if you miss Breaking Bad, watch this show. So I’m going to. If you miss Breaking Bad, watch this show. It’s definitely not as dark, certainly not as evil. And there’s a lot more fun mixed in with the drama too.

Jonathan Banks reprises his role as Mike  — everyone’s favorite stoic, old, disgraced cop. His past is poignant, deep and serves as a duel narrative throughout this first season. I can’t get enough of the guy.

There is at least one drug dealer we remember from earlier (or, uh, later) and rumors abound as to cameos by several other Breaking Bad figures. Odenkirk was a bit cagey about who’d show up — but what else would you expect from “Saul,” telling CinemaBlend:

“Here’s what you need to know: the writers have a board in the writing room, and it has all the characters from Breaking Bad on it. Like, little characters who just walked through or were referenced. So if you go into that world, I think you’ll see four or five of them. I don’t have the number in my head, but you’ll see more, or hear about more. Sometimes it’s just a reference.”

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn

Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn

New characters show up as well. Michael McKean is Saul (or Jimmy’s) brother. He isn’t quite part of society, but he used to be. It’s a far cry from his days as Lenny on Laverne & Shirley, or even his rocker in Spinal Tap.

Rhea Seehorn is fantastic as Saul’s friend Kim. You may remember her from the short-lived Whitney, but she’s been in lots of other things too. Smoldering is the best adjective for her, but it’s a smart, suffering, creative smoldering.

There’s a ton to see and yes, even feel in the first ten episodes. Surely they will be re-shown and available for more viewing after the season finale this Monday. It’s already been renewed for a second season and I just can’t wait.

Do yourself a favor and binge watch this show. It’s addictive as its meth-fueled predecessor, or, uh, successor.

Go Rent Hector and the Search for Happiness

March 16th, 2015

Don’t listen to what others say; this is a funny and meaningful movie.

hector-and-the-search-for-happiness

Simon Pegg stars in the comedy/drama Hector and the Search for Happiness.

 

I think I have failed you, dear reader. And for that, I apologize. In my “best of” movie list for 2014, I left out a film I hadn’t seen yet. Granted, it was released in a very limited run — later in the year and didn’t really hit the DVD/rental market until a few months into this new year — but still, I could’ve done better.

If you haven’t guessed by the title of this blog, I’m referring, of course, to The Lego Movie. No, just kidding. Though I did wait until 2015 to see that particular film, I encourage you to go rent Hector and the Search for Happiness.

The plot line is pretty easy to follow. A London psychiatrist, played by the normally quirky British actor Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dean, Run Fatboy Run) counsels patients in his successful practice, but doesn’t truly know what it means to be happy. Even though he has a lovely girlfriend (played by Gone Girl’s Rosamund Pike), a fabulous home and lives in an amazing city, Hector just isn’t feeling — well — happy.

So instead of taking antidepressants or just suffering in quiet desperation, he makes the unlikely choice of abandoning his normal life indefinitely and flying around the world, researching what makes people happy. His plan is to but it in a book so it might help others.

Do your best to ignore the fetid 35% score from the Rotten Tomatoes movie review website. I normally think “Tomatoes” is a pretty good indicator of a film’s worth. Even though they take an aggregate score of all the movie reviewers out there — in this particular case — all the movie reviewers out there are wrong.

I dare you to watch this movie and not feel good about yourself afterward. My wife and I felt great after watching it. We even had a conversation as the credits were rolling about the times in our own lives when we were happy. A movie that stimulates thought and discussion is worth far more than a lousy 35%. But wait, the audience score on that same website almost doubles to a modest 60% of viewers enjoying the movie.

Aha! Maybe the journalists writing the reviews aren’t happy! Maybe their own narratives of a collapsing industry keep them from feeling truly fulfilled. I should know, right? Been there, done that.

Hector and the Search for Happiness

Simon Pegg and Rosamund Pike.

The movie, a comedy/drama, is based on a novel by the same name. Written by Francois Lelord, the professional book reviews are equally as bad as the films. Publishers Weekly writes, “it is far less a novel than a maudlin self-help guide that substitutes pat aphorisms for development.”

I think the same issues plaguing the movie reviewers were badgering the folks over at Publisher’s Weekly. Yes, they too have been experiencing the travails facing all journalists; their company being bought and sold, job losses, etc.

A while back, The New York Times wrote, “Like the industry it covers, Publishers Weekly has suffered from a downturn in the retail economy.”

And like with Rotten Tomatoes, actual real-life readers of the novel gave the book far more gracious scores. Amazon customer reviewers gave it pretty close to four out of five stars.

It’s important to note here that I may wrong. I know, I know, that’s not possible, right?! My hypothesis, though, is that if there’s such a discrepancy between professional reviewers of the book/film and the readers/audience, then something must be amiss somewhere. Maybe it’s not the collapsing industry surrounding journalists that’s keeping them from being happy. But maybe it is.

Hector is a wonderful, fun, full-spirited movie with enough to keep you watching and great little twists that you rarely see coming. Plus — and I can’t stress this enough — the cinematography is absolutely lovely.

My assessment that journalists may be too jaded to appreciate this movie falls flat on its face, though, when I read the following review. The Chicago Sun-Times has experienced some of the worst of what journalism has been dealing with and yet, their reviewer, Bill Zwecker, had this to say about the movie. “This film is a winner. It will not only entertain you, but also make you think about what it takes to bring happiness into your own life.”

I’m sorry that I left Hector and the Search for Happiness off My Favorite Films of 2014 list. My excuse is I don’t get paid to do this; I just love movies and love sharing my thoughts about them. It’s part of what makes me happy, and has for years.

Hector search for HappinessBut shhhh, don’t tell anyone. I’m going to sneak down a few blogs below and surreptitiously add this movie onto my list somewhere, in case future readers stumble through Google, looking for a good weekend rental.

We all make mistakes. Hector sure did. But it makes me happy that I can correct this minor one.

The Big Lebowski vs. Charles Bukowski

March 2nd, 2015

Perhaps you thought Bukowski and Lebowski were the same person.

    Jeff Bridges, left, played the title role in The Big Lebowski. Charles Bukowski, right, played the role of Charles Bukowski.

Jeff Bridges, left, played the title role in The Big Lebowski. Charles Bukowski, right, played the role of Charles Bukowski.

I just want to say at the outset, that I’m not always as smart as I like to think I am. This surely comes as a shock to virtually no one, not the least of whom me. Heck, I don’t even know if I constructed that previous sentence smartly.

But what I do know is that up until today — the beginning of March, 2015 — I confused Charles Bukowski with The Big Lebowski.

Since I’m both a writer and an avid movie fan, my ignorance is even more ridiculous.

You probably all know Charles Bukowski was a German poet and novelist who made Los Angeles his second home. He wasn’t fictional. Time magazine called him “a laureate of American lowlife.”

The Big Lebowski was a Coen Brothers film about a guy who also lived in Los Angeles. Jeff Bridges played the title character, a downtrodden man whom Bukowski may have written about, if he weren’t fictional already.

Maybe you can forgive my confusion. Probably not though.

I have heard references to both Lebowski and Bukowski for many years. I saw the movie in 1998, four years after Bukowski died of leukemia. I just mixed the two up in my brain and apparently wasn’t too curious about by why people were so reverent about the Jeff Bridges character. Obviously they were referring to Bukowski not Lebowski.

Both were cult heroes. Both had alternative lifestyles. Both lived in LA. But there’s one more thing. They both kind of/sort of looked alike.

Granted, that’s no excuse for me being a moron. But I’ll bet I’m not the only one. I just found out there’s a Big Bukowski Facebook page. It mashes the two up. Apparently the similarity isn’t lost on others. But whereas I confused them unintentionally, others riff on the likenesses. There’s even a rapper named Larry David Flow who writes, “Big Lebowski and Charles Bukowski are the reasons I’m not angry when you call me Kowalski.”

I’m trying to do more research on their similarities, but my browser feels a bit let down by me too. It has seemingly joined their downtrodden masses and refuses to follow my search requests.

“Rodney,” it appears to ask, “did you really think all those cultural references over the years were to the Jeff Bridges’ Lebowski role and that there wasn’t someone else they were mentioning?”

My browser is right. I shouldn’t be allowed to continue searching this nonsense, hoping that others were as confused as me. So in lieu of proof, I offer up this very tenuous possibility.

Other people fall into one of three camps:

⚫ Those who are fully aware of two separate individuals, Lebowski and Bukowski.
⚫ Those who have never heard of Bukowski, Lebowski or both.
⚫ Those like me who had them confused.

Here is a pie chart, better illustrating my point.

Bukowski:Lebowski pie chart

My Favorite Films of 2014

February 20th, 2015

If I were an Academy voter, these would qualify as the year’s best movies.

Maybe it’s just my imagination (game), but it seems like more movies made news this year than in most previous years. It might just be the zaniness surrounding The Interview or the controversies about American Sniper that grabbed a lot of the headlines recently. But I think it’s because so many of the notable films were based on real-life people or events.

Movies like Pride, Wild, The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, American Sniper, Unbroken, Selma, Foxcatcher, Big Eyes, Million Dollar Arm, Monuments Men, Rosewater, etc. were all stories based to a greater or lesser degree on reality.

But other movies were newsworthy as well, even given their fictitious nature. Boyhood was revolutionary since it took director Richard Linklater 12 years to film. We got to witness Ethan Hawke grow up and come of age. Just kidding. The best part about the film was watching seven-year-old Ellar Coltrane grow up to become a young man. It was a wonderful time lapse. The director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, also grew up on camera and admitted watching the film was pretty painful.

Recalling the experience with Dazed Magazine, the younger Linklater said about watching the movie,  “Oh my gosh, I look terrible. I can’t believe this. Why was I ever filmed?!”

The film fell sort of flat for me; the gimmick was more impressive than the movie itself. But it was still noteworthy nevertheless.

I enjoyed The Interview maybe more than I would have, had there not been so much controversy surrounding it. The jokes, as my daughter Skye — who has studied lots of drama — pointed out, mostly all landed. It would be a fun weekend rental if you’re into Seth Rogen’s humor (which I totally am, dude).

Most everyone I spoke with liked Birdman. It’s star, Michael Keaton, has been all over the news media. I hate to admit it, but the film really did nothing for me. I’m pretty good with arty, independent films. This one just felt too arty, too independent. They filmed it to look like it was shot all in just a few takes. That actually took me out of the narrative and made me concentrate more on the technical aspects. I don’t know; none of the characters resonated with me, so maybe that’s why I wasn’t a fan.

American Sniper surprised me. I went in expecting to hate the movie, given all the publicity surrounding it. But lo and behold, there was a subtle anti-war message. And taken on it’s own — just a war movie, not a political statement — it was pretty decent. Although there was one little element that, like in Birdman, took me totally out of the narrative flow and made me irrationally mad.

This won’t spoil the movie for you, but Bradley Cooper becomes a father. What may spoil the movie for you is that he becomes a father to perhaps the fakest looking baby in the history of modern movies. Seriously, the inanimate actress has her own Twitter handle, @TheFakeBaby.

Go to Google and type in “fake ba” and up pops “fake baby american sniper.” Apparently both of the real babies scheduled for that day didn’t work out, so Clint Eastwood swapped in a plastic one. It could’ve been worse; he could’ve had Bradley Cooper talking to an empty chair.

Okay, enough about movie news. Let’s get to the list.

Which movie is my favorite film from 2014? It’s a tough call this year. It comes down to two fantastic movies, both of which are based in Britain, are inspired by real events and involve gay or lesbian characters.

The movies are Pride and The Imitation Game.

 

Pride

Pride takes place in the mid 1980s, centering around a group of British lesbian and gay activists who pledge their financial support to the striking coal miners in Wales. Whether or not the miners want their help is the subject of controversy. The miners and the “Lesbians & Gays (who) Support The Miners” both were oppressed by society and the Thatcher government. But shared experiences and shared goals don’t necessarily make for harmonious relationships.

It’s funny, socially relevant, heart-breaking and pretty close to being a perfect film. Plus, it features one of my favorite actors of all time, Bill Nighy. I wrote a piece last year titled simply Go See Pride. On that, alone, I guess that makes the movie my favorite film of the year.

 

The Imitation Game

The Imitation Game is a great true-to-life story about the brilliant man who helped break the impenetrable Nazi code during World War II. Some estimates say it helped shorten the war by two years. A decade later he was convicted for being gay and underwent chemical castration.

It was a moving portrayal, jumping back and forth across the man’s lifetime, expertly played by Benedict Cumberbatch. Even though the film plays a bit loose with the facts, the machine he helped build was very real. It is one of the forerunners of the modern day computer.

Keira Knightly again showed why she’s A-list talent. I’m glad she was nominated for a Supporting Actress Oscar.

These next eight films round out my Top Ten list of favorite films from 2014.

 

StillAlice

Julianne Moore plays a Columbia University professor who suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in Still Alice. It’s a fantastic movie about a devastating illness.  She’s my clear favorite to win Best Actress. Her slow slide into oblivion is riveting. You feel so deeply for her. When she gives a lecture and suddenly gets completely lost, it’s heartbreaking. Even though that hasn’t happened to me — per se — having stood at podiums before, it was extremely nerve wracking to watch. I found myself empathizing with her many times.

And if you wrote off Kristen Stewart after all the Twilight films, pencil her name back in. Even though she wasn’t nominated for Best Supporting Actress, she did a fantastic job. As did Alec Baldwin, Moore’s sometimes distracted husband.

 

A Fault In Our Stars

Like with Pride, I also wrote a piece last year where I told readers to go see The Fault In Our Stars. I think The Academy must not like giving certain movies their proper respect. The Fault In Our Stars may be viewed by some as a young adult movie or a typical teen tear-jerker, ala Nicholas Sparks. I’ll admit that maybe I liked it so much because I had cancer too. But generally I’m pretty critical of films that tackle the Big C if they don’t do it authentically and with honest emotion. One of the characters even gives a nod to this, saying sometimes cancer struggles portrayed in the media are cliche. This film hit all the right notes and followed the book faithfully.

The two young stars, Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, also teamed up in a pretty lackluster Divergent. But in this movie, they were absolutely splendid. Laura Dern could’ve been nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the beleaguered mother in this movie. But instead, she was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role as the beleaguered mother in my next favorite film of 2014.

 

Wild

Wild, starring Reese Witherspoon, was a fantastic journey. For the majority of the movie, she’s all by herself hiking the 1,100 mile Pacific Crest Trail. Though the director uses a large number of flashbacks to explain why and how she’s here, it still feels like she’s mostly alone.

In those flashbacks, Laura Dern plays her loving mother who deals with all manner of problems and has become the perfect role model for dealing with adversity. Witherspoon’s character also deals with adversity, including an ominous encounter with another backwoods trekker. Come on though, it was Skinny Pete from Breaking Bad; we all knew he was a no-goodnik.

I think the film is best viewed through your own personal lens. Remember the last time you took on a monumental quest; remember the last time you faced something alone. That sort of thing. It was quite powerful and yes, uplifting and triumphant.

Those first five films were really my top tier movies for 2014. These next ones that round out my Top Ten are fine, solid films. But they’re just half a notch below.

 

Begin Again

I spoke with several disparate people throughout the year who liked Begin Again. It’s fascinating that this movie received virtually no recognition. Mark Ruffalo stars as a down-on-his-luck music exec who works to develop an unknown singer-songwriter played by Keira Knightley. Ruffalo’s other film — Foxcatcher, for which he was given a supporting actor nomination — was a badly edited, boring piece of film making. If you want to see him shine, check out this one. It’s a fun film, brought to us by the team that created Once.

One criticism I’ll make, though, is they missed a golden marketing opportunity. In the movie, a few of the characters release an album on the internet for just 99 cents. They make a big deal about that, doing it their own way. Go to iTunes and the album for Begin Again costs anywhere from $9.99 to $13.99. Boo hiss! The movie would’ve felt far more real if it practiced what it preached.

 

The Skeleton Twins

Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig were great in The Skeleton Twins. It wasn’t a comedy, really, though it had lots of dark humor. It was mostly a movie about figuring out life while dealing with depression. Since these two SNL alums are incredibly funny, I appreciated their serious turn and the appropriate weight they gave the topic. Another fine comedian — Ty Burrell from Modern Family — also starred in the movie and no, he wasn’t funny either. Nor was he supposed to be.

Come to think of it, Luke Wilson also starred in the movie and he generally plays more comedic roles as well. I’m not sure why they chose this particular cast, but it worked. Lisa Kennedy of The Denver Post said it best; it’s “a lovingly calibrated mix of heartbreak and hopefulness.”

 

The Grand Budapest Hotel

In The Grand Budapest Hotel I continually got the feeling that Wes Anderson was trying to outdo Wes Anderson. The movie was quirky from beginning to end. I usually appreciate that about his movies — all of which I’ve seen dating back to Bottle Rocket. Sure, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was a clunker. But The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore were sort of forerunners to this, his latest installment. Not only are his characters, dialog and scenes quirky, so are his aspect ratios.

The movie was projected in three different formats; normal, squarish and extremely elongated. They were meant to represent different eras in film history, but they just served to up the quirk factor, the fun. There wasn’t a thing to take seriously in the movie and I spent my time looking for characters from other Wes Anderson movies. I loved it. It’s nice seeing Ralph Fiennes, too, in comedic roles apart from Voldemort or his ghastly character in Schindler’s List.

 

The Theory of Everything

Hopefully Eddie Redmayne will win the Academy Award for his portrayal of Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. The other four actors in this category did fine work, but nobody embraced his role like Redmayne. As with Julianne Moore in Still Alice, his work was full-on, in-your-face method acting. He became Hawking. The famed physicist actually visited the set during filming and after seeing it’s completion wrote on Facebook, “I thought Eddie Redmayne portrayed me very well.”

But he didn’t stop there, saying “At times, I thought he was me.”

 

What If

The last of my 10 Favorite Films from 2014 was What If. You could classify it as a RomCom, but you’d be losing the point. The movie reminded me more of an upbeat Girls, the HBO series. I guess that’s not a coincidence since Girls co-star Adam Driver stole the show in What If.

Don’t get me wrong, Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan are magnetic as best buddies who deal with each other’s love interests. The dialog and acting are natural, not at all strained, and you feel as though you’re maybe just one of their casual friends, joining in on the conversation or their travels. Kazan is always great fun to watch. I first saw her in Ruby Sparks (as mentioned in My Favorite Films of 2012) and was captivated. Catch her if you can, too, in HBO’s Olive Kitteridge miniseries.

 

Two other movies almost made the cut, but sit respectively and respectably at number 11 and 12. They are Calvary, filmed in Ireland starring Brendan Gleeson, and The Drop with Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini in his final role. Both are crime dramas with interesting twists.

CalvaryCalvary opens very cleverly. Brendan Gleeson’s priest character is told outright during confession that he will be killed in one week’s time. There is no mystery. He knows the killer, but the audience doesn’t. He spends the movie meeting with the members of his small flock, apparently trying to ascertain why he’s being threatened, while we in the theater (or in my case, on a plane) try to figure out which one of his parishioners want him dead, and why.

 

 

 

The DropThe Drop features a robbery gone wrong, a lonely bartender and gangsters funneling money via cash “drops” in Brooklyn bars. All is not as it may seem. Neither of these two movies are high level art. But they do offer a different spin on traditional car chase and shoot ‘em up crime dramas that are the norm for Hollywood. They’re both thinking-person’s films, or so I like to think as I pat myself on the back.

 

 

And as has become usual for me, I like to offer up good, solid weekend rentals via Netflix, Redbox, Amazon, iTunes or anywhere you can find good movies being shown.

They are:

Whiplash featuring a psychotic J.K. Simmons as a jazz band conductor. Having played trombone in a jazz band and experiencing a few crazy conductors over the years, I felt a little kinship with the characters in this film which was shot in just 19 days.

Gone Girl was a good whodunit with Best Actress nominee Rosamund Pike as a missing wife. The best part about it was we all knew whodunit.

Guardians of the Galaxy was a better than normal comic book adaptation. It seemed to actually be laughing at itself at times and apart from Chris Pratt, everyone’s favorite character was Ent-like Groot.

This Is Where I Leave You had a great ensemble cast featuring Tina Fey, Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda and Adam Driver again. This film typifies the perfect weekend rental for me.

Hector and the Search for Happiness features a psychiatrist, played by the normally quirky British actor Simon Pegg, who counsels patients in his successful practice, but doesn’t truly know what it means to be happy. So he flies around the world, researching what makes other people happy.

Chef featuring Jon Favreau and a dramatically underutilized Scarlett Johansson told the story of a chef who loses his job and starts up a food truck business.

22 Jump Street was just a rollickingly silly sequel to 21 Jump Street where everything is “exactly the same.”

A Million Ways to Die in the West isn’t for everybody. Some folks aren’t fans of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane’s comedy, but my wife and I are. We found ourselves laughing more than we would’ve guessed at this send up of old Hollywood westerns.

The Interview too, held a lot more in its reels than initial reviews would’ve suggested. Don’t take it as an anti-North Korea movie as much as a dopey buddy comedy that doesn’t even take itself too seriously.

And there you have it. Suddenly, I find myself unbelievably hungry for fresh popcorn with real butter drizzled all over it. I would love to know what you think, what your favorite movies are. Use the comments section if you care to share, or connect with me on Facebook or @rcurtis on Twitter.

Thanks for reading!