Tuesday, July 27, 2021

“El Camino”: Too Much of a (Breaking) Bad Thing?

I recently spent months on my couch, catching up with Breaking Bad. This series (2008-2013) certainly deserves its accolades. Its characters are convincingly complicated; its storyline is riveting; its cinematography is endlessly inventive (the high desert of New Mexico has never looked so ominous, nor so beautiful). I’m a particular fan of those opening sequences that drop you into each week’s story from a skewed perspective (maybe a baffling flash-forward, possibly a wacky Spanish-language narco corrido in praise of that elusive drug lord, SeƱor Heisenberg).

 Perhaps the theme running through the entire series is how people react to change. When a mild-mannered chemistry teacher named Walter White is diagnosed with late-stage lung cancer, his life slips into a different gear. Desperate for money to support his growing family, he discovers a lucrative new career as a maker of primo methamphetamine. His crossover onto the shady side of the law brings out personality traits that have previously remained hidden: like a lust for ever-increasing power. And his evolution soon transforms his family: his very pregnant wife, his straight-arrow brother-in-law, his loyal son who won’t let cerebral palsy get him down. Before long, a good swath of Albuquerque is somehow caught up in his rise and eventual fall.

 One character, a reckless young drug dealer who shows “Mr. White” the ropes of meth-peddling in season one, was supposed to be snuffed out early on. But Jesse Pinkman’s working relationship with his former high school teacher proved so potent that Jesse was turned into a series star. Impetuous and self-destructive, but also tender-hearted and smart, Jesse was shaped by the writers into the able-bodied son Walter never had. As Walt becomes more and more of a monster, Jesse haltingly moves in the other direction, trying to make up for the harm he’s caused. That’s why, in the series’ final moments, he’s the one character who (with a little help from his friend) escapes from a bloodbath, lighting out for the Territory with tears in his eyes.

 For all the havoc he causes, Jesse (played with deep conviction by Aaron Paul) is a character who’s easy to love., because he’s so quick to acknowledge his failings. That’s why I was eager to follow up on Jesse’s post-Walt story by way of 2019’s feature film, El Camino, produced by the Breaking Bad team as a sort of a sequel to the series.  

 El Camino, named for the automotive classic in which Jesse makes his escape from the house of death, starts with its protagonist in flight. But, perhaps to capitalize on viewers’ fond recollections of the series, it also flashes back to happier days of Jesse absorbing life-lessons from Walt, from fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, and even from the drug-addled Jane, his one-time girlfriend before her fatal overdose. What’s more, it wallows in Jesse’s suffering before that final shootout, giving us plenty of footage of Todd, a young, red-headed meth gangster who could alternately be called Jesse’s evil twin and Opie gone to seed. (He has just bumped off his cleaning woman, whom he repeatedly describes as “a very nice lady.”) This is all in the past, but the present-day story piles on the complications involved in Jesse drumming up the cash he needs to blow this popsicle stand and start a new life somewhere else. His goal is to find and reclaim the bad guys’ ill-gotten gains, which involves much deceit, many close calls, and (of course) loads of blood. Whereas the TV episodes all seemed cannily plotted, this full-length movie is both confusing and, ultimately, dull. Poor Jesse! Poor me!   


Friday, July 23, 2021

The Never-Ending (Toy) Story

 I generally avoid movies whose titles end with a number, like Jaws 2 or The Fast and the Furious 5. As I have good reason to know (having worked on Corman franchises like Bloodfist and Slumber Party Massacre), each movie that follows the original is a bit less clever, a bit more predictable. But the good folks at Pixar were not about to let their Toy Story sequels disappoint their loyal fan base. Remarkably, 2010’s Toy Story 3, which I just rewatched, may be the best of the lot. Sure, it still contains familiar characters like valiant Sheriff Woody, spacey Buzz Lightyear, the Potato Head pair, and a fearful Tyrannosaurus Rex, all of them loyal to “their” kid, Andy. But the thing is—Andy is now almost eighteen, and on his way to college. The toys haven’t changed over time, but Andy has. And time becomes film’s big (if hidden) subject.

 This makes it quite a different story from the previous two Toy Story films. The original dealt with such child-appropriate topics as jealousy and friendship. In that 1995 film, the arrival of Buzz—who becomes Andy’s new favorite—rocks Woody to the core. But when the chips are down, Woody and Buzz learn to work together and forge a solid friendship, as underscored by Randy Newman’s Oscar-nominated song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me.” Their relationship continues in Toy Story 2 (1999), in which Buzz needs to come to the rescue of Woody, who’s been kidnapped (toynapped?) by a dastardly collector with plans to send him to Japan.

 But by 2010, the original film’s target audience was on the brink of adulthood, and largely leaving all things Disney behind. In a way, Toy Story 3 is directed at their parents, who have deeply mixed emotions about seeing their offspring fly away from the nest. Yes, Andy’s mom is eager to see him clear out his childhood toys before he goes off to college, but she is still feeling the loss of the little boy she once knew and loved. What happens to the toys that may be headed for the attic—or scrapped—is what this story is about.

 Since the Pixar team understands that young viewers prefer excitement to philosophy, there’s plenty of derring-do here, like some heroic flights from a garbage truck and from a childcare center that seems a paradise but is ruled over by a menacing pink stuffed bear who smells like strawberries (the late Ned Beatty, full of Southern charm and menace). A sequence at the city dump has an Inferno quality, but – of course – ends in a breathless escape. And I defy parents not to be moved when Andy decides what best to do with well-loved toys he’s outgrown.

 Pixar is good, too, at finding ways to tickle adult funny-bones. At the childcare center where the discarded toys briefly find a home, a vapid Barbie (in Jane Fonda-style leotard and leggings) finds the Ken of her dreams, then later tricks him into modeling his elaborate Sixties wardrobe (tie-dye! an astronaut suit!) when he needs to be distracted from the big escape attempt. And I suspect we Boomers remember many of the vintage toys in the film, like the Slinky-dog, the GI Joe action figures, and that talking telephone. The film has more serious matters on its mind, too, like our throwaway culture that decrees that anything out of date should simply be tossed, and that most of our once-cherished possessions ultimately belong in a landfill.

 All in all, it’s a beautiful film with a perfect ending. But then they made Toy Story 4.




Tuesday, July 20, 2021

Hold Still for “No Sudden Move”

When I was growing up, my family’s most spectacular automobile was a 1959 Buick, a sleek highway beast with tail fins and a metallic paintjob in a shade called “Lido Lavender.”  Traveling ‘cross-country in that remarkable car, each of us could feel like a king (or queen) of the road. I mention this now because Steven Soderbergh’s new crime drama, No Sudden Move, is similarly in love with cars, though from a slightly earlier vintage. His film is set in 1954 Detroit, which was then the auto capital of the world. But the vehicles featured in his convoluted story are not yet low and sleek. Instead they’re massive, bulbous muscle-cars, even when painted in fetching, feminine shades of aqua. It’s all fitting, because this tale of life in the Motor City hinges on cars—and muscle.

 Soderbergh started his rise in the film industry with a low-budget Sundance hit, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. I think of this as a chamber-piece, focusing tightly on four intertwined characters: a young wife (Andie MacDowell), her faithless husband (Peter Gallagher), her good-time sister (Laura San Giacomo), and the mysterious stranger (James Spader) who breezes into town with strange quirks of his own. It’s a beautifully crafted little drama, both written and directed by Soderbergh, who used this as his ticket to much bigger, gaudier efforts. From the looks of his filmography, it seems Soderbergh likes Wagnerian symphonies better than chamber music. His hits have included epic fare like Traffic and Ocean’s Eleven as well as the recent The Laundromat: he seems to like nothing better than plunging into a hot-bed of criminal behavior and following wherever it leads.

 In the case of No Sudden Move, we’re first introduced to grifters who represent two different crime communities. Don Cheadle is an African-American with a checkered past; Benicio del Toro has Italian mob connections. Both are so desperate for work that they take on a strange job keeping a suburban family at gunpoint while the husband is carted off to open a safe belonging to his boss. Why’s the safe empty, and what do the missing documents represent? By the time this is sorted out, a lot of people are dead, others are badly bruised, and the auto industry continues to reign supreme. Yes, the auto industry—this is not merely a crime film but also an indictment of industrial collusion, loosely based on a genuine incident from America’s past. It all comes home to us in a key speech by a surprise (and unbilled) character, who —late in the film—looms somewhat in the way that Ned Beatty did in Network, delivering a monologue that brings Soderbergh’s bigger political and social point into focus.

 If the action in the film seems all about guys and guns, think again. The women in No Sudden Move may be housewives and secretaries, not gangsters and crooked gumshoes, but in the grand scheme of things most of them are equally culpable. They too know what they want (perhaps more clearly than most of the men do), and they’ll stop at nothing to make their dreams come true. Don’t let their aprons and bouncy curls fool you: these femmes are quite capable of being fatale.

 There’s hardboiled humor in the film, and almost no one you could call particularly nice. Heroes, let us say, are in short supply, though one teenage boy is sure trying hard to save his family. But maybe, after a year of quarantine (not to mention a political insurrection), we’ve become cynical enough to appreciate a story in which no one is much good at all.