The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Smoke on the water, a fire in the sky


"I’ve known good criminals and bad cops, bad priests, honorable thieves. You can be on one side of the law or the other. But if you make a deal with somebody, you keep your word. You can go home today with your money and never do this again. But you took something that wasn’t yours, and you sold it for a profit. You’re now a criminal. Good one, bad one, that’s up to you."

And that quote, from the great Mike Ehrmantraut, defines how, not only the world created by Vince Gilligan works, but perhaps how our real world works as well.

As I have mentioned previously, I looked forward to this show with a lot of trepidation. Lightning seldom strikes twice in the world of pop culture. Sequels and spin-offs are a dime a dozen, but good sequels and spin-offs are a rare jewel. "Better Call Saul" is something even rarer, not just a good prequel, but a great prequel. I hope George Lucas is paying attention, because this is how it's done.

I've heard some criticize this first season by saying that it didn't really know what it wanted to be. Was it a crime show? Was it a lawyer show? What was this show? Why did it take so long to find its footing? Unlike many other shows which struggle in their first season, I have to believe this was deliberate. It wasn't the show that didn't know what it wanted to be, it was Jimmy McGill who didn't really know what he wanted to be. Did he want to be the respectable attorney, James M. McGill, Esq for himself, or because he wanted his brother, Chuck to be proud of him? Or was Slippin' Jimmy really who he wanted to be? Exactly who is Jimmy McGill? I don't think he honestly knew, until he stood in that parking lot, James M. McGill, Esq in front of him, Slippin' Jimmy behind him, and thought about his respectable blood brother, Chuck, who would always see him as a scumbag, and his brother from another mother, Marco, who did love and respect him. The choice was as clear as day, and Bob Odenkirk deserves an Emmy nomination, although I suspect he will lose to Jon Hamm this fall.

Michael McKean, who plays Chuck McGill, summed up Jimmy's new outlook appropriately when, in an interview with Salon when he called it "the American escape hatch", and he said the following: "If everything else goes off in your face, if your family can’t stand the sight of you, if you can’t hold a job, if you can’t stay away from drugs and booze, well, at least you can make a lot of money and have all this f-you money stacked up." And it all becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Chuck did say that "Slippin' Jimmy with a law degree is like a chimp with a machine gun," and the grand tragedy being that it didn't have to be this way. Had Chuck given Jimmy a chance, just a small chance, Jimmy would never have become Saul Goodman, criminal lawyer. But now, his path is just beginning, a path to Walter White and, maybe ultimately, maybe not, a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. I just hope that Chuck gets over his mental condition in time to see the first Saul Goodman commercial.

Jonathan Banks' return to this world as Mike Ehrmentraut was more than welcome... suck it, "Community" fans, Jonathan Banks is our's MWA HA HA! But hey, you guys have Keith David now, I think that's a fair trade. Anyway, Mike's return is more than welcome and, as a good prequel should do, makes his death during "Breaking Bad" all the more tragic. We knew he was motivated to provide for his granddaughter, but we didn't know exactly why. Banks himself, when they were filming "Breaking Bad" contributed the idea that would later become the key to his arc in this prequel, that Kaylee's mother wasn't Mike's daughter. And since we never saw a sign of Kaylee's father in "Breaking Bad", that meant one of two things, which eventually culminated in one of this season's highlights, the episode "Five-O" where we learn that Mike blames himself, in part, for his son's death in a performance that should earn Jonathan Banks an Emmy. Jimmy and Mike, although not allied yet, will make a great duo. This one man who doesn't quite know who he is, and another who knows exactly who he is.

If there is one hope I have for the second season, I hope Kim Wexler, played by Rhea Seehorn, has more to do. I am confident she will, because her own history with Jimmy is still pretty nebulous, and probably by design. Are they just friends? Were they more than friends? It's clear that Jimmy has stronger feelings for her than friendship, and she probably does as well. As the season closed, she practically handed Jimmy the chance to be James M. McGill, Esq. A chance he didn't take as he chose the path that will lead to Saul Goodman, if he isn't Saul Goodman in all but name already. Will there be fall out? Why do I ask? This is Vince Gilligan's universe, a universe very much like our own, of course there will be.

The writing is as sharp as anything else on television and, just like "Breaking Bad" before it, the cinematography is second to none on television. As a film school graduate, I cannot think of a set I would rather work on than this one. It's the most beautifully shot show on television, and every shot is calculated to mean just as much to the narrative as any line of dialogue. This is why audio-visual technology was invented in the first place. The best show on television? Easily.

Not bad for a show that started out as a joke in the writer's room. My overall grade for this season? I give it a Saul, because it's all good, man.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

I won't watch that, it's live-action!

Growing up as a fan of various animated TV shows, I would often have people look down their noses at it because it was animated. "Oi, why should I watch a cartoon. Cartoons are for kids", and I always, always believed those people were being closed-minded and missing out on some damn good television.

Now, as a thirty-three year-old man, I am finding the same attitude from some animation fans towards live action. They won't watch a show because it's live action, just aren't interested. Which is their prerogative, but they are closing themselves off to some damn fine television. But what gets me is this, I know they've heard similar about animation while growing up, and one would think they would learn to not be so closed-minded.

Then I ask myself if I've become anti-animation. I do not think so, there just doesn't happen to be any animated shows currently on the air that appeal to me, aside from waiting for the sixth season of "The Venture Bros." I hated "Legend of Korra", was kinda lukewarm towards "Star Wars Rebels", and I think Marvel's current animation output is atrocious. I still don't understand "Adventure Time", nor do I care about "Gravity Falls". I'm sure another animated series that I care about will come along eventually, but aside from "The Venture Bros.", it just doesn't exist at this moment in time.

Meanwhile, I think "Better Call Saul" is turning out to be a masterpiece. I really enjoyed the third season of "House of Cards", I was very pleasantly surprised by "Agent Carter" and "Arrow". I await the fifth season of "Game of Thrones" with breathless anticipation, and I look forward to the Netflix "Daredevil" series. But gods knows there's a lot of crap on live action. My feelings for a certain show airing on ABC are a matter of public record now, and I thought "Gotham" turned out to be crap.

What's next for animation? There's really nothing in the pipe I'm looking forward to, except for when Greg Weisman's next series is announced. Aside from that, the number of shows that appeal to me are practically zero. Meanwhile I've recently re-visited "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes", "Young Justice", "Avatar: The Last Airbender", and I re-visit "Spectacular Spider-Man" constantly for my podcast; and I'm planning a "Gargoyles" re-watch soon as well as one for "Batman: The Animated Series" and "Transformers Animated". All shows I really enjoyed and still enjoy.

I love animated shows and I love live action shows. I do not believe one medium is inherently superior to the other, but at the end of the day, mediums aside, "Breaking Bad" is superior to "Transformers" and "My Little Pony". It just is.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Agent Carter - Season One


What can I say, I loved it! I thought it was great! It left me wanting more. I wish I could write a longer review, but it's difficult when all you're saying is "I loved it", because I could find no fault in this series.

Marvel's greatest heroes are not and never have been about their powers or costumes. Spider-Man is about responsibility. The X-Men are about overcoming bigotry. Iron Man is about being a hero despite your personal flaws. The Fantastic Four are about family. Peggy Carter is about succeeding in a world that would rather patronize you. In the wrong hands, this could easily be heavy handed, but "Agent Carter" was woven by talented people both in front of and behind the camera, and I am glad they went in the direction they did, as we have sadly seen that this is a message that bears repeating.

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that the bromance between Peggy and Jarvis is the greatest platonic friendship between a woman and a man that I've ever seen on television. It's actually tragic how rare this sort of thing is, but never, not once, did I ever think about these two getting together while watching it. And what makes this even more amazing is that there is chemistry oozing between these two, but it's not romantic chemistry at all. Hell, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman have more erotic chemistry between them than Peggy and Jarvis. Well done.

Although her real name wasn't revealed, I still believe that Dottie Underwood is Yelena Belova. As an antagonist, she was great with a genuine sense of menace. As was her boss, Johann Fennhoff (Dr. Faustus in the comic books), a genuinely creepy villain seeking vengeance against Howard Stark... Dr. Faustus, now there's a character I didn't believe would ever appear outside the comics.

I know that, as a viewer and a critic, I've had a difficult relationship with Marvel's Television division. I do not need to reiterate my thoughts on their TV output over the last three years, and as I've previously said, I went into this show with a chip on my shoulder. And now, while it's not the greatest TV series I have ever seen, that doesn't mean I didn't think it was great television. It did more than alleviate my fears, they made a timeless classic... and in a day and age where very few of the TV shows I watch don't star a villain protagonist, it's nice to have the leading character be a genuine role model, someone to look up to. I give the series an A+ and I am sitting here, biting my nails, hoping for a second season.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Star Wars Rebels


And so that was season one... my feelings about this show are pretty mixed, I must admit.

The voice cast was fantastic. I'll start with my favorite character, and cast member. Vanessa Marshall is bringing a lot of passion to the character of Hera, passion that matches her own for this franchise. I've attended the "Star Wars Rebels" panel at New York Comic Con that she was on, and her passion and fandom for "Star Wars" and this show is infectious. It is always delightful to see someone who loves their work the way Ms. Marshall does. She brings her all to this show, and it more than pays off. Hera is a terrific character.

I raised an eyebrow when I heard that Freddie Prinze Jr. was cast as Kanan, mostly because I will admit that he's an actor I've always underestimated. But he did well, he brought a lot of humanity to a Jedi, after George Lucas spent the better part of the 2000's stripping them of any humanity they had. I rather liked the idea of this guy who never really finished his training being forced to take on an apprentice. We've seen the wise mentor a million times already, so a mentor with just as much to learn was a nice change of pace.

Tiya Sircar as Sabine and Steve Blum as Zeb bring a fun element to two characters who could have easily been annoying comic relief sidekicks, Zeb especially. They all round out a cast that feels like a Y7 "Firefly" cast, and I did enjoy them.

Unfortunately, most shows have a weak link, and this show's is Ezra. It's not voice actor, Taylor Gray's fault, he does well. But I don't think the character ever recovered from a very weak introduction, where he was a more annoying Aladdin, right down to being referred to more than once as "street rat". Ezra is the audience surrogate character, and a fine line needs to be walked, otherwise you end up with another Wesley Crusher, which this show, sadly, did. Before the season finale aired, a friend of mine speculated that Kanan was going to die, and I responded with "can't they kill Ezra instead?" He's not unsalvagable, but going forward, I think the wise move would be to downplay him, but as he is the lead, that's unlikely.

Finally, we have the Inquisitor. Jason Isaacs was terrific, he had a terrific visual, and there were moments where he was genuinely menacing, particularly in his first appearance and his last appearance. Unfortunately, somewhere in between, he began to feel very Saturday morning, as villain decay set in pretty quickly. Considering how powerful he seemed in his introduction, it began to strain credibility that he couldn't catch these rebels. More than that, I wanted to know more about him. Who was he? Where did he come from? How did he become so adept at the Dark Side of the Force? Was he an apprentice of Darth Vader? Did he have greater ambitions? What was his deal? Well, considering how the season ended, I doubt we'll find out now. All the ingredients were there, I just wish they were taken farther.

The show's last three episodes were probably its best, when Grand Moff Tarkin arrived and made the Empire formidable after many episodes of being, well, very Saturday Morning. There was an epic feel to it that felt like the original films. But it was a little too late to maintain my interest in a second season. But that's okay, the way the season ends, it feels like it could lead in to "A New Hope" pretty seamlessly, both in learning about the existence of a larger Rebel Alliance, as well as the final scene with Grand Moff Tarkin bringing Darth Vader in to help him hunt down them all down.

Overall, it's a B-/C+ show. It's the most I've enjoyed "Star Wars" since the 1980's. But, it's really not for me. I think the main protagonist is weak, and I do not care for 3-D animation, which I find much more limiting than traditional animation. But there is a lot of good in there, despite some big glaring flaws. It's one of the better entries in a franchise that broke my heart a very long time ago, in a theater that isn't so far away.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Better Call Saul


Like so many others, I was looking forward to "Better Call Saul" with trepidation. Disappointing spin-offs are a dime a dozen. For every "Frasier" or "Star Trek: Deep Space Nine", there is a "The Tortellis" or "Star Trek: Voyager" or "Legend of Korra". While normally it would be too soon to say, after the spectacular two evening premiere of this "Breaking Bad" spin-off, I am confident that this will, at worst, go into the "good spin-off" category... and if it keeps up this quality, or exceeds this quality, it just might become the greatest spin-off of all time.

Like "Breaking Bad" before it, we are watching the transformation of our protagonist. Walter White was an egotistical, yet beaten down by life, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher who transformed into the murderous, methamphetamine kingpin, Heisenberg. Here we will slowly watch fast talking, down on his luck, lawyer, Jimmy McGill transform into criminal lawyer, Saul Goodman. And yet, thus far I don't feel like we're going back to the same wall. Walter and Jimmy are both very different people, in very different situations, likewise Saul while shifty and crooked is still someone you'd want to have a beer with while Heisenberg was someone to be avoided at all costs.

I was enjoying the show from the first moment, but as soon as we got to the New Mexico desert, where Jimmy and his two scammer cronies were facing execution at the hands of Tuco Salamanca, this is where we began to see the sparks of Saul Goodman. Jimmy is a natural performer, as many good lawyers are. And right there, when he talked his way out of an execution and talked Tuco into letting his cronies off with a single broken leg, each... Jimmy was finally in his element, he even later pointed the experience out as a good thing. He's found his audience. And when he retorts to the accusation of being the worst lawyer ever with "I got you off of death row to six months of probation, I am the best lawyer ever", you can't help but agree with him.

The two-part pilot did everything it needed to do, it re-introduced us to Vince Gilligan's Albuquerque and built up Jimmy's supporting cast, from his brother, Chuck, to his new business associate, Nacho. Michele McLaren and Gilligan's cinematic directing for the small screen made a very welcome return as I am confident enough to say that, like "Breaking Bad" before it, "Better Call Saul" will be the most visually beautiful show on television. Gilligan's use of cinematography would make Orson Welles and Alfred Hitchcock proud, and television is lucky to have him. It's like "Breaking Bad", but very much its own series.

So let it be known, a spin-off to a much beloved series just took a popular supporting character, successfully built him a supporting cast consisting of potentially interesting characters, all portrayed by actors who are not thespianly challenged. Sharp writing and cinematic directing has been brought to this spin-off. It can be done! It has been done!

Do you need to watch "Breaking Bad" to appreciate this? No. But you'll get so much more out of it if you have. Long time fans are rewarded while new fans are welcomed with open arms. Besides, when a show opens up in a courtroom with three nineteen-year-old hooligans on trial for breaking into a morgue and having sex with a decapitated head, you know you're in for something very special. I give it an A+

Monday, February 2, 2015

Spider-Girl

This is what "Batman Beyond" should have been. 

Very recently, I plucked down about $150 at my local comic book shop and purchased seven Spider-Girl trade paperbacks. All five volumes of "Amazing Spider-Girl" and both volumes of "Spectacular Spider-Girl" which conclude the series. I wish Marvel would release trades of "Spider-Girl", covering those initial one hundred issues before the relaunch, but it has yet to happen. I loved this series. Tom DeFalco and Ron Frenz were just a dream team on a book that was obviously a labor of love, more so than any other comic published by Marvel and DC in the last twenty years that I can think of.

For those of you who don't know, "Spider-Girl" stars May "Mayday" Parker, the daughter of Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson. After she was born, she was kidnapped by Norman Osborn before being rescued and returned to her parents. When she was around two years-old, Peter and Osborn had their final battle where Peter lost his leg and Osborn lost his life. Peter then became a forensics scientist for the NYPD and focused on raising his child, who's own spider powers manifested when she was sixteen... and well, with great power there must also come a great responsibility. So Mayday becomes a superhero, herself. She finds her own allies, make her own enemies among a new generation of superheroes and supervillains.

I think what I like most about Mayday is that while she is very much both of her parents' child, she's very much her own person. She feels just as real as either Peter or MJ did in their best stories without ever feeling like a gimmick. Watching her develop and grow over the course of this series feels organic and believable. She has just as rich a supporting cast as her father, and she, herself, is great. In a medium with a very disappointing lack of great female protagonists, Mayday distinguishes herself by being everything a protagonist, regardless of gender should be. Also, unlike most female comic book heroes, she's never objectified. Oh, she's sexy, don't get me wrong, but without any male gaze cheesecake. She's smart and tough, but she also has her vulnerabilities, insecurities. She's trying hard to live up to her father's standard, as well as maintain a normal life which in itself provides relatable angst without a background in darkness and tragedy. Not that those kinds of backgrounds should be avoided, but it's hard to just have a hero living a relatively normal life without tragedy and still be compelling, something which Superman tries and fails at (and don't mention Krypton, he has no memories of that). In fact, there's a point in the series when a character called Mayhem (who I will not be spoiling), with a different outlook than Mayday's says it's time for a darker, grimmer kind of superhero... clearly Tom DeFalco hanging a lampshade on a majority of modern comic characters. So, in a way, Mayday is very much a response to the dark and grim 90's.

The series is compelling, and fun. It's not written for the trade the way most modern comics are. Don't get me wrong, there are arcs running through the series that make great trades, but each individual issue packs more story in them than the majority of modern comics. While it's definitely not like comics of old, it often reads like a hybrid of classic and modern comics in a way that works... this is the model modern comics should have been based upon, as opposed to comics by the likes of Mark Millar and Brian Michael Bendis. And as far as writing a Spider-Man for a new generation, this succeeds at it where Bendis' "Ultimate Spider-Man" failed. It respects the mythos without handcuffing itself to it, and forges its own path... in a similar manner that "Spectacular Spider-Man" the animated series would do later. Both series have a similar tone to them.

Sadly, recent times have not been so good to Mayday, but I still hope we'll see her and her family again under DeFalco and Frenz's pen. Overall, I give the series an A+