El Camino’: Very Good, But Still Not ‘Bad’

The ghost of Walter White hangs heavy over El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie.

In the literal sense, it’s because – although six years have passed since the Breaking Bad finale – the action in El Camino picks up mere minutes after the climactic battle that left White among the ranks of the recently departed.

But White’s death also leaves the movie (for the most part) without Bryan Cranston, the force of nature whose award-winning performance escalated the show from a storm into a full-blown hurricane.

And though it’s Walter White who’s now a ghost, it’s Jesse Pinkman who wants to disappear. The film’s prologue is a newly shot flashback to better times, when Jesse and his old colleague Mike (White’s fixer) talk about what life will be like after White’s gone. When Mike warns Jesse that the one thing he can never do is “make things right,” we jump violently to the present, with Jesse desperately fleeing the scene of the finale’s carnage in a stolen El Camino.

The present-day Jesse is a badly broken man. Unkempt, unshaven, and seriously disheveled from his time spent captive in his tormentors’ cage, it’s tempting to say that he’s suffering a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. But it can’t be PTSD, because his trauma hasn’t ended yet. He may have been freed from his cage, but all of his inner demons left with him in that El Camino.

The film relies on Aaron Paul’s ability to carry the story almost completely on his own as Jesse, and he does an admirable job. Between the flashbacks to more prosperous times and the manic intensity driving him to find his freedom, Paul does great work in presenting several different shades of the heroic anti-hero.

But again, the elephant in the room is Walter’s ghost. On Breaking Bad, the acting partnership of Cranston and Paul created amazing chemistry (literally and figuratively). And while there’s nothing wrong with the performance Paul gives in El Camino, you can’t help but feel something’s missing without Cranston there.

Ultimately, El Camino is a caper movie, with Jesse trying to find the funds that will finance his disappearance. As in the prologue, the movie flits between past and present to expose Jesse’s motivations and mindset, revealing little glimpses of his Breaking Bad life unseen on the series. It’s not just a dramatic device – it also gives the film a chance to bring back some characters whose lack of a pulse would otherwise keep them out of a movie shot wholly in the present. (That’s how we get a poignant, but too brief, cameo from Cranston.)

Written and directed by series creator Vince Gilligan, the film stays true to the show’s modus operandi of long, dramatic stretches of character introspection interspersed with heightened moments of tension, conflict and, of course, violence.

As a self-contained story, El Camino is a solid film worthy of the Breaking Bad connection it carries in its title, with excellent work on both sides of the camera. But just as Jesse finds it impossible to outrun his past, “El Camino” cannot ditch the ghost of Walter White. Perhaps that’s the way it should be – after all, Jesse is Walter’s Frankenstein, a creature molded and shaped by its creator, imbued with some of his best and worst qualities. Still, the movie misses the synergistic chemistry between Paul and Cranston that made the series sizzle, and though we’re given a good story and a satisfying sense of closure, we’re left with a feeling of wanting something more.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie is currently streaming on Netflix.

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Posted Ari Coine

Meaningless Mayhem: Jim Gaffigan Gets Serious In ‘American Dreamer’

Surely, American Dreamer was meant to be an ironic title for this dark, bleak, violent crime drama. Unless, of course, your dream is to make a quick buck by turning the tables on a drug dealer and hoping you survive the night.

As a rideshare driver, Cam meets dozens of people every day, but never gets to interact with anybody. It’s a loneliness compounded by the breakup of his marriage, which is keeping him from seeing his son. Down on life and down on his luck, Cam supplements his meager wages by working as a driver-on-call for Mazz, a drug dealer who has everything Cam wants — access to his son and plenty of money.

When Cam’s financial and emotional problems drive him to the brink of despair, he devises a plan to make some money: He’s going to kidnap Mazz’s girlfriend and collect ransom money. But when she’s not there and their son is, Cam improvises.

After receiving Cam’s ransom demands, Mazz and his girlfriend go in search of their missing kid — with Cam, of course, at the wheel. Through the night, the body count grows, and Cam grows very, very worried for his own safety.

As the everyman with the plan, comedian Jim Gaffigan basically plays two notes: disturbed and disturbing. While it’s not a huge range, Gaffigan pulls it off. But overall, the acting in the movie is largely forgettable. Even after his son goes missing, you don’t really get emotionally involved with Mazz (Robbie Jones), and everyone in his orbit is written and acted straight outta every “drug dealers in the hood” movie we’ve ever seen.

It’s not only the characters that are written in one dimension. The plot is largely written that way, too, with very little in the way of subplots or character development. In fact, once the search for the child begins, the film plays out almost in real time, never cutting away from either Cam or Mazz.

American Dreamer is definitely not the feel-good movie of the year, and it doesn’t offer anything new in the genre. While it manages to hold your interest for its relatively short 93-minute run time, it doesn’t leave you with any lasting impressions. If mindless violence and a mindless diversion are what you crave, this movie will fit the bill. Just don’t expect any more from it than that.

American Dreamer is now playing in limited release and is also available on VOD.

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Posted by Ari Coine

‘Ode To Joy’: What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Happy?

We all know somebody who’s happiest when they’re unhappy, and most of us wonder what makes them tick. Ode to Joy is about such a man, but his misery is literally written into his genetic code.

Charlie (Martin Freeman) suffers from a rare neurological disorder called cataplexy, a condition that causes his muscles to give out when he’s confronted with strong emotions. In his case, it manifests most often when he experiences joy, so he systematically tries to remove it from his life. He has an unchallenging, unsatisfying job at a New York library; he walks around town listening to funeral dirges on his iPod; he tries to calm himself with humorously depressing thoughts (“white guy in dreadlocks”) when he sees puppies, babies, or acts of kindness; and, most significantly, he has no love in his life. “I’ve mostly steered clear of girlfriends,” he explains at one point. “I can’t afford the insurance.”

Then he meets Francesca (Morena Baccarin). She’s gorgeous, newly single, and attracted to Charlie’s dry wit. Although he’s (almost literally) scared to death by the idea of falling for her, his co-workers convince him to take a chance on love.

Then, their first date ends in the emergency room.

Charlie’s faced with a dilemma: He’s attracted to Francesca and wants her in his life, but knows he can’t be happy around her unless he’s unhappy. His novel solution? He sets Francesca up with his shallow younger brother, Cooper (Jake Lacy). That way, he gets to see her on a regular basis, but is miserable because she’s unavailable.

Cooper returns the favor by fixing Charlie up with Francesca’s “boring” co-worker, Bethany (Melissa Rauch). Bethany would actually be perfect for Charlie … but his chemistry with Francesca — even as a friend — is undeniable.

This curious love parallelogram leads to all kinds of complications as the two couples spend a weekend together at a B&B out in the country. Will Charlie get his “happily ever after”? Or will his condition dictate that he needs an “unhappily ever after” instead?

The movie, based on a true story originally told on NPR’s This American Life, resolves things in somewhat predictable Hollywood fashion, but it’s still fun to watch.

As we’ve seen on Sherlock, Freeman excels at playing the dour, put-upon man who’s seemingly doomed to never get what he wants. Baccarin is effortlessly flirtatious as a woman with a history of bad boyfriend choices and a terminally ill aunt. And Rauch will be virtually unrecognizable to her Big Bang Theory fans (aside, possibly, from an amusing aside about how her character is sexually attracted to recurring BBT guest star Bob Newhart).

The movie’s conceit, of course, gives ample opportunity to ruminate on the fine balance between happiness and misery in all of our lives. Can we truly appreciate happiness without moments of despair in our lives? Is happiness simply a construct we create to brighten up our otherwise humdrum existences? Can we allow ourselves moments of happiness when we’re faced with sadness and loss?

As such, the film oscillates between light comedy and pathos, checking most of the standard romantic comedy boxes along the way. As the genre goes, it’s more of a light snack than a hearty meal, but it’s tasty and enjoyable nonetheless.

Ode to Joy is now available on VOD.

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Posted Ari Coine

Richard Dreyfuss Reaches For The Stars, But ‘Astronaut’ Doesn’t Quite Get Off The Ground

There’s no denying that Richard Dreyfuss is a talented actor, and he’s got the Oscar to prove it. Lately, though, it seems those talents have been squandered in a series of nondescript films with little box office potential. Maybe it’s just his age — at 71, there probably aren’t a lot of plum roles available for him anymore, but he clearly loves his work. And while his passion for acting often elevates his performances above the material he’s given, that won’t be enough to lift Astronaut out of a low orbit.

The film starts out feeling awfully reminiscent of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, except this movie’s golden ticket is a seat aboard the first commercial space flight and it’s the young boy pushing his old, ailing grandfather to enter, instead of the other way around. Along the way, though, the film pivots into something resembling Rain Man, as Dreyfuss’s character, Angus, becomes overly fixated on a geological anomaly that could doom the mission. Ultimately, it feels like a bait-and-switch move: The movie we wind up with is not the one we think we’re getting during the first reel.

Not helping matters is the script from Shelagh McLeod, a veteran actress making her feature film debut as a writer and director. Angus is the only character in the film who’s fully fleshed out; the others feel like one-dimensional stereotypes in service of Angus’s story. You’ve got the unconditionally supportive grandson, the overly worried daughter, the sternly disapproving son-in-law, and the rich entrepreneur who will stop at nothing in the race to become the first commercial player in space.

It’s a shame, really, because Angus is a compelling character. He’s a 75-year-old widower, and one of his greatest disappointments in life came when NASA denied his bid to become a mission specialist in the Space Shuttle program. So when Marcus (Colm Feore), the rich entrepreneur, sponsors an online contest for the last seat aboard his first space flight, Angus defies the rules and lies about his age to enter the contest. He’s a character defined by his obsessions — getting into space, holding on to the last vestiges of his wife’s life, and his life’s work, geology.

That final obsession propels the last half of the movie, as Angus becomes more and more focused on convincing Marcus and his associates that his maiden space voyage is a disaster waiting to happen. But the constant rock talk gets a little tiresome and tends to drag the film down. Angus’s journey ends in a way that is predictably telegraphed by the film, but still carries some emotional resonance. Not enough, though, to overcome the script’s deficiencies.

Ultimately, while this Astronaut wants to soar skyward, it doesn’t quite have the right equipment to get it into the stratosphere.

Astronaut is currently playing on VOD.

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Posted by Ari Coine

Pitt, DiCaprio, And Tarantino Tempt Fate In ‘Hollywood’

In a way, Quentin Tarantino is the Donald Trump of Hollywood — some people love him, some people loathe him, and some merely scratch their heads and mutter, “What the hell was that?” Meanwhile, Tarantino enthusiastically and unapologetically makes movies designed to please his base.

He’s at it again with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a film loaded with classic Tarantino self-indulgence. It’s a movie that could easily lose an hour from its 2 hour, 45 minute running time and still work, but it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie.

We know Tarantino loves old Westerns, so he lingers on the movie-within-a-movie scenes. We know Tarantino loves violence, so there’s plenty of that. We know Tarantino loves to deconstruct the craft of making movies, so we get an 8-year-old girl meticulously breaking down the process of method acting. And we know Tarantino loves to decorate his substance with style, so there’s plenty on display here.

Set in 1969 Hollywood, the film is partially a love letter to that bygone era. Tarantino and his crew have painstakingly recreated the era’s look, from the clothing to the old Los Angeles bus stop signs. The set decoration, costuming, and cinematography are all brilliant, verging on breathtaking. They’ve even managed to capture the era’s sound, using snippets of real recordings from old L.A. Top 40 powerhouse KHJ-AM.

The movie’s performances are wonderful, led by its stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Both play characters who are on the down side of their career trajectories. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is a former TV series star whose fortunes have waned to the point where he’s relegated to occasional guest roles, playing bad guys who are doomed to lose. But he’s got it good compared to Pitt’s Cliff Booth. He’s been Dalton’s personal stunt man for years, but with the roles drying up, he’s relegated to the thankless task of being Dalton’s personal assistant.

When Booth gets fired from Dalton’s latest project after a hilarious encounter with Bruce Lee, the movie splits into two threads: Dalton seeks validation as he struggles to deliver a good performance, while Booth winds up crossing paths with the infamous Manson family.

Those paths come back together on the night of the famous Sharon Tate murder, giving Tarantino the opportunity to wage one last bloody battle and rack up a body count before the credits roll.

Like much of Tarantino’s work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood delivers laughs in intentionally unlikely places, while sucking you in emotionally to the plights of the movie’s heroes and anti-heroes. Of course, Tarantino does it in a bloated, sometimes verbose way, but the net result is a beautifully shot, beautifully acted work that threatens to wear out its welcome, but never quite does.

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Posted by Ari Coine



‘Armstrong’ Documentary: Real-Life Glimpses Of The Man Behind The Moon Mission

One of my best friends in high school was the grandson of former NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden. When NASA decided to rename the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in honor of Neil Armstrong in 2014, I asked my friend how he felt about losing the name. He replied with no hesitation: If it took somebody as amazing as Neil Armstrong to replace his grandfather’s name, that was a huge honor.

Such is the way Armstrong is revered as a true American hero.

With the 50th anniversary of the moon landing only a day away, Armstrong’s signature accomplishment has once again put him in the spotlight. While the new documentary Armstrong certainly doesn’t shy away from the historic event, it does strive to place it in the context of a man whose life was extraordinary in many ways.

Armstrong’s life story is told in full, starting with his childhood in Wapakoneta, Ohio. (Ironically enough, among the establishing shots of modern-day Wapakoneta is a glimpse of the town’s cinema. On the marquee? The recent Armstrong biopic First Man.) Through archival interview clips with his parents, we learn how young Neil was fascinated with airplanes and aspired to be an aircraft designer.

That introduction sets the tone for the entire documentary. We get glimpses into Armstrong’s life from the people who knew him best — family members, friends, and colleagues — along with plenty of candid home movies, NASA footage, and old television broadcasts. Armstrong even contributes his own words, narrated here by one of Hollywood’s space pioneers, Harrison Ford.

Most of the documentary focuses on establishing the Apollo 11 moonwalk as a pivotal moment in Armstrong’s life, but not as a singular defining moment. Rather than branding Armstrong a hero because he walked on the moon, it shows us that Armstrong was chosen for the moonwalk because he was already a hero.

He had handled himself in exemplary fashion as a pilot during the Korean War, as one of the courageous X-15 test pilots, and during a difficult Gemini 8 mission that could have ended in tragedy if not for his actions. In one particularly telling moment, former Apollo flight director Gerry Griffin reveals that Buzz Aldrin was initially suggested as the first man on the moon, but he vetoed the idea because he saw Armstrong as a steadier, more dependable representative of the mission — not just before and during the flight, but afterward. Griffin knew the historical responsibility that would come with being the man to take that “one small step,” and he was convinced Armstrong was the right man for the job.

Obviously, the lunar landing changed Armstrong’s life forever, and the rest of the film paints Armstrong as a reluctant celebrity who, after retiring from the space program, tried to resume a normal life but could never quite outrun the demands of his historic achievement. Indeed, when his friend, former Taft Broadcasting President/CEO Charlie Mechem, asked him to serve on the company’s board of directors, Mechem tells us how Armstrong grilled him for two hours about what his role would be. Armstrong, he recalls, wanted to make sure he was not being chosen solely because of the star power — or, in this case, moon power — attached to his name.

Armstrong’s life was one filled with extraordinary moments, a mix of great triumphs and great tragedies, and these moments are painted vividly in the film. The stories are told well, the NASA mission footage is spectacular, and the candid films are wonderfully revealing of the private personality behind the public persona. The Armstrong family was heavily involved in the project — indeed, Neil’s son and granddaughter collaborated on the song that plays over the closing credits — and it is easy to see why they wanted this film to stand as a non-dramatized counterpoint to First Man. Given his aversion to the spotlight in his later years, Armstrong may have been embarrassed by a movie with all of the Hollywood trimmings. Armstrong serves as a fact-based, low-glitz alternative that probably tells the story in the manner its subject would have preferred.

Armstrong is now available on VOD.

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Posted by Ari Coine