Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 305: “Chicanery”

In the days since the fifth episode of Better Call Saul‘s third season aired I’ve convinced myself that it’s one of the best episodes of television that I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. “Chicanery” is great, almost in spite of how little action actually happens on the screen–most of the action takes place during one scene inside the courtroom of Jimmy’s disbarment hearing–although these characters advance exponentially over the course of 45 minutes. It’s cliche to say that lines are drawn and things will never be the same, yet it rings true for this episode of monumental importance.

The action in the courtroom is what surprised and impressed me that most on both a narrative and cinematic standpoint. Director Daniel Sackheim and his cinematographer Marshall Adams manage to make every shot from that tight courtroom feel claustrophobic and vital, never extraneous and consistently gorgeous. There’s a real struggle with realistically lighting dark rooms due to Chuck’s sensitivity, yet the crew of Better Call Saul does it each week with aplomb. This week it’s not only the courtroom, but  Chuck’s home in a cold open flashback to a dinner with Rebecca, now Chuck’s ex-wife. Not only is the the cold open lit almost entirely by candlelight as Chuck lies to Rebecca about his condition, but it’s also tinged with blue, a unique choice for flashback, but one that the show has used so well.

Each scene in this episode is heart-wrenching, but the cold open with Rebecca might take the prize. The show tries very hard to make Chuck relatable, or at the very least understandable, and it succeeds, yet it still can’t make Chuck likable. I don’t think that’s necessarily the intention of the writers–his actions are insufferable and his motives are often frustrating, but we understand that his tumultuous relationship with his brother and with the Law define who he is. These two come to a head during the episode’s final act, as Jimmy cross-examines his brother.

The entire episode builds to this one set piece. Watching the episode again, days later, “Chicanery” has a narratively cinematic vibe that is unparalleled. Each character gets their own scene before the dramatic tension of the hearing–Jimmy as he employs the familiar Huell Babineaux, Kim as she saves face to Mesa Verde by opening up to them about her legal predicament, and Hamlin telling Chuck, in lesser words, that he cares most about his firm, and not the man whose surname follows his own in the firm’s name. Unlike other episodes this season, the absence of characters from our other storyline (Nacho, Mike, Gus) doesn’t feel jarring, and indeed it feels necessary. Rhea Seehorn, Michael McKean, and Bob Odenkirk are remarkable in this episode, and all should submit this episode for consideration for this year’s Emmy nominations.

The tension between Chuck and Jimmy holds this episode together. They little ways they one up each other is both petty and awesome in the truest sense of the word. Jimmy’s actions in this episode have the potential to ruin Chuck’s life; Jimmy embarrasses him publicly in the legal setting that Chuck most admires, and he also embarrasses him in front of the woman he still loves when Jimmy brings in Rebecca to view the proceedings. Jimmy may have tainted Chuck’s life in a way that he cannot recover from, yet Chuck has been striving to do the same thing throughout the series. It’s Chuck’s own folly that he’s not as quick as his brother is.

A+. Television critics and scholars will be talking about this episode long after Better Call Saul has ended. 

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 304: “Sabrosito”

In the few days since this episode has aired (it’s taken me a bit longer than usual to digest this one), I have called it one of the most satisfying episodes of television I’ve ever seen. Three days after its initial airing, I’m sticking to my initial praise: “Sabrosito” is the best episode of Better Call Saul‘s third season, so far, and manages to piece together the show’s interweaving storylines in a way that I knew was capable, but was itching to see since the first second of the season’s first episode “Mabel.”

As per usual, Mike Ehrmantraut is the glue that holds these two superficially different shows together. The first half of this week’s episode focused solely on Mike’s new friendemy Gustavo Fring and his dealings with Hector Salamanca, as well as Don Eladio (Steven Bauer, yet another Breaking Bad reprisal). We see the initial jealousy form between Hector and Gustavo here, a brilliantly intelligent touch that I never really thought we’d see explored in such detail, as Hector realizes that Gus is quickly becoming Don Eladio’s favorite drug smuggler, even though Hector has named his ice cream business after Eladio–“The Winking Greek. ”

Something that I’m frequently amazed with while watching this show is how well it makes you care for characters whose fates you are already aware of. The teaser of “Sabrosito,” which is entirely in Spanish, features no characters whose fates we are unsure of–Hector, Eladio, and Gus will all die within the decade. Still, I care for these characters, especially Mike, who doesn’t appear until a bit later. I’m captivated by their actions, thanks in large part due to the consistently wonderful ways they’re written–this episode was written by Jonathan Glazer.

After leaving Don Eladio’s home, a location I never though I’d see again, we’re transported back into Los Pollos Hermanos, where Nacho appears for the first time this season. I’ve missed him dearly and, although he doesn’t do much, his presence is always appreciated as Michael Mando just has a way about standing there and looking menacing. The scene in Los Pollos where Hector intimidates the customers and employees is so well done and so captivating on numerous levels that I had to remind myself I was watching Better Call Saul and not an episode of Breaking Bad. Show co-creator Vince Gilligan is on record as saying that “Sabrosito” is like the 64th episode of Breaking Bad, and I can see why.

Part of this feeling is because Jimmy and Kim do not appear until more than halfway through the episode, an incredibly brave choice that I’ve noted in Better Call Saul before. Even when Jimmy does appear though, the presence of Mike continues to remind audiences that much more is at work in this universe than Jimmy’s conflict with his brother. Mike posing as a handyman and fixing Chuck’s broken down door, all the while playing spy for Kim and Jimmy is hilarious and comically jarring as he and Chuck had never appeared in a scene together before. There is more going on in this storyline than meets the eye, as evidenced by a fair amount of suspicious conversation about the price of a cassette tape, yet the writers and directors of Better Call Saul will reveal this information slowly, milking every second of their limited ten episode per season run.

Although it is a near perfect episode of television, “Sabrosito” still feels like two separate television shows in many ways. There’s not quite the same kind of concrete uniformity as in Breaking Bad (everything revolved around Walter in that show), yet that can be attributed to the fact that there are two main characters in Better Call Saul: Jimmy and Mike. For now I’ll enjoy getting two TV shows for the price of one, but I anxiously await the moment when Jimmy is drawn into the Gustavo Fring cycle of scum and villainy.

A.

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 303: “Sunk Costs”

I’m of the opinion that there will never be any kind of equilibrium for any of these characters, at least not for the duration of Better Call Saul. Even Saul Goodman won’t get much equilibrium in his future, as Walter White will certainly come along, yet in this timeline, too, it feels impossible. There will always be a case, always something to work out, and always something to prevent Jimmy, our flawed hero, from succeeding in his life.

Still, the ending of “Sunk Costs” almost feels like it could be happy one. Kim and Jimmy share a cigarette, hatch a plan, and hold hands to form an “M” with their arms, an undeniably sweet moment in an episode that hadn’t been full of them for Jimmy. He’s already been arrested, booked, and released on bail, so this moment with Kim feels all the more important to him. He’s realized that Chuck is likely aiming to disbar him, yet he and Kim have a line of defense. Only time will tell if it succeeds–smart money is that no, it will not–yet there’s a semblance of happiness among the partners at law, and maybe that’s what they need as troubled waters sit in their way. Speaking of Kim, there’s a brilliant Bond-esque montage of Kim getting herself ready in the morning, as she’s sleeping in the office and getting ready for her day in the gym across the street. She walks out of gym, clean and refreshed, along with the people covered in sweat from working out. I half-expected the building to blow up behind her as she left.

Mike, on the other hand, seems to be willing to wade in the troubled waters. Towards the beginning of the episode, Gus, who has still not been officially given his name, offers Mike the chance to get out, and to leave the Salamancas behind. Gus doesn’t want Hector Salamanca dead, not yet at least, but he doesn’t want Mike messing around with him either. Giancarlo Esposito, who has been promoted to the main cast starting with this episode, is still so terrifying as Gus, especially when he’s dressed in all black and framed against the desert. Again, the show is phenomenal at de-escalating and not giving us what we want. It would be all too easy for Gus and Mike to willingly team up together yet that isn’t the case, although Mike certainly pulls off an elaborate stab at the Salamanca ice cream truck/drug dealing operation. It’ll take a while for Gus and Mike to fully embrace each other’s unique talents, just like everything else on this show.

Chuck continues to become one of the more despicable villains in the Gilligan-verse, which is saying a lot when people like Gus Fring and Walter White are walking around. I think the reason that Chuck’s villainy feels so cold is because he still thinks he’s doing something good for Jimmy. Keeping Jimmy in the mailroom is exactly the same thing as pressing charges against him, with he methodically does this episode, and Chuck justifies his own actions by saying that he’s helping his brother out. I anticipated Jimmy to call Chuck a “pig fucker” in this episode, yet his ice-cold assessment of Chuck’s future health issues is even worse.

I briefly noted last week that certain characters have yet to make any kind of impact on the show so far this season, specifically Michael Mando’s Nacho (and Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin was also absent this week). There is a delicate balance that shows with large casts of characters have to juggle week-in and week-out to effectively showcase all of its working pieces, and I do think Better Call Saul does that well, yet this week it felt a little off. An “off” episode of Better Call Saul is better than just about anything on television though, and the show barrels on to the ever-promising future.

B.

Review: Better Call Saul, Episode 302 – “Witness”

I often find myself asking what I want from this series. I have not been shy in saying that I think the first two seasons of Better Call Saul were superior in almost every way to Breaking Bad and I have loved watching characters like Kim and Nacho go toe to toe with BB stalwarts Saul and Mike, yet I still love the thrill as BCS gets closer to its predecessor. Last night’s episode, “Witness,” directed by Vince Gilligan and written by Thomas Schanuz, was no exception to my perilous situation and I say without irony that I had a big, dopey smile on my face the entire time. Better Call Saul got as close as possible to Breaking Bad last night, yet I don’t think it will stay that way as the season progresses. It sure as hell was a fun ride, though.

As everyone with a pulse knew would happen, Giancarlo Esposito and his character Gustavo Fring made their triumphant return to the world of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the extended scene of his return is one of the best the show has ever done. Eager to explore his criminal side, Jimmy agrees to help Mike spy on a man whom he has tracked to Los Pollos Hermanos, a familiar sight. Jimmy, whose willingness to break bad makes him very much like Saul Goodman but whose inability to stay innocuous makes him very much like Jimmy McGill, almost stumbles into the chicken restaurant following the man that Mike has tracked. Ordering food and a coffee, Jimmy sits down yet keeps his eyes on his man the entire time, a rookie mistake in the world of tailing and an obvious one under the watchful eye of Gus Fring. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how often I laughed at Jimmy try to stay under-the-radar and how funny I found this entire scene to be. Why would Jimmy think it’s a good idea to move closer to someone and then stare at them the entire time if he’s trying to not be obvious? Bob Odenkirk’s performance here is perfectly awkward and one almost forgets that Gus Fring is about to pop out and confront him. It’s great to see Esposito in this character once more, yet my eyes were on Jimmy and his almost-transformation. He doesn’t know just how far this path will take him, but his youthful innocent exudes and he’s more than willing to let the criminal side of his character break through the legal facade he tries to show the world. Jimmy even wants to tail the target, and barely takes no for an answer when Mike tells him he doesn’t need his help. “I’ve got your back,” this eager Jimmy/Saul hybrid says to Mike. Jimmy is no Saul, not yet, and this is an early lesson in stealth and criminality that bites Mike quite immediately and will no doubt implicate Jimmy in the long run.

Meanwhile, Jimmy has more important things to worry about than the mustard-colored suit that confronted him in Los Pollos Hermanos. Chuck has played the long con (which only needed eight days to come to fruition) by banking on Ernesto running to Jimmy and Kim to tell them about Chuck’s tape recording. Kim willfully becomes Jimmy’s legal representation, despite the fact that she knows he’s guilty, yet he isn’t interested in legal action. He drives to Chucks, breaks in and destroys the tape, all in front of Howard Hamlin and a bodyguard hired by HHM. This admission of guilt will get Jimmy in trouble, as well as his break-in of his brother’s home, and the wall protecting Jimmy from the world is starting to crumble.

The episode opens and closes with scenes in Chuck’s home, although his villainy shines through the episode. It feels strange calling Chuck a villain, and his evolution into an antagonist of the show is one of the more careful evolutions that Gilligan & Co. have done. I frequently hate Chuck for being a foil to Jimmy, yet I feel bad for him as well. He’s obviously sick, his wife left him (as Jimmy calls out to him in this episode), and his morals are seemingly in the best place. Michael McKean plays him so well, and he’s a sympathetic character, but he’s also a sonofabitch, and his faux-goodness is the worst thing about him.

“Witness” is careful in moving the plot forward, and more or less is an extension of last week’s “Mabel” in its set up of the entire season. In many ways this episode is thrilling and does a perfect job at increasing tension, yet it also continues the ignoring on Michael Mando’s Nacho character. It makes sense that, through his involvement with the Salamanca’s, Nacho would also be involved with Fring, yet I don’t see how he’ll play into this season just yet. Mando’s placement in the main cast has always felt off–he only appeared in four episodes of the ten episode first season–yet he’s a great character and I look forward to seeing more of him. Will that be next week? Will this show become all about Gus from this point on? How will Jimmy worm his way out of the punishment of the law? I can’t wait to find out.

A- 

Marvel Promises More “Guardians,” More James Gunn

In a move which surprised utterly no one, James Gunn announced today that he is returning to the Marvel Cinematic Universe to direct and write the third installment of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise, the second of which opens in theaters the first weekend of May. Unlike a usual announcement, which would come from the higher-ups at Marvel, Gunn announced the news himself on his Facebook page, revealing the news to millions of fans who, like myself, were unsurprised at this news.

Marvel (and by proxy, Disney) has proven time and time again that they don’t when to quit, so at this point I have the expectation that they will not quit, regardless of where their storylines go. Gunn mentions in his post that the Marvel Universe has been leading up to Infinity War, in which the Guardians of the Galaxy will appear. Speculation about the nature of their appearance has run rampant both before and after Marvel confirmed they would be in the film, yet these preemptive announcements take a little bit out of the excitement of Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, at least for me. I will, of course, go into Vol. 2 with the assumption that no real threat will befall our heroes and that they will survive  for the events of Infinity War, but I have no idea what to expect from the latter film. Although Marvel hasn’t been known for killing their main characters, or even changing them significantly from one film to another, their persistence that Infinity War is some kind of end-of-the-road film where all bets are off creates a new kind of hype surrounding that film. Anything could seemingly happen in that two-parter, the first part hitting theaters next summer, but now, with this confirmation of Guardians 3, we can safely assume that those characters will make it through the world-defining Infinity War struggle unscathed.

Herein lies my biggest problem with Disney/Marvel. Although superhero fatigue has set in–many of their films have failed to reach the levels of their predecessors–Marvel continues to announce an onslaught of further and further productions. Last week, news popped up that Disney also does not have an end for the Star Wars franchise in sight, although the ninth episode and conclusion of The Force Awakens trilogy will bow in 2019.  The money will continue to roll into the pockets of Disney executives and the studio will pump out further and further adaptations and sequels.

Still, James Gunn expresses desire in his Facebook post that the this iteration of the Guardians will end with the third installment. On one hand, I have absolute faith that Gunn will handle these unique characters with ease and end their story appropriately. On the other hand, I fully expect Disney to announce a new iteration of the series soon after. This is the company which has given the world three Spider-Man series in 15 years, after all.

Review: Better Call Saul, Season Three, Episode One – “Mabel”

Many reviewers have noted that this season of Better Call Saul feels like a slow burn–or at the very least, the first two episodes feel as such because that’s all that was released to critics in advance. After the first episode I can agree with my contemporaries, and, although the particularly slow nature of “Mabel” should be acknowledged, Better Call Saul has always taken its sweet time in giving the audience what it wants, and expects.

This is a show that spends the first five minutes of each season with black and white shots of a mall in Omaha, Nebraska, following a balding man named Gene as he performs menial tasks. In the cold open for this episode, Gene (the future Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk) eats a sandwich on the second floor of his mall when a kid runs by, DVDs falling out of his oversized coat that screams “I have stolen electronics.” Gene watches silently and, like always, there’s some very complex acting going on as Gene debates whether or not to protect the kid or to rat him out to the police. Ultimately Gene’s too scared to defy the police and tells them where the kid is, but Saul peeks out from behind the apron just a tad as Gene yells at the kid to get a lawyer. Show creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have teased that these flash-forwards of Gene could become more frequent, and I would actually be surprised if we did not see more of black-and-white Omaha this season.

The rest of the episode can be summed up in a few sentences. Chuck plans to do something ominous with the tape of Jimmy confessing to altering the Mesa Verde documents. Jimmy faces trouble from the marine featured in last season’s “Fifi” and Kim’s perfectionist nature is contrasted with Jimmy. Mike tracks down the mystery person who left the “Don’t” note on his car in last season’s finale. Mike’s time in the episode–almost half, which has become the norm for this series–is especially slow, and often features Mike sitting alone and waiting for something to happen, with very little dialogue making the final cut. Jonathan Banks gets plenty of time to be methodical this episode, and I am monumentally impressed with how much he can convey through his body language. Vince Gilligan obviously thinks the same thing and this episode, which he co-wrote and directed, showcases the beauty of the simple acts of Mike’s life.

I was particularly attached to Kim in this episode as well, although she too is given relatively little to do. Burdened with the knowledge that she’s advancing her career because of an illegal act, Kim tries to draw as little attention to herself as possible, even making the preliminary paperwork for her Mesa Verde casework perfect down to the punctuation (should she use a semi-colon? I’m fond of the dash myself.) This season will not be an easy one for Kim as Jimmy comes closer to Saul Goodman. Although Rhea Seehorn has mentioned in recent interviews that it’s possible for her character to have a relationship with Saul Goodman during the timeline of Breaking Bad, I don’t see that happening. Kim can’t handle Jimmy’s antics, and every day she’s reminded of the ultimate burden that he will bring on her career–in “Mabel,” she takes a few of his elderly clients, although she hadn’t planned on it. As we’re accustomed to, Rhea Seehorn is tremendous even in the little amount of screen time she gets. If I had had a blog last season, it would have been non-stop ranting about Seehorn because she is truly remarkable in this role, and I’ve often described her as the best female character on television.

More so than ever Better Call Saul is building to something. It’s common knowledge that we’ll meet a younger Gustavo Fring in the next episode, yet this show does a great job of not letting that fact define the season. “Mabel” is a bit of a filler episode, yet one that avoids “filler” stereotypes by being a very solid hour of television in its own right, and one that successfully has its audience asking for more.

A-.

The Ever-Changing Rules of the Academy

Apparently unable to keep a homeostasis for very long, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet again changed its rules of eligibility, effective for the 90th Academy Awards next February.

Numerous categories were affected as the changes were announced on Friday, yet most notably changed was the Best Documentary Feature category. Despite O.J.: Made in America winning Best Documentary in February as a film and also serving as a TV documentary mini-series, the Academy has now ruled that documentary series are now longer eligible for the award. Although O.J. was not mentioned in the press release announcing the rule change, this alteration feels, to me, like a direct response to a film which met Academy qualifications last year by premiering in theaters before it aired on television. This rule seems to make it unnecessarily difficult for worthy films to be nominated for Oscars, and the Academy seems to be limiting their own goal of finding the year’s best films (O.J. topped my best-of film list for 2016, as well as numerous critics). Traditional, theatrically released docs are not the only way to make an exceptional film, although the Academy seems to be preserving some sense of superiority by limited the category in such a way. ESPN’s latest documentary We the Fans, which premieres on April 11th as the first part of an eight-part series is now no longer eligible for the Academy Awards, yet may be eligible for the Primetime Emmy Awards comes September.

Of course the Academy is not shy about changing its rules in one way, sometimes directly after changing them in another way. The best example of this in my lifetime is the recent rule changes for the Best Picture category. In 2009, before the 82nd Awards, the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominated films to ten, although it only stayed that way for two years. A response to populous films like The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) not being nominated, many now think the rule change was a failure mainly due to films such as The Blind Side (Hancock, 2009) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Daldry, 2010) receiving nominations. The category now hovers between five and ten, and very few films with mass appeal, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015) make the cut despite original intentions from the Academy.

I’m on the fence about the rules myself. I thoroughly believe the Oscars should do their best to honor the best films possible, yet their near-constant dismissal of films that received critical and commercial acclaim is baffling to me. Yes, some films that meet both qualifications have received nominations–Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010), Inception (Nolan, 2010), Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), and others. Still, the middle ground is irritating. There are far more than ten films released every year that deserve Best Picture nominations, and I see no harm in giving the Academy a minimum/maximum of ten to nominate. I do see the dilemma when films like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud get nominated, though. For the record I enjoy those films, yet calling them Best Picture-worthy feels odd to me. Perhaps the Academy is better being exclusive, live it was for decades upon decades, and only nominated five, often incredibly-worthy, films.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Seven – “You Get What You Need”

(As I wind down my reviews of Big Little Lies, I realized I have never given a proper spoiler warning at the front end of any of these posts. Here we go, for the first time and the last, SPOILER ALERT.)

The last shot of the last episode of Big Little Lies implies room for a sequel, one which probably will not and should not exist. While Reese Witherspoon is seemingly all for it, director Jean-Marc Vallée is not, likely because he realizes that it would be quite difficult to top the seven essentially perfect episodes that he and the show’s wonderful cast and crew have created. I’ve mentioned before that this show feels like the pinnacle of event television, and I stand by my claim after watching last night’s finale.

“You Get What You Need,” named after the Rolling Stones song and this beautiful cover of it, which played over last night’s credits, manages to push the drama to 11 and appropriately conclude the show’s core mystery: who killed whom and why? The majority of the finale’s third act is set at the fundraising gala that this show has so concerned itself with, and the tension that builds is palpable, at the same time as it is startlingly brutal, particularly when it comes to Celeste and Perry.

Celeste continues her move out during this episode, and things seem to be going to plan. Perry has yet to find out and the apartment is slowly becoming furnished and ready for her and her children to move in to. This changes the night of the gala when, in a fleeting moment, Perry picks up Celeste’s phone to find a message from Celeste’s realtor. Skarsgard’s cold delivery of his lines in this scene is subtle and easily the most bothersome aspect of his character. Later, on the way to the gal, he erupts, telling Celeste he has these demons inside of him and acknowledges that he’s a flawed husband. The audience knows he’s not going to change, yet this scene still serves as a ribbon on top of what has been an incredible seven episodes worth of performances from the Emmy-worthy Alexander Skarsgard. I didn’t go into this show thinking that it needed a villain, yet I’m happy it did because Skarsgard is wonderful.

This outburst from Skarsgard leads to the scenes at the gala, where Madeline continues to struggle with her adulterous nature–again playing on the aspect of voyuerism, Madeline watches Joseph and his wife from afar (and vice versa) during Ed’s performance of Elvis’ “The Wonder of You.” Madeline, in her own words, tries to hold on to a false sense of perfection, which makes sense when looking at her character. Witherspoon plays Madeline as someone who has far more to her than meets the eye: underneath the blonde bouncy facade is a tortured woman, one who struggles to not only be the mother she feels she should be, but also a wife who loves her husband deeply, yet can’t show it in a way that feels natural to her. She’s bare in the most realistic way, especially after Jane meets up with her at the often-showed stairs under construction outside the town’s civic center. Madeline reveals to Jane that she was unfaithful to Ed, and she is then joined by Renata, and then Celeste, who has once again escaped from Perry. At the same time, Bonnie picks up on clues that Celeste is in a dangerous situation and follows Perry as he follows Celeste. I truly cannot describe this in a just way: this scene is wonderfully edited and shot, and manages to be remarkably clear, despite the fact that it’s following these five women all at once.

I believe this is the first time, since the premiere episode at least, that the entire cast of women is together at once, but it feels vital that they only appear with one another so often. As Perry walks up and joins them, everything falls into place: like many people had presumed, Perry is Jane’s rapist. The moment of realization on behalf of Jane, Celeste, Madeline, and Perry is so wonderfully done and brilliantly executed that I was beside myself while watching it. The entire series led up to one singular moment, and Valleé, as well as the entire cast, pull it off with flying colors. As Perry struggles with the four women, Bonnie emerges the spoiler and shoves Perry over the edge, killing him. This is the show’s biggest little lie: all five women cover up the fact that Bonnie killed Perry, and, through an ending montage, we see the lives of the women returning to a sort of equilibrium. Still, perhaps not all is well. The aforementioned last shot is through a pair of binoculars, looking down at all five women and their children with the sound of a lighter flicking, Detective Quinlan’s signature move.

Although the finale leaves a possible follow up open I don’t think it’s needed. The open-ended conclusion seems fitting for a show that has so reveled in the lives of these women–nothing will ever be perfect, yet that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to achieve happiness. Even if I don’t think there should be a second season, I understand why Witherspoon and the rest of the cast would: with all the wonderful personalities on set, it had to have been the time of their lives filming. Instead, Big Little Lies can end with a strong sense of satisfaction for the women involved, knowing that they’ve gotten over this bump in their lives, and with gleeful blindness at what may happen next.

In Which Brent Recommends Three Things

The last week of March brought with it a plethora of pop culture, of which I devoured three things–this shouldn’t come as a surprise, right? I mean, I’ve spent the better part of the year reviewing HBO’s Big Little Lies, after all. While much of my week has also been spent re-watching the second season of Better Call Saul, which arrived on Netflix last Monday, I also managed to spend ample time in a movie theater to see two films currently in limited release, Raw (Ducournau, 2016) and Dark Night (Sutton, 2016).

On Wednesday March 29, my girlfriend and I made the drive to Nashville to see Raw at the lovely Belcourt Theatre near the campus of Vanderbilt University. She and I have both been looking forward to Raw since we saw the initial trailer late last year, and it did not disappoint either of us. The feature-length directorial debut for French filmmaker Julia Ducournau, Raw is about a young woman who enrolls in veterinary college, just as her entire family has done before her, including her older sister who is still a student. The student, Justine (the wonderful Garance Marillier in her film debut) is a vegetarian, also like her entire family, yet is quickly exposed to carnivore-ism as a result of the hazing rituals that the veterinary school employs. From there, the film quickly devolves into that of nightmares, and is full of both realistic and disturbing gore, as well as a fair amount of sexual activity. Saying a lot about this film is difficult without revealing too much, and the film actually works better if you go into knowing as little as possible. Still, the film is an impressively shot piece of art, bolstered mostly by Marillier’s performance, as well as Ducournau’s mature script and direction. A coming-of-age film at its most pure, Raw is a tough watch at times, although it is not nearly as graphically horrific as many reviews have claimed it to be. The film concludes as a metaphor for how far we, as humans, will go to be accepted by our peers, and is unflinching in its gaze, which both punishes and glorifies uniqueness and individuality. Raw is a film that will likely get better with every viewing, and I highly recommend it for fans of both horror, and of teen dramas. Check out showtimes and trailers for Raw on its website.

Last night I was lucky enough to catch another independent film in limited release, this time at the brand new Speed Cinema at the Speed Art Museum in Louisville, Kentucky. The film I saw, Dark Night, was introduced quite cautiously by a member of the museum and is, as the title suggests, a reflection of the 2012 Aurora shooting at the screen of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Although not a direct interpretation of the attack–indeed, there is a brief mention of the Aurora shooting, which strongly suggests that the attack in this film is a copycat attack of sorts–Dark Night uses the Aurora massacre as a sort of jumping off point to draw its own conclusions and to make its own powerful reflections on American society. The easiest comparison for this film is Elephant (Van Sant, 2003), but even that feels too easy a comparison. Dark Night is, above all else, a film about American desensitization and the physical and emotional distances that we put up to hide ourselves away. Many of the shots in this film are through mirrors, and almost every character expresses some sort of barricade: our ex-Marine is having a difficult time reintegrating into everyday life and is obsessed with guns, our young woman is a selfie queen, yet is hiding much more conflicting feelings about herself, and Jumper, this films eventual antagonist, hates the world and everything around him, only finding control and a place in this world in the film’s understated conclusion. Dark Night is a gorgeous film, and French cinematographer Hélène Louvart manages to find beauty in a dark world, one which she and director Tim Sutton strive to showcase in true colors. In a perfect world, Louvart would be nominated for an Academy Award come 2018.

My last recommendation is one that I won’t spend as much time on because it has already been written about extensively in the past week: the new podcast S-Town from the teams behind Serial and This American LifeS-Town, hosted by Brian Reed, is a glorious and hauntingly lovely podcast that, most notably, centers around the relationship between Reed and his muse, Alabama horologist John B. McLemore. S-Town is often compared to a novel, and that is the most accurate description I can give as well–bingeing through the seven episodes of the series, which were released all at once, is akin to feverishly reading a novel that you can’t get enough of. There are some wonderful articles about S-Town published in The New Yorker here and Vox here.

Spider-Man Thoughts

Spider-Man is easily my favorite superhero and I am an unashamed defender of nearly all of his feature films so far, save for one example: I absolutely loved The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but I did not enjoy Spider-Man 3, and the latter gets worse with each viewing. After the new trailer for the latest iteration Spider-Man: Homecoming dropped yesterday I had to reevaluate my overall thoughts about the franchise–after watching the trailer multiple times, of course.

First and foremost I do think this movie has some potential, and I’ll absolutely be waiting in line to see it on opening night. I was a huge fan of Tom Holland’s portrayal of the character in Captain America: Civil War, and I think the addition of actors such as Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revelori, Bookem Woodbine, and, particularly, Michael Keaton, give this movie a fresh, diverse group of talent. Although I am weary that the film has six credited screenwriters, I am quite excited for this film, apart from its awful title. Still, I don’t think this film needs to exist.

From a financial standpoint I do understand why this film has been made. Sony was desperate to move on from the lukewarm reception of Amazing Spider-Man 2 and their 2014 hack, while Marvel was itching to bring one of Marvel’s most popular heroes into their Cinematic Universe. Mutually, they agreed to co-produce the film pleasing fans almost universally, save maybe for people like me who loved Andrew Garfield’s take on the character. Despite this film’s good intentions, though, it feels like a cash grab to me. As Civil War shot to the top of the box office and the juggernaut of Star Wars continues to be the highest grossing film of the year even when it’s a mostly unrelated spinoff film like Rogue One, Disney and Marvel have proven that they are in it for the money, and we continue to give them ours.

I don’t want to sound cynical. I am monstrously excited for not only Homecoming but for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and I’ll buy my tickets for Star Wars: The Last Jedi months in advance, yet I wish we, America, gave a bit more attention to smaller independent films as well. (On a related note, I’ve bought tickets to see both Raw (Ducournau, 2016) and Dark Night (Sutton, 2016) this week so expect to see a mini-review of both of them in the coming days.)

You can check out the (very good) second trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming here.