Posts Tagged ‘Rolling Stone’

“Better Call Saul” Thoughts, Season One, Episode Eight: “RICO”

Friday, March 27th, 2015

Better Call Saul: the feel-good hit of the season? It was tonight, anyway. This week’s episode, “Rico,” administered a mainline hit of happiness from the start. Hard work, brotherly love, sticking up for the downtrodden, sticking it to bullies in business suits — if you didn’t know better, you’d think you’d tuned in to Disney movie about an underdog sports team. But the cinematography, pacing, and performances kept this surprisingly sweet Saul from sliding into schmaltz. You get to watch characters you like do something good, and do it very well. If that doesn’t put a grin on your face the size of a James Morgan McGill Esq. billboard, your case is hopeless.

I reviewed this week’s refreshingly chipper episode of Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone.


“Clear” and Present Danger: Alex Gibney on His Bold Scientology Doc

Thursday, March 19th, 2015

Though it helps humanize many current and former believers, Going Clear pulls no punches against Scientology’s biggest “celebrity megaphones” — especially its superstar public face, Tom Cruise. Both the book and film allege that Cruise, a close friend of Miscavige (who was the best man at the actor’s wedding), has benefited for years from a labor force of Sea Org clergy members. “I’m singling him out,” Wright says. “More people got interested in Scientology because of Tom Cruise than any other individual, and he knows what’s going on. He could effect change, and it’s on his shoulders that he should.”

Gibney is harsher still. “For [Cruise] not to denounce, or at least investigate, what’s going on seems appalling to me,” he says. “He gets a lot of money and a lot of privilege from a lot of fans, and the idea that allows the vulnerable to be preyed upon in his name seems reprehensible.” In fact, Going Clear claims that Cruise’s own ex-wife, Nicole Kidman, fell victim to Scientology’s excesses herself. According to high-ranking defector Marty Rathbun, the Church wiretapped Kidman as part of a multifaceted campaign to drive the couple apart when Miscavige felt she was pulling him away from his faith. Even to readers of Wright’s book, this is breaking news.

“That was something Marty told me in my interview,” Gibney says. “When he spoke to Larry for the book, emotionally, he still had one foot in the Church. [Rathbun] had been a key enforcer for them. To unravel those big lies takes years, and to undo the psychological damage that was done to him by the Church is a slow healing process. He was able to say things now about how aggressive the Church was, in terms of trying to get Cruise back, that he might not have been willing to say before.”

I interviewed Oscar and Emmy–winning director Alex Gibney, Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright, and high-ranking Scientology defector Mike Rinder about thir upcoming HBO documentary Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief for Rolling Stone. I’ve been working on this for a long time, and I hope you enjoy reading it.


“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Seven: “Bingo”

Tuesday, March 17th, 2015

Once again, Jimmy’s done the right thing at his own expense, robbing clients to save their bacon and then ordering them to re-hire Kim to save hers. But this unexpected career rebound makes her less likely than ever to leave the firm and partner with him, legally or otherwise. So he walks into the corner office he’d hoped she would one day occupy, closes the door, and flips out. Yelling, crying, punching the wall, venting years of personal and professional disappointment — who is this man, and what has he done with James Morgan McGill?

On Breaking Bad, Saul had three settings: greed, fear, and entertaining bullshit. The larval form we’ve come to know in BCS is a good deal more nuanced, yet he’s still been driven by a limited number of factors: frustration, finances, fraternal affection for his sick brother Chuck. But while we’ve seen him get bent over plenty of times, we’d never seen him break. Beneath the bluster is a human being in enough pain to make him literally lash out at the world. That’s the kind of hurt a person will radically remake their own life to avoid. It takes way more than a new name or a fancy new office, however, to leave yourself behind.

I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. The verdict: beautifully shot, way too much Kettleman.


“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Six: “Five-O”

Tuesday, March 10th, 2015

The alchemists of Europe had a saying that’s still popular among mystics and spiritual seekers: “As above, so below.” The idea is that the macrocosm and microcosm are mirror images; by understanding the forces that animate mind and body, we can unravel the mysteries of the universe. It’s a concept not without its uses, art-wise: Style and substance are indivisible. Writers, musicians, and filmmakers make both large and small choices that are reflective of one another. Major themes can be glimpsed through minor details, visuals can echo dialogue, and the point of view of a character might hold the key to an entire TV show.

It’s this process that powers “Five-O,” tonight’s stunning episode of Better Call Saul. In shifting its focus almost entirely from hard-luck lawyer Jimmy McGill to aged ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut, the show also alters its look, its sound and its feel — all of this a mere six episodes into its first season. Characters are bathed in darkness and immersed in long stretches of silence, while the editing fades from one scene to the next like a dream…or a nightmare. And we see a side of Mike himself — multiple sides, even — that we’d never come close to discovering before.

I reviewed tonight’s absolutely wondrous episode of Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. I cannot overstate the power of Jonathan Banks’s performance.


“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Five: “Alpine Shepherd Boy”

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

But it’s the Mike material that sees the episode really come alive, though it does so with barely a whisper. After some 40 minutes of funny old folks, space blankets, and poop jokes, things suddenly get somber. Mike sits a lonely vigil in his toll booth, an illuminated island in a sea of parking-lot darkness. He eats alone, rubbing his furrowed brow. He parks outside a woman’s home (his daughter’s?), exchanging a drawn-out glance with her as she drives away. He returns to his own house, watching old movies and drinking a cold one by his lonesome. The stately pace, steady camera work, and lack of dialogue throughout the sequence create an atmosphere of tension and menace; when a shadow moves past Mike’s window, you half expect a cartel assassin to burst in, guns blazing.

I reviewed last night’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 18: “Everyone Has a Cobblepot”

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

The Scarecrow. The Joker, maybe. Fish Mooney carving her own eye out with a spoon. Gotham has really been cooking lately, and the madness and mayhem of its villians are what’s kept the fire burning. In that light, the prospect of an episode about bad apples in the GCPD is about as welcome as a VIP pass to a nightclub performance by the Penguin’s mom. But on the mean streets of Gotham City, miracles, like full-body transplants, can happen. And tonight’s cop-centric installment “Everyone Has a Cobblepot” was the latest in a long line of beautifully berserk hours of pseudo-superhero TV.

I reviewed this week’s Gotham for Rolling Stone.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 17: “Red Hood”

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

If you say a show is “firing on all cylinders,” you conjure an image of a vehicle moving at maximum speed, all its component parts working together for optimum effect. Gotham, on the other hand, may be more like the Wonkamobile. But its tonally disconnected bangs and clangs and explosions are, at this point, no less formidable than the proverbial well-oiled machine. The past few weeks have shown that if the show jerry-rigs enough weird, wild, occasionally emotional parts together, the whole can be a real whiz-bang contraption. And tonight’s episode — “Red Hood” — had plenty of pop to go around.

For starters, Jada Pinkett Smith carved her own eyeball out with a spoon.

I reviewed last week’s Gotham for Rolling Stone.


“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Four: “Hero”

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2015

Just four episodes out of the gate, Better Call Saul is proving to be one of the most visually striking and well-acted shows currently on television. When Saul and his patsy drunkenly discuss wolf howls outside their town’s shut-down bars, or when Jimmy stands inside the Day Nail & Spa salon at night, the shots are like something out of an Edward Hopper painting. Michael McKean continues to impress as Jimmy’s mentally ill older brother Chuck, selling both the man’s pride in his baby bro’s supposed accomplishments and his crushing disappointment after risking (he thinks) his life to find out whether they’re true. As Kim, actor Rhea Seehorn has an easy rapport with Bob Odenkirk, playfully slapping his hands away from the controls of her massage chair when she comes to visit him. (She wants to go see The Thing on the big screen? She’s a keeper.) And there’s Odenkirk himself, playing an orange shirt/magenta tie man in a Haml-indigo Blue world. It’s going be a thrill to watch him suit up for real.

I reviewed last week’s Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 16: “The Blind Fortune Teller”

Saturday, February 21st, 2015

[Showrunner Bruno] Heller has been cagey about Jerome, the gibbering ginger played by Shameless star Cameron Monaghan, refusing to outright label him the Caped Crusader’s future archnemesis. On the one hand, that’s good mythos management: The Joker has no official origin, a fact Heath Ledger’s interpretation of the character got a lot of murderous mileage out of in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. (“You wanna know how I got these scars?”) He could be anyone and no one — a big part of his terrifying allure.

On the other hand, Gotham’s reluctance to call Jerome the J-word could just be another example of genre television’s post-Lost fixation on mystery over meaning. Raise a bunch of questions, promise “the answers,” throw the audience a bunch of red herrings (or in this case a redhead), rinse, repeat. And if the series is teasing their Joker-to-be only to eventually reveal otherwise, it’d hardly be the first time a superhero show faked out its audience.

So what’s the best strategy for enjoying the character, in all his villainous potential? Ignore Jack Nicholson’s advice and don’t think about the future. Just appreciate Jerome for what he is: a little jolt of Joker-esque mirth and mayhem. He’s surrounded by the Cirque du Insanity trappings that have come with the character ever since creators Jerry Robinson, Bill Finger, and Bob Kane thought him up. Does Monaghan lay it on a little thick? You bet. So what? This is (maybe) the most famously gleeful, gloriously over-the-top supervillain we’re talking about here. Restraint is not his strong suit. If you can’t camp it up as the Clown Prince of Crime, what has this society come to?

Ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight? I reviewed this week’s Gotham for Rolling Stone.


“Better Call Saul” Thoughts, Season One, Episode Three: “Nacho”

Monday, February 16th, 2015

Conscience costs quarters. Poor panicked Jimmy McGill must have gone through half a roll of ‘em during his frantic attempts to save the would-be clients Craig and Betsy Kettleman, using nothing but Albuquerque’s conveniently located payphones. But whether he was jerry-rigging a voice modulator to warn the family or leaving voicemail after voicemail for their supposed captor, Jimmy gained something even as his wallet lost weight: our respect. “Nacho,” tonight’s Better Call Saul episode, showed that once upon a time, the Man Who Would Be Saul cared about people — which makes it a whole lot easier to care about him.

I reviewed tonight’s excellent Better Call Saul for Rolling Stone. We’re lucky this show is this good this early.


“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode Two: “Mijo”

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

Would it be weird to call Better Call Saul lovely? Okay, not during the leg-breaking. Or the screaming about the leg-breaking. Or the vomiting after the leg-breaking. But still! After tonight’s episode “Mijo,” that’s the word that comes to mind. With its lyrical, impressionistic approach to filmmaking, largely absent from the airwaves since co-creator Vince Gilligan said, “It’s all over now, baby blue meth” to Breaking Bad in 2013, this prequel show makes for sumptuous viewing, even though its story has yet to deliver a real “this is a must see” moment….Much has been made of whether Better Call Saul has a reason to exist, given how completely its predecessor mastered this milieu. But isn’t quality reason enough? The two-part, two-night premiere of BCS has given us an unusual character (very different from an everyman who starts cooking crystal to make ends meet), and used every tool in its visual, aural, and editing arsenal to make his pre-Heisenberg life something memorable and enjoyable to watch. If that story never transforms into the runaway train that Walt’s did, so what? Stop and smell the vending-machine coffee instead.

The second episode of Better Call Saul was also very, very good. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 15: “The Scarecrow”

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Hit the Bat-signal and spread the word: Gotham is crawling out its slump. For the second week in a row, strong writing for the series heavies, from its dueling Dons to the once and future Scarecrow, injected much-needed mirth and menace into the often shaky show. Serious flaws are still abound, but you may be having too much fun to notice.

For starters, a Scarecrow was born, as teenage Jonathan Crane receives a hot shot of toxin so strong it warps his mind forever. (If he only had a brain!) But while his J-horror-meets-4H hallucinations of straw men with gaping maws and fiery eyes were reasonably creepy, it was his father,Dr. Gerald Crane (a realistically rumpled Julian Sands), who was the episode’s true nightmare. His pseudoscientific scheme to rid himself of fear by essentially overdosing on it made intuitive, if not biological, sense; when it comes to supervillainy, that’s more than enough. The point was driven home most effectively not by Crane’s hallucinations of his incinerated wife, but by something more prosaic. “Think I’m afraid of you? Afraid of your guns?” he asks when the cops corner him — then immediately comes out blasting, right out there in the open, bullets be damned. That jolt of surprise delivered the message in a way that medical monologues or syringe close-ups couldn’t.

I liked another episode of Gotham! I reviewed tonight’s ep for Rolling Stone.


“Better Call Saul” thoughts, Season One, Episode One: “Uno”

Sunday, February 8th, 2015

How do you get there from here? Breaking Bad loved answering this question. Four of its six premieres began with cold opens depicting mysterious future events, only to slowly rewind time and march us toward these inevitable destinations episode by episode. Better Call Saul, the new prequel series from co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, takes this technique of narrative reverse-engineering and recreates it on a much larger scale. We already know how Saul Goodman, the con-artist formerly known as Jimmy McGill, ends up: disgraced, alone, working behind the counter of a shopping-mall Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska. What’s more, we’re intimately familiar with his story’s whole final volume: how Saul scored the biggest client of his life and eventually caused him to lose everything. The question, then, is this: Will Jimmy McGill’s long, winding road to “Saul Goodman” — and to the moment that Walter White walks into his office — be worth the trip?

Based on Better Call Saul‘s Gilligan-directed pilot episode “Uno,” the answer is yes — and despite the show’s pedigree, that was in no way a sure thing. Even great shows tend to start with their broadest material, playing to the cheap seats in order to keep butts planted firmly in them. Astute viewers may recall that Breaking Bad itself began as a splatstick black comedy before reaching its dark and terrible final form around the end of the second season, with the one-two punch of a death-by-vomit and a plane going down. Even if you feel that the series finale wrapped things up too neatly and let Heisenberg off the hook too easily, the show was brutally suspenseful, morally uncompromising, and beautifully made right up until that final pulled punch.

But “Uno” earns a favorable verdict by playing to its predecessor’s quieter strengths, not trying to top its loudest ones. That starts with Vince Gilligan, the showrunner responsible for what was arguably the most stylistically bold and formally inventive show in the New Golden Age canon. So many scenes and sequences in “Uno” were simply beautiful: the hand-held, off-center aesthetic of the black-and-white “present day” opening; the piss-yellow palette and florescent-lightbulb hum of the courthouse; the torchlit darkness of the house of Jimmy’s sick older brother, Chuck McGill, a man stuck in an enveloping cloud of obvious mental illness. If you fondly remember Bad‘s visual panache — from those pants floating in the air to that pink teddy bear, from those musical montages to that crawl-space freakout — this premiere episode makes the case that you’ve got a lot to look forward to.

I reviewed the series premiere of Better Call Saul, which was very good and not in the ways I expected, for Rolling Stone. I’m psyched to be covering the show this season!


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 14: “The Fearsome Dr. Crane”

Monday, February 2nd, 2015

Whoa, whoa, whoa: Was that really the same Bat-time, same Bat-channel we just watched?

Tonight’s episode of Gotham, “The Fearsome Dr. Crane,” was clever, creepy, funny on purpose, deliberately disturbing (instead of thoughtlessly so), and graced with an excellent villain-of-the-week. In other words, it was everything the show has not been for a long, long while. The temptation here might be to use it as a Batarang and lob it at every other half-hearted installment this lackadaisical longform origin story has given us, but I don’t think that’s what Thomas and Martha Wayne would want, may they rest in peace. This was a good hour of TV, for God’s sake. Let’s just enjoy it while it lasts.

I liked tonight’s episode of Gotham. I repeat: I liked tonight’s episode of Gotham. I reviewed it for Rolling Stone. If I might suggest it, please pay attention to the last graf, where I talk about the episode’s approach to horror, which was enormously effective.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 13: “Welcome Back, Jim Gordon”

Tuesday, January 27th, 2015

Let us now sing the praises of no man’s lands. “Welcome Back, Jim Gordon,” tonight’s episode of Gotham, features two brief scenes shot in semi-subterranean nether-regions, places that exist solely as way-stations between the places you actually want to go. In the first, anonymous goons in the employ of Don Falcone wheel a gurney with an unseen, unknown passenger through an equally unfamiliar — and underlit — abandoned warehouse-cum-torture laboratory of a mob Mengele named Bob.

In the second, recently reinstated Detective Jim Gordon chases a corrupt cop called Delaware down into the GCPD’s parking garage, cuffing him on the hood of his car and rifling through his trunk for contraband. Cold blue daylight shines down through grates in the ceiling while vertically mounted florescents on every column radiate a sickly green. The settings may not be unique, especially in dark genre fare, but they’re beautifully visualized nonetheless — sprawling yet claustrophobic, creepy and lovely to look at.

If emphasizing the lighting and set dressing in a couple of throwaway sequences gives the impression that there’s not much else worth praising here…well, yeah, pretty much. Corruption within the Gotham City Police Department has driven the story of some of the best Batman comics of all time, from Frank Miller and David Mazzuchelli’s Batman: Year One to Ed Brubaker, Greg Rucka, and Michael Lark’s Gotham Central, two obvious influences on the show. Yet the topic’s handling here is as subtle as the character’s countless fists to each other’s face.

I reviewed tonight’s Gotham for Rolling Stone. It was Gotham, alright.


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode 12: “What the Little Bird Told Him”

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Over in the mob-war storyline, Fish Mooney finally makes her move against Don Falcone by staging a kidnapping of Liza, her mole in the boss’s inner circle. “I didn’t think it was going to be you,” Falcone tells Fish when she makes contact. After playing dumb for 15 seconds, she admits the plot is hers. His reply? “Of course it is. How long have I known you? You’re the smart one in the family, didn’t I always say so?” So he didn’t think Fish would betray him, but he’s known her so long and admired her intelligence so much that “of course” he knew she betrayed him? These lines come less than a minute apart in the same conversation!

I reviewed this week’s atrociously written episode of Gotham for Rolling Stone. Do stick around for the comments; angry Gotham fans are easily the most adorable angry TV fans.


STC on DeForge in RS

Monday, January 19th, 2015

The new issue of Rolling Stone, with Stevie Nicks on the cover, features a little piece by me on First Year Healthy, the excellent new graphic novel from Michael DeForge. Pick it up and check it out!


The 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the ’70s

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

18. ‘THX 1138’ (1971)

As visually and sonically stunning as anything George Lucas would later do in a galaxy far far away, his future-fascistic nightmare is a pure product of the decade’s New Hollywood renaissance, exploring sex, drugs, mind-numbing television, governmental malfeasance, and both the necessity and futility of rebellion. Robert Duvall is quietly tremendous as the movie’s equivalent of 1984‘s Winston Smith. It’s not just a film, it’s a jumping-off point for an alternate universe in which George Lucas’s body of work veers closer to Sixties cerebral sci-fi than Thirties serials.

“What’s wrong?” I contributed a couple of items to Rolling Stone’s list of the 50 Best Sci-Fi Movies of the ’70s.


Rolling Stone’s 2015 Preview

Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Better Call Saul (AMC, February 8th)

We all know the story of Walter White, but how did his lawyer break bad? That’s the intriguing idea behind AMC’s so-crazy-it-just-might-work prequel to Breaking Bad, in which Bob Odenkirk reprises his role as Saul Goodman (née Jimmy McGill), the sleazy but skillful lawyer to Albuquerque’s lowlifes. Rejoining Odenkirk and showrunner Peter Gould (the character’s original writer) are Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and costar Jonathan Banks as the infamous fixer Mike Ehrmantraut. Origin story, bitch!

I was moving last week when this went up, so I missed it, but I contributed thoughts on several upcoming works of note to Rolling Stone’s big 2015 pop-culture preview. Enjoy!


“Gotham” thoughts, Season One, Episode Eleven: “Rogues’ Gallery”

Tuesday, January 6th, 2015

Movies, video games, toys, movies based on video games based on toys: The Bat-Signal has cast the Dark Knight’s shadow on such an enormous portion of the pop-culture landscape that it’s now possible for a generation of Bat-fans to never once crack the cover of a single comic book. And now that Gotham exists, they really don’t need to. Episodes like tonight’s return from winter break — “Rogues’ Gallery” — recreate the experience of reading a mediocre Bat-book so perfectly that they all but feel plucked from a back-issue bin at a Comic-Con dealer’s table. The isolated moments of zany inspiration and compelling atmospherics, surrounded by scene after scene of ham-fisted character work, inert dialogue, and rehashed crime/cop/horror clichés — it’s not a great deal, but at least Gotham is free with your broadcast package, and Senator Clay Davis makes a cameo.

Guess who’s officially covering Gotham for Rolling Stone now?