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Daily Reads: Why ‘Better Call Saul’ Is the Anti-‘Breaking Bad,’ Shonda Rhimes on the Making of ‘Crossroads,’ and More

Daily Reads: Why 'Better Call Saul' Is the Anti-'Breaking Bad,' Shonda Rhimes on the Making of 'Crossroads,' and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Why “Better Call Saul” Is the Anti-“Breaking Bad.”
Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” won over the hearts of critics and audiences alike with its tight plots, anti-heroics, and visual splendor, “Better Call Saul,” Gilligan’s prequel series focusing on lawyer Saul Goodman’s fall from grace, has yet to truly catch on with the public, even though critics have stumped for it since it premiered last year. Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz argues that “Better Call Saul” is the anti-“Breaking Bad,” in mode and key.

All this allows Saul to work in a different key (minor) and a different mode (something like mid-period Elmore Leonard or “The Friends of Eddie Coyle”; or on television, “Justified” or “Terriers” or “The Rockford Files”). Characters are periodically threatened with fatal violence, but it’s more about what it does to them psychologically or the character shadings the threat reveals than the possibility that they might die — take when Jimmy fast-talks his way out of an execution or Mike declines to kill Tuco at Nacho’s urging, and instead contrives an altercation that sends Tuco to prison on assault and weapons charges (putting him out of commission until the “Breaking Bad” timeline, presumably). A lot of the show is dedicated problem-solving, not on the high-octane level that we used to see Walter White operate on, but on a more earthbound plane. If anything, Gilligan, series co-creator Peter Gould (a “Bad” alumnus), and their collaborators have turned the heat down in season two. Any given episode is likely to contain maybe eight to ten full scenes and a montage or two, and these always go on a bit longer than you expect, longer than TV drama’s norm — three minutes, five, more — the better to let you join the characters in whatever room they happen to inhabit, examine every reaction and spoken word, and notice their positions in frames that are often comprised of half to three-quarters darkness. Money, status, satisfaction, and the possibility of behaving ethically in an unethical world are always at the heart of the characters’ choices. Jimmy wants his brother’s respect and to be able to look at himself in the mirror without guilt, but he also wants fame and money. The legitimate do-gooder side of him is forever in conflict with the con-man side, which flares up in a manner akin to an alcoholic’s urge to drink (Chuck’s comparison). Mike wants to protect his daughter-in-law and granddaughter and make a new start for himself with the brutal skill set that’s all he has left after leaving the force. Mike’s deadpan interactions with the local underworld (he’s like a cross between Droopy the Dog and the Terminator) alternate with Jimmy’s adventures in the white-collar world of Albuquerque civil law. The bifurcation is often jarring and a little weird, as if somebody had spliced together episodes of “Breaking Bad” and “Thirtysomething.”

2. Not Yet a Hit, Not Yet a Classic: Shonda Rhimes on the Making of “Crossroads.”
Long before she took over television with shows such as “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Private Practice,” and “Scandal,” producer and showrunner Shonda Rhimes once penned a road trip star vehicle for pop star Britney Spears. At Broadly, Emalie Marthe interviews Rhimes about the making of “Crossroads.”

Rhimes saw the movie as an opportunity for Britney to show her true personality. “I was much more interested in the young woman that I met than the image that people had of her. She was a person, and I don’t think anyone at the time was looking at her — because it’s such a misogynistic society — as a person,” Rhimes recalls. “The idea that we could portray her as a three-dimensional young woman was interesting to me. To have mean-girled her and turned her into a caricature would have been a mistake.” In line with the thoughtful treatment she gave Britney, Rhimes also went out of her way to ensure the film would have a realistic cast of characters — she didn’t want the the ensemble to be a group of blondes. “It wasn’t that it was important to show people from diverse backgrounds — it just felt like the movie should look normal. Most movies didn’t look normal, they all looked very oddly homogenous in a way that didn’t feel realistic to me,” she says. When the script was finished, Carli brought it to her friend Tamra Davis, a young director with an eclectic career. Carli thought that Davis — who had reintroduced the world to former child star Drew Barrymore with her film “Guncrazy” — was perfect. “They really wanted a female director because this was going to be Britney’s first movie, and they really wanted to make sure she was protected and taken care of,” Davis says. Davis was initially reluctant to work on the film, but it was Britney who changed her mind. Davis remembers their first meeting, in Vegas: “I knocked on her hotel room door, and she opened it up, and she was wearing, like, a little pink T-shirt and little shorts, and she was just hilarious. She opened the door and she was like, ‘Man, I was hammered last night!’ I was like, ‘What! You’re Britney Spears, and you were hammered last night?’ She was, like, the funniest, really good girlfriend-y type of girl.” But Davis was impressed with more than Britney’s humor: “I realized she was this very sweet Southern girl with incredible manners, but she was running the whole thing,” she tells me as she remembers watching Britney work a Vegas event. “I loved watching her [be] in the center of this circle, and there wasn’t a guy in there telling her what to do. She was in command of the whole thing.”

3. On Old Queer Cinema and the BFI’s Best LGBT Films List.
BFI recently published its list of the 30 Best LGBT Films, and while our own Sam Adams broke down the list a couple days ago, it’s still good to read criticism of these kind of polls in order to better understand the strengths and flaws of these canon entries. On his blog, Caspar Salmon critiques the BFI’s best LGBT film list, from its absences to its erase of “fuck-you” LGBT films.

When I was a not-out seventeen-year-old I went to see Patrice Chereau’s “Ceux qui m’aiment prendront le train” – a beautiful, now somewhat neglected film infused with melancholy and rage. Death hangs over the whole enterprise, as family and friends of a man who has recently died all travel by train to his funeral. The ghost of AIDS looms over the film; the man’s friends are bohemian, predominantly gay. In a scene early on in the film, two characters, one in a couple and the other single, are so consumed with desire that they head off to the train’s toilets to fuck. The scene came as a shock to me, in part because it was so in-your-face, but also because it was a turn-on, of a kind that I had basically never had the opportunity to experience at the cinema. The film itself is magnificent by any critical criteria – extremely intelligent, unflinching, with astonishingly raw and honest performances; but what I’m trying to say is that “LGBT”, as a category, doesn’t really start to explain a compulsion, a personal understanding, that perhaps is not itself critical but sometimes necessary. (Side note: when Patrice Chereau died a few years back, very few obituaries mentioned his sexuality at all.) Indeed, a certain fuck-you quality is missing from the poll. John Waters gets short shrift, whereas Todd Haynes’ tasteful “Carol” hits the top spot. While I love “Carol” (almost) as much as the next person, I’ve been fairly startled to see the adulation reserved for this most classical and contained of Haynes’ films. “Carol” is certainly a beautiful film, and possibly represents the peak of Haynes’ achievement in the form, but I’m surprised and possibly dismayed that the fury that animated his early work, the formal invention and playfulness that he displayed in previous films, seem to have fallen by the critical wayside. As I suggested with “Pride,” above, we seem to have moved on to an era in which anger has less resonance, is less interesting to us. The anger that characterised the work of the New Queer Cinema, of which Haynes was a proponent along with filmmakers like Tom Kalin and Gregg Araki, seems to have dispelled. Nevertheless we should still pay tribute when acknowledging the work of queer pioneers. A final reservation is about the premise of the list itself. The very basis of the list, that we can elect an LGBT canon, seems to me to misrepresent history and give us a skewed vision of past achievement on film. To put it another way: if you had to pick a top 200 LGBT films of all time, you wouldn’t be able to leave very many films out. You’d find “Four Weddings and a Funeral” scrabbling around at #197, simply because there aren’t many queer films at all. This is because – as everyone knows, but bears repeating – the reason queer people weren’t making films isn’t because they didn’t want to, but because of deeply oppressive cultures. To look at this list, hilariously, you might be forgiven for thinking that, really, queers just weren’t trying hard enough throughout the 20th century. We need historical context for all these films.

4. How “Memento” Set the Framework For Christopher Nolan’s Career.
Fifteen years after its U.S. release in 2001, Christopher Nolan’s “Memento” hangs over the director’s entire career, employing his philosophical ambition and high-concept formal ingenuity. The Atlantic’s David Sims examines how “Memento” established the framework for Nolan’s subsequent career.

After its U.S. release on March 16, 2001, it was nominated for two Oscars in the Original Screenplay and Editing categories, and although it lost both, it established Nolan as a director to watch. His next project was a remake of the Nordic crime drama “Insomnia” with Al Pacino and Robin Williams in 2002, before Warner Bros. tasked him with reviving the Batman franchise in 2005, betting big on the hope that an indie director could make the world’s most famous superhero cool again. Nolan succeeded, and he hasn’t looked back since, mostly making widescreen genre epics with huge budgets. Nevertheless, every movie he’s made has one thing in common with “Memento”: extreme attention to detail. Nolan has employed that strict framework to pull off dazzling storytelling feats again and again — think of the perfectly-timed dream-within-a-dream heist sequences of “Inception,” or the showmanship of his Victorian revenge drama “The Prestige,” which is structured with the practice of an elaborate magic trick. The magic of “Memento,” at least on first viewing, lies in realizing the intricacy of the plotting, which turns an ordinary neo-noir thriller into a tale of misbegotten revenge. The audience would have no sympathy for Leonard if the story played in proper time — he’s a patsy, an angry, confused man unleashed on local criminals by his manipulative “friends” (played by Carrie-Anne Moss and Joe Pantoliano) who ends up turning on them almost by accident. But since his story plays in reverse, viewers are just as adrift as Leonard, and only when the credits roll is the totality of his mistakes made clear, not to mention how powerless he was to prevent them. Throughout the film, Leonard talks about Sammy Jankis (Stephen Tobolowsky), a man he knew who had the same condition, whom he paints as a sad fool who couldn’t understand what was going on around him. Eventually we realize that Leonard is Sammy, metaphorically and probably literally, and that Sammy’s tragic tale is just another one that’s become obscured and fudged in his broken brain over the years. Though “Memento” deals with tragedy and loss, it keeps Leonard’s wife (played in flashback by Jorja Fox) at arm’s length as a specter haunting her husband, who’s racked with guilt at his inability to protect her. It’s a motif that recurs throughout Nolan’s career, notably with Rebecca Hall’s character in “The Prestige” and Marion Cotillard’s in “Inception” (the latter manifests only as a memory who stalks Leonardo DiCaprio’s Cobb through his dreams). That chilliness, combined with the meticulous attention paid to plot, can make Nolan seem a dispassionate engineer who calibrates everything a little too carefully, including his film’s emotional cores. That’s certainly his signature, and it’s one shared by many of the wunderkind directors who came up in Hollywood at the same time.

5. On Asghar Farhadi’s “New” Film “Fireworks Wednesday.”
One of the best living screenwriter, Asghar Farhadi’s films have a special place in the heart of American cinephiles. After the release of his Oscar-winning opus “A Separation,” his prior films have slowly received U.S. distribution. Last year saw the release of 2009’s “About Elly,” and this year comes 2006’s “Fireworks Wednesday.” With an excerpt from her book on Farhadi, Movie Mezzanine’s Tina Hassannia discusses “Fireworks Wednesday” in light of its limited release.

The family melodrama of “Fireworks Wednesday” allowed the filmmaker to make several comments on the state of marriage in Iranian society and its impact on women, whether they were married, soon-to-be-wed, or divorced. The film is particularly realistic in the way in which it portrays the role of deception in relationships, and how lying becomes normalized between partners, frequently resulting in a complete breakdown in communication. The reason why Morteza and Mojdeh cannot settle their problems is a complete lack of trust in one another, resulting in desperate measures taken to spy on, abuse and shame each other. Though the relationship is toxic — which is unsurprisingly wreaking havoc on their son’s well-being — it’s also an extreme example that is purposely set as a contrast to the new relationship between servant-for-hire Rouhi and her fiancé. Rouhi couldn’t be more excited about her imminent nuptials, and her dynamic with her fiancé is loving and blissful. Indeed, the couple are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship. But Rouhi changes, ever so slightly, after being assigned to clean Morteza and Mojdeh’s house and becoming complicit in their marital equivalent of a cold war. The film never emphasizes her epiphany about marriage. As one of many subtle touches in the film, it appears as a slight glimmer in her eyes when she reunites with her fiancé. The story instead devotes most of its running time to a detailed account of her tumultuous, never-ending day. As if to demonstrate the degree to which the young couple’s relationship is free of trouble, the film establishes early on how tensions are easily mitigated. The excessive fabric from Rouhi’s chador becomes entangled in the motorbike, forcing them to make a quick emergency stop. But it doesn’t take long before the couple regains their good spirits. “I told you to be careful with your chador,” he initially reprimands her, but we never know if it’s because Rouhi is being careless or if the exorbitant length of the chador is simply not designed for motorcycle wear. “I don’t understand why you even need to wear it out here. Who’s going to see you?” This line, though offhanded, may seem like an obvious bit of social critique (and only a minute into the film!), but the screenplay quickly moves on, as if the comment were completely innocuous and casual. Indeed, the script downplays the significance through humor: Rouhi peskily replies, “You!” at the exact moment the fiancé is comically thrown back onto the ground as he successfully entangles the chador. The two delve into laughter and a snowball fight, and order is restored.

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