My Strange and Magical Odyssey Through the Work of Aaron Paul

During my city’s stay-at-home order in March and April, I finally got around to watching AMC’s iconic Breaking Bad series, and later, its prequel spinoff Better Call Saul. I quickly fell in love with both shows, but especially Breaking Bad. I loved the writing and directing, the twists and turns, and the complicated characters. My favorite character, far and away, was Jesse Pinkman- junkie dealer turned tortured soul.

When I finished the show, I experienced post-show depression. Also, we were in a pandemic. To combat this sadness, I decided to chase the “high” of Breaking Bad by watching a few of the movies of Jesse Pinkman’s actor Aaron Paul. 

And then I kept watching. Once I had watched a few movies, I decided I was too far in and committed fully to going through his filmography. Now, I have watched two full TV shows (BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told) and almost every single movie from Aaron Paul’s post-Breaking Bad career (the exceptions being Welcome Home, Central Intelligence, and Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV). As a newly certified Aaron Paul academic, I am compelled to share my findings with you. 

This essay will examine Paul’s filmography after 2013. We will examine the trajectory of his career and the underlying themes of the roles he has played and how they have responded to Hollywood trends, and we’ll take a look at the good, the bad, and the ugly of his projects. 

~

It is an infamous Hollywood sentiment that most actors cannot make the jump from television to film. Only a few have been able to do it successfully and reach movie star level. While the era of prestige television has brought many stars to the small screen, it is still difficult to do the reverse. 

But if anyone would be able to do it, it should have been Aaron Paul. With the end of critically acclaimed Breaking Bad’s fifth and final season in September of 2013, Paul entered 2014 with five movies released in U.S theaters, all wildly different. The reactions to these five films set the course for the rest of his career.

Timeline

  • Breaking Bad ends in September 2013. 

  • Hellion (dir. Kat Candler) premieres at Sundance on January 17th, 2014, and gets a wide release in June. It’s an indie that doesn’t make much money, but Paul gets good reviews for his performance as an alcoholic widower struggling to keep custody of his sons. The film receives mixed to positive reviews. Hellion doesn’t quite come together as a whole but has a lot of strong elements. The film observes its characters without moralizing, full of empathy for their plights, no matter how frustrating it is to watch them self-sabotage. It’s an emotionally wrenching portrait of grief ripping a family apart. (I give it 4 out of 5 stars). 

  • Need for Speed (dir. Scott Waugh) comes out March 14th. This is obviously supposed to be Paul’s “leading man” action blockbuster debut. It’s panned by critics and makes decent box office, but not enough to get a sequel. The only thing about the film that lives in the cultural lexicon is this meme:

    So it was all worth it in the end. Paul is completely miscast as the lead here, which is probably why he’ll never be trusted with a franchise again. Lead characters in action movies are usually proactive and initiate within the story to drive the plot. Paul is great at reacting, which makes him a poor fit with a movie like this, which asks him to mostly sit and glower in front of a wheel. As Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune put it, “Paul has talent, though the actor’s idea of simmering intensity in the context of Need for Speed comes off more like serial killer in the making.'” Yikes. (1/5 stars)

  • Decoding Annie Parker (dir. Steven Bernstein) has a U.S theatrical release on May 2nd. It is a small drama that doesn’t get much publicity or box office, and it receives mixed to negative reviews. Paul’s character here is- and I mean this as respectfully as possible- a himbo. A himbohusand, until halfway through the film when his character does a complete 180. He wears a delightful array of terrible wigs that do a lot of the heavy lifting. The movie never figures out what story it wants to tell about the real-life Annie Parker and her contributions to breast cancer research, botching what could have been a moving story. But Paul’s relatively small role is entertaining, and much more so if you track his character’s moral decay by the shortening of his hair. (2/5)

  • A Long Way Down (dir. Pascal Chaumeil) gets a long, windy European rollout but eventually hits the United States in limited release on June 5th. It’s also a small film that doesn’t get a lot of attention or box office returns. Those who see it give it negative reviews. Paul plays a depressed ex-musician who tries to commit suicide on News Years Eve, but, surprise! three other people (played by Pierce Brosnan, Toni Collet, and Imogene Poots) are on the roof as well. The four of them make a pact to stay alive until Valentine’s Day and in the process become a little family. The movie is a tonally uneven “dark comedy” that refuses to sit in any kind of grief or sorrow. It’s not well written, and, as Mike D’Angelo notes for the AV Club, “Brosnan and Poots clearly believe A Long Way Down is a comedy…while Collette and Paul are convinced it’s a deadly serious portrait of despair.” But, admittedly, this movie is my kind of trash. It has plenty of tropes I hate, like “Go on vacation to find meaning in life again.” But it also has tropes I do like, such as “on the nose power ballad,” and “angstily swims in the ocean as a form of spiritual baptism” and “Aaron Paul crying,” which, in this case, are all the same scene. (3/5)

  • The 66th Primetime Emmys are on August 25th. Breaking Bad wins big, and Paul takes home his third Emmy win for best-supporting actor.

  • Exodus: Gods and Kings (dir. Ridley Scott) is released on December 12th. The movie is a box office failure and gets slammed with terrible reviews, as it deserves.(1/5)

Here is, apparently, what Aaron Paul learned from this appetizer-year of roles:

  1. I will never do a big blockbuster again, and my only leading man roles will be in B-level action flicks. (Whether this was a decision Paul came to on his own or was just what Hollywood decided post-Need for Speed, we’ll never know).
  2. I can continue to play boyfriends & husbands in supporting roles for mid-budget movies (Fathers and Daughters, American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker). 
  3. I will never ever do a period piece ala Exodus again, but I WILL work with a Scott again (he works with Ridley Scott for Exodus, works with Ridley Scott’s son Jake Scott in his 2019 film American Woman). 
  4. I will continue to play Troubled Fathers™ in indie movies (The Parts You Lose, Hellion, The 9th Life of Louis Drax)
  5. TV is my real home (BoJack Horseman, The Path, The Truth Be Told, Westworld)

So what did Aaron Paul’s career look like after 2014? Let’s go through each movie and see. The following movies are in chronological order by U.S theatrical release date.

Eye in the Sky (2016) 4/5 – This well-crafted drama explores drone warfare in a way that presents probably a more idealized version of how modern war is conducted than an accurate one. Putting realism aside, however, the film does what it set out to accomplish, which is to make the audience think about the ethics of this new frontier of combat. Paul spends most of the film sitting in front of a computer and being distraught, but he pulls it off perfectly. Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman (this was his last role) co-star and are both characteristically excellent.

Fathers and Daughters (2016) 1/5 – This movie is incredibly forgettable, and so is Paul’s role as Bland Supportive Boyfriend. Russell Crowe and Amanda Seyfried turn in nice performances in this not-particularly-insightful drama about… well, the relationship between a father and daughter.

Triple 9 (2016) 0/5 – This is a brutal, violent film that offers no redemption in the story nor interesting filmmaking on any level. Its great cast is wasted. Paul plays a sensitive criminal whose most interesting trait is his half-shaved head, half mohawk comb-over. Absolutely nothing worth recommending here. 

The 9th Life of Louis Drax (2016) 3/5 – This movie is bonkers! It’s absolutely nuts! It barely makes sense! Yet that makes it so much better than many of these other films. Paul plays the father of young Louis Drax, who falls off a cliff and into a coma on his ninth birthday. Paul also plays a sea monster. I… really can’t explain it, it has to be seen to be believed. This whimsical, dark children’s-but-is-really-for-adults-movie has a distinct vision. Is it a good vision? Debatable. But it is a wild ride nonetheless. 

Come and Find Me (2016) 0/5 – I despise how boring this movie is! Paul is again miscast playing a boyfriend trying to find his missing girlfriend in this action thriller that has neither good action nor is thrilling. You’ve seen a better version of this movie before.

American Woman (2019) 4/5 – This haunting drama follows the life of Debra (Sienna Miller), a down-on-her-luck working-class woman from a small town whose daughter goes missing. Paul plays her love interest, and while his role is small, gets to do some nice dramatic work. It’s Miller’s movie though, and although the film is a non-stop train to Sad-ville, it’s worth the ride.

The Parts You Lose (2019) 5/5 – Paul plays a nameless fugitive who is hidden and nursed back to health by a deaf child. Paul has a natural chemistry with child actors and he gets to use that here with promising newcomer Danny Murphy. Like in El Camino, he excels at expressing feral energy through a mostly silent role. It’s a perfect use of his talents, while also challenging him, and the whole movie is definitely a worthwhile watch.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) 5/5

This should have won the Emmy this year for Outstanding Television Movie! Vince and Aaron were robbed!

Paul delivers an outstanding performance that stands apart from his previous work as Jesse Pinkman. This Jesse is stripped of all of the things that made him more of a meme than a character (“yeah, science!”) and instead reminds us of the complex path towards salvation the character has been on, and the depth of his desperation when on the cusp of grasping it.

Strangely Specific Tropes in Aaron Paul’s Work

*I’m including here what I saw of his roles in TV shows BoJack Horseman, The Truth Be Told, the first two episodes of The Path, and a shoutout to the movie Smashed, which came out in 2012, which puts it before this scope of this essay.

  • His character is enslaved and gets tortured in the desert- Breaking Bad/El Camino, Exodus: Gods and Kings
  • Scene where his wife follows him in her car because she suspects he’s cheating on her and he goes to a shady motel to meet a mysterious woman: The Path, American Woman
    • Modification: Plays a husband who cheats and leaves his wife because he just can’t cope with the trauma she is undergoing: American Woman, Decoding Annie Parker
  • His character was in a band (but no musical abilities demonstrated) – Breaking Bad, American Woman, A Long Way Down, Decoding Annie Parker
  • Is a construction worker in the South with a spotty accent- American Woman, Hellion 
    • Only southern accent: Triple 9 and The Truth Be Told 
  • Wears a Beanie- The Parts You Lose, A Long Way Down, Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Triple 9.  (All these costume designers were like, “his forehead is bigger than our budget, we gotta cover it up!”
  • Interacts with Nazis/White Supremacists or the Mafia: Breaking Bad/El Camino, BoJack Horseman, Come and Find Me, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told
  • Is a junkie or alcoholic- Breaking Bad, BoJack Horseman, Hellion, Triple 9, The Truth Be Told, Smashed
  • I’m a criminal, yo: Breaking Bad, The Parts You Lose, Central Intelligence, Triple 9, Westworld, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
  • Does some guttural crying- Breaking Bad/El Camino, A Long Way Down, The Path, Hellion, Come and Find Me, Need for Speed, The Truth Be Told
    • Closeup as he sheds one single tear- El Camino, Need for Speed

So what’s the verdict? Aaron Paul’s filmography is uneven, to say the least, but it has some bright spots, especially as of late. If I were his manager, I would advise him to continue acting (and producing) small indie dramas that play to his strengths, stop doing mid-budget action movies, and try to befriend some prestigious directors (I could see a fit with the likes of Christopher Nolan, Kathryn Bigelow, Gina Prince-Bythewood, even Bong Joon Ho) and start edging back into big films, but not as the lead. He should also continue with prestige television, but use this as an opportunity to try different genres and be more experimental. I think with the right role he could get into better movies (and even win an Oscar one day?) but he needs to choose better projects and filmmakers need to take a chance on him.

As of right now though, Paul seems more focused on building his Dos Hombres Mezcal brand with Bryan Cranston, being a new dad, and taking responsibility for racism. And that’s pretty cool, bitch. 

– Madeleine D.

Dragging The Dead On Leashes: Generational Sin in Netflix’s “Dark”

A guest review by Kevin McGuire

“To a world without Winden”

“Winden won’t give up that easily”

-Ulrich and Hannah, 1986 (Season 1, Episode 3)

Dark’s opening scene takes place thirty-three years after this exchange, where the small town of Winden is as rotten as ever. Jonas Kahnwald has just returned to school following his father’s suicide. The nuclear plant, long a source of civic pride and economic stability, is set to be decommissioned. Half the residents seem to be involved in extramarital affairs. The police department is investigating several cases of missing children. Entire flocks of birds drop dead from the skies with no apparent explanation. Created in 2017 by director Baran bo Odar and writer Jantje Friese, this German Netflix series centers on a handful of local families, and the dark secrets in the town’s past responsible for the current problems. Time travel quickly comes into play, and as various characters attempt to change the past to fix the present, it becomes apparent how deeply the roots of their modern pain lie in their actions and those of their ancestors.

In case you haven’t picked up by now, this is not a happy show. The New York Times described it as “the show for people who thought Stranger Things was just a little too much fun”. Dark is simultaneously a technical and narrative masterpiece and a difficult show to watch. In preparation for writing, Friese read over 100 books on quantum physics, psychology, philosophy, and theology – and it shows. Direct references are made to numerous scientific concepts by name, everyone in-universe is capable of directly quoting both Freud and the book of Psalms, and quotes from a range of continental philosophers provide prologue to many episodes. It is an incredibly dense show, unwilling to leave any scientific or relational worldbuilding unexplored.

Odar’s background as a painter infuses each scene with strikingly intentional composition. The camera is unblinking as the show moves at a slow, almost dreamlike pace, whether capturing sordid affairs, brutal murders, or exposition over the physics of black holes. Indebted to the grand myth building of shows like Lost and Twin Peaks, Dark takes lessons from their oft-criticized lack of payoff. A consistent atmosphere is maintained by a steady drip of the dreadful truth replacing each piece of the central mystery, with the endgame always in sight. The solution to the puzzle is revealed early on, but the journey to that point – and what it can reveal about the human experience – remains the greater story.

A Brand New, Broken World

Dark is, at its core, as much about philosophical conflict as it is time-travel and soapy drama. While questions of time, fate, and causality form the grand theater that the show plays in, the heart of the narrative is much more human. Ultimately, Dark is about the experience of navigating generational sin, how the misdeeds of the past can bring pain and suffering through lasting scars and continuing patterns of destruction. The town of Winden is the entire universe of the show, and the most enduring monument to the crimes committed by generations of inhabitants. Beneath the nuclear plant, a system of caves acts as both the catalyst for time travel and a physical manifestation of the town’s dark underbelly. Occasionally we meet characters who have just moved to Winden, but no one escapes. Midway through season one, Katarina, mother of one of the missing children calls into a radio show, her oracle against Winden playing over scenes of small-town life now seen through a newly darkened lens:

“I want people to completely understand what’s going on here. We’re all so blind about this. There’s a murderer here among us. No one actually dares to say it. But it’s the truth. We’re all clinging to the hope that it won’t happen to us. We all know one another. And we think we know those around us. But do we really? We live right next door to people we know nothing about, and behind one of those doors is my son. It could be anyone’s door. The man behind the cash register. Someone we invite for coffee and cake on Sundays, who plays with our children. But I don’t want to look away anymore. And you shouldn’t want to either. This whole town is sick. Winden is like a festering wound, and all of us are a part of it.”  

The sins of the past directly affect every aspect of life in Winden. Fractured relationships within families echo the abuse and addictions that have haunted them for generations, while externally individuals betray the children of those their parents betrayed. Nothing changes, in pattern or substance, even as one generation replaces the next. Institutions, whether educational, political, or clerical, provide no solace for the residents as they continue to be harnessed for selfish motive just as they have throughout Winden’s history. The thin veneer of camaraderie that unites the town decays on screen as the secrets of the past emerge from whispered rumor into the light, setting neighbor against neighbor, daughter against mother, and father against son. 

Dark illustrates two types of this generational sin, the show proudly wearing its existential heritage on its sleeve. Characters moving through time fall into one of two camps. The first, represented by those like Ulrich, travel to the past in attempts to prevent present tragedies. Upon arrival, they face the realization that generations of misdeeds, both theirs and their ancestors, cannot be erased and inevitably haunt their families’ emotional and physical security. Confronted with this absurd and transcendent reality, they shrink into impotence or madness.

The second is represented by the cult-like secret societies of Sic Mundus and Erit Lux that carry out a war waged beyond time. Their founders began on the same path as the others, but answered the absurd directly. Instead of heroic courage, their actions prove to be the inciting incidents behind much of the horror plaguing their modern world. Generational sin is now cast through the lens of eternal recurrence – essentially the concept that all events in history occur repeatedly, in the same sequence, through a never-ending series of cycles. Dark makes this literal, as all of the travelers find themselves fighting the same tragedies not just at different points of time, but failing again and again to change the past and seeing their family and friends torn apart repeatedly by their actions. Trapped in this unending knot, each character operating outside of their native timeline is faced with the disharmony that arises from the apparent meaninglessness of their existence and the futility of their actions, and together represent three unique philosophical responses.

Heroes of the Absurd

As leader of Sic Mundus (which is short for Sic Mundus creatus est, which means “Thus the world was created” in Latin), Adam represents a war against God and time, viewing both as ultimately non-existent concepts which must be dethroned from the human mind. He adopts the view of eternal recurrence advanced by Friedrich Nietzsche – that only through amor fati (love of fate) can the “horrifying and paralyzing” reality of what will happen be embraced, allowing escape through the “creation of novelty”. Corrupted both physically and spiritually by countless attempts to restore order through time travel (his scars serving to conveniently obscure his identity until late in season two), Adam is the embodiment of the Nietzschean “will to power”. In his eyes, only he is strong enough to bend the universe to his will. Winden is sick, and can only be cured through destruction. In the center of the Sic Mundus lodge hangs Peter Paul Ruben’s The Fall of the Damned, Adam viewing himself as the archangel Michael, casting the damned of Winden into the abyss they deserve. For any innocents in the town, non-existence is a more merciful fate than continuing to live in such a world. Judgement and salvation, carried out in the same motion.

Eva, the leader of the Erit Lux (“There will be light” in Latin), is chiefly opposed to Adam, and seeks a different path. Her encounter with the absurd leads her instead to embrace it. There is a radical value to mere existence, any harm from generational sin largely ignored. Chief among the artifacts adorning Erit Lux’s comparatively barren lodge is a detailed mapping carved into the floor of every individual’s role which must be sustained for the cycle to continue. Eva embraces the absurdism articulated by Albert Camus, presupposing a world in which God is already dead and nothing beyond the immanent matters. To Erit Lux, both history and hope represent false idols doomed to disappoint. In this weary world, nothing is promised beyond today, and even the freedom that comes from everyone’s self-determined path to destruction is preferable to the fantasy of salvation. 

There’s an interesting contrast between the absurdism of Camus and the 14th century Christian mystic Julian of Norwich (bear with me for a second). In his essay The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus proclaims about the character that “he too concludes all is well”. This is a bitter statement acknowledging that the world has no master, and that Sisyphus must make his own meaning out of the boulder he eternally pushes. ‘All is well’ because nothing can be any different from how it currently stands. These words are a strange echo of Julian of Norwich’s famous recounting of her 13th vision:

“In my folly, before this time I often wondered why, by the great foreseeing wisdom of God, the onset of sin was not prevented: for then, I thought, all should have been well. This impulse was much to be avoided, but nevertheless I mourned and sorrowed because of it, without reason and discretion. But Jesus, who in this vision informed me of all that is needed by me, answered with these words and said: ‘It was necessary that there should be sin; but all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’”

For Julian, all is not well. But it will be. She doesn’t know how or when or why, but Christ will make all things right, and that is enough for faith. Likewise in Dark, Claudia, the last of three travelers who is outside time, accepts that there might be hope outside the knot in which Winden is stuck. She only arrives at this point through desperation, unwilling to perpetuate the cycle of parents and children wronging one another. The same mechanism which brings suffering into the world is the only way to escape it. 

In The Concept of Anxiety, Søren Kierkegaard writes that anxiety is the amoral tension between all possible actions that predates even the knowledge of good and evil in human consciousness. Anxiety made possible Adam and Eva’s leap into their original sins, yet anxiety also makes Claudia’s leap into a faith in a better world possible. Like Nietzsche, Kierkegaard saw the tyranny of fate on human consciousness as a blight to be overcome. However, his solution lay in the ability of anxiety to prepare the human mind for faith “because the anxiety within him has already fashioned fate and has taken away from him absolutely all that any fate could take away”. Claudia’s recognition, that nothing she imagines can be worse than the present cycle imprisoning Winden, provides the catalyst for hope that unhitching from the origin can lead to a better world.

Out of the Caves

Three seasons of wallowing in suffering is draining. There’s a purpose to this pain though, as only in the absence of hope can the vastness of its joy be seen. In a recent interview, artist Elijah Tamu spoke about darkness as being a key to realizing spiritual transcendence, “white light is beautiful, but a world of only white light without differentiation would be no different from a world of darkness… Sometimes darkness is what makes it possible to appreciate and contemplate certain subtleties of light”. For example, the traditional candlelit tenebras service of Good Friday situates the beauty of Christ’s sacrifice alongside both spiritual and physical darkness, making a conscious attempt to draw the modern mundane into viewing a more sacred fullness. Unilluminated by the divine, the inherited suffering of this world can either lead to holding tight to past wrongs and perpetuating injustice on personal and systemic levels, or to redemptive release. 

While Dark cloyingly refuses to acknowledge whether any of the characters truly manage to outwit fate, Odar and Friese make clear that healing of even the deepest hurts begins with the extension of personal grace. Forgiveness of self and others, coupled with sacrifice, literally wipes away any trace of the show’s central sins. The generational patterns are coming undone. The final episode concludes with a dinner party, prior suspicion replaced by true community. As the guests eat by candlelight in a town without power, their final exchange illustrates a place still amid gloom, but no longer hopeless:

Regina: “If the world were to end today, and you only had one wish, what would you wish for?”

Katarina: “A world without Winden. Let’s drink to that.”

All: “A world without Winden.”

[The lights turn back on]

Peter: “Looks like Winden doesn’t want to just disappear.”

Woller: “Maybe it’s for the best.”

~

* “Dragging the Dead on Leashes” is the title of a song by Being As An Ocean

Kevin McGuire is currently a PhD student in the Price College of Business at the University of Oklahoma. In his free time, he enjoys both watching and playing basketball, spending too much time on Twitter, and continuing his quest to find the strangest music on the planet.

I Don’t Care Whether You Understand My Movies (Anymore)

By Christopher Nolan

Christopher Nolan's Next Movie is Getting an IMAX Summer 2020 Release |  IndieWire

There was a time in my life in which I believed it mattered whether the miserable cretins who viewed my films understood what was happening. It was a dark time, reader. I struggled mightily to provide the ill-bred masses with the petty satisfactions they required, employing degrading techniques designed to explain my ingenious, chronologically non-linear plots to even the stupidest of dolts who consumed them.

Yes, reader, I engaged in shameful behavior, lowering my films to the tastes of their basest audiences. I used such abominable devices as “exposition” and “audible dialogue.” I even (forgive me) took the time to write coherent and explanatory endings, designed to fill in whatever points audiences may have missed in their feeble understanding of my sweeping artistic vision. NO MORE! My latest magnum opus, Tenet, is free from such demeaning restraints. 

No longer will I task my considerable genius with “accessibility” or “coherence.” My audiences are, plainly, dumb and worthless, and they will henceforth be treated as such. Of course their feeble minds don’t understand my breathtaking reflections on the nature of time itself, so why should I bother debasing my work for their sake? Don’t understand the intricate workings of Tenet’s time mechanics? Imbecile. Here are some buildings blowing up to satisfy your toddler-esque attention span. Unclear on who a particular character is or where they came from? Too bad, now they’re punching somebody else you’ve never seen before, does that satisfy your infantile lizard brain? Confused by the ending? Not my problem, focus on the big, shiny guns I put in just to entertain idiots like you. Enjoy the flashy lights and shut the hell up. This is cinema. There’s no time to accommodate the dimwits who can’t keep up, I’m making art here. If prolonged landscape shots, car chases of ambiguous purpose, and inexplicable gunfire don’t satisfy your shallow cravings for petty entertainment, I have nothing further to say to you. 

Christopher Nolan is a writer and director. His latest film, Tenet, is in theaters now. 

~

This piece of satire was guest-written by Sam Shideler. Sam is a sophomore at the University of Oklahoma, where his academic pursuit are best articulated as “reading, writing, and regarding STEM majors with contempt.” His hobbies include referring to movies as “films,” pretending to understand classical literature, and suffering at the hands of Oklahoma City Thunder basketball.

Top 20 Movies of 2020 (So Far)

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Guest Review by Jonathan Dorst

Many movie theaters are reopening today. For how long, nobody knows, but hopefully for good. I last saw a movie in a theater in early March, so I’m ready (I think) to go back to seeing new releases on the big screen. And there are a number of tantalizing films set to come out in the last four-plus months of this year, including The Personal History of David Copperfield (8/28), Christopher Nolan’s Tenet (9/3), Quiet Place Part II (9/4), I’m Thinking of Ending Things (Netflix 9/4), Antebellum (9/18), Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (October), David Fincher’s Mank (October), Wonder Woman 1984 (10/2), Trial of the Chicago 7 (10/16), Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch (10/16?), The Courier (10/16), Black Widow (11/6), Pixar’s Soul (11/20), Denis Villeneuve’s Dune (12/18), Coming 2 America (12/18), and Spielberg’s West Side Story (12/18).

But, if you think there haven’t been any good movies that have been released up to this point in 2020, you haven’t been paying attention. Some came out before the pandemic, some went to streamers or VOD when theaters were not an option, and some were released as planned through a streamer. One note: Although some multi-episode documentaries (like OJ: Made In America) have won Oscars and been considered a ‘feature,’ I chose not to include them on this list, so Tiger King and The Last Dance would be part of a top television list instead. One more note: As always, don’t take the inclusion of a film as a blanket endorsement of its content; you are responsible to research the content and determine if certain movies are appropriate for you.

20. Bad Education– Hugh Jackman shows off his versatility in this telling of a true story of embezzlement in the public school system.

19. Radioactive– A good biopic that makes the interesting decision to show the downside (in jarring flash-forwards) of the protagonist’s historical contribution.

18. Downhill– A not-as-good-as-the-original remake of a very good Danish film, still Will Farrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus give good performances in this serious comedy.

17. The Truth– A bit of a cliched premise about an actress mother and her flawed relationship with her daughter, but it’s Juliette Binoche and Catherine Denueve, so it’s a must see.

16. Tigertail– A thoughtful film that tells the story of an immigrant’s struggle to connect in his new land while reconciling what he’s lost back in his homeland.

15. The Vast of Night– An interesting, slow-burn of a film about strange happenings in the sky in New Mexico in the 50’s that I suspect will get better with repeated viewings.

14. Arkansas– A minor, but enjoyable entry in the ‘loveable loser drug dealer’ genre; Liam Hemsworth is terrific playing against type.

13. The Invisible Man– An effective thriller that is a not-too-subtle metaphor for the psychological oppression that powerful men can administer on women.

12. The Old Guard– A superhero film that takes consequences seriously.

11. Da 5 Bloods– Spike Lee’s exploration of the Vietnam War and its effects, as well as his continued exploration of America’s racial history- the acting is great, but the tone and pacing is all over the place.

10. Young Ahmed– The Dardenne brothers’ latest about a young teenaged boy being influenced by a radical Islamic imam.

9. To the Stars– A movie about small-town Oklahoma in the ‘50s that tells the age-old tale of the shy, bullied kid who gets courage from the extroverted, courageous friend, but with some twists that keep it fresh.

8. Ordinary Love– Two great actors (Lesley Manville and Liam Neeson) telling a slice-of-life story that made me want to watch more of their life together.

7. Palm Springs– A very funny take on the Groundhog Day premise that doesn’t quite earn its happy ending but is still very memorable and enjoyable.

6. Athlete A– The emotional story of how USA Gymnastics failed to protect its female gymnasts from predators like Larry Nassar.

5. The Assistant– A day in the life of an administrative assistant who serves her unnamed boss in a Weinstein-like film production company; we see how powerful men got away with so much for so long as we watch her try to raise a red flag in an atmosphere where no one is motivated to change anything.

4. The Trip To Greece– The 4th film in the ‘Trip’ series, this is the most poignant as Rob and Steve follow in the footsteps of Odysseus and ponder their mortality. 

3. Driveways– A beautiful film about people in different stages of life connecting and making the best of their situation.

2. Sorry We Missed You- British filmmaker Ken Loach has been making great social commentary films for a long time, and this one takes aim at companies taking advantage of workers in this ‘gig economy’ while telling an affecting story of a family trying to thrive, or at least survive.

1. Hamilton– I know this really came out as a musical in 2015, but it’s not the first play to be filmed and released as a movie (consider Bergman’s The Magic Flute and Powell’s The Tales of Hoffman), and everything about this production is just. so. good.

Bonus: Worst Movie of the Year (so far, that I’ve seen)- Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey

A Guide to Beyonce’s “Black is King”

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On July 31st, Disney+ released Black is King, a visual album by Beyonce. It functions as a sort of movie-length music video that puts visuals to Beyonce’s 2019 album The Lion King: The Gift, which was created by Beyonce for the release of last year’s live-action remake of The Lion King, where she voiced Nala. Black is King follows the storyline of the film abstractly, and there are short audio clips from the film to help move it along. 

Because this is debuting on Disney+, which markets itself as a family-oriented streaming service, and is not a typical film in most regards, I thought it would be helpful to try something different. Instead of a normal review, I’d like to offer some observations and questions that can guide your viewing of Black is King, whether you watched it and would like to learn more about what messages and artistic reference you may have missed, or you’re a parent interested in watching Black is King with your children and would like to cultivate a fruitful discussion of the film (although the film probably won’t interest young children, I’d suggest pre-teen and up). 

As always, this isn’t an endorsement of the film or a suggestion that it is appropriate for all ages and families.

Initial Feelings after Finishing the Film:

  1. How do you feel? Did you like the ending? Were you engaged throughout the movie, or did some parts feel boring?
  2. Did you like it? Give some reasons for why or why not.
  3. Did you like the music? Did it make you want to dance? Do you think it is catchy?
  4. Do you think the visuals matched the music? How so? Did any shot or visual stick out to you as memorable?
  5. There are a lot of spoken-word sections (where Beyonce or others are talking over the music and visuals). Were there any lines that stuck out to you?
  6. Do you imagine visual albums/ feature-length music video films growing in popularity? What are the pros and cons of the medium?

Talking about Race and Black Identity:

1. Black is King was filmed in various African countries. The music is inspired by African music traditions, there are cameos by artists from all over Africa, the costumes were inspired by African fashions, and there are references to various African mythologies and legends. Recognizing, of course, that Africa is not a monolith but is made up of different countries and hundreds of sub-cultures, did the film spark your interest in learning more about Africa, or in any particular parts of African culture?

2. Black is King is explicitly about Black empowerment. It encourages Black people to embrace their heritage, to take pride in their culture and community, and to use their gifts and talents to help build a better future. In a world where Black people are often seen as disposable and are overlooked, Black is King relishes in presenting Blackness as complex, regal, intellectual, spiritual, dynamic, and worthy of respect and attention. Many of the songs are pieces of activism, such as “BROWN SKIN GIRL,” which lovingly reminds Black girls of their beauty, fighting against the very-real stigmas of colorism.

If you are Black, how did Black is King make you feel? (Parents- as with all of these questions, remind your kids that it’s okay to feel ambivalent). Did the film feel relatable, or like Beyonce was talking to you? If you are white or non-Black, how did you feel? Black is King has no prominent white or non-Black characters- was that strange or unusual for you? Did you feel like you learned anything new? Did you feel inspired?

3. In her seminal work Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry makes the argument that “the internal, psychological, emotional, and personal experiences of black women are inherently political.” Her argument essentially says that because the perspective of Black women has been silenced for much of American history, and stereotypes about Black women persist so much in popular culture, when a Black woman is at the forefront of a narrative, it is inherently political and even transgressive in white-dominant cultures. First, what do you think about this as a theory? Is it fair? And then second- Is Black is King political? How or how not? Does it feel political?

4. Throughout the album, and especially in the song “MOOD 4 EVA(the song with Jay-Z that takes place in a mansion), Beyonce talks about her wealth and opulence (fairly standard for celebrities). But through this and her other work, she seems to make this statement: Beyonce and Jay-Z, in being successful and rich, and showing that off, is a source of empowerment for all Black people. Because Black Americans are more likely to be of lower-income, it is inherently progressive and even radical to present Black people who are wealthy and successful, because it presents both an idea of what could (and even should) be, and presents a positive representation of the abilities of Black people.  

What do you think of this? Is Beyonce right? Can showing off wealth and opulence be empowering, particularly for minority groups? Is Beyonce and Jay-Z’s (presented) lifestyle aspirational?

Homages and References:

1. Did Black is King help you appreciate The Lion King any more? Were you able to follow the storyline of Simba in Black is King, or was it too abstract? Do you think Black is King could stand alone, without the influence of The Lion King?

2. The opening sequence is a retelling of Exodus 2:1-10, where Moses’s mother puts him in a basket and sends him down the Nile to escape the slaughter of all the Hebrew boys. Moses is a large figure in African American music, especially in gospel songs that were sung by enslaved people to speak about freedom. What might Beyonce be referencing by showing it here? And are there any similarities between Moses and Simba from The Lion King?

3. There is a concept called the “Christ-Like Gaze” in film, outlined by this excellent article. It puts forth the idea that cinematography- the way the camera films subjects- can be used to look at people the way Christ looks at us. The three tenants of a “Christ-like gaze” in a movie is this: 

  1. The film sees people as being complex and filled with inherent worth and dignity. The movie doesn’t watch characters with cynical dispassion. Instead, a Christ-like gaze approaches the characters in warmth. Practically, this means the camera doesn’t objectify characters (such as focusing on body parts for sexual attention). There is often a focus on the facial expressions and eyes of a character. The camera is usually at eye-level with the subject.
  2. A Christ-like gaze means the film isn’t only concerned with the plot. The characters act beyond being used as plot devices. The story- and the camera- pays attention to little details and truths about life. Does the film take time to observe beauty? Are there any moments of quietness?
  3. Movies can (and should) depict suffering honestly, but a Christ-like gaze ends in hope. Hope is not blind optimism, nor is it the removal of consequences. But hope knows that there is a resurrection and healing coming.

So with all of that being said- does Black is King have a Christ-like gaze? Does the camera treat the Black bodies on-screen with care and present them as beautiful? How is the scenery treated? How do the choices in hair and costuming contribute to the presentation of Beyonce and the other stars? Is this an uplifting film, and in what regards?

Further reading:

NPR- “‘Black Is King’ Is A Sumptuous Search For Divine Identity”

Vox- Beyonce presenting herself as African Goddess Osun

The Root: Some of the cameos in Black is King

Vox- Framing Black Bodies as Art in “Apeshit”

            –  Madeleine D.

 

The 10 Best Things of 2020 (So Far)

While 2020 is probably not going down in the history books as a great year overall, there have been some bright notes when it comes to movies, art, and pop culture. Here is a list of 10 things from different mediums from the first half of 2020 that I recommend!

MOVIES

Onward

I never got around to reviewing Onward, but if I had known at the time it was going to be the last movie I would get to see in theatres for a long time, I may have. Outside the strange nostalgia this movie now holds for me, it is a solid Pixar flick, full of the studio’s characteristic charm, creativity, and excellent writing. It’s got some of the best visual gags I’ve ever seen and is laugh-out-loud funny in parts. The film stylistically feels less like Pixar and more like Dreamworks, but the story- and the gut-wrenching twist ending- is very much in line with the studio that can always make us cry. And here, it’s earned, pivoting from a more conventional story about fathers to one that celebrates people who step into the place of our parents in their absence, like friends, mentors, helpful strangers, and siblings. 

Young Ahmed

Watch every movie by the Dardennes brothers. End review. 

I’m not kidding, but if you’ve never seen a brother by these Belgian filmmakers, Young Ahmed is as good an introduction as any into their style (The Unknown Girl is also a good start and my personal favorite.) The Dardenne’s stories are small, intimate affairs, usually only tracking one or two characters as they wrestle with a choice of some sort. In Young Ahmed, the titular Ahmed is a teenage boy who is embracing Islamic extremism, and who feels called to kill his teacher, who he sees as a traitor of the Quran. 

This premise has a lot of landmines in it, but if any filmmaker has an empathetic, nonjudgmental, and deft hand, it’s the Dardennes, who allow the internal journey of Ahmed (Idir Ben Addi) to play out without making any moralizing or political statements. They do this by simply allowing the story to see Ahmed as who he truly is- a young man, trying to discover the truth and who to listen to, a search for identity and meaning that is universal. 

While the stakes of Young Ahmed are inherently high, the tension is ratcheted up by the stripped-down style of the Dardennes. For example, the movie has little-to-no music in it, which means there are no cues given to the audience that something terrible is about to happen. Scenes can turn on a dime, but because the style is so naturalistic and observational, you never know the direction the story is going, and there are no editing tricks to foreshadow was is about to happen. Young Ahmed is, therefore, challenging and ambiguous on many levels but is all the richer an experience for it. 

TV

Tiger King

Like the rest of the world, I spent the first few weeks of quarantine caught up in Netflix’s unmissable tragicomedy of hubris and dysfunction, Tiger King. As an Oklahoman, the series is devastating. It feels like every time we get in the news, it’s for something bad! Why do we have to become synonymous with a figure like Joe Exotic? When will Oklahoma get some good representation? It’s a great place! But admittedly, we do have our eccentricities, and it has been fun to hear stories from friends about how they’ve met Joe Exotic or gone to his zoo, like one of my professors who, during one of our classes over Zoom, apologetically told us: “I have a confession. I went to the Tiger King zoo. My son and I touched the baby tigers. I am so ashamed.”

While I was disappointed as an Oklahoman, as a consumer of entertainment, I was delighted. Each episode ramps up to an unbelievable degree, and the payoffs are incredibly satisfying. The drama is ridiculously juicy, and the cultural impact the series made was likewise entertaining and certainly needed during the first dark days of the pandemic (in the United States). Maybe that’s what Joe can truly be proud of. He never became president or governor but he has united us through our shared astonishment.

I was thoroughly enjoying the schadenfreude of the show, all the way up to the last episode until I learned that Joe was in jail. Then suddenly, I felt numb. Sad. Guilty. I was laughing at the pain of all of these people. Sure, Joe being in jail may feel like righteous irony. But what is he going to learn in jail? Probably nothing, so there’s no redemption here. Being in jail doesn’t change any of Joe’s past sins nor will it probably change him. It doesn’t restore his and Carol’s relationship. If Carol killed her husband, we’ll never know. Jeff Lowe and Doc Antle are still on the loose. And as the final captions tell us, tigers are still endangered and none of the people we saw in the show are doing anything to save them from captivity. We can gawk at this trainwreck all we want, but what has come out of our consumption of another’s misery? 

That question, of course, comes up in discussions of all types of movies, and Tiger King certainly can’t be pinned down as the one documentary out there that profits off of other people’s indignity. And, admittedly, none of my discomfort with the show means I’ll stop enjoying Here Kitty Kitty. 

Better Call Saul Season 5

The smartest choice Vince Gilligan and Co. made when creating Breaking Bad prequel series Better Call Saul was to… not make it like Breaking Bad. Sure, the shows share characters and setting and symbolism by design, but in structure and tone, Better Call Saul doesn’t try to re-do the elements that make Breaking Bad great. Instead, it confidently strides in its own restrained, small-scale way. The slower pace and subtle style of BCS can be frustrating, for sure, and it has made many viewers abandon the show in earlier seasons. But in season 5 things begin paying off big-time, and your patience is more than rewarded as we continue on this unstoppable train towards corruption. 

What makes season 5 stand out from the other season, besides some of its most stylistic episodes yet and spotlighting Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton) as its newest charismatic villain, the series finally commits to one its most interesting twists yet- that this show is no longer about Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman. We already know how he ends up, and the psychological origins of his corruption has been explored enough. Instead, our question mark, the real antihero of the show, whose fate we don’t know and who remains a wildcard, is Kim Wexler. Actress Rhea Seehorn has worked deliberately and quietly the past few seasons, comfortably standing her ground beside Bob Odenkirk’s flashier Jimmy. But now the long-suffering intensity of Kim, and Seehorn’s performance, is breaking through and getting to shine as the tables flip and suddenly Jimmy is the one looking at Kim and wondering, who has this person become? With the sixth and final season on the horizon, that’s a question I’m invested in waiting for, along with the ever-present, “will there be any more Breaking Bad cameos???” 

BoJack Horseman Season 6

I’m ashamed to admit that for a long time, I have had a secret prejudice against adult animation. I have no bases for this bias, I’ve just never seen a commercial for an adult animated show and thought it would be something I would enjoy. However, I’m here to apologize and send a message to anyone who similarly has never given adult animation a try: watch Netflix’s BoJack Horseman. 

BoJack Horseman is a hard sell, and it takes about eight episodes into the first season to get going. It tells the story of fading ‘90’s sitcom star BoJack Horseman (Will Arnett), who is an anthropomorphic horse in a Hollywood filled with a colorful combination of human and animal characters voiced by dozens of celebrity cameos and grounded by the fantastic main cast of Arnett, Allison Brie, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, and Paul F. Tompkins. If you get through the first few episodes and get acclimated to the world of the show, then the payoff is more than worth it. 

The writing and animation is witty and clever, but it’s also surprisingly heartbreaking. BoJack Horseman offers a nuanced portrait of what it looks like to live with depression, and it handles the difficulties of all types of human relationships with sensitivity and care, and without resolving anything easily. It holds its protagonist accountable for his actions without losing empathy. 

Much has been said about BoJack Horseman’s examination of celebrity, mental illness, trauma, #MeToo men, and death, and I feel that most everyone could find something or someone to relate to in the series. For me, what I was most drawn to is the way the show reminds us life is not like a sitcom or any other type of film or television narrative.

As someone who spends a lot of time invested in fictional stories, I can get caught up in believing that my life, too, must have the structure of a fictional story, with easy-to-understand motivations, conflicts that escalate into a singular climax, and problems that can be resolved with perfect closure. Like BoJack himself, I secretly wish life was more like a 22-minute sitcom, where people can get hurt but relationships are always are repaired by the end, and people can change (for the better) easily and quickly and permanently, and all loose ends are tied up by the credits. But Bojack Horseman refuses to conform to the standards of its own thirty-minute episodic format, and BoJack learns that his own life and his actions cannot move forward in a linear, progressive fashion. 

In this sixth and final season of the show, BoJack makes a genuine change in his life, with a mid-season penultimate episode offering what in most shows would be a satisfactory ending for our lovable antihero. But in BoJack Horseman, no sins go unremembered, and this happy ending is swiftly followed by a full reckoning of the previous five seasons of the pain and dysfunction BoJack has caused. Being held accountable for his past actions means that we have to watch the new, genuinely productive life BoJack builds for himself get taken away, which is difficult to watch, and what it leads to is not a happy ending. But it is a uniquely restorative ending, an ending that doesn’t offer platitudes or false consolation but remains resolutely grounded in hope. The hope that we can change, the hope that we can heal, the hope that life can get better, and the hope that undergoing painful transformations will be worth it in the end.

Other

“Why is Cats”

By Lindsay Ellis

Lindsay Ellis- film critic, video essayist, podcast host, and now published author- has been one of my favorite creators/thinkers for a while now, and I’ve referenced her work a few times on this blog. She tops herself again with this Youtube video essay breaking down 2019’s monstrosity Cats. The unique take here though is that beyond dunking on Cats (which there is still plenty of), she uses the film as an opportunity to break down the history of movie musical-adaptations, how director Tom Hooper’s “realistic” styling that Academy voters love just can’t jibe with musicals, and why we love ridiculing people and things on the internet. 

Heartwarming Penguins (that almost made me cry)

This picture of two penguins who lost their partners and came together to comfort one another is one of the most precious things I have ever seen. Wholesome animal content for the win!

The Great C.S Lewis Reread 

By Matt Mikalatos

Soon after our campus shut down and we were all sent back home, a few friends and I decided to keep in touch by doing a book club of C.S Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia. It had been a while since I had read the books, and suddenly escaping back into the fantasy world of my childhood sounded like a great idea. 

Tor.com publishes a lot of great content, but this series of essays going through the seven Narnia books are exceptionally good. Author Matt Mikalatos has clearly done his research and approaches Lewis’s work from a place of sincere respect, with an effort to understand where Lewis was coming from and the basis of his beliefs. This means Mikalato’s criticism is made in good faith and is much more thoughtful than some of the lazier Lewis criticism out there that doesn’t make an effort to understand the context in which he wrote. 

These essays are engaging and capture a vibrant conversation between Mikalatos, the text, C.S Lewis, and you. Even if you aren’t actively reading the books as you read the essays, there are still plenty of fun facts about Lewis, food for thought, and theology to be found. The three essays I recommend the most are this examination of Aslan and whether or not he is an allegorythe Green Lady and modern-day enchantment, and Sacraments in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The first two can be read without being familiar with the series. 

Kanopy & Hoopla

Since the 2020 summer blockbuster season has been steamrolled by Coronavirus, this is the perfect time to go back and watch older films! My favorite place to find free films are two services that can be accessed through your library card: Kanopy and Hoopla. 

Hoopla has a selection of mid-range films and smaller gems, including some where I’m not sure if they are student films or not, but are nevertheless delightful in their absurdity (see VelociPastor and Santa Jaws below). Hoopla also has e-books, comics, and music. 

Kanopy is a more curated streaming service where, depending on your library, you can borrow around 6 films a month. Kanopy has a wide variety of educational programs, documentaries, foreign films, and small indies. 

Both services are wonderful and it’s worth checking to see if your library offers either of them. People in Tulsa- the public library system offers Hoopla. Norman people- the Pioneer Library System offers Kanopy. Here are a few of the best films on each service to check out:

Great Films on Kanopy:

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (also on Hoopla)

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

First Reformed (also on Hoopla)

Lady Bird

Eighth Grade

The Parts You Lose (Also on Hoopla)

Room (also on Hoopla)

What We Do In The Shadows (also on Hoopla)

Memento (also on Hoopla)

Great Films on Hoopla:

Adopt a Highway

Short Term 12

Ex Machina (also on Kanopy)

RBG

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Life, Animated

American Woman

The VelociPastor

Santa Jaws

 

-Madeleine D. 

 

10 Best Things of January – June 2019

10 Best Things of July – December 2019

The Elder Brothers of Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul

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*Spoilers for Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and El Camino below

For the past 9 weeks, my heart has been in Vince Gilligan’s Land of Enchantment. I have watched, for the first time, Breaking Bad, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, and Better Call Saul. I’m 12 years late to the party, but I’m here! Therefore, this is not a review about how amazing these shows and movie are, because by now that’s a pretty well-established fact. Instead, I want to examine an overarching theme of the Gilligan-verse.

In both TV shows, we see a reenactment of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, with a special emphasis placed on understanding the Elder Brother character. Walter White of Breaking Bad and Chuck McGill of Better Call Saul are archetypal elder brothers to Jesse Pinkman and Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman, respectively. These characters become case studies of the unique failings of both Elder Brothers and Younger Brothers, as depicted in the prodigal son parable. These allegorical connections are part of what makes Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul such rich examinations of morality.  

The Parable

The Prodigal Son narrative appears in Luke 15:11-32 when Jesus tells a series of parables to a group of Pharisees. In the story, there is a rich man with two sons. The younger son asks his father for his share of the inheritance (an extremely disrespectful action). The father gives it to him, and the son runs off. He squanders the money “in reckless living” (v. 13, ESV). When he runs out of money, there is a famine in the country he is in. The only work he can find is feeding pigs (which, when considering Jewish dietary laws, symbolizes a great spiritual deprivation). The son decides to go back to his father and to offer himself up as a hired servant in order to pay back his debt. He knows his father is a kind man, and he will be treated better as a servant for him than he is now.  But when the younger son returns home, his father runs to meet him and immediately embraces him back as his son and puts on a celebration, declaring that the son “was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 22). The son, despite his failings, has been forgiven and fully reconciled with the father. 

Meanwhile, when the elder brother, who has remained faithful to his father, hears about this, he becomes angry and refuses to join the celebration. His father comes out to try to bring him in, but the brother argues that it is unfair that while he has always served the father, it is his younger brother, who acted so shamefully, who is now being celebrated. The elder son has served his father out of duty and a desire to be recognized, not out of love. The father responds that “‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours” (v. 31). The parable ends without any reconciliation between the brothers or between the older brother and the father. 

Better Call Saul 

Better Call Saul is a more straightforward telling of the prodigal son story with the literal brothers of Chuck and Jimmy McGill. Chuck (Michael McKean) is the older brother who is a brilliant, respected, accomplished lawyer, and is nearly impossible to please. He casts a long shadow over his younger brother Jimmy (Bob Odenkirk), who has a messy past and is more than willing to take a few shortcuts to get his way. Chuck operates in a completely black-and-white worldview. He is a staunch legalist who puts all of his trust in the law. He shows little capacity for mercy or grace. Because he sees Jimmy cut corners and get things without working as hard for them as he did, Chuck is full of self-righteous anger. 

Pastor Timothy Keller writes in his book The Prodigal God that “Elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy” (61). Chuck does all of these things, and because he defines himself as being diametrically opposed to Jimmy, he refuses to recognize any of these characteristics in his brother. This means Jimmy, even at his best, can never earn Chuck’s love and approval. This is part of the reason he gives up on being good altogether and embraces the Saul Goodman moniker. 

Chuck’s resentment towards Jimmy is best reflected in the words of the older son to the father in the parable after he hears of the celebration for his brother:

“‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ [The father responds:] ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found’” (v. 29-32). 

The joy of the father’s inheritance has always been available to the older son. Being with the father is itself a gift. Likewise, a joyful relationship with his brother and personal satisfaction in his own accomplishments has always been possible for Chuck. But he self-sabotages both because he’s too preoccupied with the perceived unfairness of how he’s been treated compared to Jimmy. He sees any grace extended towards Jimmy as unfair, and isn’t unfairness the antithesis of the law? It is for a legalist who hasn’t experienced mercy. 

The tragedy of Chuck is that he is too focused on what he deems “fair” to see what is loving and kind. Even when Jimmy is at his humblest, Chuck continues to cut him down. Chuck did all the “right” things, but without the right heart, it leads to nothing. Chuck dies alone in his house, with nothing of value to show for himself. His story ends with alienation from joy and from his brother, just like the elder brother in the parable.

Amill Santiago writes in “Better Call Saul and the Ache for Approval” that, “The two broken brothers are trying to get essentially the same thing through very different ways: immorality and moralism… [But] In Christ we can be received and approved despite our moral failures (cf. 1 Tim. 1:15) and independently from our moral performance (cf. Eph. 2:8-9).” Chuck and Jimmy, like the Elder and Younger brother, are both trying to fill holes in their hearts for affirmation and reward, but simply in different ways. In this sense, Better Call Saul invites viewers to examine the ways in which they lean towards the younger brother or elder brother mindset, and the follies of both. The show understands, like the parable, that neither approach to life- duty and joyless obligation like Chuck, or self-centered rebelliousness like Jimmy, are satisfactory ways to have relationships with God or others. 

But, unfortunately for the McGill brothers, Better Call Saul is also a show about how seemingly minute choices put people on a path towards destruction from which they eventually find themselves unable to escape. There is no father/God figure in Better Call Saul who disrupts the road to destruction and redeems his wayward children, who stops Jimmy McGill from becoming the Saul Goodman we know in Breaking Bad. In this regard, Better Call Saul’s fatalism is at odds with the Prodigal Son parable. But despite this, there is still great value in the way the show prompts audience introspection, and how Better Call Saul shows other characters land in the middle of the extreme older brother-younger brother spectrum. Kim, Howard, Mike, Nacho, and others move around from one end of the spectrum to another, and this fleshes out how anyone can “break bad,” and the many incarnations this can take. This variation is what makes the show so compelling. 

Breaking Bad

In Better Call Saul, the older and younger brother dynamic is more straightforward because it plays out in the central sibling relationship between Chuck and Jimmy. But in Breaking Bad, Walt and Jesse are not brothers, nor is their relationship dynamic that of brothers. Instead, Walt and Jesse have a twisted father and son relationship (one of forced co-dependency). This means that the older/younger brother dynamic doesn’t play out so much in their interpersonal relationship as much as it does through their symbolic standings in society.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a quintessential elder brother in his world. When we meet him in the pilot, he’s a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who keeps his head down and is a steady father and husband. He is seen as the beta male to his DEA brother-in-law, Hank’s, alpha machismo. Walt feels emasculated by his wife Skyler. He feels underappreciated and underestimated. He is full of unrecognized genius, and therefore full of bitterness to those around him who do not recognize this genius. When he is diagnosed with lung cancer, he’s been dealt an undeniably crappy deal. But he chooses to let this be the reason why he indulges in self-pity and becomes unbelievably cruel. This is because, “The first sign [of] an elder-brother spirit is that when your life doesn’t go as you want, you aren’t just sorrowful but deeply angry and bitter. Elder brothers believe that if they live a good life they should get a good life” (Keller, 56). In El Camino, Walt tells Jesse in a flashback, “You’re lucky, you know that? You didn’t have to wait your whole life to do something special.” Walt wants the same thing as Jesse, but has spent his life trying to get it in a different way. Elder brothers try to gain what they want through loveless obedience, and become disillusioned when their efforts don’t pay off.  

Walt’s cancer diagnosis puts him in contrast to Hank when Hank is shot by the twins and loses his ability to walk. While Walt’s pain reveals pride, anger, bitterness, and entitlement, in the end, Hank uses his pain as a catalyst to become a better man, husband, and DEA agent. For Walt, “The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment” (Keller, 58). When he loses control of his environment, the Heisenberg that was always inside him does everything necessary to regain control, which means becoming a menace to everyone, especially to those in his own home. Walt feels that he’s earned the right to play Heisenberg, to live out this childish power fantasy because he has acted good and has been repressed for so long. He helps justify this with his mantra of doing it all “for his family,” a lie he holds onto until the very end, when he finally admits to Skyler in the episode “Felina” that he did it all for himself. In Walt, we see that the elder brother mindset is a ticking time bomb. When the elder brother feels cheated, or that his “good life” hasn’t paid off in the way he expected, he lashes out in self-righteous pride and anger. He is unable to relate to others with grace and mercy because he refuses to accept it himself, and nothing will ever be good enough for him. 

On the flip side, you have Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who (despite actually being an older brother in his biological family) is a classic younger brother. In the parable, “The [younger brother] humiliates his family and lives a self-indulgent, dissolute life. He is totally out of control” (Keller, 39). This is how we meet Jesse at the beginning of the show. He’s considered by his family and respectable society to be an embarrassment; a wayward junkie, too dumb and unruly to ever do anything of value. He’s seemingly squandered all potential and resources he has for a life of easy living and drugs. Literally the third sentence Walt says to Jesse in the pilot is, “Honestly, I never expected you to amount to much.” 

Throughout the series, Jesse has quite a few “eating with the pigs” moments, from S02E04 “Down” when he’s kicked out of his house and spends the night on the floor of the Krystal Ship, covered in portapotty sludge and wearing a facemask, to being a meth-cook slave to neo-nazis by the end of the series. And that’s just the physical desolation; Jesse is constantly haunted by guilt and remorse and keeps being pulled further and further in over his head into the life of crime he was never cut out for. Jesse, unlike Walt, is brought low enough to see his need for forgiveness and redemption. It’s easy to imagine him saying the words of the younger brother at his lowest points- “I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son” (v. 21). But because there is no God/father figure in Breaking Bad either, Jesse turns to all sorts of self-flagellation to try and replicate this forgiveness, from rehab and its philosophy of unconditional self-acceptance, to mind-numbing partying, to helping the DEA, to going through a personal hell in captivity. We see here that the younger brother’s life of gluttony and self-fulfillment leads to great personal consequences. If the younger brother doesn’t come to see the error of his ways, this self-destructiveness is a never-ending spiral. If the younger brother does see the error of his ways, then he needs forgiveness and reconciliation to be able to move past his failings. 

In El Camino, Jesse gets his happy ending (as happy as one can be in Breaking Bad), and the older brother/younger brother’s differences are further parsed out. When Jesse escapes captivity, he is able to rely on his friendships and connections to help get him to Alaska. He doesn’t have Walt’s pride and is able to use his relationships with Skinny Pete, Badger, Old Joe the junkyard guy, his parents, Ed, and the memories of Mike and Jane to guide him. In the end, Jesse is, in part, saved by his reliance on others and their prodigal mercy towards him, while Walt dies utterly alone, having severed all relationships because he saw them primarily as transactional. Jesse as the younger brother experiences a restoration. Walt refuses every chance given to him of restoration with himself, his family, and moral society. 

While Better Call Saul invites viewers to consider themselves and whether they are an older or younger brother and how such mindsets lead down equally dangerous roads, Breaking Bad is focused more on the ending of the parable. Better Call Saul’s lack of a father/God figure means neither Chuck nor Jimmy get redemption. Breaking Bad gives Jesse as the younger brother a reconciliation, but leaves the elder brother Walt’s ending as unresolved, just like the parable. This zeros-in on a key point of understanding the parable. Jesus was talking to a group of Pharisees, hyper-religious men who loved the law over God and enforcing the law over loving others. By leaving the elder brother unreconciled, Jesus sends a clear message to the Pharisees- you look down on the younger brother sinners of the word, but your fates will be much worse if you do not see the hatred in your own hearts.

Breaking Bad, too, seems to think that being an elder brother can be potentially worse than being a younger brother, conveying this through both the respective endings for Walt and Jesse and also through the show’s tight-rope balance of pushing the audience to align themselves with Walt, only to then remind you of Walt’s monstrosity. By doing this, the show puts up a mirror and makes you realize how easily you too are swayed into his self-serving, self-righteous, entitled mindset. Perhaps it is easier in our current society to be elder brothers- and much more dangerous as well. These shows focused on morality come to similar conclusions to that of Jesus’ parables- that bitterness, anger, resentment, a lack of mercy, and entitlement are all key roots of evil.

-Madeleine D.

Movies for Holy Week

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By Jonathan Dorst

Holy Week is the highlight of the Christian calendar, the week when the church remembers and dramatizes the events between Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (Palm Sunday) and His resurrection (Easter). In addition to the two Sundays, many churches celebrate Maundy-Thursday, the night when Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with His disciples (see John 13-17), and Good Friday, the day when Jesus was crucified and laid in the tomb.

2020 will be a year that will be remembered for many things, but one very sad thing we’ll remember is not being able to be together, as the church, during Holy Week. So, we’ll do the next best thing: worship together by ourselves or with our immediate families. Along with reading the Scriptures, watching worship livestreams, and singing worship songs together, allow me to recommend some movies for you to watch.

Some of these movies were made by Christians, and others were not. Some are direct dramatizations of the biblical events, while others are only symbolic of the events. But, all are worth pondering, I think. They’re listed in alphabetical order by event, three each.

Maundy-Thursday

Babette’s Feast (PG)- A beautiful story about a religious community that is brought together by a sacrificial, but extravagant, meal.

Chocolat (PG-13)- This one’s a little bit of a stretch, but part of Jesus’ message to His disciples at the Last Supper is “that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” While Juliette Binoche’s Vianne is not necessarily a Christian role model, she does bring joy and feasting to a legalistic, pharisaical town.

Jesus of Nazareth (PG)- The 1979 TV movie is a pretty faithful rendering of Jesus’ life, including a good scene of the Last Supper. You might need to make this a multi-night watch- it’s 6 hours and 22 minutes (or you could just watch the Last Supper scene on YouTube).

Good Friday

The Iron Giant (PG)- A visitor from out of this world sacrifices himself to make peace on earth.

The Passion of the Christ (R)- This movie does a good job of telling the story of the crucifixion in a visceral way, but what it doesn’t get (and maybe no movie could get) is that the hardest part of Jesus’ suffering was not the physical pain, but the spiritual pain that came from being separated by the Father and becoming sin for us.

War For the Planet of the Apes (PG-13)- The whole trilogy is a parallel to Moses’ story in Exodus, but this last movie casts Caesar as a Christ figure, sacrificing himself to bring his community to free his people.

Easter

The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe- I personally love the animated 1979 version (PG), as it is the most faithful to the book, but the 2005 version (PG) will do in a pinch.

Risen (PG-13)- The resurrection told through the eyes of a Roman solder tasked with investigating the case of a missing dead body.

The Tree of Life (PG-13)- As a meditation on the book of Job that is told mainly through visuals, we follow a family grieving the loss of a son/brother until, like Job prophesied (Job 19:25-26), they experience a bodily resurrection.

 

(Originally published at https://www.riveroakstulsa.com/blog/post/movies-for-holy-week)

Thoughts on the Future of the Blog, Quarantine, and Lent

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Dear readers,

I’m not dead! I’m alive and well, and at this point, I do not have COVID-19. I am dreadfully sorry for not writing on the blog for almost two months. The beginning of the year is always a strange time for movies and for me, and this year is particularly strange. 

I am, of course, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve been home for the past two weeks and will remain here as my university finishes the semester out online. My family is under shelter-in-place and has been social distancing and quarantining as much as possible. 

Then this is the perfect time to write plenty of reviews, right? Well, now the problem is that there are no movies out. In the coming days, I will probably write about a few of the newest theatrical releases that have been sent to streaming. I’ll be debuting madeleinelovesmovies’s first series review with the Tiger King on Netflix (it’s great!). I’m also interested in experimenting with a few non-reviews, in the line of meditations, essays, or think-pieces, if you don’t mind me straying a bit from this blog’s original intention. 

This is also as good a time as any to mention that I’m always up for guest writers. If you want to write a review for something, contact me personally or pitch me your idea in the comments of this post. The comments have to be approved before becoming visible on the blog so I’ll see them and we can talk!

~

Taking a hard transition away from housekeeping… It is currently the season of Lent. Lent is a season of the Christian calendar that makes up the 40 days leading up to Easter Sunday (this year it’s April 12). It is kicked off on what’s called Ash Wednesday, which is usually celebrated with a service where a pastor draws a cross with ashes across congregant’s foreheads, with the words “Remember that you are dust, and to dust, you shall return.”

 It is traditional to fast from something during Lent. Many people will give up things like coffee or chocolate or social media. Instead of fasting, some people try to start a habit, like reading their bible daily. The purpose of Lent, through practices like fasting, is to tune our hearts towards Jesus and his sacrifice. Our small sacrifices remind us of his and of our dependence on his strength. 

Most years I attempt to fast something. This year I didn’t- citing my busy schedule and not preparing for Lent properly beforehand. But it turns out that I am now, unexpectedly, fasting quite a bit. This fasting is coming from quarantine, and I am beginning to believe that this quarantine/self-isolation/social-distancing/whatever you want to call it, may actually be the best thing that could happen during Lent. Of course, this pandemic is horrific. It’s causing every kind of pain at every level. No one is untouched and the long-term ramifications are frightening and unpredictable. Yet it’s where we’re at right now. It’s what we’ve been given. 

Lent is about sacrifice and deprivation, and the coronavirus pandemic has made us all sacrifice and be deprived of so many things. Everyone has had some kind of future event canceled. All sports, all concerts, all conferences and parties and vacations are gone for the foreseeable future. We have had our mobility- our sweet, sweet American freedom of movement- taken away. We have had our closest friendships and even family members taken by distance. We have lost our ability to buy whatever we want, in whatever amount, and get it whenever we want. Some of us have lost our jobs and livelihoods. We’ve lost money in stocks and IRAs and retirement. We’ve lost our health and some of us will lose our loved ones or even our own lives. We have lost all illusion of certainty for the future. 

We are completely dependent. Our knowledge and understanding are limited. The news makes us feel omnipotent but our perspective is truly small. Some of us are having to truly, desperately pray for our daily bread (or toilet paper), because for the first time we can’t take it for granted. It is in this desperation and fraughtness that we are, perhaps, being given the opportunity to learn the real meaning of Lent, and to experience it deeply. 

May we realize our own weakness. May we truly come to terms with it. May we take this uncomfortable freedom of time to truly abide the thought of death. May we trade peace maintained by thoughtlessness for peace found by preparedness and hope. May we realize that nothing we could possibly be asked to sacrifice will ever compare to the sacrifice already made for us. 

Wash your hands. Remain vigilant. Stay safe, and watch good movies. 

“You say that you cannot abide the thought of death. Then you greatly need it. Your shrinking from it proves that you are not in a right state of mind… I would not endure a peace which could only be maintained by thoughtlessness. You have something yet to learn if you are a Christian, and yet are not prepared to die… Should it not be the business of this life to prepare for the next life, and, in that respect, to prepare to die? But how can a man be prepared for that which he never thinks of?” -Charles Spurgeon (from “O Love That Will Not Let Me Go” ed. by Nancy Guthrie)

Top Ten Films of 2019

It’s that time of the year! The Oscars are upon us and the 2020 movie slate will be picking up soon, so it’s time to wrap up 2019. My criteria here is, as always:

  1. How much I enjoyed the film and how much it stuck with me.
  2. How “good” of a film it is, in terms of craft and use of the medium.
  3. Cultural significance and relevance.

I have not yet seen The Lighthouse, Honey Boy, Hidden Life, Booksmart, Ad Astra, Ford V. Ferrari, and The Standoff at Sparrow Creek

Honorable Mentions: Us, Dark Waters, Toy Story 4, Bombshell, Peanut Butter Falcon, The Farewell, How to Train Your Dragon 3, El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie, Adopt a Highway, The Parts You Lose, and John Mulaney & the Sack Lunch Bunch

Worst Film of the Year: The Lion King (2019)

  1. Blinded by the Light

This little movie is one of the last of the dying breed of midrange movies getting a theatrical release. Without that release though, I may never have been able to see one of the best films I’ve seen about how art can inspire and connect people across generations and cultures. 

  1. Harriet

This biopic has been plagued by controversy and may not be completely historically accurate. But it rises above that, and the trappings of conventional biopic cliches, to become something a little more awe-inspiring and revelatory. 

  1. Marriage Story

Since my first viewing, I’ve read dozens of think-pieces and reviews that have made me re-examine Marriage Story. Is it biased towards Charlie? Is Nicole made to be a villain or is that a subversion? Is writer-director Noah Baumbach actually saying divorce can be a good thing that enables growth on the part of both individuals? How autobiographical is this story anyways? 

While my reading on the film has become more complicated, I see it as a true win for the film that it can not only spark this many debates and readings, but withstand them, and continue to stick in my mind months later. 

  1. Frozen 2

With live-action remakes on the rise, the question has arisen if a story warrants being animated- and if animation still holds unique value compared to live-action. But Frozen 2 shows what an animated musical can do if operating on the highest level in all areas- music, sets, character design, story, voice acting. It is, in other words, super dope. 

  1. Little Women

While the Winona Ryder version will always hold a special place in my heart, Greta Gerwig’s version sets a new bar with how to do a book-to-movie adaptation. While some consider purity to the source material as the way to judge an adaptation, I believe a good adaptation is in conversation with both the source material and with the cultural response to the material. This is particularly so with a book that’s been adapted as much as Little Women and has a huge meta-textual history to draw from, with everything from the author’s own biography to modern readers still debating #TeamLaurie and #TeamBhaer. Another straightforward adaptation won’t do. Gerwig pulls off a complete structural rehaul and an ending change that adds tremendously to the conversation and legacy of Louisa May Alcott’s work. Gerwig and the ensemble cast also make a delightful piece of entertainment while they’re at it.

  1. Everybody Knows

This Spanish-language thriller finds less excitement in its kidnapping plot than the careful unraveling of secrets family members keep from one another. Beautiful acting by Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem and directing from Asghar Farhadi make it one of the most exciting and tense films of the year.

  1. Jojo Rabbit

Jojo Rabbit has two distinct parts. The movie switches tones about halfway through in an abrupt fashion. It’s difficult to swallow at first, and it has been a stumbling block for many when it comes to liking this film. But I think it’s the film’s greatest strength. It’s in these two parts that we are given two different but related solutions to dealing with the problem of indescribable suffering. 

The first solution is to use comedy to heal ourselves, ridicule the villains, and reclaim power. This is demonstrated in the hilarious first half, which uses humor to undercut Nazism and expose its ridiculous ideology and tactics. Humor gives Jewish character Elsa agency and power over an otherwise powerless situation. 

In the second half of the film, we get the second solution: reckless hope and courage. Of course, humor is not unrelated to hope and courage. But one is focused on the past, while the other is focused on the future. 

The ending captures both of these ideas. Jojo and Elsa dance, which is both humorous and an act of hope and courage. “Let’s dance” means, “let’s keeping living.” It means not giving in to despair, and being resilient, which children are particularly good at. All of this is found within Jojo Rabbit.

  1. The Two Popes

As I said in my review, The Two Popes is not only an enrapturing watch but also is relevant for non-Catholics and addresses religion and faith with frankness and honesty that I’ve rarely seen. I’m still thinking about specific lines of dialogue and the strangely pizzazzy cinematography choices. It’s such a weird movie, in the best way. It’s a must-see, if only for these two scenes alone:

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And-

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  1. Parasite

I never wrote a review on Parasite because my original idea of doing a comparison between it and US and their shared metaphors of tunnels and class never got off the ground and I simply didn’t have time to do such a deep dive. I also saw it late, and most everything that can be said about the movie has been said. If you’ve been paying attention at all to this movie or the Academy Awards, you’ll know that Parasite is, indeed, a phenomenal film about class that doesn’t waste a single frame in telling a striking, chilling story. It’s brilliant. 

  1. The Last Black Man in San Francisco 

I labored over this choice, I really did. The Last Black Man in San Francisco tackles many of the same topics as these other films. Parasite tells a much more elaborate, brutal tale of class warfare. Little Women captures equally the beauty of friendship and siblinghood. Marriage Story is also presented in a very realistic, almost documentary-like way. Blinded by the Light has acute observations on race. But The Last Black Man in San Francisco does all of these things in its own unique, unified way. It’s made with the kind of quiet confidence that is unusual for a directorial debut. It’s a meditative piece that carves out a quiet place in a noisy world. It’s an elegy for past times with a hopeful future. It was stunning. It’s stayed with me since June and I expect it will continue to for much longer. 

-Madeleine D.