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Staff Picks: Movies

'S All Good, Man

Breaking Bad became a ratings phenomenon in its final season thanks to Netflix-enabled binge-watching. The show was always a critical darling, but it took until nearly the end of its run for the eyeballs to match the applause. Not for me, however; I started watching when it first aired and realized it was going to be a genius show somewhere around episode four. I watched because it was created by Vince Gilligan, whom I knew as one of the best writers on The X-Files (which was and is my all-time favorite show). I liked Bryan Cranston from Malcolm in the Middle, but had really been impressed with him after a guest-star turn he made on an X-Files episode named “Drive” (written, not-so-incidentally, by Gilligan himself). I was later thrilled when the show introduced the character of Saul Goodman, the morally-questionable criminal lawyer, in no small part because he was played by Bob Odenkirk, a comedy legend I adored from his work on the HBO sketch series Mr. Show. Goodman became a fan favorite and when Bad began to draw towards its conclusion, there grew talk of a spin-off revolving around the character.

I balked at this idea: quality spin-offs are rare, and Goodman really seemed to work best as the comic relief in an otherwise tense and gritty show. Could the origin story of a sleazy attorney whose future is already known to us make for exciting television? Or was this merely cashing in on a beloved property and might that cheapen its source material? It turns out I needn’t have worried: Thanks to the talents of Gilligan and many of the Bad writers (as well as the dramatic chops of Odenkirk), not only does Goodman have enough of a saga to prop up his own series, but Better Call Saul has turned out to be every bit as well written and directed as its predecessor.

Set years before Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul follows Goodman (working under his real name, Jimmy McGill) as he struggles to launch his law career in the shadow of his successful brother, Chuck (played by another comedy legend, Michael McKean). Chuck, whose career has stalled because of a rare phobia, refuses to take Jimmy seriously and actively works to suppress him. He sees Jimmy as nothing more than the same swindling huckster he was in his youth. To Chuck, Jimmy survives on charisma and conniving—he hasn’t put in the effort to succeed or graduated from a prestigious school. For his part, Jimmy is an earnest guy trying to become reputable, but his outside-the-box tactics for success clash with his straight-laced colleagues and to Chuck, he may never be more than a con man. And to that end, we see the basic concept DNA that Saul shares with Breaking Bad: They are both stories about men whose environments created circumstances that led to their moral downfalls, yet you can point to the personality traits of each man that exacerbated their respective falls from grace.

I can’t recommend this series enough. If you liked Breaking Bad (and most of you did), definitely check out Better Call Saul. It may not have the body count or the nail-biting tension, but it deserves to have the enthusiastic audience that Bad had; perhaps it can get it a lot sooner in its run. Season Two is still airing, but Season One is on DVD now.

 


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

It was only a matter of time when writer/actor Tina Fey would emerge from the ashes of her wildly funny sitcom 30 Rock to develop another hilarious romp of a show--one reflective of her signature brand of fast paced, pop culture-referencing satire that pokes our funny bone while slyly commenting on our cultural absurdities. Well, it's here and it won't let fans of Fey's previous work down. The Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt finds a young woman (brilliantly played by Ellie Kemper) emerge from 15 years of cult-held captivity to embrace The Big Apple with the kind of screwball antics and wide-eyed cluelessness that will charm audiences.


The Peanuts Get a Reboot

I’m glad to report that for adults who grew up watching and enjoying the Charles Schulz’s Peanuts television specials and who may have been skeptical about the 2015 re-boot shown in theaters, fear not, it more than makes the grade. Retaining the essence and spirit of the classic 1960’s programs was essential for those like me who worried that Hollywood would somehow ruin my nostalgic recollections of watching the perpetually morose, quasi-depressed Charlie Brown run toward the football only to have his arch nemesis Lucy pull it away at the last second. Everyone from the original is here and accounted for including the ever-fantasizing beagle Snoopy, his trusted sidekick Woodstock, the aromatic Pigpen, the Beethoven-obsessed Schroeder, the dynamic duo of Marcie and Peppermint Patty, and the quixotic Linus. With updated animation that feels fresh while still grounded to the flat, minimalist approach of the original, The Peanuts Movie won’t disappoint its fans, both the new and the old ones.


Sheep Thrills

My two-year-old has very limited access to television, thanks to advice gleaned from child-rearing brain-development experts and also common sense. His world of moving pictures has mostly involved the interactive education of Sesame Street, the animated adventures of misbehaving monkey Curious George, and, thanks to his father’s love of all things Aardman, the wooly exploits of British bovid Shaun the Sheep. I grew up on Creature Comforts and Wallace and Gromit, so when it came time for selecting something short that I could enjoy as much as my child, Shaun jumped out at me.

Shaun the character was spun off of the Academy Award-winning Wallace and Gromit short A Close Shave. The series follows Shaun’s life on a small rural farm in Britain and his adventures with fellow sheep, a sheepdog named Bitzer, the hapless farmer, and some misfit pigs. Animated in classic Aardman stop-motion style, Shaun is a family-friendly delight.

Last year saw the feature-length adaptation Shaun the Sheep Movie hit theaters, where it enjoyed great critical success. It has since been deservedly nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar. In the film, Shaun and the gang find themselves having to venture to the big city in order to rescue their missing farmer while staying out of the clutches of a villainous animal containment worker. The film is hilarious for kids and adults (as well as adults without kids); much like Pixar, Aardman is an expert at appealing to multiple generations. Check it out! It’s wool-th your time.


Brooklyn Nine-Nine

I can not believe that I'm admitting to enjoying some piece of popular culture that features actor Andy Samberg. I never found him particularly funny while he was a cast member on Saturday Night Live. His brand of humor simply hasn't connected with my brain. But here I am, ready to state for the record that I've been enjoying season one of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a well-written sitcom with an excellent ensemble cast. Yes, it's silly and it's sort of riffing on 1970's cop shows (Barney Miller comes to mind as a referent), but honestly, there's not much out there for those looking for a clever, network show that tickles the funny bone ever since The Office, Parks and Recreation, and 30 Rock closed up shop.


Jane the Virgin

When I first heard the basic premise of the newer television series Jane the Virgin – an early-20-something devout Catholic woman who's decided to save her virginity until marriage is accidentally artificially inseminated – I immediately dismissed it as something I had zero interest in watching. But since the series debuted in fall 2014, I continued hearing positive buzz about the show. I recently took a few days away from the library to stay with my mother during her recovery from surgery; camping out in front of the TV was the only 'activity' she had the energy for, so we decided to check out the first episode of Jane the Virgin. That episode pulled us in, leading us, in the course of a few days, to binge-watch the entire first season and seek out the available episodes from season two online. The series is hilarious and totally charming, and manages to address relevant societal issues in a smart and natural manner. It offered a casual opportunity for my mom and me to have a conversation about immigration that we may not have had otherwise. The series as a whole is definitely much better than the over-the-top premise.

Here are a few other binge-worthy series that generate discussion:
Orange Is the New Black
Transparent
Master of None
Mr. Robot
The Wire


The Last Man on Earth

There appears to be no plans on the part of the entertainment industry to reduce or diminish the presence of the Man-child (defined here as: a boorish, immature adult male without capacity for empathy or self-reflection) character. They are sadly, as ubiquitous as ever (we could blame Adam Sandler for this cultural scourge). That’s exactly what viewers get with the lead character of the comedic series The Last Man on Earth—a highly dysfunctional, selfish bozo in a man’s body. Former SNL actor/writer Will Forte lets it all hang out as earth’s final man, roaming the streets of Tucson, living day to day as though he were reverting back to an earlier, primordial period. And yet the best part of the show is the actress Kristen Schaal’s portrayal of the last woman on earth, the quirky but lovable grammar Nazi, Carol Pilbasian (one of my favorite actresses who stole scenes in Flight of the Conchords). The show has its moments, especially when the absurdity gives way to more tender scenes between Phil and Carol. It certainly has potential.


Mad Men(1)

The AMC drama Mad Men's final season will be released in less than a month and so be sure to catch up on this series that explores the cultural and personal inner workings of the advertising industry from the late 50's to the early 1970's. Actor Jon Hamm was awarded the Emmy for Best Actor in a Drama last night, a fitting tribute to a dynamic show that featured flawed but lovable characters journeying through their personal crises along side the broader, evolving social landscape that saw the rise and decline of the counter-culture and the ascent of the mass media and the power of marketing.


Justified

I've been binge-watching the series Justified of late. Born from a story by Elmore Leonard and starring actor Timothy Olyphant (Deadwood), Justified's strength as a show is in the writing and the strong performances from Olyphant and the other cast members. It's not a show that possesses the kind of dramatic depth of The Wire, Mad Men or Orange is the New Black but what it lacks in narrative complexity and sociological dimension, it makes up for in sheer entertainment value. Set in the backwoods of Kentucky where organized crime and drug dealing is rampant, the straight-talking, quick-shooting U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens finds his commitment to law enforcement at odds with both his scheming father and the various drug-dealing factions that battle for turf in Harlan County.


TV Series Ending 2014-2015

Every May television networks announce the fate of their current lineup of television series and present their new shows to advertisers in what are called upfronts. The upfronts earlier this month weren't too shocking, but this year marks the end of many beloved and/or highly acclaimed series. While you wait for the slate of new shows to begin in the fall, re-watch a few that ended this year:

Parenthood
Parks and Recreation
Mad Men
The Newsroom
Boardwalk Empire
Sons of Anarchy
Justified
Glee
The Mentalist
Revenge

You can also place a hold on the first season of this year's smash hit, Empire, and catch up on the original runs of two cult favorites reportedly coming back in the near future: Twin Peaks and The X Files.