The Things You Find On Netflix: El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (dir by Vince Gilligan)


As one might expect from the sequel film to Breaking Bad, the shadow of Walter White hangs over very minute of El Camino.

Physically, Bryan Cranston doesn’t have a large role in El Camino.  Like many of the characters from Breaking Bad, he appears only in a flashback.  Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) spends a good deal of this movie dwelling on the past, perhaps because the only way that he can have a future is by mentally forgiving himself for all the stuff that went on while he was cooking meth with Walter White and, later, for the Nazi bikers who kept him chained up in a cage like an animal.  So, it makes sense that we would see a lot of flashbacks, the majority featuring characters who are no longer alive.  Cranston’s Walter White only appears towards the end of the film, when Jesse remembers the conversation they had at a diner about what Jesse was going to do with the money that they were making.  It’s a bit jarring to see them, largely because Walter still looks like an earnest and frail science teacher while Jesse is still young, loud, and more than a little obnoxious.  It’s quite a contrast to what we know will eventually happen to both characters.

For obvious reasons, Walter White isn’t in much of El Camino but his ghost seems to following Jesse through the entire movie. For that matter, so does the ghost of Tod Alquist (Jesse Plemons).  It’s not just that a good deal of the movie deals with Jesse trying to figure out where Tod hid all of his money.  (Jesse is planning on using the money to hopefully escape New Mexico and start a new life in Alaska.)  It’s also that Jesse has been scarred, both physically and mentally, by the Hellish time that he spent as Tod’s …. well, Tod’s pet.  Tod treated Jesse like a dog, keeping him on a leash, punishing him for being “bad,” and then offering Jesse pizza as a reward whenever Jesse did something right.  To be honest, the flashbacks with Tod take some getting used to, largely because Plemons has obviously aged quite a bit between the finale of Breaking Bad and the shooting of El Camino.  But, still, Plemons is absolutely terrifying as the unfailingly polite but definitely sociopathic Tod.  At one point, Tod casually brings Jesse over to his apartment so that Jesse can help dispose of the body of his cleaning lady.  Tod murdered her because she came across some money that he was hiding in a hollowed-out book.  Tod shrugs as he tells the story of her murder, as if his actions are as commonplace as waking up and going to bed.

Throughout Breaking Bad, Jesse spent most of the series being manipulated by evil men.  What was ironic, of course, was that Jesse was the only one of those men who must people automatically considered to be a criminal.  Everyone thought that Walter was a tragic family man.  Tod was largely anonymous and those who did notice him usually assumed he was just an eccentric weirdo.  Jesse, on the other hand, was the guy who was continually getting hauled in by the police and harassed by the DEA.  He was the one who was viewed as being a danger to society even though he eventually proved himself to be one of the few characters with anything resembling a conscience.  In El Camino, Jesse finally gets a chance to determine his own fate.  Will he embrace the lucrative but soul-destroying greed of Walter and Tod?  Or will he escape and try to make a new life for himself?

El Camino is a visually stunning tour-de-force, anchored by Aaron Paul’s empathetic performance as Jesse.  Jesse is no longer as loud as he may have been in Breaking Bad.  He’s a man haunted by the past and, watching the film, you know, regardless of whether he makes it to Alaska, the scars will never fully heal.  He has the haunted eyes of a man who is never going to be fully okay, regardless of where he ends up.  In fact, if we’re going to be realistic, he probably doesn’t have much of a future ahead of him.  Those ghosts are always going to follow him and, as Robert Forster’s Ed sagely explains it, much of what has happened is due to Jesse’s own poor decisions.

Still, whatever mistakes he’s made in the past, you can’t help but wish the best for Jesse Pinkman.

He’s earned it.

Cleaning Out The DVR: The Star Chamber (dir by Peter Hyams)


Here’s a good example of why I need to clean out my DVR more regularly:

I recorded the 1983 legal thriller, The Star Chamber, off of Starz on March 14th.  I know what you’re saying.  “Big deal!  That wasn’t that long ago.”  Well, did I mention that it was March 14th, 2017?

That’s right!  The Star Chamber sat on my DVR for over a year before I finally got around to watching it last night.  You’d be justified in asking why it took me so long and I’m afraid that I really couldn’t give you a definite answer.  I can, however, tell you the four main reasons why I recorded it in the first place:

  1. I’m always intrigued whenever I come across a movie of which I haven’t previously heard.
  2. The movie was described as being about a conflicted judge and I just happen to love legal films.
  3. I really, really liked the title.  The Star Chamber?  Did that mean it took place in a room full of stars?
  4. Before I recorded The Star Chamber, I only had 55 films on the DVR.  Since I don’t like odd numbers, recording The Star Chamber took care of that problem.

As for the film itself, The Star Chamber is another one of those movies where a group of vigilantes end up getting pissed off because liberal California judges are letting too many murderers go free because of pesky, constitutional technicalities.  The twist here is that the vigilantes are the same judges who keep tossing out evidence and ruling that confessions are inadmissible in court.  After spending their day setting free the dregs of society, the judges all gather in a nearby house and review the evidence before voting on whether or not they believe the accused was actually guilty.  If the verdict is guilty, the judges promptly hire a hit man who proceeds to clean up the streets.

The newest member of this tribunal is Judge Steven R. Hardin (Michael Douglas).  Hardin is haunted by the technicalities that forced him to toss out a case against two accused of child murderers.  (Making things even worse, the child’s father commits suicide afterward.)  Despite his initial reservations, Judge Hardin signs off on hiring an assassin to take the two men out.  But, when it becomes apparent that the two men actually were innocent, Judge Hardin is horrified to discover that there’s no way to call off the hit…

The Star Chamber is an oddly constructed movie.  When the movie starts, it feels like a typical police procedural.  From there, the movie turns into a rather talky examination of the U.S. legal system, with Judge Hardin trying to balance his idealism with the often frustrating reality of what it takes to uphold the law.  The movie then briefly turns into a conspiracy film, featuring middle-aged men in suits holding secret meetings and debating whether or not they’re serving the greater good.  And then, towards the end of the movie, it turns into an action film, with Judge Hardin being chased by two drug dealers, a contract killer, and a suspicious police detective (Yaphet Kotto).  Judge Hardin may start the movie as a conflicted liberal but he ends at someone who can blow up the entire second floor of a drug lab.  In many ways, The Star Chamber is a deeply silly film but, as directed and co-written by Peter Hyams, it’s also just pulpy enough to be entertaining.  The dialogue may be over-the-top but so is Michael Douglas’s performance so it all evens out in the end.

It may have taken me a while to get around to watching The Star Chamber but I’m glad that I finally did.  It’s a ludicrous film and all the more entertaining as a result.

A Movie A Day #263: Running Scared (1986, directed by Peter Hyams)


Running Scared is weird but good.

Ray Hughes (Gregory Hines!) and Danny Costanzo (Billy Crystal!!!) are two tough detectives in Chicago.  All they want to do is three things: retire, open a bar in Florida, and bust Chicago’s most ruthless drug dealer, Julio Gonzalez (Jimmy Smits).  Their captain (Dan Hedaya) wants them to leave for Florida as soon as possible but they are determined to take down Julio first.’

There are two strange things about this otherwise formulaic crime film.  First off, the two tough cops are played by Gregory Hines and Billy Crystal.  According to the film’s Wikipedia page, director Peter Hyams realized that Running Scared‘s plot was nothing special so he decided that the only way to make the movie stand out was by doing it “with two actors you would not normally expect to see in an action movie.”  The other strange thing is that Hyams’s gambit worked.  Gregory Hines may have been best known as a dancer and Billy Crystal as a comedian but both of them were surprisingly believable as Chicago cops.  Running Scared is actually one of Billy Crystal’s best performances.  For once, he’s believable as being someone other than a version of himself.  Even his frequent one liners seem like something that a detective would say instead of Crystal recycling punch lines from his act.  Whether they are chasing down perps and firing their guns at a moving vehicle, Hines and Crystal are never less than credible as action stars.  Lorenzo Lamas has got nothing on the team of Hines and Crystal.

Predictable though it may be, Running Scared is one of the better late 80s cop films.  The action scenes are exciting and Hyams does a good job capturing the grittiness of Chicago.  Jimmy Smits is a good villain and Joe Pantoliano, Steven Bauer, and Jon Gries all shine in supporting roles.  Keep an eye out for the always underrated Darlanne Fluegel, playing Danny’s ex-wife.

A Movie A Day #224: Armed and Dangerous (1986, directed by Mark L. Lester)


John Candy and Eugene Levy make a great team in the underrated comedy, Armed and Dangerous.

John Candy plays Frank Dooley, a member of the LAPD.  One of the first scenes of the movie is Frank climbing up a tree to save a little boy’s kitten and then getting stuck in the tree himself.  When Frank discovers two corrupt detectives stealing televisions, Frank is framed for the theft and kicked off the force.

Eugene Levy plays Norman Kane, a lawyer whose latest client is a Charles Manson-style cult leader who has a swastika carved into his head.  After being repeatedly threatened with murder, Norman asks for a sidebar and requests that the judge sentence his client to life in prison.  The judge agrees on the condition that Norman, whom he describes as being “the worst attorney to ever appear before me,” find a new line of work.

Frank and Norman end up taking a one day training course to act as security guards and are assigned to work together by their tough by sympathetic supervisor (Meg Ryan!).  Assigned to guard a pharmaceutical warehouse, Frank and Norman stumble across a robbery.  The robbery leads them to corruption inside their own union and, before you can say 80s cop movie, Frank and Norman are ignoring the orders of their supervisors and investigating a crime that nobody wants solved.

Armed and Dangerous was one of the many comedy/cop hybrid films of the 1980s.  Like Beverly Hills Cop, it features Jonathan Banks as a bad guy.  Like the recruits in Police Academy, all of Frank and Norman’s fellow security guards are societal misfits who are distinguished by one or two eccentricities.  There is nothing ground-breaking about Armed and Dangerous but Mark Lester did a good job directing the movie and the team of Candy and Levy (who has previously worked together on SCTV) made me laugh more than a few times.

Armed and Dangerous was originally written to be a vehicle for John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.  It’s easy to imagine Belushi and Aykroyd in the lead roles but I think the movie actually works better with Candy and Levy, whose comedic style was similar to but far less aggressive than that of Belushi and Aykroyd.  One of the reasons that Armed and Dangerous works is because John Candy and Eugene Levy seem like the two last people to ever find themselves in a shootout or a car chase.  With Belushi and Aykroyd, it would have been expected.  After all, everyone’s seen The Blues Brothers.