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Review: Breaking Bad: Season Five (Part 2)

Breaking Bad has always been adept at handling its big reveals, or lack thereof, and the second half of its final season is no exception.

3.5

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Breaking Bad: Season Five (Part 2)

As with the premiere of the first half of Breaking Bad’s final season, the second round of eight episodes opens with a slightly less cryptic yet equally captivating flash-forward. A disheveled and clearly ill Walter White (Bryan Cranston), his cancer, we later learn, having nearly fully returned, tries to reclaim the small tube of ricin, its contents previously embedded in a cigarette intended to kill Gus Fring, from inside the covering of an electrical outlet. On paper, the scene sounds rather uneventful, but it’s actually quite the opposite. The White household is now a shell of its former self, a broken down, gutted monument of disgrace enclosed by a chain-link fence, its walls laced with graffiti (one marking reads, in big yellowish letters, “HEISENBERG”), its empty backyard pool carved up by a group of skateboarders likely unaware of the horrors that once took place there. It’s a startling sight, as Walt’s goal from the beginning was to protect his family, and now their shelter is a shattered, hollowed-out framework of a defunct ideal.

Directed by Bryan Cranston and written by Peter Gould, the episode, titled “Blood Money,” is lean and highly stylized, wasting no time picking up where the jolting mid-season cliffhanger, “Gliding Over All,” left off. Hank (Dean Norris) emerges from the Whites’ bathroom, Walt’s copy of Leaves of Grass in hand, still trying to process what he’s stumbled upon. The episode is lush with carefully extended shots and slow pans toward and away from characters in deep contemplation, such as Hank, whose simultaneous disgust, relief, and stupefaction is conveyed by Norris with an impressively undramatic delicacy. In a remarkable sequence shortly after his discovery that Walt is the notorious Heisenberg he’s been chasing, he has a panic attack on his drive home, his vision blurs, and the frantic shrieks of Marie (Betsy Brandt) become muffled wisps of sound before everything comes to a crashing halt. While it progresses leisurely at certain points, the episode effectively puts into motion what may be an all-out showdown between Hank and Walt, two men who never stop short of achieving their goals, and it concludes with an intense confrontation between them that the series has been building toward since its premiere episode.

Meanwhile, Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) falling deeper and deeper into a state of depression and numbness spawned by overwhelming guilt in response to the murder of a certain tarantula-collecting youngster. Even a hilarious Star Trek fan-fiction monologue by Badger (Matt Jones), consisting of a pie-eating contest aboard the Starship Enterprise that goes horribly wrong, can’t release Jesse from his tomb of dread. The titular blood money is his parting cut of the blue meth funds, and he makes numerous efforts to get rid of it in a way he hopes will pacify his pain, but Walt’s shameless lies continuously diminish Jesse’s attempts at mental well being, so much so that he completely abandons caution, hands several thousand dollars to a homeless man, and tosses the remainder randomly along the street. Jesse’s been through the wringer more than any other Breaking Bad character, seen everyone he’s come to truly care for either die or be forced to leave him, and now appears to be the key to bringing Walt down. In the end, Jesse’s absolute salvation may indeed hinge on his finally turning on the man he once thought of as a mentor.

The episode surprises with its revelation of the state of Walt’s relationship with his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). Only a month or so after their massive fallout, they seem to be on markedly better terms, and when methylamine queen Lydia (Laura Fraser) materializes at the carwash complaining that the meth’s purity has dipped to 68% and hoping to reel Walt back in to cook, Skyler promptly demands that the jittery woman never return to their now-legit business establishment. It’s obvious that Walter and Skyler don’t share an ounce of adoration for one another, and that their union by this point is strictly business, but the thought that Skyler might be the one to put an end to Walt’s treacheries seems less of a possibility now. There’s still the looming wildcard of Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) and what role he’ll play in this tale’s conclusion, but faithful viewers know Breaking Bad has always been adept at handling its big reveals, or lack thereof.

Cranston has helmed other episodes of Breaking Bad, but “Blood Money” may be his most impeccably honed: His resourceful cinematic touches, such as showing the poolside skaters through the viewfinder of one of their handheld cameras and a close-up of Jesse underneath a glass table that’s littered with crumbs and traversed by a crawling insect, illustrate a keen eye for small but significant details. During the profound episode-ending encounter between Walt and Hank, there’s the recurring hum of an adolescent racing a remote-controlled roadster in the background. The buzzing has a similar effect as the periodically popping firecrackers in Boogie Nights’s bungled drug-deal spectacle. The RC car is also evocative of one of Breaking Bad’s constant themes: the importance of being in control. As Walt and Hank presumably prepare to go toe to toe, the real question isn’t who possesses the stronger will, but who can more efficiently manipulate the other into doing what they want. We may think we know the answer, but this being Breaking Bad, we probably don’t have a clue.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Laura Fraser, Jesse Plemons, Steven Michael Quezada, Matt Jones, Charles Baker Airtime: AMC, Sundays @ 9 p.m. Buy: Amazon

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Review: What We Do in the Shadows Struggles to Carve Out Its Own Identity

The series struggles to find a distinct voice that isn’t beholden to the original film.

2.5

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What We Do in the Shadows
Photo: Byron Cohen/FX

Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows seems like a natural fit for episodic television. The film was somewhat episodic itself, less an ongoing story than loosely arranged chapters of modern vampire life: going out on the town, having virgins over for dinner, dealing with the cops when there are bodies in the basement. For their FX adaptation, Clement and Waititi mostly succeed in translating the film’s comedy into half-hour chunks, albeit sometimes to a fault, as frequent echoes of the film leave the series feeling like it’s still in search of its own identity.

Both the characters and the New York setting of the series are new here, but the setup is the same, with a documentary crew filming the lives of a group of vampire roommates. All of the vampires are hopelessly behind the times, their shared house a dimly lit den adorned with antique furniture, old-timey portraits, and clothing that’s centuries out of fashion. Though the vampires still maintain the otherworldly allure that guides mortals to their demise, vampirism’s sheer flamboyance hardly meshes with the most banal facets of the present day: The local supermarket doesn’t take ancient coins, and one junior member of the Staten Island Borough Council can’t quite hack it as a vampire’s doom-saying herald.

It’s familiar material to be sure, but going back to the film’s bloody well still yields plenty of goofy, memorable personas. Matt Berry’s commanding presence as Laszlo sells the vampire’s oblivious pomposity when he insists on wearing a cursed hat or says something like, “You are a credit to the women’s suffragette movement.” Human servant Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) carries out his grim work with an excitable verve, insisting, “I’m not a killer. I find people who are easy to kill.” At its worst, though, that same familiarity leaves some scenes feeling like they were lifted from the film’s outtakes reel. Certain traits of the film’s characters seem to have been divided among Laszlo, Nandor (Kayvan Novak), and Guillermo, which can lead to the actors seeming to outright channel Waititi and Clement’s performances.

The acerbic Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) adds a more observant dynamic to the general buffoonery of her housemates even as she’s still prone to similar moments of profound silliness, like stalking someone with an old camera that uses a vintage flashbulb. Elsewhere, Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) emerges as the show’s most memorable creation: a caricature of a milquetoast, nasally desk jockey who’s revealed to be a day-walking psychic energy vampire. Colin, a sentient mound of dull khakis and sweaters, roams the cubicles of his day job, absorbing people’s boredom and irritation, which he amplifies with mind-numbing small talk. When he feeds, his eyes glow and his mouth gapes in an orgasmic snarl that would be frightening if it weren’t hilariously juxtaposed with Colin’s unassuming appearance.

The vampires’ goal is to conquer the “new world” of the United States (or maybe just Staten Island), which opens comic possibilities like a meeting at the aforementioned city council. There are other bits of continuity between episodes, like LARPing enthusiast Jenna’s (Beanie Feldstein) ongoing transformation into a vampire after Nadja took pity on her, but the series isn’t burdened by a serialized plot. For one, the third episode covers a werewolf feud totally unrelated to the group’s fumbling attempts at conquest of America.

Even with such departures, however, these episodes can struggle to find a distinct voice that isn’t beholden to the film. The series certainly offers some amusing additions to this occult universe, but the comedic value of its more familiar material has begun to diminish now that the concept must sustain not only a feature-length movie, but multiple episodes of television.

Cast: Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch, Beanie Feldstein Airtime: FX, Wednesdays, 10 p.m.

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Watch the Stranger Things 3 Trailer, and to the Tune of Mötley Crüe and the Who

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence.

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Stranger Things 3
Photo: Netflix

A wise woman once said that there’s no such thing as a coincidence. On Friday, Jeff Tremaine’s The Dirt, a biopic about Mötley Crüe’s rise to fame, drops on Netflix. Today, the streaming service has released the trailer for the third season of Stranger Things. The clip opens with the strains of Mötley Crüe’s “Home Sweet Home,” all the better to underline that the peace and quiet that returned to the fictional rural town of Hawkins, Indiana at the end of the show’s second season is just waiting to be upset again.

Little is known about the plot of the new season, and the trailer keeps things pretty vague, though the Duffer Brothers have suggested that the storyline will take place a year after the events of the last season—duh, we know when “Home Sweet Home” came out—and focus on the main characters’ puberty pangs. That said, according to Reddit sleuths who’ve obsessed over such details as the nuances of the new season’s poster art, it looks like Max and company are going to have to contend with demon rats no doubt released from the Upside Down.

See below for the new season’s trailer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEG3bmU_WaI

Stranger Things 3 premieres globally on July 4.

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Review: The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley Traces the Fall of Theranos

Alex Gibney’s documentary tells a dramatic, if somewhat workmanlike, story of Silicon Valley hubris meeting old-fashioned scamming.

2.5

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The Inventor
Photo: HBO

Elizabeth Holmes, the Steve Jobs-aping wunderkind who launched the radically innovative and radically deceptive blood-testing company Theranos when she was just 19, claimed to have a thing for Thomas Edison. Most inventors do. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This Edison quote is one that director Alex Gibney puts on the screen in his substantively hard-edged, if somewhat generically constructed, documentary The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, to remind his audience of at least one source from which the dogged Holmes drew her inspiration.

According to a personal narrative that was told through numerous glowing feature articles and TED talks, that was the kind of sentiment that powered Holmes through years of scouring for investors and trying to do everything humanly possible to make her dream of a simple, cheap, quick fingertip pinprick blood test a reality. The great difference between her and Edison, though, might well have been that while both were stubborn and also—to greater and lesser degrees—self-inventing fabulists, just one of the two actually invented things.

Dispensing with most of her early biography, The Inventor initially presents Holmes to us as the world first came to know her: the unblinking blonde with the hundreds of identical black outfits speaking about her passion project in a monotonous drone that recalls nothing so much as Mira Sorvino in Romy & Michelle’s High School Reunion. Initially, Gibney paints this portrait of Holmes with a collection of media appearances and up-close interviews, the latter of which could have been conducted by the filmmaker himself, which would be surprising given the sharp negative turn the narrative takes toward its famously paranoid and media-controlling subject—or may have been repurposed from some of the Holmes-glorifying in-house promotional material Theranos hired Errol Morris to shoot.

Eventually, The Inventor gives a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of Holmes’s background—studious, quiet, gawkily intense—that only completes the portrait of an already familiar Silicon Valley archetype: the college dropout with a monomaniacal focus and poor social skills. Of course, the difference with Holmes was that, by not being some schlubby computer engineer in a hoodie, but an attractive blond woman, she secured acres of fawning press coverage and renown as a glass ceiling-smashing female entrepreneur.

It’s easy to see the appeal of the Holmes sales pitch that Gibney shows here. She repeatedly talked to audiences about her belief that quick and reliable health information was a “basic human right,” often referencing an uncle who died too young from a cancer that could have been detected earlier. To her thinking, making blood tests faster, quicker, and less scary—she herself calls the process of giving blood akin to “torture”—was the best way to further her goal.

The technology that Holmes envisioned was the kind of seamless, minimalist ideal that has been pursued since the invention of the iPhone. Instead of messy needles and tubes and waiting weeks to hear back from a faraway lab, Theranos promised that a tiny barcoded “nanotainer” could get your blood from a pinprick, after which it would be inserted into a testing machine—called, of course, an “Edison”—no bigger than a home printer, and return a full blood test in a matter of minutes. No matter that there was no reason to believe the technology could ever make this dream a reality. Holmes seemingly just followed the Silicon Valley model for impossible thinking: “Fake it until you make it.”

Except, as The Inventor reveals in its rather darkly comic second half, there was never any way that Theranos was going to be able to make it. According to the company insiders who appear in the documentary, having already blown the whistle to the Wall Street Journal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning John Carreyrou (also a top source for the film), the actual Edison machine was a Rube Goldberg disaster of broken instruments and splashing blood that was never close to ready for prime time. The gleaming glass walls of Theranos headquarters, Gibney deadpans in his typically dry narration, was more like a “labyrinth of mirrors.”

This sense of New Economy make-believe that allowed Theranos to chew through hundreds of millions in investor capital while the company’s technology continually failed to deliver on Holmes’s hyperbolic world-changing promises was aided by a curious wrinkle. According to writers who covered her giddy rise to power and appear somewhat chagrined in The Inventor, Holmes had a powerful ability to secure backing from powerful old men who then also staffed the Theranos board: General Jim Mattis signed on, as did George Schultz and even Henry Kissinger, who gushed about her “ethereal quality” like some besotted fanboy. Theranos may not have revolutionized anything in the end, but Holmes’s cult of personality was powerful enough to provide cover for behavior and actions that included extreme paranoia, the hiring of bodyguards, the monitoring of staff emails, and the bulletproofing of her office windows.

While The Inventor is filled with bright details and sharp asides that puncture Silicon Valley’s self-mythologizing fabulism, it doesn’t make a strong enough attempt to get behind Holmes’s messianic aura. The basics of the Theranos case are laid out in clear reportorial fashion, and Gibney makes a brief stab at connecting Holmes to the long line of inventors who more than stretched the truth; Edison, for instance, pretended he had perfected the incandescent light bulb for four years before he actually had. But as with many stories about great American con artists, from Bernie Madoff to L. Ron Hubbard, the more one uncovers about their lies and subterfuge, the more the person’s character tends to recede. The Holmes of The Inventor appears to have been no different. Claiming to have found a way to change the world, while bullying and obfuscating her way around the unfortunate truth, Holmes may in the end have been only able to successfully invent a version of herself.

Director: Alex Gibney Distributor: HBO Documentary Films Running Time: 119 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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