Author Archives: Andrew Bloom

Better Call Saul: Everyone Gets an Unexpected Push in “Off Brand”


There’s a sense in “Off Brand” that many of Better Call Saul’s major figures have not been doing the things they’d really like to. The demands of finances, family, and the intersection of the two have kept the likes of Jimmy, Chuck, Mike, and Nacho reluctant or bitter or scarred by the efforts each has been immersed in over the past couple seasons. But for each of them, there is now something pushing them, almost against their will, to move closer to new activities, to different lives, that might be better for their souls.

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Goths from The Mountain Goats Is an Interesting Experiment Rather Than an Essential New Release


One of the best things about the Mountain Goats’ voluminous back catalog is that it offers a plethora of entry points to the band and its music, with no two records quite the same. There’s frontman John Darnielle’s lo-fi, Panasonic boom box beginnings. There are the polished but no less earnest tracks from The Sunset Tree and Tallahassee. And there are the band’s recent releases, like Transcendental Youth and Beat the Champ, that take chances on unique concepts and different instrumentation, but don’t lack in lyrical punch or poignancy. There are any number of places to start with the Mountain Goats, and each is worthwhile and approachable on its own terms.

Goths continues in that untraditional tradition. The group’s Bandcamp page boasts that the album has “NO COMPED VOCALS, NO PITCH CORRECTION, NO GUITARS,” and it shows. Musically, Goths is driven by slick bass lines, strong percussion, and a bevy of what sounds like the sort of classroom instruments borrowed from the lesser lights of late night. Goths also leans hard on the horn section the band embraced in earnest on Transcendental Youth. It features heavy doses of synth, different shades of jazz, and even the occasional disco beat that immediately mark it as unique among Mountain Goats records. The band often comes up short in this novel approach, and the new direction can be off-putting for longtime listeners, but it certainly gives Goths a distinct flavor.

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Better Call Saul: It’s McGill vs. McGill in “Chicanery” – the Series’ New Best Episode


One of the ways you can tell a show is great, not just good, is if it’s engrossing even when there’s nothing particularly exciting or noteworthy happening. It’s easy to be compelled by Better Call Saul when it’s featuring McGill-on-McGill courtroom combat, or deep into a bit of Mike’s trap-setting, or when another little Breaking Bad easter egg pops up. But the mark of a great show is the ability to be just as transfixing, just as mesmerizing, with something as plain as a man having dinner with his ex-wife, each moment laden with hopes and expectations, with little happening beyond a conversation between old friends.

That flashback to a time when Jimmy and Chuck were working in concert and not against one another isn’t simply a flight of fancy to contrast their antagonism later in the episode, or a mere pleasing vignette from the early onset of Chuck’s condition. It’s a character study, a set of scenes that never say anything explicitly about Chuck McGill, but which tell the audience so much about who he is, how he reacts to obstacles and difficulties, and quietly set up the bigger fireworks at the end of the episode.

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How Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Rebukes Star Wars and Harry Potter

Caution: This article contains major spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

One of the best things about storytelling is that it offers a chance to walk in another person’s shoes, to step outside of oneself and have experiences that are not possible in most people’s day-to-day lives. But films, television shows, and novels also offer fantasy; they offer escapism and the chance to live out an existence, in two-hour chunks, that is wilder and more fantastical than our own. Some of our culture’s most prominent stories present a particular, alluring version of that idea — the fantasy of the ordinary person discovering that they are, in fact, more special than they ever could have known.

When Luke Skywalker gazes out at the twin suns of Tatooine, the sight evokes his longing for adventure, the unshakable feeling that the universe has more in store for him than just the inner workings of a moisture farm. When we meet Harry Potter living under the thumb of the Dursleys, it’s to establish the lowliness of his position, the improbability that the boy who lives under the stairs could, in reality, be the chosen one. And Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 presents its own orphan protagonist in Peter Quill who, after a lifetime of hoping and wondering, discovers that he too is more powerful and unique than he had ever imagined.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Divides and Conquers and Delivers More More More


As the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to expand, each new franchise and sub-franchise must add more characters so as to provide new faces for the merchandise, and each fresh sequel risks becoming increasingly unwieldy and unmanageable. While Captain America: Civil War managed to thread that needle nicely, the tyranny of “more” still threatens to hobble each new franchise installment before it’s even left the spaceport.

To that end, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, a follow-up to the surprise 2014 hit, does feel overstuffed in places. It introduces two new major characters, flips a pair of baddies to the side of good guys, and still needs to service the five original Guardians of the Galaxy amid a host of new locales and novel threats. But for a franchise whose first entry brought several Star Wars comparisons, writer/director James Gunn succeeds in his follow up by employing the Empire Strikes Back method.

It’s not simply that Guardians 2 reveals the identity of Star-Lord’s father or spends time in caverns that turn out to be living organisms. It’s that Gunn splits his heroes up for most of the film, only to bring them back at the end for the raging climax. That tack helps balance the many needs of a film like Guardians 2 with several overlapping storylines, all of which center on the theme of discovering who your family truly is.

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Better Call Saul Becomes the Gus Fring Show in “Sabrosito”


You could be forgiven for asking, “Hey, isn’t there some guy named Saul on this show?” for much of “Sabrosito.” It’s an episode that turns over most of the proceedings to Gustavo Fring and the people in his orbit, with just enough of a narrative side dish to remind you that Jimmy and Mike are the show’s main characters.

But I’m not complaining. Giancarlo Esposito has a certain presence about him that can hold your attention in a way few other actors can muster. And the events that affect him here — the cold war brewing at Don Eladio’s compound, the mutual affronts between him and Hector, the declaration of resolve from Fring to his employees — add so much shading to what we already know about the grudges and rivalries within the cartel from Breaking Bad. “Sabrosito” serves as a direct prequel to the events that Walter White would eventually become tangled up in, in a way that the rest of Better Call Saul hasn’t really. By using Gus as a conduit for that, “Sabrosito” practically guarantees a quality outing for the show.

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Humor, Charm, and Creativity Save Guardians of the Galaxy from Stock Storytelling


So much of Guardians of the Galaxy’s story is achingly standard issue. This isn’t the first film to feature a collection of rogues and nobodies reluctantly coming together to save the world, and it won’t be the last. The tale of the dissolute young man who eventually learns to fight for something greater than himself is a well-worn one, and the motley crew of suspicious characters slowly becoming a family is a well-known cliché. In other words, when Guardians came out in 2014, it didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel.

And yet, it is a film full of such charm, such character, such inventiveness in ways beyond its story, that it becomes incredibly easy forgive the ways in which it obediently marches through the usual blockbuster narrative progression. The audience will tolerate, and even enjoy, all the hoary tropes in the universe if you can couch them in a world, an attitude, and a cast of characters worth spending time with.

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Better Call Saul: Whether Chuck McGill Loves his Brother in “Sunk Costs”

For a split-second, I believed him. I believed Chuck McGill when he told the Assistant District Attorney that his brother had a good heart, that Jimmy would never actually hurt him, and that maybe there was an easier way to end all of this unpleasantness. I thought that maybe Jimmy’s speech to his brother, uttered while sitting on the curb waiting for the cops to pick him up, had made an impression. Chuck might have remembered all that Jimmy has done for him, understood that his brother means well, and wanted to avoid selling him down the river.

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Better Call Saul: The Careful and Deliberate Rule the Day in “Witness”


Better Call Saul is often a slower show, even by the standards of modern prestige dramas. To some degree, that is a necessary consequence of its status as a prequel. If it moves too quickly, suddenly it’s running into the series’s already known future. If it packs in too much incident, then it starts to seem all the more glaring that major events and shared histories are not mentioned or only grazed on Breaking Bad. Still, the show turns that slow burn into a feature, not a bug. It lets the events and conflicts of the series simmer while digging deep into the development of its characters and the details of their lives before things froth to a boil.

But even by Better Call Saul standards, “Witness” is a slow episode. That’s not a complaint, necessarily. Much of the proceedings center on Mike tracking down the people monitoring him, enlisting Saul in the endeavor, and there is a diligent, unhurried pace to that effort. The episode is content to play Mike’s mission out, evoking the sense of his dogged determination and the complexity and sophistication of what he’s up against.

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Better Call Saul Recharges its Batteries in “Mabel”

Two devices, each meant to record, to track, so as to create leverage over another, are at the forefront of “Mabel.” Each, in their own roundabout way, needs its batteries replaced, and in both instances, that unintentionally exposes the person deploying it. Once again, two stories that seemingly have nothing to do with one another maintain such tight but unshowy thematic ties in a way that makes the two seems inextricably intertwined.

In other words, Better Call Saul is back! The opening salvo of the show’s third season offers a simple parallel that serves as a reminder of how great this series is at setting up the little things that will no doubt have much bigger echoes down the line. The two plots in this episode – one about the fallout from Jimmy revealing his malfeasance to Chuck, and the other hinging on Mike trying to figure out how a mysterious third party knew his intentions – both take things slow, letting the audience see the incremental progress of each story. But it’s immediately clear in each of them how these developments are building to a bigger reckoning.

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