Before improbably becoming a mega-star in his fifties, Bryan Cranston was a character actor, and an awfully good one, at that. He understood what the job entailed: find a way to make even the most minor character feel interesting and real, without stealing more focus from the stars than is good for the story in question.
So it’s not surprising that the first TV show Cranston has co-created — and the first series on which he’s had a significant role since Breaking Bad ended — is both a hell of a showcase for an impressive army of character actors, and one that’s about the art of acting, even if the context is a lot sketchier than the days when Cranston was playing Tim Whatley on Seinfeld.
In Sneaky Pete, a new Amazon drama debuting tomorrow (I’ve seen all 10 episodes of the first season), Giovanni Ribisi plays Marius, a veteran con man coming to the end of a prison stint and looking for a place to lie low while plotting his revenge against Cranston’s Vince, the cop-turned-gangster who cost Marius dearly on his last job. His cellmate Pete (Ethan Embry) has long regaled Marius with stories of an idyllic childhood at his family’s Connecticut farmhouse, and Marius uses those stories and their vague physical resemblance to pose as Pete so he can crash with grandparents Audrey (Margo Martindale) and Otto (Peter Gerety) and cousins Julia (Marin Ireland), Taylor (Shane McRae), and Carly (Libe Barer), who haven’t seen the real version since he was a kid.
Marius has many physical skills useful to the trade (he’s a master pickpocket, for instance), but his most valuable gift is his ability to lose himself in his latest role, whether it’s something where he has a lot of prep time, or a last-second piece of improvisation. And there’s a similar level of quickness to the impressive extended cast assembled here.
Cranston originally created Sneaky Pete (the title was his childhood nickname) for CBS with House‘s David Shore, and the first episode suggests one of those occasional CBS experiments to push against the boundaries of procedural crime stories. So a lot of time is devoted to Marius assuming Pete’s identity and trying to avoid Vince, but just as much to Marius and Julia figuring out how to catch a bail-jumper. When CBS passed and Amazon picked up the series, Shore was replaced by Graham Yost and several other members of the Justified creative team (who of course have some history with Martindale), and the structure shifted to something more familiar from the last decade of cable drama. The premise itself is basically a less violent Banshee (or a more violent Impastor), while the narrative operates under Murphy’s Law, where it’s just one damn thing after another from both identities causing difficulties for Marius, his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer), his fake family, and his grifter friends, who are played by, among others, Alison Wright (Poor Martha from The Americans), Ben Vereen, Virginia Kull, C.S. Lee, and Karolina Wydra.
That sense of never-ending calamity can be exhausting on many of these shows (see the later seasons of Sons of Anarchy), but Sneaky Pete works because virtually every actor involved is two or three degrees better than required, and every character is written with greater detail and intelligence than the story needs to keep moving forward.
Cranston (who also directed an episode) is of course wildly overqualified to be a drama big bad in 2017 — and he appears at least once in every episode, and often has meaty scenes — yet he never plays Vince as a Very Special Guest Star, never tries to overpower Ribisi or Drayer or anyone else with whom he shares a scene. He makes choices about the accent (a splash of Noo Yawk, but not too much) and how Vince moves physically (Cranston is great with props, like the playing cards with which Vince makes the bulk of his money), and simply lets him be a character who lives in the show’s world. There are echoes of Breaking Bad itself — among the season’s highlights is an episode four scene where Cranston gets to deliver his own version of Mike Ehrmantraut’s half-measures speech, and there are a few corpses to be disposed of, not to mention some troublemaking meth dealers — but it’s never Walter White walking into a room, or really even Bryan Cranston; it’s this guy, in this story.
Nearly everyone involved throws themselves into their parts with similar enthusiasm and humility, and are rewarded in turn with something fun and unexpected to play, whether Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Marius’ parole officer, a motivational type who calls himself Mr. Success; Justified alum Jacob Pitts as Julia’s ex, a slick local lawyer; or Michael O’Keefe as a crooked cop on Vince’s payroll, who has his own vendetta against Marius. Again and again, both the regular actors and the guest stars give moments an extra bit of emotion (the way Gerety’s voice cracks when he’s expressing his love for his family at a particularly dire moment for Otto) or energy (the way that Kull’s character, who has gone straight with a husband and daughter, can’t resist enjoying herself as she temporarily unretires to help Marius), and they almost never overdo anything. The dirty cop could so easily be a caricature, but O’Keefe has a scene where he threatens Carly that’s chilling because of how matter-of-fact and human the guy seems in that moment.
And where Justified could at times fall victim to overplotting, Yost, Fred Golan, and others here use the abundance of strong actors and characters here to their advantage, taking inherently dramatic or suspenseful scenarios and making them tauter and/or more fun by throwing in just one more person, one more problem, and letting almost everyone be smarter than you expect them to be.
Like most serialized shows of this type, the second half of the season is more fun than the more expository first, and there are occasional storytelling leaps you just have to go with. One seemingly innocuous character improbably turns out to be a villain in the later episodes, for instance, but they add so much spice to the story at that point that it’s forgivable.
Eventually, everyone turns out to have so many secrets and hidden agendas that it might feel too convenient for a veteran con man like Marius to have wound up in the middle of this family. But if you look at Sneaky Pete as an excuse for Cranston, Yost, and company to let a small army of their actor friends come in and play — an actors’ workshop about a more criminal version of the profession — then all is well. It’s not fancy, and it’s not new, but like Cranston whenever he would pop up on someone else’s show in the ’80s and ’90s, it’s better and more satisfying than is needed, or expected.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com
- Last weekend the generally derided yet fiercely observed Golden Globes winners were announced 2016, which included La La Land (Best Director, Screenplay, Song, Score and Actor, Actress and picture for a musical/comedy), Moonlight (Best Drama), and Elle (Best Foreign Language film, Best Actress for a drama).
- Okay, it’s not strictly cinema news, but 18 episodes of new moving pictures directed by David Lynch counts as news to us! Showtime has revealed the number of episodes of the upcoming season of Twin Peaks, all directed by Lynch, and that the two-hour premiere of the show will be on May 21, immediately followed by the digital release of the third and forth episodes. Those film professionals who will be in Cannes at the time better plan on skipping their Monday morning screenings!
- Great news for those, like us, still enamored by celluloid: KODAK has announced that by the end of the year it will manufacture and release EKTACHROME film stock "for both motion picture and still photography applications."
- We (and many others) love the intoxicating, by turns melancholy and joyous dance scenes in French director Philippe Garrel’s films. Lovely, then, that the first clip we’ve seen from his new film, Lover for a Day, is just that, set to music by Jean-Louis Aubert, who did the score for Garrel’s last two pictures, In the Shadow of Women and Jealousy.
- Apologies for missing this during the fall, but the irrepressible Jean-Marie Straub has made a new short film, Où en êtes-vous, Jean-Marie Straub? for a retrospective last summer at the Center Pompidou. Unsubtitled, but, yes: cats, light, Straub. We ask for little else from cinema.
- A new Death Race film produced by Roger Corman? Yes, please!
- Anna Biller, the director (and writer, star, production and costume designer and editor) of the terrific sexploitation pastiche Viva, which we showed on MUBI in the fall, and most recently the acclaimed The Love Witch, has written an incredible article for her website about working in Hawaii as a Japanese bar hostess:
When I first took that job I saw it as a kind of performance art, but over the months I was unable to maintain that distance or to properly dissociate, and the job became me; I became the job. It was like those harrowing postwar Japanese movies about prostitutes (STREET OF SHAME, WHEN A WOMAN ASCENDS THE STAIRS, THE LIFE OF OHARU, GINZA COSMETICS), all highly recommended films
- Bless American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, he’s been relentlessly re-publishing critical pieces onto his blog jonathanrosenbaum.net this New Year, including stellar articles on Chris Marker’s documentary essay about Andrei Tarkovsky, English film critic Raymond Durgat, a 1980 interview with Godard, and an incensed review ("Rating — Worthless") of Star Wars: Special Edition.
- One of our very favorite film writers, Farran Smith Nehme, has written for Criterion on one of our very favorite films, Howard Hawks’ screwball comedy His Girl Friday:
Over the years, Hawks had developed a refined understanding of how romantic comedy works. The audience must be convinced that the central couple are made for each other; a screwball comedy’s own particular cleverness lies in keeping the lovers apart for as long and in as crazily creative a way as possible. Remarriage plots are the most grown-up variation, because these are the movies that say two people can be perfectly suited and still louse it up. Matching (or, if you will, marrying) this device to The Front Page, so famous for its bite and cynicism, resulted in the most bracingly adult screwball comedy (and romance) of them all. Hawks and Lederer found a fresh spin on the remarriage comedy, making the question not how the wandering spouse will find her way home but how she’ll get back to work.
- The one end of the year film poll we always look forward to (and recommend) most is Senses of Cinema’s sprawling World Poll. Many, many gems here, including lists by several Notebook contributors.
- Lisa Schwarzbaum has reviewed critic Molly Haskell’s biography of Steven Spielberg for The New York Times:
The result is a fascinating jumble of messages — a study of a critic inevitably analyzing herself as she considers the life (Jewish and otherwise) of Steven Spielberg.
- Coming soon from one of our favorite vinyl re-issuers, Waxwork Records, Ennio Morricone’s brief but unforgettable score to John Carpenter’s The Thing.
- Photographer Stephan Zaubitzer has been shooting old cinemas around the world, some in magnificent preservation, others in ramshackle decline.
- And over the weekend, Jean-Claude Van Damme busted a move. We’re still waiting for the proper release of the action auteur’s 2014 directorial effort once titled The Eagle Path and now seemingly named Full Love. We caught it in the Market in Cannes that year and found it a thrill. One day…
‘Hidden Fences’: Coming to theaters… never. ?
Art by John Ueland
The full tracklist for the Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack has been revealed, Entertainment Weekly reports. In addition to Taylor Swift and Zayn’s collaboration “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever,” it features new music from Sia, Nicki Minaj (with Nick Jonas), The-Dream, John Legend, Tove Lo, and others. Find the full tracklist below. The soundtrack is out February 10.
The Fifty Shades Darker soundtrack does not include Miguel’s “Crazy in Love” cover, which was included in a trailer. The movie hits theaters on Valentine’s Day.
Fifty Shades Darker OST:
01 Zayn / Taylor Swift: “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever (Fifty Shades Darker)”
02 Halsey: “Not Afraid Anymore”
03 JRY: “Pray” [ft. Rooty]
04 Tove Lo: “Lies in the Dark”
05 Toulouse: “No Running From Me”
06 John Legend: “One Woman Man”
07 The-Dream: “Code Blue”
08 Nick Jonas / Nicki Minaj: “Bom Bidi Bom”
09 Sia: “Helium”
10 Kygo: “Cruise” [ft. Andrew Jackson]
11 Corrine Bailey Rae: “The Scientist”
12 José James: “They Can’t Take That Away From Me”
13 JP Cooper: “Birthday”
14 The Avener: “I Need a Good One” [ft. Mark Asari]
15 Joseph Angel: “Empty Pack of Cigarettes”
16 Anderson East: “What Would It Take”
17 Frances: “What Is Love?”
18 Danny Elfman: “On His Knees”
19 Danny Elfman: “Making It Real”
The Internet’s Syd has shared a new solo song and its accompanying music video. “All About Me” is the first offering from her forthcoming solo debut Fin, and it was premiered on Zane Lowe’s show on Beats 1. The album is out February 3 via Columbia Records. Syd wrote and produced Fin, which also features production from MeLo-X (who worked on Lemonade), Hit-Boy, Haze, Rahki, and the Internet’s Steve Lacy (on “All About Me”). Below, watch Syd’s new video, directed by Calmatic, and see the LP’s tracklist. It’s the follow-up to 2015’s Ego Death.
In a previous interview, Syd called the songs on Fin “not that deep.” She indicated, “This is my descent into the depth I want the band to get to,” adding, “For me, this is like an in-between thing–maybe get a song on the radio, maybe make some money, have some new shit to perform.”
01 Shake ’Em Off
03 Nothin to Somethin
04 No Complaints
05 All About Me
06 Smile More
07 Got Her Own
08 Drown in It
10 Dollar Bills