BEHIND THE RED DOOR (2003) – Low-key, moving AIDS drama

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Behind the Red Door has every potential to be one of the most bathetic TV-movies ever. Instead, it’s one of the most uplifting ones.

It concerns Natalie Haddad (Kyra Sedgwick), a photographer whose friend (Stockard Channing) tricks her into a free-lance assignment. Natalie, too late, finds out that the job is to photograph her long-estranged, gay brother Roy (Kiefer Sutherland).

The movie’s plot sets up a number of hurdles for itself. For one, Roy is succumbing to the final stages of AIDS. Natalie, a bitter loner, must make peace with both Ray and her dysfunctional family’s past, shown through black-and-white flashbacks of her mother’s murder.

The past credits of the movie’s co-writer and director, Matia Karrell, are not promising; they include scripts for the schmaltzy sitcom “The Wonder Years.” But evidently, Karrell’s own past — the movie is dedicated to her late brother, also named Roy — inspired her to take a great leap forward in quality.

Behind the Red Door pulls no punches in terms of its subject matter. Yet the movie, refreshingly, skirts every possible cliche presented by the movie’s familiar situation.

Sedgwick and Sutherland begin with familiar, almost conventional characters and whittle them down to their basic truths. Both deliver career-worthy performances.

And director Karrell never milks any situation for tears. Each scene lasts long enough to make its subtle point, and then the movie builds to a very low-key but moving conclusion.

TV-movies have come a long way from their origins as 90-minute time-fillers. Behind the Red Door is more satisfying than most theatrical releases of its year.

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Want quality TV? Better watch BETTER CALL SAUL

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Please forgive my bluntness. But I have seen so much shit TV in my life, I get pathetically grateful for a show such as “Better Call Saul.”

A little background: I only ever watched the final episode of “Breaking Bad” (of which, most of America must know by now, “Better Call Saul” is a prequel featuring the sleazy lawyer from “BB”). My wife and son, however, were “Breaking Bad” fanatics, guaranteeing that they’d be compelled to watch this follow-up series.

Call me naive, but I initially viewed each show from only its surface details. Why should I care about some white-bread schoolteacher who goes into the meth business? Why should I watch a show that looks like a bad, elongated lawyer joke?

But I happened to catch the opening of “Better Call Saul’s” debut episode, and I was intrigued. The opening was filmed in black-and-white (Who does that on a TV show these days?), and I’m a sucker for The Ink Spots (whose song “Address Unknown” was used for the opening’s soundtrack). So I made a point of watching the episode all the way through.

It was stunning.

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First, you’ve got Bob Odenkirk, who plays small-time lawyer Jimmy McGill. Even when he’s trying to look professional by wearing a suit coat and tie, he looks as though he slept in it. Just the appearance of this guy gives off the stench of desperation.

Then you have writer-creator Vince Gilligan, who has an eye for detail that is rare in television. In Jimmy’s first scene of the debut episode (SPOILER ALERT!), Jimmy defends (fairly eloquently) a trio of teenagers. He makes it sound as though they’ve pulled some minor prank or burglary and they should be let off the hook.

When Jimmy finishes his defense, the prosecutor, wordlessly, rolls in a TV and proceeds to put a tape in to play on the TV. A man in the courtroom walks out before the tape even begins. Why does he do that? The tape answers our question. It’s a video that captured the boys doing something rather unspeakable with a corpse. As the tape continues, many other courtroom witnesses walk out in revulsion.

Now, that scene would have played just as effectively without that guy’s initial walk-out. But for me, that walk-out was the tiniest of hints that you’re in the hands of a master storyteller. From now on, if Gilligan throws in a detail that leaves you scratching your head, it’s not because he’s a sloppy TV-maker. You can trust that there will be a payoff somewhere down the road.

The show’s second episode is even more compelling and amazing than the first. There’s a prolonged scene in the desert that the show’s makers readily admitted was a tough one to pull off. Sand and dust were blowing in the actors’ faces, and positions of the actors and props had to be shifted constantly due to the changing arc of the sunlight.

Then later, there’s a bravura sequence that “quotes” the movie All That Jazz. It’s a long but thoroughly engrossing montage of Jimmy handling case after case and showing all of the minutia that goes along with it. If you’re expecting typical, nail-the-camera-to-the-ground television, you’ve come to the wrong TV series.

All of this is by way of saying, the show’s movers and shakers probably could have gotten by with less. A lot of TV looks as though it’s done on the run. Even this show probably could have sailed along on the coattails of “Breaking Bad” and done the sleazy-lawyer-joke type of series that I had anticipated.

But no. This isn’t a show where you can turn on the TV and work on some home project while you’re watching it. This is a piece of entertainment that you actually have to pay attention to, as you would with a really good movie.

And they’re doing it on television. Every week.

Thank you, Vince Gilligan, Bob Odenkirk, and every single actor and crew person responsible for “Better Call Saul.” Thank you for going the extra mile — even when it leads to a desert.

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