Saturday, September 15, 2012

Movie Reviews-Breaking Bad (Season Four), Which Way is Up, Battleship

Breaking Bad (Season Four)
Growing up I played Dungeons and Dragons. D&D had a system to describe your character's morals, ethics and general world view. This was called alignment. It's hopelessly inadequate to describe real world people since we're mixes of good and evil. We're simultaneously fierce individualists and herd animals. But nonetheless alignment made the game work and was useful in describing fictional motivations. Good is mostly defined by caring about and trying not to hurt other people. Evil is usually either caring solely about yourself and/or being indifferent to or even enjoying the suffering of others. Of course there were other extremes of worldview besides good and evil.  A lawful person often sees the utility in externally imposed standards of conduct and group cohesion while a chaotic person sees no benefit to living by other people's rules, following laws or allowing other people to impose their will on him. And neutral positions can be found between both good and evil and law and chaos. Some people are just trying to live their lives and don't make special efforts to help or hurt people. Others have ethics and values that vary depending on the situation. So you could be good, neutral or evil and also lawful, neutral or chaotic, for a total of nine different alignments. 
There were three major different types of evil. Some evil people are capricious, won't keep promises, go out of their way to hurt people, don't like joining groups and break laws and violate mores just because. Imagine the Joker or your average street thug. Other evil people are methodical. They prefer organizations and enjoy defined hierarchies. They stay within the law (or at least their law) when possible, though they twist it to their own benefit every chance they get. They often have a perverse or malicious sense of honor, order and loyalty. Imagine Vito Corleone or Darth Vader or a corrupt police officer or judge. And finally there are those evil people that lack a strong philosophical connection to either groups and law or radical individualism; their primary motivation is selfishness. They can only be counted upon to do whatever is best for them. They couldn't care less who gets it in the neck. This is Neutral Evil. This is Walter White. In Season Four of Breaking Bad, Walter White's moral decline is complete. He's an evil SOB. Walter is neither cartoonishly evil nor is he an antihero. Walter simply lacks human feeling for anyone outside of his immediate family. 

Last season Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) had become well paid employees of the debonair, deliberate and extremely Lawful Evil Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). If you follow orders and perform well Gus will do right by you. You need not fear. Gus keeps a low profile and does not bully or humiliate his employees. He doesn't financially cheat people. His word is his bond. That's the lawful part. But if you disobey his directives, interfere (purposely or not) with his plans, fail at a task or challenge his authority Gus will make you wish you had never been born and take a vindictive and quite sadistic delight in doing so. That's the evil part. Push him to extremes and the nice guy mask drops. It's quite chilling. In Season Three an impulsive action by Jesse and a protective response by Walter put both men in Gus' bad books. The only reason he hasn't murdered them yet is because he can't find other high quality meth cooks. But he's looking. And Gus is NOT the sort of person to forgive or forget. Anything. Ever.
Typically, Skyler (Anna Gunn) has bogarted her way into Walter's criminal life. She decided against divorce. Unsurprisingly Skyler (a CPA) thinks she already knows more than anyone else ,especially Saul (Bob Odenkirk) or Walter, about how to be a criminal mastermind. Over Walter's tepid objections, she becomes Walter's money launderer. Having sudden access to hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash goes to Skyler's head. She makes some bad decisions behind hubby's back that place both of them in legal jeopardy. She's not yet as unlikable as Walter but she's getting there quickly. Like Walter, Skyler thinks she's always in charge of any given situation. 
Hank (Dean Norris) is undergoing slow painful recuperation from Season Three events. He's been busy putting two and two together and coming up with five. He thinks maybe Gus is not the community pillar that he pretends to be. Hank begins to investigate, well at least as much as a semi-paralyzed man can investigate. His activity attracts the attention of Gus and Mike (Jonathan Banks), who are fed up with interference from Walter White and his extended family. Gus embarks on a season long quest to break Jesse apart from Walter while Mike informs Walter that if he knows what's good for Hank, he will find a way to divert his attention. This chess match drives the season's storylines. Hank's recovery journey is an important story theme. A strutting macho man who prides himself on being in charge is reduced to someone who has an epic struggle to walk a yard and must rely on his somewhat scatterbrained and kleptomaniac wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) for everything. I have had to help family invalids and if you haven't done so yet, eventually you probably will. One day you may have to have loved ones (or employees) help you with the most basic intimate things. That's scary. Seriously. That was something I didn't like seeing and don't like thinking about. Hank's situation strains his marriage. 
We get some more background on Gus and learn why he is so careful, detailed and patient. Even so Gus isn't perfect. The cartels, Hank, and Walter are all looking for chinks in his armor. Saul continues to provide some comic relief but he also has a darker side behind the bad jokes and sexual innuendo. The tension ratchets up during the season. To steal a phrase from Supernatural, there's a storm coming and Walter and Jesse are smack dab in the middle of it! Supernatural came to mind as Jim Beaver, who plays Bobby Singer on that show, had a Breaking Bad cameo as an avuncular gun dealer.

Both Jesse and Walter are murderers now. Walter is, typically, not bothered by this while Jesse, much like Hank, must find a way to separate what he has done from who he thinks he is. This will almost tear Jesse's psyche and soul apart. In Season Four there is a serious question raised as to whether the new person Walter is now is really who he was all along. Skyler once asked Walter if he was in danger. Walter's arrogant response was "You don't understand. I AM the danger." Walter's paranoia and narcissism are in full effect. Remember that he not only started cooking meth out of desperation to pay for his cancer treatments but also because he was angry at his lack of financial success and social status. Now Walter is reveling in his new found wealth, his ability to kill at will and his firm and increasingly annoying belief that yes he really is smarter than everyone else. 
Walter White is definitely going to Hell. But when he gets there he will have an epic rant about why he doesn't belong there and snidely demand to speak to the idiot in charge. In Walter's mind it's always about Walter. It's his world. You're just living in it. Walter has literally become unable to process any information without thinking about the benefits to himself first. It costs him a fair bit of energy to pretend otherwise. Walter is the sort of person who, if you both were trapped on a sinking ship, would spend his last moments, not trying to make his peace with the Lord or finding a way out but would be yelling at you for being stupid enough to get him in this situation. I am a bit worried by the fact I took an online quiz and scored as Walter White. Uh-oh.

If you haven't seen this series, do yourself a favor and start from Season One. This show ranks with The Wire, The Sopranos, and The Shield. I am not surprised that this won Emmys. Steven Bauer (Manny from Scarface) had an important guest spot. In the extras Bauer spoke about the differences between Mexican and Cuban Spanish and how he tried to ensure that his normal Cuban accented tones would pass for the different cadences of a Mexican. Obviously if you speak Spanish, which I do not, you would get more out of this. Comedian Bill Burr also has a small role.

Which Way is Up
directed by Michael Schultz
This was a Richard Pryor movie that I wasn't allowed to see as a kid. Of course kids being kids I saw bits and pieces of it over the years but it wasn't until I was in college that I saw the complete film. When you're grown you can do what you want to do. These days this film would likely be considered mild stuff but back in the seventies it was considered quite raunchy, crude and a little bit nasty. It also might be considered racist, sexist, colorist, and every other "ist" there is. It probably is all of those things I guess. I found it funny years ago. Upon re-watching, I'm not sure it was as humorous as I thought. Maybe I changed or maybe it was never THAT funny. It's uneven. There are a few scenes though that will still have me fall out laughing. Evidently it was based on an Italian film ,The Seduction of Mimi, which I suppose I should get around to watching some day.

Pryor plays three separate characters though really only one of them is that well defined. 
This film really doesn't have any redeeming message. Well maybe just one which I'll mention later. It's mostly a collection of skits that follow the misadventures of one Leroy Jones (Pryor), an impoverished southern California orange picker who lives with his wife Annie Mae (Margaret Avery) and his obscene, profane and sex crazed father (Pryor again). Jones doesn't have anything to anticipate except backbreaking low paid work and rare loveless unpleasant sex with his wife. He's a desperate poor man who lives in fear.

When a union leader (think Cesar Chavez) tries to get permission to have a vote on whether the orange pickers can be represented by a union, no one will step forward to give the permission needed for fear of losing their job and/or their life. Leroy is watching the events and very much accidentally becomes that one worker needed to get a certification vote. He flees to Los Angeles but again becomes a target when he is a witness to the attempted murder of the union leader. 

Feeling that Leroy Jones is really too dumb and weak to kill and might be of more use to them alive, the Powers that Be (who all wear special rings so you know they're the bad guys) decide that Leroy should become a foreman at their processing plant , as long as he keeps his mouth shut. Leroy brings in his friends from back home but soon alienates them by becoming a caricature of a slave driving manager. Leroy has also started a relationship with an intelligent feminist labor activist Vanetta (Lonette McKee) who tells him that she'll be and do anything for him, provided he can be faithful to her and her alone. She's not interested in adultery, polygamy or being a concubine. And she doesn't hand out second chances. Back home Annie Mae is feeling ignored and is seduced into a relationship by the greasy sleazy lecherous Minister Lennox Thomas (Pryor again).
Hijinks ensue. There is a classic picnic scene which I love. In some respects this movie could be about the dangers of unrestrained or misdirected masculinity or the costs that men pay to live up to a masculine stereotype. However it's mostly just about Pryor acting a fool.

directed by Peter Berg
I had a free rental and unfortunately decided to waste it on this film. I like alien invasion type movies and was hoping this film wasn't as bad as other people had claimed. Well the only good things about this movie from my pov were Rihanna's and Brooklyn Decker's good looks, the 16 inch guns of the Battleship Missouri, and a new ZZ top single. But those really weren't enough to recommend the movie. It was just about as bad as everyone said it was. Bad acting, bad writing, bad special effects, just bad. This movie took a few good parts from classic alien invasion movies and lazily threw them against the wall to see what would stick. 

Scientists have beamed a transmission to a possibly habitable planet they've discovered that's roughly 20 light years away. That means that traveling at the speed of light the transmission would take 20 years to arrive. And if intelligent life could immediately send something back it would be another 20 years before we received it. Of course a 40 year round trip is not what the filmmakers had in mind and just seven years after the initial transmission, NASA (and presumably other organizations) notice several unidentified flying objects headed for earth. Right. Faster than light travel. Hmm.

In the meantime a maverick ne'er do well named Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is dragooned into the Navy by his protective big brother and destroyer commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgard). Somehow Alex is an officer which is strange because we last saw him committing burglary to impress the curvaceous Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker) who happens to be the daughter of Admiral Terrance Shane (Liam Neeson). I guess the Navy is really desperate for leadership material.  Alex and Samantha got a thang going on. It's unclear as to whether this has just been on the back burner for seven years but they are ready to get married once Alex gets the stones to ask his would be father-in-law (and boss) for the fair maiden's hand. 

But that will have to wait because during a multinational naval exercise Alex gets into a fight with Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) and during the resulting disciplinary hearing smarts off before top brass. Well that's it because the Admiral has had it with him and big brother can't protect him any more. Dishonorable discharge is imminent. But then the aliens invade, kill big brother, separate Alex's ship from the task force and start kicking booty and taking names. Alex and Captain Nagata are the only leaders left. Only one little problem. These aliens who have broken the laws of physics by faster than light travel and have materials that aren't on the table of elements are evidently SEVERELY allergic to the sun. Yes that's right. Aliens traveled 20 light years to invade a planet which gets TONS of sunlight. Well I guess the aliens weren't too bright. You may lose IQ points watching this film. It's full of cliches, CGI and noise. Again, short of watching Decker bounce around or Rihanna (whose acting wasn't that bad here) I didn't gain much from this movie. This movie was like eating junk food when you're hungry because there's nothing else around. You know it's not really good for you but you don't feel like actually taking the time to go get something nutritious. If you have really low expectations, this movie might work for you. And yes they really do play Battleship...

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