Saturday, July 13, 2013

Movie Reviews-Breaking Bad (Season Five), The Watch, Redemption

Breaking Bad (Season Five)
created by Vince Gilligan
Pride goeth before destruction and a haughty spirit before a fall
Season Five was both better than Season Four and a minor letdown. This season stretched the believability of chemistry teacher Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) criminal descent. Now, he's not only a murderous drug dealer but also a resourceful jack of all trades who robs trains and monitors the DEA ? Some of this was too much. This is the terminal season. Hopefully another TV show and the author who inspired it will take some hints about having a beginning, middle and end. One of the producer/directors (Michelle McLaren) who works on Breaking Bad also works on Game of Thrones. Perhaps some of the urgency shown on Breaking Bad will bleed over to Game of Thrones

Season Five (it had a midseason finale before this year's August denouement) opened with Walter and others dealing with fallout from the epic Season Four power struggle between Walter and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). As Walter coldly tells his wife, "I won.". The King is dead. Long live the King. But Gus' top hitman and effective underboss Mike (Jonathan Banks) is unhappy with this turn of events. Although Walter offers Mike a partnership, it doesn't change Mike's essentially negative feelings about Walter. Mike's defining characteristic is loyalty. Walter constantly appeals to Mike's self-interest to prevent Mike from killing him to avenge Gus. Mike is angry and exasperated. Mike is trying to protect "his guys" from Walter's incompetence and greed. He also wants out of the business. Mike has deep legal and criminal knowledge which Walter lacks.

Speaking of Walter's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), I was surprised to learn that Breaking Bad has so many women writers and directors. Skyler has always come across as a Queen (insert misogynist insult here) and does not change this season. I really tried to have sympathy for her but I couldn't find much. She hasn't murdered anyone yet but that's due to luck not intent. Skyler's self-righteousness is amazing. Let's quickly review her past actions with light spoilers. A bossy know-it-all woman notices that her nebbish husband is behaving oddly. At first suspecting an affair she discovers, via non-stop naggingthat her husband is a drug dealer. Does she leave, call the cops, or turn a blind eye? No. She insists, over Walter's tepid objections, on getting deeply involved in the business. She also sleeps with someone else from mostly spite, gives Walter's wealth to her lover, throws Walter out of the family home, almost kills someone, and narrowly avoids IRS attention. She blames Walter for ALL of this. This season was an extended Skyler temper tantrum. Last season she informed him at dinner, "I f****d Ted" . This season it's, "When are you dying?". Yeah, I want exactly that sort of supportive wife. 
Walter, callous criminal though he may be, is no Mr. Macho Man at home. There was never a chance of him, like a Michael Corleone, telling Skyler "Don't ask me about my business." This is not to excuse Walter, who is truly a despicable man. But Skyler's unhappiness stems from the fact that she's a control freak who wanted to be involved in her husband's criminal behavior. But their marriage has changed. Walter is no longer submissive and blandly agreeable around her. That bothers Skyler. It bothers Skyler that Walter is nonchalant about the murders he's committed or the danger to his family. Skyler blames Walter for her moral degeneration while ignoring her own responsibility. I feel sorry for Skyler but I would have divorced her decades ago.
Walter was in a kill or be killed situation with Gus. Gus dropped his nice guy facade and threatened Walter and his family. Ironically, Walter's problems with Gus actually started when he was trying to protect Jesse (and Jesse was trying to protect children). So evil came from good intentions. But even though Walter can and does come up with reasonable justifications for the evil he's done or witnessed, this season emphasizes some ugly truths about Walter. Walter's primary purpose in becoming a criminal has not in fact been cancer or financial fears for his family. He still tells Jesse and Skyler that but they don't believe it any more and neither will you. Walter suffers from the deadliest sin, pride. In grad school Walter took a buyout and/or was forced out of a biochem company that he and some buddies started. He sold out his interest for $5000. That company is now worth billions. Walter thinks it's his work that made the company successful. This has bothered Walter for the past twenty-five years. His criminal behavior is about proving to himself that he is somebody. Evidently he had no Jesse Jackson speeches available. Walter's ego and resentments are boundless.
Walter's arrogance may hurt him as his dependably supportive and mildly bigoted brother-in-law Hank has been promoted to head the local DEA office. Hank is smarter than most people (and by most people I mean Walter) realize. Hank notices the little things like Walter's expensive watch and the big things like the two new cars that Walter bought for himself and his son Walt Jr. Hank combines good intuition with dogged attention to detail. I don't quite think Walter wants to be caught but he definitely enjoys his underworld reputation as the top chemist and a baaaad muyerfuyer. Walter's interactions with Hank reveal that he's getting a little too happy laughing up his sleeve at Hank. Skyler's growing instability does not go unheeded by her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt). This explodes in a really powerful scene between the two siblings.
Walter must deal with the financial pressures of leadership as well as unexpected legal and political problems caused by Gus' demise. Gus had national and international connections of whom neither Walter or the viewer was aware. One of Gus' corporate partners/suppliers, a selfish neurotic woman named Lydia (Scottish actress Laura Fraser), gets worried after Gus' death and causes problems for Mike. Causing problems for a stone killer like Mike isn't smart. Lydia's actions could interfere with the supply. Without a guaranteed supply Walter can't make his 99.1% pure blue meth. Hank learns a lot about Gus' organization. He leans on some former Gus loyalists to  give up Gus' top chemist Heisenberg (Walter). Walter can't have people starting to talk. Fraser's Lydia character was realistic. To quote Solozzo from The Godfather, Lydia's not in the muscle end of the family. She is apprehensive of dealing with the murderously phlegmatic Mike or the increasingly choleric Walter. But she's keen on pursuing her own interests.
I liked this season though the unreality started to poke through. Walter gets sloppy. This could come back on him. Previously Walter only discussed criminal behavior with a few trusted people. Very few people knew his real name. Now he's working in criminal conspiracies with large numbers of people. Low level scrubs know he's "Mr. White". He was formerly a chemistry teacher with a drug dealer alter-ego. This season the alter-ego has taken over. Maybe that always was the real Walter White. In his Heisenberg persona his voice deepens and he snarls at people. Although Walter is verily an evil man brimming over with contempt for those he considers his intellectual inferiors (most other people) he usually won't deliberately seek to hurt people (besides supplying meth, that is). But if he's backed into a corner he'll come out blasting. Show him that he has a choice and he might be willing to let you keep living...unless it's just too much trouble for him. In Season One Walter agonized over killing a hoodlum who had tried to kill him. He cried when he murdered the thug. In Season Five he can watch an innocent child die and literally shrug his shoulders. He's a cold hearted man indeed. And he likes his job.
Cancer is such an apt metaphor for this show. Walter's repressed rage and ambition have poisoned him. For decades he's lied to himself that he was satisfied with a low pay/low status job, few material goods and a loving albeit pushy wife. Walter should have confronted his frustrations years ago. Heck, many such men might have had an affair, bought a new sports car, or changed careers. But Walter's pride is so great and has been held down so long that when it finally breaks free of moral restraint, it, like cancer, greedily devours all in its path. Jesse (Aaron Paul), whom Walter still manipulates, knows he can't trust "Mr. White" any more. He's unaware of Walter's Season Four betrayal, which gives their Season Five interactions poignancy and creepiness. Walter doesn't abuse Jesse physically/sexually but he certainly does so emotionally/psychologically. Jesse becomes Season Five's moral center, giving voice to the questions "How much is enough?" or "Is this really what we've become?".  Jesse and Walter were co-dependents. Walter was desperate for recognition of his brilliance; Jesse needed someone to guide and trust him. Jesse still has a small flickering conscience; he is smarter than Walter admits. This further strains their relationship. Gilligan has said he wanted to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. He's done that. In ironic commentary Walter and his son watch the climatic scene of Scarface, their favorite movie. Is Gilligan foreshadowing? We shall see.

You really shouldn't watch this season without watching Season Four. Good stuff. Cranston rules.

The Watch
directed by Akiva Schaffer
I saw this film when I was planning to do something else. That something else would have cost money and required effort while the film was free. I can safely say I should have gone ahead and done that something else. This movie could have been better but it had lazy directing and lazy writing. And evidently someone on the writing staff is either suffering from gay panic and/or just wants to come out of the closet. So I would not recommend this movie, even if it is free and you're too lazy or cheap to do something else. I'm just glad I didn't see this in theaters because I think I would have had to hurt someone. The film uses a lot of cliches and tropes but here they generally feel tired and deflated. Others just aren't funny. The director is a SNL veteran and I don't like SNL. So there you are.

The story is that in a small relatively non-diverse Ohio town, a Costco security guard is killed, butchered, really by something unknown. A Costco senior manager, Evan Trautwig (Ben Stiller) takes this very personally and decides to start a Neighborhood Watch. Evan is almost annoyingly liberal, civic minded and something of a control freak. He spends a lot of time involved in public activities, at least in part so he doesn't have to go home and make love to his toothy and busty wife Abby (RoseMarie DeWitt). Abby wants to do the do and get knocked up but Evan's too ashamed to tell her that his love gun has an empty magazine.

The call to join the neighborhood watch only brings forth three other people, Bob McAllister (Vince Vaughn), Franklin (Jonah Hill) and Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade). Bob's a motormouth extrovert who wants to make sure his teen daughter stays virginal while he's out getting wasted. Franklin's a creepy wannabe cop who gives off vibes of interest in either sex but quickly zooms in on Abby. Jamarcus is a Black Britisher whose primary interest is in using his watch membership to get kinky opportunities with women, especially if they happen to be of the Asian persuasion. His race also will give the earnestly liberal Evan a chance to say he has a black friend.
The security guard was killed by an alien. Aliens intend an invasion of Earth and have picked a small Ohio town to start. The watch must stop them. I liked Vaughn's role. He's perfected the loudmouth fast talker type who always has a plan but has no concept of conversational niceties. Stiller does his normal rational but secretly seething man routine. There were one or two lines other people had that made me laugh. The rest of the movie is filled with lots of dumb jokes around sexuality, body functions, and gross out humor. In short this was mostly a really long and mostly dumb SNL skit. Sometimes I wanted to adjust my TV controls to try to make this film funnier. So as always YMMV. I don't like gross out humor. This film wasn't for me.

directed by Steven Knight
Yes, it's another Jason Statham movie. But this one is different. Really. See this time he's playing a hard man with a past who cleans up nicely, shaves his head, starts dressing in sharp double-breasted suits and delivering PAIN to those who hurt him or his friends and...hmm. Yes I guess it's not THAT different after all. But it was trying to be anyway so I have to give it some style points. It relies a little much on the virgin/whore paradigm as well as Beauty and The Beast tropes so that could be a problem for you or it could be like slipping on a warm comfortable pair of shoes. You know exactly what to expect.
Joey Jones (Statham) is a former British Army (Special Forces?) veteran of the Afghan conflict who is haunted by atrocities he's witnessed or committed there. He's on the run from a court-martial and is now a homeless alcoholic in London. His only friend is a sexy street urchin/drug addict Isabelle (Victoria Bewick) who is recruited/forced into prostitution when gangsters come to roust the homeless for "rent" money.
Jones escapes the gangsters and rather implausibly manages to almost literally fall into the lap of luxury when he breaks into an apartment rented by an out of town actor/photographer. He starts to clean himself up, get off the booze and look for news of Isabelle. Obviously this is made easier by the fact that he now has access to clean clothes, a vehicle and plenty of cash. He also begins to send money to/hang out with another woman he has affection for, Sister Cristina (Agata Buzek). Sister Cristina is a nun and therefore not really open to Joey's clumsy flirtations. Joey feels he's in her debt because she helps to run the soup kitchen/medical clinic which got both Isabelle and him through some tough times. Joey does things like buy all the homeless people pizza or steak or send Sister Cristina a nice dress. And Sister Cristina might be hiding quite a bit under her nun's habit. Buzek used to be a model.
But Sister Cristina has her own past issues to deal with. She's a young nun and may not be ready for a lifetime of celibacy. Even so she's extremely diligent about her religious and moral duties as well as being a little street smart. She knows that Joey is not just getting money by working as a dishwasher but has instead graduated to becoming a driver, bodyguard and legbreaker for a Chinese syndicate run by the sad-eyed Mr. Choy (Benedict Wong). Choy thinks it's a status symbol to have a white man working for him. He also appreciates being able to discuss intimate things in front of Joey with no fear of being understood. So while Joey may or may not be hitting on Sister Cristina, she is trying to get Joey to change his hoodlum ways. She's both helped and frustrated in this when Joey learns that Isabelle was murdered by a john who was into rough stuff. And this john may be linked to the people that Joey works for. Joey goes on the war path.
But Joey is running out of time since the man whose identity he's stolen is coming home shortly.The Joey-Cristina relationship was the movie's most interesting part. The film could have been better if it had focused more on that and put most or even all of the violence off screen. This film shows Statham stretching his acting range a bit. The movie was about 100 minutes or so but unfortunately felt longer. So the pacing wasn't quite right. It was a melodrama with bits and spurts of action. Or it was a subdued action movie. I might have to watch it again just to understand a few things better. The film has something to say about regret but it gets its message muddled somewhat. This wasn't a must see film, but if you want to watch Statham do something ever so slightly different you can check this out. Can you through evil actions, actually do good? Or do you have to renounce evil entirely to be good? What if the only way to do good is to paradoxically do evil?
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