Saturday, October 5, 2013

Movie Reviews-Breaking Bad(Final Season), World War Z

Breaking Bad, Season Five (Part Two)
Created by Vince Gilligan
Although I do not list or discuss every spoiler that happened here, some are inevitable and may freely be discussed in comments if you wish. The show is over and that's that.

And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun.
So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you're older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.
"Time" -Pink Floyd


Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) greatest strengths (and weaknesses) are his intelligence and rationality. Some have used the show to criticize whiteness or masculinity. I think those critics miss the point. Walter White did not feel entitled because he was a white man. Walter was angry because through a mostly unexplained chain of events during or immediately after graduate school he either left or was pushed out of a company he co-founded which later became a billion dollar entity. He spent the next twenty years trying to forget about that. And what did he have to show for that time? He had a son that was more respectful of and responsive to his uncle than to Walter, a patronizing nosy sister-in-law, two low pay low status jobs, maxed out credit cards and a pushy, occasionally bossy wife. So when Walter received a terminal cancer diagnosis he had nothing to lose by breaking bad. Walter has accurately believed that he's always the smartest person in the room. He thought that he could successfully apply rationality and intelligence to the criminal world the same way that he's done in the chemistry lab. He was wrong.
Walter White's double life gave him everything he wanted. Walter won although he was estranged from his apprentice and partner Jesse (Aaron Paul). Despite a few minor hiccups, such as personally murdering a co-worker from pique, watching another child die, considering murdering another female co-worker on multiple occasions, and hiring neo-Nazis to murder redundant workers, Walter avoided the spotlight and prevented any family member besides his wife Skyler from discovering his actions. Walter had some close calls but via luck and inventiveness, stayed off the radar of his outwardly jovial DEA ASAC brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). 

With the assistance of canny and paranoid corporate executive Lydia Rodarte-Qualye (Laura Fraser) Walter expanded his meth empire overseas. Walter earned so much money that Skyler could neither launder nor hide it. Once Walt realized he was worth over $80 million, finally even his greed and pride were satiated. He retired and turned over his supply chain to a local business partner. 
But can we just immerse ourselves in evil and sin and then walk away clean? I don't think so. Not in Gilligan's story. Perhaps if you repent and seek forgiveness it's possible but repentance is not on Walter's agenda. So the muck sticks. Lydia, and Laura Fraser did a bang-up job, is not pleased with the new supplier's quality. She pesters Walt to unretire but he declines. She even visits his car wash to convince him. This is exactly what Skyler was worried about. Lydia's nervous tics, good looks, stiletto heels and bright red lipstick mask a very cold and calculating, even brutal nature. She's not to be underestimated. Lydia takes steps to improve the batch quality. It's all about numbers with her.
Another person who Walt underestimated was his brother-in-law, Hank Schrader. At the end of Season 5A, purely by accident, Hank found evidence linking Walter to a now deceased meth cook. The evidence wouldn't be enough to convict and wasn't really enough to get a search warrant. But Hank is much smarter and more resourceful than Walt realized. And as both Hank and Walt emphasize, they're family. They know each other's habits. And now that the curtain has dropped Hank knows when Walt is lying. Everything has become clear to Hank. Hank's anger, pride and integrity won't let him let this go. People whose opinions I respect disagree with me but I think that when the chips are down Hank's a good guy. Yes, he is a blowhard Type A personality, can flirt with bigotry, and can be offensively patronizing both to women and to men he finds insufficiently masculine (i.e. Walter). But he's not corrupt and still has the love and respect of his wife, something that Walter can't say. Hank puts drug dealers, drug suppliers and murderers in prison. Walter has created an international meth empire. If Hank turns a blind eye there's more likelihood that he could be charged as an accessory. But coming forward also risks charges and would likely end his career as a law enforcement official. At best he would be a laughing stock. He could be forced out and lose his pension. Telling the truth will also obviously end his relationship with Walter and Skyler.

It says something about Hank's stubbornness and sense of duty that he continues his investigation anyway even after Walter makes an oblique threat to Hank by advising him to "tread lightly". What would you do in Hank's place? If you discovered a family member was a serious criminal and you were law enforcement how would you handle it? Whatever sins Hank has committed (getting snippy with his wife during his paralysis, assaulting Jesse, making a few ethnic jokes) they are as nothing compared to Walt's. Hank doesn't poison kids. Walter does. And Hank freely accepts responsibility for his mistakes, something that Walter won't do unless and until he's forced. Hank may well be the most righteous major character on the show.


Walter's hubris and greed catch up with him and leave him vulnerable to more violent and greedier rivals. Although Walter had problems with both Gus and Mike and eliminated them, Season 5B showed the dangers of escaping the frying pan only to fall into the fire. In season 5A, Walter used the deceptively kind looking Todd (Jesse Flemens) and his friendly but sarcastic Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) as his new muscle to tie up loose ends between him and the remnants of the Gus Fring organization, more specifically those people who had worked for Mike. But Todd and Jack (who are neo-Nazis) are more dangerous to Walter and his family than Gus or Mike ever were. Walter's actions were like putting down a dangerous Boxer and bringing home a rabid Cane Corso. 

Hank pressures Walter and Skyler, which in turn forces both Skyler and her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) to choose sides. This has tragic familial consequences as several of Walter's and Skyler's lies are revealed. Both sisters go into "stand by your man, until death do us part" mode. If you had to choose between a spouse and a sibling, who do you choose? Walter is at DefCon 4 status. He makes it painfully clear to Hank that bringing him down will have quite negative results for Hank and Marie on personal and professional levels. Hank and Marie are more hurt by the fact that Walter would threaten them than by the actual threat. Hank is crushed. Marie so quickly goes into "hate Walt" mode that you have to wonder if she had pre-existing reasons to hate Walter. I guess the sense of familial betrayal can explain a lot of it.


The two groups are at an impasse when Jesse, disillusioned and clinically depressed, discovers something that allows him to deduct correctly that Walter poisoned Jesse's girlfriend's child, Brock. This transforms Jesse into a living incarnation of rage and revenge. His formless frothing fury finally forces Walter to turn against Jesse while the embittered and desperate Hank sees someone who can be used to bring Walter down. But Jesse is the catalyst for events that spiral out of Walter's or Hank's control and result in ruin and death for many people. No one gets away untouched. Just as in The Wire, when the dissolution of the Barksdale organization preceded the rise of the even worse Marlo Stansfield group, Walt learns the hard way that Todd, Uncle Jack and Lydia are more vicious than his previous muscle or distributors. 

Todd is completely without mercy. He enjoys killing and does not hesitate to kill women or children. And for Lydia the balance sheet is all that ever counts. The moment that she thinks you are a debit and not a credit is exactly when you need to back away slowly from Lydia and exit the room. Her extermination of the inferior supply network showed that.


This season had incredible shootouts, several tense standoffs, incredible brutality, emotionally shocking moments and a few moments of catharsis. The showdown with Agent Gomez and Agent Schrader on one side and the Nazis on the other was amazing television. It's rare that just the sight of a pickup truck making a turn contains so much menace. Of course the car showing up right before Ricky gets shot in Boyz n the Hood surpasses it. Hank goes from what he sees as his greatest triumph to fighting for his life. And Walt goes from someone who is loved if not always obeyed by his son Walt Jr.(R.J Mitte) to someone who is rejected by his son as a murderous and abusive figure. Breaking Bad took five seasons to ask and answer the question if Walter White is someone who really broke bad out of very good reasons and was just playing the role of ruthless druglord or was the milquetoast high school science teacher really the false role all along? Walter had quietly rotted away from the inside. He was seething with resentment over being "overlooked" by life. From his POV  a man as intelligent as him shouldn't have been working as a high school teacher.  Walter aka "Heisenberg" is an evil SOB but he's also someone who tries to protect his family even as his actions destroy it. Walter shows he has some remaining humanity when he attempts to make the police think that Skyler was innocent. Of course Skyler had suggested murdering Jesse so innocent she's not.


As Walter finally admitted to Skyler he liked doing what he did. He enjoyed it. Although he regrets the destruction and loss that finally touched his family, I honestly don't think he would have changed very much. He's going to die and go to hell, if such a place exists, and he's ok with that. The wages of sin are death. Walter's cancer has returned and it's terminal. There's no exit and no escape. But just like Milton's Lucifer, Walt still retains his pride and intelligence. There was a reason that Hank's last words to Walter were "You're the smartest man I've ever known." It was ironic that although Walter often felt emasculated by both his wife and brother-in-law, it's Walter who's constantly seen doing a tremendous amount of stereotypically masculine work, whether it's putting in a new hot water heater all by himself or building various mechanical devices, including one that helps him settle scores with the Nazis. That he doesn't make it out alive should not surprise anyone. Gilligan said that he wanted to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. I think he succeeded. 

Breaking Bad gave us definitive closure. Walter may have started as an anti-hero but by the end he was just as evil as Gus or Mike or Tuco. He only tried to end what he had started when the filth he worked with touched his family. But it was his own pride and need for adulation that brought his house of cards crashing down. A viewer may be happy to see Walter take revenge (I was to an extent) but like the mantra from A Bronx Tale, there's nothing sadder than wasted talent. And Walter White certainly wasted his. Ultimately he was a wicked SOB who got what he deserved and a tragic figure.
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Read Dean Norris' interpretation of Hank and Walt here.




World War Z
directed by Marc Forster
This Brad Pitt vehicle wasn't half-bad. It was based on a novel that is in the ever expanding stack of books I bought but have not read yet. I've heard that there were significant differences between the book and the film but since I never read the book I couldn't tell you what they were. I had no pre-conceived notions about what to expect. Who knows why zombie films, books and television shows have become so popular of late? What does that say about our fears? Vampires touch on sex and death (or lately quite specific female-centric romance interests). Werewolves seem to have currently dropped off the cultural radar but obviously play off our fears of the beast within, our id. Do zombies touch on our fear of being a slavish member of the collective, just another brick in the wall? Could be. Or it could just be that zombies are monsters that are frightening but easy to kill with no moral qualms.

This movie was a little longer than it needed to be in my opinion but nonetheless it was a very fun ride that gave some fun updates to the zombie mythos.
Anyway Gerry Lane (Pitt) and his wife Karin (Mirielle Enos) and their two daughters are in traffic in Philadelphia. They've heard some strange reports about disturbances and imposition of martial law in some places. In the film's most impressive action sequence (and there are plenty) the Lanes are witness to and caught up in the zombie attack. This is shot, for lack of a better word, realistically. Gerry (and the audience) can't really see what's going on. People are running (or driving) away with no thought for who they hit in their frantic attempts to escape. It's literally like I imagine a herd of antelope must react when the lions attack. If you don't start moving RIGHT NOW, you're going to get trampled.

Gerry gets his family out of their now damaged car. He's able to see the first of the zombies and also see a human turn into one. Calling these "zombies" may not be technically correct as it's unclear that the humans die first. It's also apparently not anything supernatural. Nonetheless the zombies are no longer human, have an apparent bio-chemical change and are driven by a hunger for human flesh, or least a desire to bite people. They also move fast.
Gerry is not a man without resources though. He's a former UN war crimes investigator and is able to call in some chips to have the UN Deputy Secretary General Thierry Umotoni (Fama Mokoena), an old buddy, send a team to extract him and his family. But the Lanes need to survive the night first. Not only are there zombies about but with the breakdown of law and order there are rapists roaming the streets as well. There are some exciting siege pieces before the Lanes escape, along with a young boy, to the relative safety of a US aircraft carrier. Whatever's going on is worldwide. The scientists believe that it's something which is viral and that in order to discover a vaccine, they must find patient zero. They want to send Gerry and a top ranking scientist (Elyes Gabel) to one of the earliest outbreaks they know about, in South Korea. Gerry demurs at first but the military commander makes him an offer he cannot refuse.

This kicks off an increasingly audacious worldwide search to discover how the zombies were created and to find a method of protecting humans from the zombie plague. This was a fun movie that doesn't fall into the video-game/special effects trap that so many movies in this genre do. Well it straddles it though. A while back I wrote that Quarantine 2 would have been scarier and more effective if it had investigated the zombies on a plane motif a little more. Well World War Z does just that. Again, I think this film could have cut about 10-20 minutes but all the same it moves fast. This is something I should have seen in the theater. Enjoy.

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