Saturday, September 1, 2012

Movie Reviews-Breaking Bad (Season 3), Lockout, A Clockwork Orange

Breaking Bad (Season Three)
created by Vince Gilligan
The hits just keep on coming in this AMC series. Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) cancer is in remission but his personal life is in a shambles. He made a simple mistake which dismantled the web of lies that he spun to keep his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) ignorant of his work. As Walter was sedated and readied for surgery he accidentally confirmed having a second cell phone.That was all it took to change a previously supportive, if rather pushy wife, into an alternately raging harridan and cold as ice enemy. One wouldn't think that such a small slip-up could cause such havoc but then again there is that saying about women, fury and hell. Skyler is insanely angry at Walter's lies. She thinks he made a fool out of her. She checks on Walter's stories and doesn't like what she finds. At first I was a bit sympathetic to her but shortly thereafter my sympathy dissipated.

Walter might be feeling his oats in the criminal world but as far as Skyler is concerned he's just a lying no good drug dealing s.o.b. And Walter doesn't have the cojones of a Michael Corleone to tell Skyler "Don't ask me about my business!!!!". And Skyler wouldn't accept such dismissal even if Walter tried it. She kicks him out of their house and starts considering divorce. Skyler also does something which will hurt Walter much more than he's hurt her. I mean it's like using a nuclear bomb in response to a minor border dispute. As I mentioned earlier this show is greatly different from Weeds in that events have consequences. Nobody who interacts with drugs or crime gets away clean. There are always costs, great or small. Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) is confused by his parents' fights and sides with his father.
In Season Two Walter and a drugged out Jesse (Aaron Paul) had a business dispute that spun out of control and through a six degrees of separation sort of causality cost Jesse the life of his girlfriend, Jane. It also caused Jane's air traffic controller father to lose focus with equally tragic results and made Walter construct even more elaborate internal justifications and lies about his responsibility for his actions.

In Season Three Walter and Jesse are estranged. Jesse is looking for more respect and independence from Walter. Walter finds it difficult not to talk down to Jesse. Once he gets through rehab a newly sober and even more amoral Jesse wants to start cooking meth again while a depressed Walter attempts to win Skyler back. Walter doesn't want to make meth anymore if it will cost him his family. It doesn't help that Walter admitted the depth of his involvement to Skyler, who had already figured out most of it. There are some interesting questions raised about Western customs of domestic conflict. Why is it when there is a fight between a man and a woman it's the man who has to sleep on the couch or leave the house? I never understood that.

But Walter has worse problems than a shrewish wife. Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), Walter's new distributor, also has business relationships with the Mexican cartels. Gus owns several fast food franchises and is considered a community pillar. It's not absolutely clear to me whether Gus distributes for the cartels or if he is just in an uneasy partnership. I think it's the second. It turns out that the crazy degenerate Tuco from Season One and Two, who was killed by Hank, actually had familial cartel links. His invalid uncle used to be a cartel leader of some ferocity. And that old man has set his other nephews (twin deadly assassins) on Walter's track to avenge their cousin's death. The cartel is not exactly concerned if Gus agrees with this decision. The current cartel boss likes Gus but when push comes to shove he's going to side with his countrymen. Gus likes Walter as much as he likes anyone , which really isn't saying all that much. He doesn't like Jesse. 
Meanwhile Walter's always slimy lawyer and fixer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is still scheming to make sure he gets his cut of the action while Hank (Dean Norris), operating both on fear and stubbornness, finally has a name (Jesse), face and vehicle to link to the blue meth that he's obsessed with stopping. Like I wrote before Hank may come across as Macho Meathead -and he is- but he's also a pretty good detective. He's starting to make some connections back to Walter. The show amps up this tension nicely as Hank notices some previously undetected backbone in Walter. It also contrasts the deterioration of Walter's and Skyler's marriage with the relative resiliency of Hank's and Marie's (Betsy Brandt). Carmen Serrano has a supporting role as School Principal Carmen Molina, on whom Walter has a crush. He makes goo-goo eyes at her when he thinks she's not looking. Walter starts to find it almost impossible to keep up appearances at school. 

The Gus Fring character really came into his own this year. Much like Vito Corleone he places a high value on politesse, rationality and making sure the other guy gets a fair deal. Gus seemingly likes Walter and enjoys Walter's smarts. Gus smiles and shows people what they want to see. But just like that other fictional gangster, Gus maintains his calmness as a veneer over a very cold, devious and brutal nature. And his smiles are often the smile the shark gives to the seal. Gus is scary not just because he can be vicious. He works in a vicious business after all. Gus' ace in the hole is his intelligence. He's normally at least three steps ahead of everyone, including the arrogant Walter, who still thinks he's smarter than any other criminal. Walter is an extremely proud man. Pride is the deadliest of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Whereas Season Two was more concerned about the meat and potatoes of hiding criminal behavior and rewards from a spouse and the IRS, Season Three dives deeper into the day to day criminal lifestyle. It pulls the covers back and shows the nasty and violent actions of people that reside within Walter's new world, whether it's a fallen angel street hooker that may service 50 men a day or silent killers who murder people with the same emotion you or I might order a cup of coffee. Mike (Jonathan Banks) gets more screen time. He is a world weary former cop and current investigator for Saul but his true allegiance is to someone else. Depending on his orders he can be either a guardian angel or angel of death for Walter. He's a vibrant grandfatherly man.  If need be he'll put two in your head and then go pick up his granddaughter from day care without missing a beat. This season had lots of twists and turns that led up to some tough decisions and a shocking climax. Walter is finding out that you can't be half a gangster.

There is a song by Ike and Tina Turner titled "Up in Heah" which I like a lot. It chronicles the fall of a naive church going girl into a degraded street woman. One stanza reads
It's cold on this path of evil/The dew falls heavy and hard
While I wait at bars and grills/Commercial love, commercial thrills
But I remember the righteous living/And doing all I knew for good
If I could change this corruption, you know I would if I only could
But now I'm the Daughter of Evil/And I'm trying to get you up in heah!
Those lyrics apply to a lot of people in Breaking Bad, Walter White most of all.
Season 3 Trailer Promo

directed by James Mather
There are two, count em two black men with major speaking roles in this film. One of them is thoroughly incompetent. He is the cause of the prison outbreak, gets himself and his charge lost and winds up killing himself to save a white person. The second one is not incompetent but proves to be evil. So just that right there left me with a bad taste in my mouth.
Basically this is Escape from New York but in space. If that appeals to you then give this a chance. If not just keep moving. The story is pretty predictable. Predictability is ok sometimes but it didn't work for me in this movie, racial hang-ups aside. The movie's hook is that in the future, the US government has created a orbital space prison, in which prisoners are kept in suspended animation for their sentence duration. Now that right there seems problematic. The whole point of sending someone dangerous to prison for a long time is so that if they ever do get out they will be older and feebler with depleted testosterone, lowered aggression and hopefully will be much easier for society to handle. Violent crime is a young man's game. Why in the world would you put someone in suspended animation and then bring them out years later with the same youth and aggression they went in with??? Makes no sense.

Suspecting that the real reason for this prison is just to examine the effects of suspended animation on human beings, the US President's daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) insists upon taking a fact finding goodwill mission to the prison station (MS-1) in hopes of exposing corporate and government malfeasance. That this would bring down her father's administration seems not to have crossed her mind.
Meanwhile back on earth maverick CIA agent Snow (Guy Pearce) (who evidently worked out a LOT for this role-let us go and do likewise gentlemen) is involved in a double cross shootout where his buddy Frank is killed and his shady contact Mace disappears with some critical information. Secret Service director Langral (Peter Stomare) oversees a blink and you missed it trial in which Snow is convicted of murdering Frank and selling classified information. Secret Service agent Harry Shaw (Lennie James) tries to talk secretly to Snow to get his side of the story. I'm not up on all the interlocking responsibilities of the various intelligence and law enforcement agencies but it seems like the CIA, not the Secret Service would be taking the lead here. Anyway Snow is about to be sent on a one way trip to MS-1 when everyone gets news that there's been a breakout on MS-1. The prisoners have hostages, including Emilie. Of course Emilie is a take charge tough as nails woman who doesn't think she needs rescuing.

The brain trust gets the bright idea to sneak Snow up there, have him use his super secret spy skills to find Emilie, get her past 400 angry and very horny convicts, and use the escape pods to get her back to Earth. The other hostages? Stinks to be them.
There is a subplot about how one wicked convict looks after his even more wicked and insane little brother, but really I didn't care too much. Pearce is wasted in this movie imo. Visually however, the film delivers some goods but I just couldn't get past what I thought was a weak story. YMMV. If it's on and you have nothing better to do....

A Clockwork Orange
directed by Stanley Kubrick
This is a classic film which I first saw in college. I was and am a Kubrick fan. When I first saw this I was also somewhat socially alienated so it worked for me on that level as well. However when I recommended to it a woman associate of mine a few years back she could not get past the violence, particularly the sexual violence. I rewatched it recently. I'm still not bothered by the violence though I can certainly see how some people would be. It is sometimes stylized and operatic and at other times shockingly realistic. I would disagree that the film glories in violence or is sexist it but it certainly doesn't condemn violence-at least not on the most accessible level for viewers. It can be disturbing. It's not for people under 18 by any means. So if violence bothers you this film is not for you. It came out in 1971 and initially received a X rating, likely for brief full frontal nudity. Kubrick recut it to get an R rating but then withdrew it from British theaters due to controversy over real life copycat violence. Despite the initial rating this movie was Oscar nominated for Best Picture and Best Director, losing to The French Connection. It should have won. It's visually stunning. Kubrick is at the top of his game.

This film could be considered something of a satire. But besides the violence, this film has a lot to say about the balance of power between the state and the individual, not just in the peculiarly American constitutional sense but in the larger human question of who gets to decide right and wrong-your conscience or the majority of your fellow citizens? The state? God? I thought with the brouhaha over ObamaCare, the controversies over gun control, and both Left and Right authoritarians seeking to extend government influence or even control over citizens in different aspects of their lives this might be a good film to discuss. In Kubrick's view the violence was necessary to the story and critical to the larger point he was trying to make. This was based on a novel. The author, Anthony Burgess, thought that the religious aspects of Free Will were also an important part of the story.
A Clockwork Orange also has a fair number of film techniques that were either invented by Kubrick or became extremely closely associated with him. There's the close-up stare which Kubrick also used in The Shining and other films, lurid cinematography, camera work which is very direct with not much sideways motion, super wide lenses and most spectacularly a camera thrown out of a window to depict a suicide! This film is also famous for the mostly classical music soundtrack, much of which was adapted and arranged by musical genius Walter (soon thereafter Wendy) Carlos. Along with Carlos' Switched On Bach, the soundtrack rewrote the book on what could be done with a Moog synthesizer. Carlos' reworking of Purcell's Death of Queen Mary opens the film. Carlos does such a great job with this that I was truly shocked to discover that Purcell, not Carlos wrote it.
So what's this film about? In a nutshell, it's about free will. In a dystopic England, much of the inner cities have been lost to various gangs of young hoodlums, who, amped up on drugged milk, spend their nights (and occasionally days) aimlessly engaged in petty theft, mindless sex, even more mindless fighting, and every so often rape, murder and home invasions. One such youth is Alex (Malcolm McDowell), the particularly vicious and unlikable leader of three other thugs, Dim, Pete and Georgie. Alex is the literal incarnation of chaotic evil. He is the sort of person who reads The Bible and wishes he were the soldier scourging Jesus or an Old Testament leader getting to know his wives' handmaidens. His only saving grace is that he is a classical music fan-primarily Beethoven.

Alex and his "droogs" or friends, commit more and more crimes until his so-called friends rebel against Alex's high-handed ways and betray him to the police after he's committed a murder. In prison Alex makes plans to get out while trying to avoid getting raped. There's a new technique which the fascist government intends to use to make criminals averse to sex and violence, and set them free, believing that it needs to have space in prisons for intellectuals, liberals, political dissidents, civil libertarians and writers. Alex volunteers for this treatment, thinking he can beat it.
He can't.
It's a mark of Kubrick's skill that he could make you feel a twinge of sympathy for Alex or more likely a bit of disgust for the government. Do you think that the government has the right to take away your free will if you've been convicted of a crime? You may feel differently after watching this film. Kubrick definitely did not believe that the end justified the means or that authoritarian personalities are good things, whether they come from the Right or the Left. David Prowse, who would shortly after be seen, but not heard as Darth Vader, has a role in this movie. The white clothing, bowler hats, codpieces and boots would be used by famous musicians such as John Bonham while the film itself would inspire numerous other actors and directors. Heath Ledger claimed that Alex was one starting point for his portrayal of The Joker.
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