Saturday, September 29, 2012

The Master

Director: Paul Thomas Anderson
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Jesse Plemons, Madison Beaty, Ambyr Childers, Laura Dern, Rami Malek
Running Time: 137 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

   **Spoiler Warning: The Following Review Reveals Plot Details**

"Processing" is a word frequently used throughout Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master, and that's fitting considering it also describes what many will be doing after having seen it. In the film, processing (or "auditing" in Scientology speak) is the battery of repetitive and abrasive questioning roaming seaman Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix) endures at the hands of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the scientist and author behind a controversial movement called "The Cure." This scene is, if you forgive the pun, a master class in screen acting that holds you enraptured for its duration. It's best to get it out of the way now and state there's absolutely no question the Cure is based on Scientology and the character of Dodd is roughly if not directly, inspired by L. Ron Hubbard. There's no need to dwell on it because it only provides the jumping off point and might be the least important element of a film so challenging, frustrating and baffling you may as well skip the first viewing all together because it'll demand at least three.

Having seen the film only days ago, I'm still trying to make sense of what it all means and slowly coming to terms with the fact that that's what makes it unforgettable. The narrative is all over the place, the two lead characters experience no growth from beginning to end and you'll want to bang your head against a wall when it's over. And yet it's like no American film in recent memory and sticks out like a sore thumb amongst PTA's previous work, none of which has ever been known for its conventionality. But with this, he's really made a raw statement, and while it may take years to figure out what that statement is, he's one of the few filmmakers left who refuse to just give us the answers. With expectations sky high, it was certainly possible to predict the picture's greatness, but few could have guessed it would be this impenetrable.

Our first glimpse of Freddie Quell is under his helmet as World War II comes to an end. A mentally ill alcoholic prone to fits of spontaneous rage, he can't hold down a job as a department store photographer, resulting in a memorable scene early on where he verbally and physically abuses a married customer. It's worth mentioning he's married only because that fact seems to be what drives Freddie over the edge. His quest for women and a family is a reoccurring theme throughout the film and his burning need for human companionship provides the purpose for his existence and, as the film argues, ours.

After a drunken night, Freddie ends up as a stowaway on the ship of the enigmatic Lancaster Dodd, whose quasi-religious, philosophical movement explores past lives, time travel, processing and forms of hypnosis to return the human form to its perfect essence, thus eradicating war and disease. In this young man, Dodd immediately sees an animal that needs to not only be contained, but cured and senses he could be the perfect subject for his practices, which are coming under increased scrutiny. A friendship and father-son dynamic that develops is at times touching, volatile and pathetic in how both seem to fulfill a need in each other. Freddie, the animal, needs the stability and focus the Cure's teachings provide so he can empty his emotional baggage. Dodd secretly and desperately wants the freedom Freddie has but his movement is built entirely around suppressing those animalistic urges.  His pregnant wife Peggy (Amy Adams) feels Freddie is past help and his unpredictability is a detriment to their cause. She may be right, but in Dodd's mind, it's as much his mission to prove himself right as to rescue a lost soul.

As Freddie, Joaquin Phoenix gives a performance unlike any other we've seen, playing an unconventional, often unlikable protagonist who keeps you on edge every moment he's on the screen with his volatility. Besides having literally no idea what he'll do from one scene to the next or when he'll just completely lose it, his exaggerated movements and mannerisms more closely resemble an old man than a young seaman. Phoenix is pushing 40 yet is still somehow completely believable as being in his twenties, middle-aged or an old man. Here it seems he gets to play all three as the character's actual age remains one of the film's many mysteries.

Slouched over like a hunchback with his pants nearly pulled up to his chest, words frequently come out of his mouth as a drunken warble with his emotional instability physically manifesting itself to the point that he looks physically ill. It's not just a brilliant performance, but a dangerous one because he keeps you on edge and anxious the whole time you're watching, constantly in your face and taking on the persona of a wild animal. During one of Freddie's many meltdowns Dodd reminds him he's the only one who likes him, and he's right. Of all the kooky theories Dodd dispenses throughout, the one that strangely seems the most plausible is that these two men were destined to somehow find one other across time and space.

Hoffman infuses Dodd with a blustery charisma and Wellesian presence that belies a deeply insecure fraud you still can't help but admire for his dedication, if nothing else. His best scenes are when his practices are questioned, causing the usually calm, confident Master to briefly lose it before realizing that doing so is a betrayal of the Cure's methods, which are frequently attacked. If behind every great man is a woman then Dodd's is his wife Peggy, played by Amy Adams in the scariest performance of her career. "Terrifying" or "emotionless" aren't adjectives usually associated with her work but she has a scene (and if you've seen it you know EXACTLY which one) that's so shocking it instantly puts everything about their marriage and this movement in full perspective. It's clear who the real puppet master is, as we find out Freddie isn't the only man in the film controlled by the opposite sex. A perfectly cast Jesse Plemons (who really resembles a younger Hoffman) has only a few scenes as Dodd's son Val but they're revelatory, with one resulting in perhaps the film's most memorable line. Even he thinks his father's a fraud. Laura Dern has an extended cameo as a Cure follower who eventually starts asking to many questions for her own good, and Dodd's.  

Viewers are likely to take an issue with the fact that the narrative follows an unusual trajectory that seems to spit in the face of what we'd consider a conventional three-act structure. There's this expectation that the film is building toward some kind of climactic showdown between the Dodd and Freddie, similar to the final violent bowling alley scene between Daniel Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. But this isn't that kind of a relationship, and the more we want to see Freddie break away and become Dodd's nemesis, the further PTA seems to tug in the opposite direction. The battle taking place is within themselves and it each needs the other to help fight it. The movie builds and builds before fading away into the distance, leaving the viewer to consider the possibility that some people just might be incapable of change, hardwired to sabotage their own happiness.

At one point Dodd tells Freddie that if he figures out a way to live without a master to let the rest of the world know because it would truly be a first. Dodd's master is his wife, while Freddie also has a girl, Doris (Madison Beaty) he thinks is waiting for him back home. And by the time he actually realizes what he wants, it's gone. The film starts almost exactly where it begins, with Freddie adrift. All he wanted was a human connection, and his brief bond with Dodd provided him with it, or maybe just the illusion and comfort of one. Like most things in his life, he couldn't find the discipline to dedicate himself to it, though a closing scene (extremely reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange) suggests the Cure's practices had some kind of lasting impact, even as we're unsure of exactly what. The jury's out on whether there's any hope for this character, or whether anyone will ever be able to fully dissect what occurs in the last third of the picture. In a way, the movie never truly ends.

About as divisive and polarizing as it is, a movie theater just might be the best and also worst place to see The Master. Technically speaking, it demands to be seen on the big screen to absorb the visual grandeur and hear Jonny Greenwood's unmistakably sad and sublime score that's more than a few miles removed from his previous PTA collaboration on There Will Be Blood. Yet, it so complex and intellectually involving it's impossible to imagine seeing it with an audience and being as absorbed as you would be watching it alone without any external distractions.

Too often period pieces are prone to feeling to cold and distant with such a technical emphasis on capturing a certain era (in this case the post-war 50's) that the story's pathos is lost. What PTA does better than anyone, and takes to a whole new level here, is check both those boxes in creating an epic that's technically brilliant without sacrificing emotional depth. It doesn't feel like a museum piece to be admired and respected from arms length like so many others released this time of year, but instead a picture to dive into repeatedly, making new discoveries on each viewing.

With this effort PTA cements his status as the best American filmmaker working today, surpassing his closest competitor David Fincher, whose recent Dragon Tattoo amounted to little more than pulpy nonsense. Even those who despise this picture (and boy will there be) couldn't reasonably consider it a disappointment just on the basis of the discussion and analysis it inspires. It also features two of our greatest actors in Phoenix and Hoffman going head-to-head in what will no doubt years from now be looked at as the pinnacle of their work. It's difficult enough to find new releases that give us something we've never seen before but this does that while still having enough respect for its audience to let us unravel what that "something" is. Challenging beyond belief, what throws you off most about The Master is how it doesn't actually begin until after the final credits roll. 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Hunger Games

Director: Gary Ross
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Running Time: 142 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's generally a rule to judge a movie for what it is rather than what it isn't, but the highly anticipated The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins' bestselling young adult novel, might be the rare exception. The problems with this film are all in what it isn't. Having not read the original novel, I wouldn't even attempt to speculate how "faithful" director Gary Ross' adaptation is to the source material. Like all adaptations, that point's irrelevant unless you've read it. I have no idea how much or how little of what Collins wrote got lost in the finished product or what was cut, changed or added, but what ends up on screen doesn't quite connect for one reason: It has a premise that must be taken seriously to succeed and the filmmakers didn't do it. All its other problems stem from that. Of course, when the book was optioned producers saw dollar signs, which had to greatly diminish the chances of this story being told the way it needed to be.

Some movies can get away with cutting corners and watering everything down to pander to the masses but this clearly can't. Not a post-apocalyptic reality show battle to the death that takes place in a dystopian future. It's too high concept to be simplified and still work. But it's entertaining and features an unbelievable performance by its female lead. I just wish the movie had the guts to go as far as Jennifer Lawrence does, even as I hesitate associating the word "guts" with her choice of a project this safe. We're also dealing with a concept we've seen executed before (and occasionally much better) in similarly themed movies like Battle Royale, They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, The Running Man and The Condemned. What I can't recall is it ever being treated so sunny. It's probably one of the oddest match-ups of story and and tone you'll find in the genre and I can't say I felt that the two leads were seriously in danger at any point. And even if they are, Ross goes out of his way to make sure we don't see it. Or even feel it. Luckily, it's is able to fall back on some its dumb, over-the-top decisions by telling a story about greedy executives making dumb, over-the-top decisions for the sake of popular entertainment.

The story takes place in a future nation called Panem where boys and girls aged 12-18 are recruited to participate in "The Hunger Games," a televised annual event where the chosen two "tributes" from each of the twelve districts fight to the death until there's a single victor crowned. In a lottery (referred to as a "Reaping") selecting the participants, terrified 12 year-old Primrose Everdeen's (Willow Shields) name is called, prompting her older sister Katniss (Lawrence) to volunteer in her place as tribute. Joining her as the male tribute from District 12 is Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son with few skills who harbors a secret crush on Katniss. Together they're trained for competition by hard drinking former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and must not only physically defeat their opponents from the other districts in the battle arena, but win over corporate sponsors and audiences that can help give them a much needed advantage in the the Games. Watching over it all is the diabolical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), whose "Gamemaker" Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) manipulates the rules to provide maximum entertainment. Katniss and Peeta's only goal is to survive.

The film's prologue is clumsy on a number of levels, chief among them the fleshing out of this futuristic world. It's hard not to watch the Reaping ceremony sequence and not be reminded of Shirley Jackson's classic short story "The Lottery," which Collins must have taken direct inspiration from in writing the novel. But it's basic conceit of a lottery in which citizens are randomly chosen for death is where the similarities end. All the potential terror of that scene is muted by Elizabeth Banks' ridiculous appearance as District 12's escort Effie Trinket. She looks and sounds so silly it's impossible to take a word she's saying seriously, much less the announcement that these teens are essentially being sent to die with a backstory and explanation for the Games that's mostly left unclear or partially developed. The garish costuming and make-up is a constant problem and distraction throughout that's not just limited to Banks. Perhaps as an effort to remain true to the source material or hammer home the idea of the future as an overproduced spectacle, everyone's dressed for Halloween. But the real reason is because it's set in the future and in the future people must dress weirdly. At least that seems to be the extent of it, whether the choice is germane to the story or not.

As much that goes wrong in the set-up, it's made up for when Katniss and Peeta arrive at the Capitol to train and we get genuine insight into how the Games work and what's required to win. Katniss is considered a favorite early on with her hunting and archery skills, but her steely determination and no-nonsense attitude proves to be a hurdle in gaining the favoritism of corporate donors who can provide life-sustaining supplies in the arena. Aside from her sacrifice for her little sister, you could say she lacks what would be described in reality TV terms as the "likability factor." Peeta, on the other hand, is a charming schmoozer despite possessing very little physical skills that will help him excel. Initially stand-offish, their trainer Haymitch and eventually shows them some of the tricks of the trade and in one of the film's best sequences, they're both interviewed by blue-haired Hunger Games host Ceasar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), whose hilariously broad style of questioning kind of resembles Martin Short's Jiminy Glick. Whether true or not, their narrative begins to take shape as "the star-crossed lovers" of District 12. There's no doubt Peeta would like it to be, despite Katniss' sort of boyfriend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) anxiously waiting for her back home.

There's genuine suspense in the arena when Ross realizes his movie has to stay out of its own way because Lawrence can take care of the rest. The only true distraction is when he seems to bend over backwards to preserve the PG-13 rating by cutting as fast as possible during the action scenes, making it extremely difficult to make heads or tails out of what's happening. I understand it's based on a teen novel and I'm not asking it be a bloodbath, but it's kind of  insulting how obviously any depiction of violence is avoided. If a future society's warped enough to hold such an event and televise it, something tells me it wouldn't be sanitized and censored not to offend viewers. It's only fair a movie based on that idea be held to the same standard. Nolan's Batman trilogy was rated PG-13 and no one accuses those films of wimping out, so it's not too much to ask for a happy balance that would have delivered on the story's violent premise without affecting its commercial prospects, which were always admittedly strong no matter what. Ross probably wasn't the right director to do that, though there's no telling how much pressure he got from the studio to tone it down. Judging from the end result, probably a lot.

The supposedly grueling elements in the arena don't play nearly as much of a factor as we were led to believe early on. No one appears to be in danger of starving, dehydrating, and everyone sure looks clean considering they're in a battle to the death that's been dragging on for days. I never thought Katniss or Peeta would die and not just because they have to make the rest of the installments either. We should have at least felt the possibility a little. The one brief moment where you really do involves a showdown with District 2's female tribute Clove (Orphan's Isabelle Fuhrman). It lasts only a minute or two, but it doesn't feel sanitized in the slightest. The fire and intensity this girl has in her eyes leaves no doubt she's willing to kill Katniss at any cost and will likely relish every second of it. The motivation of the attack, the editing, the girls' performances, and the ending of the sequence is unforgettable, encapsulating everything the rest of the film should have been but wasn't. The implication that many of Katniss' opponents (led by Alexander Ludwig's villainous Cato)  have been prepared at an early age to accept their destiny to participate is one of the script's strongest ideas, as is the discussion about just how entertaining this telecast should be for the public. Sutherland's President Snow wants to give them someone to root for but takes issue with having them root too much, suspecting that Wes Bentley's Gamesmaker may instead be dishing out "hope." 

All the controversy surrounding Jennifer Lawrence not looking right for the part is pretty ridiculous. No, she doesn't look like she's starving (in other words she's a pretty, normal sized 22 year-old girl) but who really cares? When you have the opportunity to cast the best actress available for the part, you do it. No questions asked. Forget about her being the least of the film's problems, the conviction and gravitas she brings to Katniss is the sole reason this even comes close to working. There are many times when the story strains to be taken seriously and seems too juvenile but Lawrence refuses to go there. She takes this dead seriously and imbues the picture with more passion than it frequently deserves. Initially confused as to why an Oscar nominee would even take on a project like this, she answers my question by turning her into a character that feels stronger and smarter than it must have originally been conceived as. That said, I'm still kind of disappointed she took the part, if only because she's so clearly too talented for this. The last thing we need is this franchise to swallow her career whole much like Twilight did to the formerly promising Kristen Stewart, who's now basically just a human ATM machine. Just the mere mention of Stewart's name in relation to any kind of serious acting invokes uncontrollable laughter because of her association with that series. The best news coming out of this is that Lawrence gives you hope she can overcome that stigma.

Josh Hutcherson more than holds his own as the vulnerable Peeta, even if everyone in the picture seems to take a backseat to Lawrence and her command over the screen. Hemsworth's hardly in the movie at all, though I have the awful feeling his role will increase  in unwelcome ways over the course of the next film or two. Pointless Victorian costuming aside, Harrelson and Tucci are superb in their roles, especially Tucci who brings an undercurrent of phoniness and menace to his TV host that seems absent in the rest of the script. Lenny Kravitiz is gold in his relatively brief scenes as stylist Cinna, knowing the injustice of what's happening but cleverly playing the system for his tributes' benefit. Bentley has his juiciest supporting role in just about forever, making the most of his limited screen time as Seneca. Any of Elizabeth Banks' efforts are undone by the fact she's essentially playing a party clown.

Possibly the best subplot overall, involves 12-year-old District 11 tribute Rue, well played by Amandla Stenberg. In a relatively short amount time this character makes a big impact and her makeshift alliance with Katniss is one of the few elements of the film that really clicks emotionally. I'm tempted to say Ross could have shown more scenes of how viewers reacted to the competition, but given how lazily this future was depicted it was probably a wiser move not to. After a strong middle section, the movie really flies off its rails in the last act as the constant changing of the Games' rules is presented sloppily enough that at best it feels like plot manipulation, and at worst, deux ex machina. The Truman Show this ain't and the idea that these Games are "controlled" only rears its head at the most inopportune times, complete with some really bad CGI animals that could give Twilight a run for its money.

Through all this, we do care about these two characters, even if the ending has me seriously worried the entire story will soon be going the sappy tween romance route. They got away with it this time by incorporating it as a plot point in the Games themselves but now it seems inevitable that angle of the story will take center stage. I'd feel more comfortable recommending this installment if there seemed to be more potential moving forward, but that's a real long shot considering how this went. But at least the movie doesn't misrepresent itself. It's exactly what it says it's going to be from the beginning. It's better than expected and  not exactly another Twilight, despite the studio and media doing whatever it can to play it up as such. The ideas are there, even if they're merely implied rather than explored. It's a near-miss, albeit a fascinating one worth talking about. This is what happens when commercial concerns impede on the creative process.  Forget about a sequel. They should just go ahead and remake this one right now. Get a different director, slap on an R rating and just go to town. Like the Games depicted in it, The Hunger Games is all about overproduced entertainment at the expense of emotions, perhaps coming much closer to its story origins than was even intended.       

Saturday, September 15, 2012

God Bless America

Director: Bobcat Goldthwait
Starring: Frank Murray, Tara Lynne Barr, Mackenzie Brooke Smith, Melinda Page Hamilton, Maddie Hasson
Running Time: 105 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The scariest thing about God Bless America is how relatable its main character is, at least in the early going. He could very easily be your uncle, a co-worker or even your neighbor. And in what he complains about, it's hard to deny he brings up some valid points. If a satirist's job is to depict realistic characters then writer/director Bobcat Goldthwait certainly outdid himself here. Then about half-way through we start to lose him and the movie evolves into something you didn't think it would when it began. It would be tough for material this risky to even work as a drama much less a dark comedy, but Goldthwait goes as far as he can and then some. Whatever problems it has comes from overreaching and tackling a timely topic no other filmmaker would likely touch with a ten foot pole. And for good reason. Mass murder isn't funny. One could argue it's even less funny when you present its perpetrators not as villains, but emotionally disturbed anti-heroes. This skirts the line, but at least has guts and something to say. It's difficult expecting more given this difficult of a premise.

Middle-aged, divorced sad sack Frank Murdoch (Frank Murray) has just lost his job, begs his ex-wife for visitation with a spoiled daughter (Mackenzie Brooke Smith) who doesn't want to see him and has gotten a fatal a medical prognosis. Those would be reasons enough to push him into contemplating suicide, but it's reality television and pop culture's influence over an increasingly uncivilized society that brings him to his breaking point. While channel surfing he discovers the MTV-style Tuff Gurlz, with women swearing and throwing tampons at each other, and the talent competition American Superstarz, where judges humiliate a horrible singer who goes on to become a national sensation. A fed up Frank decides to take justice into his own hands and murder an annoying reality starlet Chloe (Maddie Hasson), grabbing the attention of her disturbed high school classmate Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr). She convinces Frank to turn the gun away from himself so they can team up and continue to snuff out people just like Chloe. The movie then kind of transforms into a road trip killing spree along the lines of Bonnie and Clyde or Natural Born Killers. Only it's supposed to be funny.

There's much discussion between Frank and Roxy regarding who exactly "qualifies" to be killed. Whether it's an obnoxious conservative talk show host, reality competition judges, or people who talk during movies, the disrespectful become their prime targets. In what must be the most fortunate timing ever for the studio, the latter results in a theater shooting scene that plays ten times more disturbingly now than when released into theaters earlier this year. It's a shock it wasn't excised from the DVD altogether. As if the film needed to court any more controversy, the father/daughter relationship between Frank and Roxy has creepy pedophilia undertones made that much creepier by the characters openly talking about it in more than few cringe-worthy discussions. It follows suit with the rest of the material in how Goldthwait decides it's best to just acknowledge whatever giant elephant might be in the room rather than dance around it. No one can accuse him of playing it safe or not going all the way, but it sure does make for an uncomfortable viewing experience. More than likely, that was his plan.

Murray and Barr are largely unknowns which helps since a movie that featuring a bunch of celebrities being assassinated would ring false if the killers were played by big name stars (not as if one would ever consider signing on to this). Murray nails down a pleasant, everyman pushed to his limits, making the character's later actions seem that much more horrifyingly twisted. He also works excellently with Barr, whose sarcastic wisecracks and deadpan humor turn Roxy into kind of the sociopathic kid sister of Juno. Ironically, screenwriter Diablo Cody tops Roxy's imaginary kill list, which must be about five years out of date if her lingering dissatisfaction over that issue is any sign. The American Idol spoofing already seems a bit dated also so it'll be interesting to see how portions of the film play later on since everything's very "of the moment." Maybe a little too much so. But the underlying issues and complaints aren't, which is why most of the scenes work. 

Who hasn't flipped through the channels and joked about wanting to blow away the D-listers on these reality shows? Of course we wouldn't, but it's fun saying that. This film is really the basis of that statement. A kind of revenge fantasy, in which an average Joe is fed up by our society and can't seem to find happiness anywhere. In many ways, Frank's taking all this mindless entertainment as seriously as those he wants to kill, quickly evolving into the problem he wants to fix. This is a satire and a smart one at that. Dark comedy is probably the toughest genre crack so while it doesn't hold together as tightly as Goldthwait's shockingly good World's Greatest Dad from a couple of years ago, it's fun witnessing his story on this tightrope without falling off. In equal parts dramatic and comedic, God Bless America is strangely moral in its immorality, asking the audience to laugh at and pity the influence pop culture has over our lives.                       

Monday, September 10, 2012

Breaking Bad: Season 5 (Part I)

Creator: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Jesse Plemons, Laura Fraser
Air Date: 2012

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

   **Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for all the seasons of 'Breaking Bad'**

 "I won."

Those were the chilling words delivered by Walter White (Bryan Cranston) at the end of Breaking Bad's fourth season finale after he successfully orchestrated the murder of drug kingpin Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). But the victory didn't come without collateral damage. After poisoning a 10-year-old boy to manipulate Jesse (Aaron Paul) back to his side, it became clear Walt was now three quarters of the way toward completing the infamous "Mr. Chips to Scarface" evolution creator Vince Gilligan has frequently referred to. It's something that's never been done in the history of the television: Take a show's protagonist and slowly morph him over the course of five years into its antagonist. How much longer can anyone root for this guy? How many people can he use, lie to or put in danger? How many bodies can pile up? And what does it say about viewers that keep looking for as many reasons as he does to justify it? That's the moral ambiguity of Breaking Bad, which could have reasonably ended its run last year with no one complaining it didn't go out with a bang. Going 16 more episodes is risky, but completely necessary when you consider what sets this series apart from any drama that's ever been on TV is that it is actually telling one continuous story with a beginning, middle and end.

Walter White at Denny's on his 52nd Birthday (Ep. 5.01,"Live Free or Die")
The decision to split this final season, airing the first 8 episodes this year and making viewers wait until summer 2013 for the last batch is has definitely caused some controversy. I'm still not sure what number to refer to this season as and no one else seems to be either. For a show known for it's pacing, it seems like a game-changer, but really it isn't. It was clear pretty early that Gilligan would be treating this like he would a regular season with the only difference being we'd have to wait an entire excruciating year to see the series conclude. It was always going to be a slow burn, with the first half set-up and the second half pay-off. Walt's rise to power followed by his fall. I was fine with the wait and even all the business-related focus (more than any other season) just as long as everything was written to accommodate the final stretch and the mid-season finale left me in a state of unbearable suspense. While the first question might still be up in the air until the show concludes, the latter isn't. This delivered. A helpless Walt scrambling and up against the ropes has consistently resulted in the show's most memorable moments. Overmatched, he's always had to rely on his ingenuity to somehow pull through and outsmart his adversaries. These 8 episodes tweak that formula, being the only season since the third to hit the re-set button. He's now in control, but that's just the calm before the storm. He'll be scrambling again soon.  

With his cancer now in remission and finaly able to provide for his family it only makes sense Walt would just cash in his chips and get out of the meth business while he still can. But of course he can't. He's Walter White and his pride won't allow it. We saw it when he quit the car wash in the first season. We saw it when he's refused to admit Jesse could be as good at something as him. And we've even seen it when he forced his son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to drink himself sick in Season 2. It's his pride that wouldn't allow him to take the money from his former business associates for his cancer treatment. His decision to years ago cash out of Gray Matter plays an important role this season, if not literally, then at least as an underlying motivation. In fact, that pre-series decision could be considered the very moment he "broke bad." Him giving up billions of dollars out of spite and pride has been the driving engine of the entire show. In his mind, it's the decision that caused him to become a high school chemistry teacher and part-time car wash employee who never reached his full potential. This season we finally get that confession out of him, but in typical Walt fashion, the moment of truth accidentally arrives as he's trying to manipulate someone close to him. Enough will never be enough  to erase that decision, so it makes sense that when he does finally succeed at something and reaches the top of the mountain, the power goes straight to his head.

Walt and Walt Jr.'s new set of sports cars (Ep. 5.03,"Fifty-One")
Drunk on his own hubris, Walt no longer wears the pork-pie hat and Heisenberg sunglasses as a disguise. It's his uniform. For business. He is Heisenberg. He thinks killing Gus Fring has transformed him into Gus Fring. In a chilling touch, he even starts sitting and dressing like him. He trades in his avocado green Aztek for a new Chrysler 300 more befitting of a drug lord. Forget about becoming Scarface, now he's even literally watching it with his children for inspiration. The legendary "I am the one who knocks" speech he gave wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) last season was delivered by a scared, desperate man who needed to pathetically psyche himself for his final confrontation with Gus. This season Walt really becomes "The Danger" instead of just talking about it. Or does he? Often, when you get too comfortable you get cocky and then you get sloppy. His downfall is immanent and in the most shocking TV flash-forward since Jack told Kate "we have to go back," we get a glimpse of it in the premiere's cold open as a bearded, desperate looking, pill popping Walter White (under an assumed identity) is in a Denny's on his 52nd birthday, purchasing some heavy artillery from firearms dealer Jim Beaver and presumably preparing for a huge confrontation (with Hank? the DEA? the Cartel? Jesse?). So we know he survives at least another year, with or without cancer. He's clearly without a wedding ring, which can't bode well for Skyler. It's also clear that Gilligan will have to do a lot of finagling with time to get to that point without it feeling rushed considering all four seasons of this show have only spanned a year in these characters' lives and now he has to jam another entire year into only 16 episodes. For this show that's an enternity. My guess: That was a peek at the series finale and Walt's taking his machine gun back to the Albuquerque desert, ending this show where it started. 

Through all this we somehow still hold out for Walt's redemption despite him seemingly being past the point of no return because Cranston still let's us see that nervous sad sack who just seems to be play acting to make himself feel in control. Gilligan knows there isn't a single viewer who can't relate to not living up to their full potential and isn't afraid of rubbing our noses in it. He also knows there are many viewers that can name the exact point Walter White officially lost them and ceased being a character that can be rooted for. And for just as many that point hasn't arrived. The fact that there are still some that can attempt to explain away Walt's actions is hilarious when you consider he's basically a domestic terrorist who at this point has murdered as many people as Dexter. The show never makes excuses for him, but you completely, against all your better judgment, understand how it's gone so far and why he can't allow himself to just "get out."

Walt, Jesse and their new apprentice Todd (Ep. 5.05,"Dead Freight")
Much of the season centers on getting the business up and running again in the wake of Gus' death and tying up all the loose ends connected with it. One of them is Madrigal Electromotive the German conglomerate that owned Gus' fast food franchise/drug ring. He may be gone, but his demise leaves a trail conspirators long enough to tie Walt and Jesse to his operation. The biggest player is high-strung Madrigal executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), who's nervous unpredictability in the face of the ongoing DEA investigation in Gus' murder presents a major major hurdle for Walt in re-opening shop. Even as the season closes, she's remains a character with a question mark constantly hanging over her purpose and intentions. That alone makes her a player, even as many of her worrisome tics and habits are darkly comical. The newest addition to the team is ambitious youngster Todd (Jesse Plemons), whose apparent willingness to learn leads to a more prominent role in Walt's newest "hiding in plain sight" cooking enterprise. But there's more to him than meets the eye and anyone familiar with Plemons' history as Landry on Friday Night Lights will get a kick out of the fact that Gilligan had the guts to write the one storyline for him you'd figure would be off limits.

The biggest loose end left over from Gus' reign was lying in a hospital bed in Mexico when Season 4 ended. Whatever arguments there are about the quality of this season, the one thing that everyone can agree on is that its MVP was Jonathan Banks, who as Gus' former hitman and fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, takes on an enormously increased role. Now, without a boss or a job, he's basically forced against his better judgment to join Walt's burgeoning organization for financial reasons. As the only real professional criminal of the series left, Mike sees Walt for what he is: A fraud. He knew Gus and Walt's no Gus. And he isn't afraid to tell him, accompanied by Banks' exasperated, world weary look of resignation.  Mike's the one element Heisenberg can't control because, like Jesse, he actually operates by his own moral code, at least by Breaking Bad standards. You could argue that's eventually the cause of his undoing. Usually cautious and a complete pro, the Mike who gave Walt the speech in Season 3 about no "Half -Measures" starts taking them and getting sloppy, ignoring his own advice. It's been a source of criticism this season, but the impression I got was that Mike just had enough. With Walt's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) closing in and his love for his granddaughter trumping any desire he has to keep doing this, it makes sense that he just didn't care anymore. He wanted out. Banks makes it make sense, and it's a given he'll be submitting the episode "Say My Name" to occupy the same supporting actor Emmy slot Giancarlo Esposito vacates after this year.

Skyler at the bottom of the White pool (Ep. 5.04,"Fifty-One")
Anna Gunn delivers what's easily her best work so far in the series by making Skyler sympathetic to even her harshest detractors. Held hostage in her own home by her husband, she's reaches her breaking point and proves she'll do anything to keep her kids safe from their father. After appearing to "break bad" herself last season by laundering Walt's money through the car wash, it's now dawning on her that the man she married isn't just a drug kingpin, but a murderer and emotionally abusive husband who uses fear and intimidation as a weapon. The hollow excuse that he's still doing all this "for family" is accompanied by him creepily groping her in bed, which is a clever callback to the closing minutes of the pilot episode. When she tells him her only hope for their family's escape is to wait..."For The Cancer To Come Back"'s the season's most stinging line, but also its most accurate. That's what started Walt on this destructive path, so it only makes sense to her that it should end it. And it just might. In a shocking moment during Walt's 51st birthday celebration Skyler proves there's no lengths she won't go to insure her kids are safe and in the process earns the character a respect she never previously had. As good a manipulator as her husband is, she starts to prove herself as one of his more formidable opponents. 

Both Skyler and Jesse have turned into pawns in Walt's manipulative game, but his relationship with the latter is arguably more tragic since it's built on a house of lies. All Jessie's wanted from the beginning is the approval of "Mr. White." It's the recognition he didn't get or deserve when he was in his high school chemistry class, but did deserve from his parents who failed to supply it. When he gives him a birthday gift it's a token of friendship stemming from genuine respect and admiration, but to Walt it's a trophy he uses to flaunt the dominance of Heisenberg in his wife's face. The two most important people in his life are both prisoners in the same cell so it's only fitting that this season sees Skyler and Jesse sharing the screen together for only the second time in the show's history and the first time in over four years.Think about the level of writing required to make that believably happen and then let it sink in. And sure enough the dinner scene is worth the wait as and so surreal it almost feels like we're watching a cross-over from another show. And now Skyler finally gets to see just how long her husband's been at this and lying to her. Her interaction with Jesse is far different this time around as they seem to have an unspoken bond in realizing the man they knew is gone, and replaced by a monster.

An awkward dinner at the White residence (Ep. 5.06, "Buyout")
As much as Mike wants out because he's tired and done, Jesse's just as done, but for entirely different reasons. He's matured into someone who actually has a future and doesn't need it anymore, essentially reversing roles with his mentor who's now living off it like a blood-sucking leech. What's sadly ironic is that Jesse might be Walt's only true success story, even if it's under the most unfortunate circumstances imaginable. His tutelage of him is enough to make you wonder if teaching really could have been his true calling, if only his pride and bitterness hadn't gotten in the way. The cancer diagnosis caused Walt to take risks he wouldn't have ever attempted otherwise and this season he frequently seems cool and comfortable in his own skin, finally commanding the respect he never previously received. But the price was steep. The questions remains whether Jesse will uncover all of Walt's betrayals and lies (Jane's death, Brock's poisoning), and what he'll do when he finds out. He adds even more depraved acts to the list this season, including a violent, ego-triggered decision sure to rip Jesse apart if he knew.

As the moral center of the show, the question isn't whether Jesse can forgive his mentor, but himself, as much of last season demonstrated. And as Walt proves, he isn't afraid of throwing Jessie's guilt in his face to get what he wants.  In a series where everyone reaps what they sow, Jesse's survival in the final stretch will likely depend on whether he can come to terms with everything he's done. More and more, it seems as if his murder of lab assistant Gale Boetticher at the end of Season 3 was the defining event for not just Jesse, but the series as a whole, as the finale's conclusion reminds us. Aaron Paul was on the bench more often than usual in what was clearly a Heisenberg-centric half-season with a large helping of Skyler and Mike. That should change soon but Paul was again superb in what he was given, emotionally mapping Jesse's transformation into the brains of the operation. Initially clueless in the series' early going he now frequently comes up with the best ideas in a heist-filled season of stunts that play as a cross between Mythbusters and MacGyver, complete with a tensely choreographed train robbery. Many of the season's cold opens are business-related as well, whether that be disposing of evidence or bodies or dealing with the ins and outs of re-launching the meth manufacturing enterprise. It's obvious by the finale that the days of dealing with business just might be over for good which could hopefully to more character focused flashbacks or flashforwards. Gilligan doesn't use these devices often so that when he does (like the mysterious pink teddy bear in Season 2 or the recent Denny's shocker), you know it's signaling something monumentally important. That said, I still say the ultimate cold open would be a flashback to Mr. White teaching Jesse in high school. It feels like we need to see that, and somewhere within the final 8 episodes (if not the series finale itself) would seem to be the perfect place for it.

Mike Ehrmantraut's final moments (Ep. 5.07,"Say My Name")
Director of photography Michael Slovis outdoes himself again this year, continuing to bring a visual richness to the show that's not only unmatched in the medium of television, but could topple most of what's on the big screen. Looper director Rian Johnson (previously responsible for Season 3's classic stand alone "Fly") returns to helm "Fifty-One," another gem that joins "Dead Freight" "Say My Name" and the mid-season finale, "Gliding Over All," as four of the most visually arresting hours of episodic drama you can see. In a show known for its expert use of musical montages, this season contains its best, including a use of a classic song in the finale that so perfectly fits the show you'd think Gilligan was sitting on it for the past four years waiting for just the right time to unveil it. He picked right. It's lonely at the top and now that Walt's there the interesting possibility is introduced that it wasn't what he thought it would be. How much money does he need? Will it ever be enough? Being the boss is a grind that comes with its own set of responsibilities and as the mid-season closes it's clear the show is gearing up for its inevitable showdown: Walt vs. Hank.

Of all the show's brilliant coups, it's most brilliant has been realistically keeping Walt's brother-in-law off his trail for this long. Hank's extremely intelligent, yet we believe he wouldn't suspect him for a second. Why would he? To him, Walt's still that nerdy, cancer-stricken science teacher from a year ago emasculated in his own marriage. He's also covered his tracks really well and is just too damn smart. So smart that the only reasonable way Hank could have suspected a thing was by accident. That's why the final heart-pounding seconds of this year's finale makes so much sense. Walt became too comfortable and with that we briefly see the return of the bumbling fool from Season 1 who made a pros and cons list debating whether to kill Krazy-8. Mike Ehrmantraut's murder is the most senseless yet because it's the sloppy work of a petulant baby throwing a tantrum, but it also gives us our first hint that his Heisenberg persona may dying also.Walt's had enough, but it's too late. In the show's sole moment of normalcy and peace since the pilot, he's found out.Like Paul, the great Dean Norris has been sidelined during much of Walt's empire building, but expect him to step up in a big way very soon. Second that for Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, who will likely become more important as Hank continues to put the rest of the pieces together quickly and close in on Walt. There's also Hank's entire DEA career to think about, especially considering it was Walt's drug money that paid all his medical bills. Heisenberg has been his Moby Dick so it'll be interesting to see how he acts on the devastating revelation that the personal and professional upheaval he's experienced over the past year have been intrinsically linked, with its catalyst right under his nose the entire time.

Hank's shocking discovery (Ep. 5.08,"Gliding Over All")
No dramatic series has remained this strong so late in the game, and given how sensational last season was, this stretch of episodes presented the biggest writing challenge yet. Everyone was waiting to see how Gilligan could possibly follow Gus' death and fill the void Esposito was leaving. The answer ended up being having Walt replace him, if only in his own mind.  Leading the charge is Cranston's titanic turn, which is pitiful and frightening at the same time. It's astonishing to think back on his work early in the series' run compared to now and consider the dramatic "Cransformation" he pulls off. You couldn't imagine other actor being able to doing it. And yet, because of him, as dark as this season is, it's also by far its funniest. There's a certain comic thrill that comes from watching this character so completely own for the first time and if you thought his "Danger" speech from last season was quotable, than this season features more T-shirt ready catchphrases ("Because I Said So," "Nothing Stops This Train," "Say My Name," "Goddamn right," ) than you'd even know what to do with.

It's unusual even trying assess these most recent episodes yet because it does feel like half a season that will better come in to view when it's all over. But it's clear there's absolutely no drop-off in the quality of writing, acting or directing, and that's coming from someone who had to make the shift from binge viewing on Netflix to watching on a weekly basis. Absolutely nothing was lost in that transition. 8 down. 8 more to go. Thankfully, fans don't decide how TV shows end. They just complain about it. I hesitate even using something like Lost, or any other drama, as a comparison point since Breaking Bad plays in its own league and has never suffered what anyone could call a creative lull. A graph charting its quality would be a straight line running across the page. One story told perfectly. There's more at stake in how this wraps than any other show in recent memory. Fair or not, the right to be called the television's greatest achievement doesn't rest on what occurred in the preceding 54 episodes or even the next eight. It'll rest on whatever happens last. And for once, it seems as if we've found a series capable of handling that pressure. 

Monday, September 3, 2012

Crazy, Stupid, Love

Directors: Glenn Ficarra and John Requa
Starring: Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone, Jonah Bobo, Analeigh Tipton, Marisa Tomei, Kevin Bacon, John Carroll Lynch, Beth Littleford, Liza Lapira, Josh Groban
Running Time: 118 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

If not for everything else it has going for it, last year's somewhat unfortunately titled Crazy, Stupid, Love would still be worth watching for further confirmation that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone completely rule. Individually they're super talented, but together they're somehow even more magnetic than expected. And they're really not even the stars of the film, but steal it anyway with the two or three extended sequences that put the rest of the movie to shame. That's no small order considering the rest of it is a smart, funny, well written look at romantic pitfalls from a few different perspectives. Other than occasionally being too interested in showing off connections between certain characters and storylines, it actually has something to say while still delivering the laughs. Steve Carell is again in top form playing a middle-aged sad sack, but it's Gosling who steals the show, adding an off kilter comic turn to his already impressive list of 2011 performances. The unlikely duo end up carrying an entertaining premise further than it really has any right going.

Carell plays Cal Weaver, a middle-aged married man who learns his wife Emily (Julianne Moore) cheated on him with her co-worker David Lindhagen (Kevin Bacon) and wants a divorce. Kicked out of the house and distraught, he drowns his sorrows at a bar every night, whining to complete strangers about his wife's betrayal. This catches the attention of smooth womanizer Jacob Palmer (Gosling), who can't stand watching this "former shell of a man" wallow in self-pity any longer and offers his services, promising Cal he'll transform his image and help him pick up women. Ironically, as Jacob steadily improves Cal's prospects, he's rejected by brainy law school grad Hannah (Emma Stone). Meanwhile at home, Cal's 13-year-old son Robbie ( Jonah Bobo) harbors a unrequited crush on his 17-year-old babysitter Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), who actually has a crush of her own on Cal. All this while he and Emily adjust to single life apart, wondering if there's still any chance of a reconciliation.

The scenes with Carell and Gosling make the movie, with the the former playing a hilarious, deadpan variation on his character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. That is if he eventually got married, had kids and his wife left him for another man. Cal's always been a geek, but was never aware of just how much of one until he's single and Gosling's Jacob pulls no punches in letting him know it. Scenes where he shows him all his pick-up tricks and attempts to outfit him in a new wardrobe, are among the many highlights in their mentor-student bromance. And is there anyone cooler than Gosling? This is one of the few movies where I actually believed a guy could effortlessly pick up that many women in so little time. He then proceed to believably teach a class on it. What's funnier is that he plays Jacob as womanizing slime and still somehow makes him not only seem charming and likable, but worth rooting for. We'd also believe his schemes would come to a screeching halt when he discovers Emma Stone's goofy, but strangely desirable Hannah, resulting in the movie's best written and performed sequence. Stone, one of the select few actresses actually capable of making me laugh out loud with a facial expression or joke, proves again here that her comic timing is spot-on.     

Jacob's mentoring relationship with Cal clicks largely because each wants what the other has even though they don't know it yet, causing most of the story's complications. Less effective are attempts to create any sympathy for Moore's philandering wife. Yes, women cheat for a reason. We know that. However, Cal never seems to be guilty of anything beyond being excessively dorky during their marriage so when his starts bedding women during their separation, sympathy for her is minimal, if non-existent. This creates a poor payoff to a sub-plot involving Cal and a horny teacher played by Marisa Tomei that mostly misses its mark. I get what the writers were going for, but Moore's character is just too unlikable and one-dimensionally written to earn our sympathy. Surprisingly, the sub-plot involving Robbie's crush on his babysitter is better developed, coming off more sweet than creepy thanks to the winning performances of Bobo and Tipton. Kevin Bacon is suitably slimy as the "other guy" who breaks up Cal and Emily's marriage, and once you move past the inevitable "Is that who I think it is?" reaction, singer Josh Groban makes a solid debut with an extended cameo as Hannah's boyfriend, who couldn't care less about her.

This movie is as predictable as just about any other rom-com, with an ending that puts the "crazy" in its title and brings all the intersecting story threads together in one huge comic finale. What sets it apart is the acting and writing that's more interested in exploring truths about relationships than relying on plot contrivances to advance the story. There are some of them, but for the most part you're too engaged with the characters to even care. But who are we kidding? The real reason this entire movie works is because of Carell, Gosling and Stone. Without them, it's unlikely anyone would even be talking about Crazy, Stupid, Love much less showering it with praise. It's one of the rare, smart romantic comedies and a great example of how funny material can elevate and be elevated by talented actors.