Thursday, October 31, 2013

This is the End

Directors: Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg
Starring: Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Emma Watson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling, David Krumholtz, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, Martin Starr
Running Time: 106 min.

★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Sometimes it can be freeing for viewers to be given a break from the rigid constraints of what we've come to expect from comedies. To be filled with the feeling that literally anything can happen at anytime and what we're watching isn't dependent on a specific formula that's been tried before. This is the End provides that tantalizing proposition, as a group of talented, likable actors are given the opportunity to just cut loose and poke fun at their own celebrity by playing versions of "themselves." It's a golden idea from the minds of Superbad co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, even if it looked more enticing on the page than it ends up being on screen. I kept wondering if maybe these guys setting just a few ground rules would have done the film some good, as it starts out promising until devolving into kind of a mess about midway through.

The admittedly inspired central conceit starts running on fumes after a while, with all the actors in on a joke that wears out it's welcome. And it's a shame because what starts so promisingly eventually amounts to a bunch of actors hanging out on set smoking weed and cursing at each other for almost two hours. What nearly rescues this are all these performers since it can't be overstated how big a fan of theirs I am, only making this disappointment sting just a bit more.

When actor Jay Baruchel arrives in L.A. to meet up with his old friend Seth Rogen, he sees it as an opportunity to get high, eat junk food and play video games. But Rogen has other plans, dragging his unwilling and visibly uncomfortable pal to James Franco's debaucherous housewarming party, which includes celebrity attendees such as Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Emma Watson, Mindy Kaling, Jason Segel, Aziz Ansari, Kevin Hart, David Krumholtz and Martin Starr. But when Baruchel goes out for cigarettes with Rogen, the two discover mass chaos on the streets, with explosions, fire, and a strange blue light shooting pedestrians up into the sky. It isn't long after they return that a massive crack opens in the earth, swallowing most of Franco's famous partygoers while leaving Baruchel, Rogen, Franco, Hill and Robinson hauled up in his house hoarding supplies and waiting for help. Franco also has an uninvited houseguest in Danny McBride, whose belligerent behavior and glutenous consumption of food and drink is making survival extremely difficult. As tempers flare and tensions escalate at the Franco compound, Jay's bold prediction that the biblical Apocalypse is upon them is looking more more believable by the second.

To call a movie like this "self-indulgent" is not only beside the point, but possibly a high compliment. We wouldn't expect anything else from these guys and would worry if they didn't take every opportunity to lampoon their own images with tongues planted firmly in cheek. That's by far the film's strongest aspect and it's made very clear within the opening minutes with Michael Cera's extended cameo a self-absorbed, drug-addicted celebrity man whore who heinous acts include blinding Christopher Mintz-Plasse with cocaine and sexually harassing Rihanna, The movie never quite repeats it's magic once he departs (in the most spectacularly hilarious way possible). All the dirty, filthy comedy with Cera works because it's truly shocking to see him specifically act like a spoiled Hollywood brat and he just throws himself into it with reckless abandon. And of course there's his unbelievably colorful windbreaker, which should really have its own movie.

When they try to repeat much of Cera's over-the-top hijinx with everyone else it doesn't work as well. We completely expect Rogen, Franco, Hill, McBride, and Robinson to do the craziest things possible, but what's most surprising is just how much of a slog the middle portion of the picture is, with the six of men under lockdown in Franco's house hurling insults at each other and doing drugs for almost an hour straight.  While an "end of the world" scenario with these actors should be exciting, the premise actually turns out to be creatively limiting, almost as if Rogen and Goldberg didn't know what to do once the party stopped and they had to switch gears into Apocalyptic action-comedy. There's this nagging feeling that a real-time movie that revolved entirely around this party would probably be superior to much of what follows. 

That's not say this still doesn't have its moments, most of them coming in smaller doses when the actors spoof their own reputations. Franco is the pretentious "artiste," with his living room doubling as a gallery adorned with Freaks and Geeks paintings and a basement containing a Spider-Man 3 cardboard standee and an Harvey Milk sign. And that's not even mentioning what happens with his prized pistol from Flyboys. Really clever. Jonah Hill is re-imagined as disinengenous and strangely effeminate, competing with Baruchel for Rogen's attention. Craig Robinson's "Mr. Robinson" hand towel never leaves his shoulder while Danny McBride is, well, Danny McBride. Or more accurately, he's Kenny Powers. He also appears in an epic breakfast montage sure to make Walt Jr. and Ron Swanson jealous, as well as a homemade Pineapple Express sequel trailer with Rogen and Franco you almost wish were real. While it's hard to categorize these as "performances," they really are in every sense. Even that's a joke in itself when in one of the film's first scenes Rogen is harassed at the airport by a papparazzo asking why he always plays the same role over and over. That these guys all definitely seem in on it and clearly don't take themselves seriously in the slightest is at the crux of all the best scenes.

They have the right lead in Baruchel, who's great as a socially awkward hipster struggling to hang on to his friendship with Rogen despite his disdain for L.A. and everyone in it. It was smart making him the only semi-normal character in the movie, giving the audience an eyes and ears, not to mention someone really likable to root for. That everyone now gets to see just how good the former Undeclared star is may end up being this movie's biggest contribution. There's definitely a lack of female presence, with the exception of Emma Watson's extended cameo that puts her at the center of a joke that really isn't funny. While I can't say it directly contradicts with the rest of the film's tone, something about it does seem especially mean and tone-deaf. While it's arguable this joke could have even worked under any circumstances, they're undeniably way off with the execution, revolving the film's cruelest joke around an actress that whose presence instantly makes the situation seem horrifyingly uncomfortable rather than comical.

Very little needs to be said about the apocalyptic aspect of the story because if it were excised entirely I'm not sure you'd be left with something that's all that different. The special effects strike the right balance in that they're cheap enough looking to be funny, yet impressive enough looking to pass off as disaster movie worthy. But the actual apocalypse is the weak link in this, taking a backseat to all the meta references and existing primarily as the creative catalyst to strengthen Rogen and Baruchel's bromance. So by those standards it does undeniably succeed, especially at the finish line.

If I could pick a project from these actors that this most reminds me of in terms of tone it would probably be the Franco-McBride starring lowbrow comedy Your Highness, only with the Apocalypse standing in for a medievel adventure. It's ironic they justifiably trash that during this, and while actually comparing the two may be stretching it, there are definite similarities in terms of the style of humor. This is the End is much smarter and funnier, but gets most of its leverage from extremely likable actors just having a blast together, even as the audience is sometimes left out in the cold.                   

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Pain and Gain

Director: Michael Bay
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shaloub, Ed Harris, Rob Corddrey, Rebel Wilson, Ken Jeong, Bar Paly, Michael Rispoli
Running Time: 129 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

The commercials, trailers and ads for Pain and Gain would lead you to believe it's a certain type of movie aimed at a very specific audience. So naturally, it's easy to be unsure as to whether you'll be on board when Michael Bay's name appears over the opening credits as director. But you know what? It's actually pretty good. While declaring it his most interesting film runs the risk of damning with faint praise, no one has ever disputed the guy has talent and knows what he's doing. The problem has always been harnessing it. This is the closest a project has come to doing that thus far and it's easy to see why. It's over-the-top, outrageously dumb and in-your-face, while still carrying some of what you'd expect from a Bay movie. Except this one has characters worth watching in a story that's just crazy enough to be true because it actually is. It's certainly no masterpiece and, at almost two and half hours, probably could have been trimmed, but it does earn its running time if just the sheer scope and audacity of it all. Consider this his testosterone-fueled epic, albeit on a smaller budgeted, more intimate scale than we're used to getting from him. Featuring two performers who couldn't have possibly been a better fit for their roles, it's both darkly comical and pathetically tragic in all the right ways, resulting in a surprisingly fun time.

Based on 1999 series of true crime articles published in the Miami New Times, the film tells the story of dim-witted musclehead Danny Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) who upon being hired by Sun Gym, nearly triples their membership almost overnight. But despite already rolling in the cash, he wants more. Inspired by motivational speaker Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong) to become a "doer" and take what he wants in life, Danny yearns to live the American dream and amass the vast wealth achieved by Victor Kershaw (Tony Shaloub), an arrogant, sleazy client he's been training. With the help of friend and workout partner Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and cocaine-addicted convict Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Danny sets in motion a  clumsy plan to kidnap and extort Kershaw for all he's worth. Needless to say, this doesn't exactly work out, or rather it does, just not at all in the way you'd expect. They've left a giant mess, and with a retired private eye (Ed Harris) hot on their trail, these bumbling criminals have somewhat unintentionally added torture and murder to their rap sheets.

Despite having little idea how much of the "real-life" story was retained in the screenplay and what was embellished to make a more exciting impression on screen, it's tough to criticize the direction Bay took with the material. It's too ridiculous and unbelievable to be played straight as a crime drama, yet contains enough darker elements that it wouldn't be fair to classify it entirely as an action-comedy either. More often than not it fits into the latter category, but what's most surprising is how well, and for how long, Bay straddles that line without slipping up. It's the kind of story that's the perfect fit for a big screen treatment because it contains characters who are blissfully unaware of just how delusional they are. To say that Danny has a warped perception of the "American Dream" would be an understatement, but Wahlberg makes his cluelessness likable to the point that even when he's doing the most heinous things, we're still kind of rooting for him and his pals to get away with it. Part of it could be that their target is such a jerk, but it does almost seem almost unfair that a character so stupid could even be held responsible for his own actions. At points it seems as if he doesn't even know what actions are, or at least that they carry consequences.

Unsurprisingly, the real standout is Johnson, who's given a break from headlining pure action franchises to prove again just how strong he can be when asked to turn in meaningful supporting work with a comic bent. Of course, it just so happens to be a performance that's arguably still in a pure action movie of a different sort, but it's easily his most interesting role since, yes, Southland Tales. As a born-again bible thumper seeking to avoid confrontation at any cost, Paul is the worst choice of partner imaginable to successfully help execute a kidnapping and extortion plot, providing the film with its funniest moments. The most hilarious of which comes when all three together can't successfully commit a necessary murder no matter how hard they try, resulting in the fallout that follows them for the rest of the picture. Of the three leads, Mackie has the least to do and his sub-plot involving his impotence from steroid use and a relationship with a sex-crazed nurse (Rebel Wilson) is probably (along with a third-act development better suited to a Saw film) the weakest story thread, but even that plays better than it has a right to. Shaloub is perfectly detestable as the villain while Ed Harris seems to be playing a spoof of serious Ed Harris roles as the retired investigator. He clearly knows what movie he's in and has fun with it.

While the story takes place in 1995 and strangely feels every bit like it really does, it's easy to envision it happening today. Not so much in terms of the events that go down, but the behaviors and attitudes of the three main characters, which could easily be summised by any reality show on TV right now. Watching this it's impossible no to wonder if Bay understands this or he just thought that what these guys did was really cool. Going against popular opinion, I'd wager on the former (okay, maybe a little of the latter) because it's all just too cleverly made to assume anything else. Technically, it's his best effort just in terms of the visuals and music working together to tell an actual story.

Besides the movie just flat-out looking great and featuring some really memorable shots, Steve Jablonsky's moody, electronic tinged score is one of the year's best, not garnering nearly enough attention for how well it fits the material and setting. And how can you knock any movie with a montage proudly set to Bon Jovi's "Blaze of Glory?" What Pain and Gain is, and ultimately what gives it away as a Michael Bay movie, is that it's a guy's movie through and through. Explosions, violence, women, money, working out, drugs. What sets it apart is that he actually seems to be aware of it this time and has some fun with an actual story he can turn and twist to fit his every whim. When we find out what happened to the characters' real-life counterparts at the end, there isn't much doubt what we watched, true or not, was the best possible representation of how exciting it could have been.   

Monday, October 14, 2013


Director: Alfonso Cuarón
Starring: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
Running Time: 91 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

It's best to get all the misconceptions you've been hearing about Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity out of the way before it can be appreciated for what it actually is. And a "game-changer" it isn't. There have already been many 3D movies and now it's likely there will be even more. Some might be better. Most will probably be worse. And it definitely doesn't have anything in common with 2001: A Space Odyssey, a comparison that certainly doesn't do the film any favors. No mysteries or questions about human existence here. And there's definitely dialogue (arguably too much) within the first twenty minutes and well beyond. It only fits into the science fiction genre in so far as the lengths it stretches plausibility. Yet Apollo 13 doesn't seem like an entirely apt comparison either. It's a straight-ahead human survival story. Think of it as Cast Away in space.

What Gravity does is accurately convey, like very few films before it, is the look and feel of what it's like to be stranded in outer space. If you ever are, you better hope you're not as ill-equipped as NASA medical engineer Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock), who's accompanied on her first shuttle mission by seasoned astronaut Matt Kowalksi (George Clooney), commanding his final mission. And it's a relief she is because it's kind of perplexing, given her lack of knowledge, how anyone thought she'd be able to do this. That's at least a stretch I'm willing to concede because everything else Gravity does well, it does REALLY well. It's 3D how it should be done. Visual effects how they should be done. There's never any doubt what we're watching is completely authentic, even if what we're feeling occasionally doesn't match up. From a story standpoint, I just wish Cuarón would have left more up to the imagination instead of spelling it all out. But everything else is perfect, adding to the frustration of how close it is to being the masterpiece everyone's hailing it as.   

The film opens with a 13-minute unbroken shot as plans to service the Hubble Space telescope are aborted when Russian satellite debris hurl toward the shuttle Explorer, killing all crew members except for Stone and Kowalski, who have lost all communications with Mission Control (voiced briefly by Ed Harris in a clever Apollo 13 nod). Eventually, another dangerous situation arises and they're separated, forcing Stone to fend for herself without Kowalski's guidance. It's to the film's credit that all of this happens very quickly, barely giving us (or literally in Stone's case), an opportunity to breathe. To rest of the movie belongs to Bullock, whose protagonist is not only losing oxygen fast, but must decide whether to wait out a rescue that might never come.

Stone's an emotional mess, which is kind of a departure from what we've come to expect from female leads put into action predicaments. This isn't Ripley from Alien. Not by a longshot. The movie breaks the mold by painting her as a sensitive, scared human being, with the screenplay going to great lengths to hammer that home with a rather weepie backstory that seems distractingly at odds with the cold, sterile nature of the journey we're on. It would have been far more affecting had we known absolutely nothing about her, letting Bullock fill in all the blanks with the performance. That they return to this personal detail multiple times, occasionally during some of the most suspenseful sequences, is a head-scratcher. That this creative blunder hasn't gotten much attention can be chalked up to how much is done right in depicting her fight for survival. This really kicks in when Stone boards the space station and must formulate a plan.

The space station scenes are not only extraordinary for their technical detail (the likes of which really haven't been seen since 2001) and sound, but the nailbiting resulting from Stone battling the elements and the clock. The phrase "It has to be seen in 3D" seems especially applicable, and anyone unconvinced need only watch the embarrassingly awful trailers that come before this film, in which the sloppily executed technology literally adds nothing to the experience other than some murkiness and a potential migraine. Short of putting audiences in a zero gravity simulator, Cuarón seamlessly replicates the feeling of floating in space alongside Dr. Stone. A particular highlight is first person POV shots where can actually see the display screens and reflections through her helmet.

If Bullock's somewhat unfairly maligned Oscar-winning role in The Blind Side fit comfortably into her wheelhouse and played to all her perceived strengths as a performer, this represents as far a departure from that as possible. Maybe the first time we've been asked to take her dead seriously in a super-challenging dramatic role, minus the fluffy baggage that usually accompanies her name as a headliner. The role is also surprisingly physical, dispelling myths that effects-heavy films don't require as much from the actor, as her character unmistakably takes an emotional and physical beating for nearly the entire picture. In one memorable scene, it's plainly obvious the commitment Bullock made to getting into the best physical shape possible for what ends up being a surprisingly grueling part. That's not to sell short the contribution of Clooney, which is greater than it's gotten credit for. As the clear-headed voice of reason and diplomacy early on, he's a perfect counter to her, valuably explaining away leaps of logic in the script we wouldn't believe coming from another, less credible actor. He's also very funny, providing the few moments of levity in a perilous situation.   

If there's any flaw in the depiction of Ryan Stone, it should be attributed to Cuarón, who unwisely leans too heavily on the character emoting (whining?) about how scared she is and that no one will miss her if she's gone. While it may all be true, it should have been implied rather than flat-out stated, and he should have trusted Bullock to convey that personal history without words, just as she does everything else. I was secretly kind of hoping for the approach that was taken with Jessica Chastain's Maya in Zero Dark Thirty, in which the heroine's portrayed as an emotionless machine who doesn't crack until that final cathartic scene. Because the movie waited so long and earned that moment, it's silently devastating. There's none of that here, as it's all emoting all the time with Stone. She's definitely not a strong, competent character which isn't a flaw as much as a creative choice that will play better for some than others. Still, it's inescapable to not point out that the movie is telling us how to feel through this character when a more restrained approach was probably called for. There's no room for sentimentality in a story like this.   

Even as suspenseful and well-paced as Gravity is, there was never any doubt how it would finish. And I'm not sure it's the right ending, given how the rest of the picture prides itself on pinpoint accuracy and technical mastery. By the third act, events definitely take a detour into "Movieland," which should give you an idea how things wrap up. Certain films just scream out for, if not necessarily nihilistic endings, ones that are at least open for interpretation or discussion. This clearly should have been one of those, but Cuarón takes the easy way out, preventing the film from being all it could. Given the commitment to stark realism in every other department of this production, it's tough to justify his decision.

If nothing else, this represents a big step forward for 3D, even if remains to be seen what will be left of the story on the small screen without the benefit of the quick high this presentation provides. If it "needs" to be seen in 3D it'll also be interesting to watch how many movies will try to piggy back on its success and attempt to cash in, much like we witnessed in Avatar's wake. A major technical accomplishment any way you look at it, Gravity raises the question as to how much a film should be judged by its quality versus the actual experience of watching it. It's not all it could be, but it's undeniably a smart entry into the genre that deserves to be seen and admired for the many things it gets right.                             

Friday, October 4, 2013

Breaking Bad: Season 5 (Part II)

Creator: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jesse Plemons, Laura Fraser
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

 **Spoiler Warning: This Review Contains Major Spoilers For Season 5 and the Series Finale ** 

 "I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was really … I was alive.”- Walter H. White

After an excruciating year-long wait, the second half of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad, appropriately titled, "Blood Money," opens unforgettably. The condemned, dilapidated White residence is fenced off and vandalized, its swimming pool now converted into a makeshift teen skate park. Inside, tagged on the wall is a single word: HEISENBERG. But the bearded, disheveled man staring at it isn't Heisenberg. Or Walter White. His name is "Mr. Lambert" and in about six months this is where he'll be, with larger questions still looming about how he'll eventually get there with a trunk full of high powered assault weapons and vengeance on his mind. His former neighbor looks as if she's just seen a ghost. In a way, she has. And he's there to retrieve the ricin. 

A dilapidated White residence in Ep. 5.9 ("Blood Money')
It's an effectively shocking opener because it foretells the season where everything comes full circle. Seeing the White house--which served as a setting for many of the show's most memorable moments-- in that state is jarring enough to know that something huge will go down over the course of these final eight. Speculating exactly how is maddening enough, but the bigger questions heading into the last lap revolve around whether Walter White was really "transformed" into Heisenberg, or he was there all along, laying dormant until the right (or wrong) circumstances brought him to the surface. And, is there still any piece of that man from the pilot episode left?

What creator Vince Gilligan and the incomparable Bryan Cranston have done in managing to have us still root for some form of redemption for the character can, like most things in the series, be traced  to that powerful pilot. It's hard not to muster up sympathy for a man who went from being a genius on the verge of becoming a rich and famous Nobel Prize winner to a high school chemistry teacher working at a car wash on weekends to support his special needs son and being henpecked by an overbearing wife. And then the cancer. Who couldn't relate to not reaching their full potential and being unsatisfied with their life? It hits home on the most basic human level. Walt always viewed himself as a victim, not of his own choices, but circumstances he believed were beyond his control. The cancer diagnosis gave him the control and excuse he so desperately craved, even as he spent the next six years (or year and a half in show time) making choices that scene-by-scene, episode-by-episode, pissed away whatever initial sympathy we had for him.

Yet it's hard to shake that image of a defeated Walt collapsing at the car wash. You can either argue he was using his own perceived failure as an excuse to indulge childish alpha-male fantasies or view his evolution from mild-mannered family man to drug kingpin ("Mr. Chips to Scarface" as Gilligan famously refers to it) as some twistedly dark triumph for a man who felt he never knew true success. It's an arc that reflects back at us our worst tendencies and temptations, and no matter how much evil he commits or lies he tells for the sake of "providing" for his family, Gilligan pulls off the ultimate trick in having us still pull for some kind of victory or happy ending for Walt. And it's all because we remember the pilot, and if we can still root for or relate to him just a little bit, what does that say about us?

Flashing back to Walt and Jesse cooking in the desert
It's only fitting that the last half of season five is all about mirror images and call backs. Walt owning and operating the car wash where he was so humiliated, hiding in plain sight just like Gus Fring at Los Pollos Hermanos. The brutally honest videotaped confession given by a pantless, terrified Walt in the pilot comes back around to a sickeningly false one delivered this time by Heisenberg. And just as the show began with Walt and Jesse cooking in the RV in the hot Albuquerque desert, the series' climactic turning point occurs in that very same location. The REAL cancer is Walt's monstruous pride and sickening ego, now spreading so rapidly that it's infecting and destroying everyone around him that he cared about, and maybe, still does in his own typically twisted way. And that's the cancer that eventually causes his downfall.

We all had our predictions for what would go down in the final episodes while also knowing certain things were inevitable. How they would unfold was more of a question mark. Well, it turns out we knew nothing since Gilligan is a master at taking any expectations and adjusting them to fit the story he's trying to tell. Like an experienced chess player, he's always seems about five or six steps ahead, and he makes his first big move surprisingly early. After Hank's discovery on the toilet in the final moment of "Gliding Over All," we were bracing for a cat-and-mouse game between Walt and his DEA agent brother-in-law that would likely see Hank silently gathering evidence until finally confronting him at the series' end. But Gilligan knew the smartest decision for a character to make isn't necessarily the smartest for the series, wisely deciding to immediately throw down the gauntlet. With only eight episodes left, he knew we were on borrowed time, for both the show and its protagonist turned antagonist.   

How Hank handles the discovery is almost surreal to watch since it's something fans have been playing out in their minds since the pilot. But it's also a reminder of how much we know about the character. Seeing him completely lose it, unable to think rationally when confronted with the news, is tragic not just because of how brilliant he's been at his job, but also because it makes sense. Hank's a man's man who doesn't know how to hold back and I always thought one of the show's greatest accomplishments was having this criminal mastermind right under Hank's nose the whole time and him never once looking like an idiot for not realizing it. In fact, it's been just the opposite. Both men are so smart, but Walt's always been just a bit smarter and this season reflects that. To a point.

Hank and Walt face off in Ep. 5.9 ("Blood Money")
Going all the way back to the pilot, it was easy to categorize Hank as somewhat of a macho stereotype who made racist jokes and emasculated the nerdy Walt at every turn, sometimes even in front of his own son. Subsequent seasons and events (namely the Season 3 parking lot shootout)  proved those initial  perceptions dead wrong. As Hank stands face-to-face with his brother-in-law in his own garage (incredibly lit by the great Michael Slovis) with the knowledge he's Heisenberg, they've essentially switched roles and Walt's baited him, wielding his returning cancer as a sympathy weapon while simultaneously slipping into Heisenberg mode by warning him to "tread lightly."

Our wish for Hank to come riding in as the white knight was never meant to be. He's great at his job, but this isn't his job anymore. It's something else much more personal, so he's starts making stupid decisions that put everyone in Walt's crosshairs, including himself. Since Walt's been such a genius at covering his tracks and (not to mention extremely and believably lucky), there's no physical evidence linking him to anything. Hank has no case. And he definitely can't go to his superiors.

All this is why Walt's fake confession tape framing and implicating his brother-in-law is so frighteningly believable, representing a new low for the character. Every detail was true, just distorted and twisted to fit Walt's story, which even includes the trail of medical money linking Hank to the crimes. It's also one of the many amazing acting showcases for Cranston, who in the scene must give a performance as a man giving a performance. Until recently, Walt wasn't a very good actor, now he's become so skilled in his manipulation that it's getting tougher to pick the more skilled thespian between he and Cranston.

Jesse finally snaps in Ep. 5.11 ("Confessions")
When Jesse, cornered and crumbling as he plans to light the White house ablaze screams, "HE CAN'T KEEP GETTING AWAY WITH IT!" it may be be the truest spoken, or rather screamed, this season, echoing the sentiments of many viewers. Walt keeps getting away with it over and over again, and believably so. And what's more impressive, given the rapid, breakneck pace of the final 8, is just how long it takes for the walls to close in on him.  He wasn't lying when he told said he was out of the "empire business" and suspicions were correct that the cancer is back, but this last half of the season sees his two abusive relationships with Skyler and Jesse each reach their breaking point. In not all too different ways, both are emotionally battered spouses. Since Todd's (Jesse Plemons) shocking murder of young Drew Sharp in last year's "Dead Freight" and his knowledge that Walt killed his other, more benevolent father figure, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), in "Say My Name," Jesse's checked out emotionally, finally having enough of Walt's games.

Much like Mike and Hank before him, Jesse's become that needs eliminating and it's impossible to bring that up without discussing the desert scene in Ep. 5.12 ("Rabid Dog") where he simultaneously chews Walt out for his manipulation tactics, before yet again surrendering, breaking down in the arms of the master manipulator himself. What snaps him out of his catatonic state is the season's most controversial reveal, in which Jesse, preparing to disappear from Albuequerque for good, finally puts together that Walt poisoned Brock.

Gilligan respects and trusts the audience enough to just just show it without explaining how. And with that Aaron Paul should win his next Emmy, taking Jesse on an emotional roller coaster from which there's no return until the final credits roll on the series. The look in his eyes says it all, while it also provides the biggest dramatic platform yet for Bob Odenkirk as "criminal" attorney Saul Goodman, who we knew would start playing a larger role once Walt was found out. That even he seems in over his head is a red flag as to how dangerous the situation has become. Everyone's at risk. Anyone can die. Luckily for Saul, he's ranked pretty low on the expectant death list for obvious reasons, while others are hardly as fortunate. Even his bumbling bodyguards, Huell (Lavell Crawford) and Kuby (Bill Burr) get in on action, before things get too heavy even for them.

While the idea of Jesse teaming with Hank has always been an enticing one, it becomes yet another brilliant instance of Gilligan subverting expectations. It's also an example of how poorly Hank has bungled this entire investigation, showing us that he isn't Superman out to save Skyler and Jesse from the evil clutches of Heisenberg, but a flawed, emotionally obsessed Ahab out to capture his Moby Dick. By wasting no time shoving tape recorders in their faces to get confessions, it's no wonder Skyler won't cooperate and Jesse barely does. She's firmly on Walt's side, giving all the Skyler haters even more ammunition. The cancer clock's ticking and she knows if they lose the money, all of this would have been for nothing. She presents a strong case. Certainly stronger than Hank, who doesn't, and never really did, have enough evidence to nail Walt.

An uncomfortable family dinner in Ep. 5.11 ("Confessions")
The battle lines have been drawn. It's Walt/Skyler vs. Hank/Marie over a dish of tableside guacamole, recalling Jesse's extremely uncomfortable dinner with the Whites earlier in the season. In many ways, the flighty, purple-clad Marie puts on a stronger front than her husband, as the recovering kleptomaniac emerges as a surprisingly rational pillar of strength throughout the season with Betsy Brandt given more to do with the character than ever before. She also gets her first scene in the series with Aaron Paul, treating us to the eye-popping sight of Jesse Pinkman and Marie actually interacting as he stays at the Schrader home.    

Hank and Skyler don't know Jesse like we do, which is important to remember when Hank wires him up like he's sending a lamb into slaughter and then casually laughs about it. Or when Skyler orders Walt to kill him since he's the last loose end. Poor Jesse. Has anyone on this show suffered a more disproportionate punishment for their sins? What's sadder is the only person aside from Andrea and Brock who cares for Jesse at all is Walt, albeit in his own sick, twisted way. Along with Skyler, he's his blind spot and couldn't in his wildest dreams envision a situation where his former student would rat him out and still thinks he can manipulate him back to his side. He takes as much offense at Saul's suggestion that he send Jesse on a "trip to Belize" as he did when it was brought up as an option for Hank. Even Walt has his limits, until Jesse finally proves to be too much of a wild card to his survival and has to go. But it's amazing how much pushing it took for him to get there.  

Walt's delusional belief that he could just walk away from the drug trade with all that cash and no long-term consequences is pure hubris. Pure Walt. He again proves himself unworthy of inheriting Gus' throne by getting into bed with Todd's neo-nazi family, led by the intimidating, uncontrollable Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen), who came through for Walt with the 10-man prison hit in "Gliding Over All." While the business (taken over by Declan's crew in the finale) goes on without Heisenberg, it's certainly taken a nosedive in profit and quality that's alarmed high-strung Madrigal executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser). More cunning and ruthless than her nervous nelly demeanor leads on, she thinks she's found the perfect solution with the Nazis and semi-experienced cook, Todd, who briefly trained under "Mr. White". Instead, she found a bunch of psychos who care even less about quality than Declan's crew and a motivated sociopath with a creepy crush. At least the latter she can use to her advantage.

That Todd Alquist might be the scariest character on the show is no small feat and a testament to Jesse Plemons' ability to alternate from soft-spoken gentleman to emotionless killing machine at the drop of a hat. And yet his respect for Mr. White and even Jesse is always evident. This is a job to him and he's capable of a level of emotional attachment those two weren't at any point during the series. Who would have thought the actor previously best known for being a part of that silly murder arc Friday Night Lights, would find his true calling playing a sociopathic killer? Or that Todd would be a closet Steve Perry fan? That and Walt Jr. meeting his apparent hero and local celebrity, Saul, deliver the two biggest laughs in a season that for good reason contains very few.

Walt surrenders in Ep. 5.13 ("To'hajiilee")
All of this comes to a head in an episode we've literally been waiting six years to see, delivering on every promise since the pilot and making for the most explosive hour of television anyone's ever likely to see. With the gargantuan "Ozymandias,"Looper's Rian Johnson (who previously helmed two of the show's very best in "Fly" and "Fifty-One") completely outdoes himself picking up where the Michelle MacLaren-directed "To'hajillee" cliffhanger leaves off, with Walt is seemingly apprehended in the desert, before a pulse-pounding shootout unfolds. If the in crawl space scene in Season 4 stands as the one of the series' most indelible images, right up there with it has to be a helpless, panicked Walt hiding behind a rock, with tears streaming down his face as Hank, Gomie and Jessie have him cornered.

We find out how BrBa would end if it were any other crime show, with Walt surrendering, being read his rights and given maybe the first look of genuine happiness and relief on Jessie's face since the series began. But this isn't just any other show and to answer the question of how much of Walt remains in Heisenberg, it's worth noting that he does everything in his power to save Hank, who in his final moments realizes that even with 80 million dollars, Walt has about as much bargaining power as he does. He also now knows Walt is no criminal mastermind, with his brief stint of controlled competence in the first half of the season giving way to rash, emotional mistakes. The lies keep getting bigger and less believable. A.S.A.C. Schrader was never one to negotiate anything and with that his fate is sealed, he goes out just as he came in. Like a man. It's the only moment of glory for someone whose pride also did him in this season, as evidenced by his decision to stick around and make what ends up being a heartbreaking final phone call to Marie boasting about his accomplishment.

That Hank dying is about the fourth or fifth most noteworthy event in "Ozymandias" should give you an idea with what we're dealing with. Walt's lying well has run dry the twisted reasoning that he's done all this for his family is as twisted as it's ever been. He gives up Jesse to the nazis because, Walt being Walt, is always looking for someone else to blame. So even at this late stage he's still capable of going full Heisenberg, devastating Jesse and us with the confession we've waited years to hear while endlessly speculating how it would come out. We came close to hearing him come clean in "Fly" and now he actually does, albeit under far different circumstances and with far worse motives.

Hank's final moments in Ep. 5.14 ("Ozymandias")
"I Watched Jane Die" is less a confession than a weapon to finally suck Jesse of whatever hope he has left, but there's a reason Gilligan saved this reveal for so late in the game. For many that event represented the turning point. The moment Walter White officially broke bad. Their tenuous friendship is officially done and broken beyond all repair. Everyone hoping Jesse Pinkman makes it through this alive have never been pulling as hard for that as in the final three episodes, where chained up and cooking for the Todd and the nazis, he's barely holding on by a thread.

If there's yet another moment we've been absolutely dreading, it's Walt Jr. eventually finding out the truth about his father. And when it comes, it's about ten times more devastating than we could have even imagined. You may as well call it "Nightmare on Negra Arroyo Lane," as someone has to "protect this family from the man who protects this family." That someone turns out to be Walt Jr. and it's great to see RJ Mitte given a hugely emotional scene that requires him to do much more than eat and obsess over breakfast. Interestingly enough, Gilligan chooses not to show the scene where he's actually told about his dad just as he chose not to reveal Jesse's confession video in its entirety or show Hank telling Gomie about his Heisenberg revelation. And why should he? We know what Walt did and any further explanation of it would be repetition at a crucial time where every last minute of the series' running time is precious. The pacing is masterful.

 Walt Jr. Fynn protecting his mother while calling the cops on his own knife-wielding father is difficult to watch, yet amazingly satisfying at the same time, with RJ Mitte nailing his biggest acting challenge of the series as he goes through the different stages of grief right before our eyes. He's right that Skyler knowing makes her just as bad, but it's the fact that he had something to do with Hank's death that shifts his allegiances and even snaps her out from under his control. In many ways, Hank was the father to Flynn that Walt never was because he was too busy parenting Jesse. It's fitting that the episode starts with flashback to Walt and Jesse's days cooking in the RV and the very first lie he told Skyler during simpler times. It seems like an eternity has passed since, but now she's finally had enough, even if it's clearly too late.

A blood stained Skyler watches Walt flee in Ep. 5.14 ("Ozymandias")
With his family now destroyed and broke, Walt's lost the very thing he claims to have been doing this for the entire time.  And ironically, in kidnapping (and eventually returning) baby Holly he's not only taken the only family member left who doesn't hate him, but is spurned to commit his first selfless act in seasons with a phone call to Skyler that attempts to exonerate her in the eyes of law enforcement. The plan itself may not exactly work, but the scene does on a number of meta levels, with Cranston giving (like the confession) another performance within a performance, while Gilligan simultaneously calls viewers out on their shaming of Skyler White and the actress who's played her so mastefully for the past six years. No, Skyler isn't likable and was never really supposed to be but "blaming" the Anna Gunn for it isn't fair, especially considering a role this complex has only served to make the series better, and few actresses could have tackled it as interestingly or as well.

With a barrel of cash and a couple of suitcases, Walt's off to start a new life in the "Granite State" as "Mr. Lambert," waiting on the side of the road for the ride from Saul's disappearer/vacuum repairman (a perfectly cast Robert Forster, oozing honest professionalism) that Jesse never took. It speaks volumes that Saul isn't far behind, shedding his own flamboyant persona in the wake of the fallout, forced to start a new life of his own. As predicted, the Heisenberg story goes national and Walt's a wanted man, but what's perhaps more surprising is just how much the cancer's progressed. He's reached the end, receiving homemade chemo treatments and waiting to die a slow, painful death hauled up in a cold, isolated hell reminiscent of Jack Torrance's in The Shining. Saul's advice to just turn himself in and the reasoning behind it is the soundest of the season and a healthy reminder that for all his bluster, he's a smart attorney. Walt's

This is rock bottom, his lowest point coming when he has to bribe the disappearer with $10,000 to stay just an hour longer for company. His escape and subsequent phone call to Walt Jr. is the final straw, a desperate attempt to get his family the money, despite the tactic being impossible at this point. When his own son tells him to just die and he collapses in tears at a bar pay phone, we almost feel the impossible. If not necessarily sympathy, at least real empathy, for man swallowed up by his own demons and finally realizing this past year and a half has been a huge mistake. And yet he deserves every bit of this. It's time he could have spent with his family, who are now in a far worse position than they would have been otherwise. That's the real tragedy here.

Walt contemplates an escape in Ep. 5.15 ("Granite State")
Just when we think he's ready to finally do the right thing for once and turn himself in, the precipitating event that set off the series and created Heisenberg returns to rear its ugly head: Gray Matter. Seeing Elliot Adam Godley) and Gretchen Schwartz (Jessica Hecht) on Charlie Rose dismissing Walt's contributions to the company he co-founded is once again the trigger. "He used to be such a nice, sweet guy." "We don't know what happened." Those sickening words reverberate in his head.. And now, as the familiar strains of David Porter's main title theme play within the show for the first time, police descend on a New Hampshire bar only minutes too late. Walt's heading home to take care of some unfinished business.

It's suddenly become easier to envision the scenario that's been hinted at since the flashforward starting the season last year when a bearded, pill popping Mr. Lambert walked into Denny's for a bacon breakfast and to meet Jim Beaver's arms dealer. He's coming back a man with literally nothing to lose. Now we know why. And just when things couldn't possibly get worse for Jesse, they somehow do. In one of the show's cruelest moments, Todd makes him watch as he shoots Andrea (Emily Rios) just to send a message. Because he can.

Could Vince Gilligan stick the landing? Fair or not, a landmark series is often retroactively judged by the worth of its final episode and sometimes even its final moment. With BrBa, where a single, finite story is being told with a clear beginning, middle and end, judging the merits of the final episode within the context of the entire series becomes a little trickier. But if there's one thing "Felina" makes perfectly clear, it's that Gilligan's always been a master at tight, economical storytelling that leaves little room for loose ends. This wouldn't be one of those polarizing finales everyone argues about. The screen won't fade to back. It doesn't take place inside a snow globe. Gilligan knows HIS show, executing its end game just as he did everything else. With logic. True to form, everything is tidily wrapped up with few questions left unanswered and a conclusive finish that isn't open for interpretation. It's clean, crisp and efficient. In wasting no time getting Walt to Albuerquerque, he dispenses with information we've already gotten, sometimes condensing hours into minutes to clue us in.

Walt gives Elliot and Gretchen a scare in the series finale ("Felina")
Walt's at death's door and looks it, but for the first time in the history of the series he seems completely prepared, relaxed and sure of his plan. The biggest question looming over the finale was whether he would return to set things right as Walter White or Heisenberg. It turns out that he's reached that point where they can finally co-exist in harmony. It was Walt who came up with the plan to use Elliot and Gretchen to believably launder the millions that will eventually go to his offspring, but Heisenberg who carried it out. The guilt and fear on their faces suggest that maybe they did badly screw Walt. Or maybe not. We'll never know, but Gilligan was smart in not telling us more than that, as it's the one story thread that feels like it should still have some mystery surrounding it. It also felt right to give Badger (Matt Jones) and Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) a spot in the finale since they're not only entertaining supporting characters played by two actors who deserve to be there, but incorporated into events in a surprisingly clever fashion as Walt's laser-pointing "hitmen."

Walt's plan to take out Jack's gang sees him underestimated in a way he hasn't been since he tangled with Gus and had to use his resourcefulness as a weapon. Spending most of the episode looking like a homeless ghost roaming his old stomping grounds, it turned out that no one underestimated as much as Lydia, who got a ricin cocktail for her troubles. His final scenes with Skyler that pack the biggest emotional punch and delivered the admission we've waited six years to hear. By finally admitting he did this all for himself rather than his family, Walt finally drops the lies and takes the ownership for the lives he's ruined. It's ironic that in this moment, he comes off as the most likable and human we've seen him since the pilot. At least by this series' standards.

Walt's first and foremost a man of science, and this episode sees a return to that in a clever way as his master plan is carried with all the accuracy of one of his chemistry experiments. He uses predictable factors to exploit the weaknesses of his opponents. Elliot and Gretchen's social and financial status. Lydia's obsession with routine. Jack's pride. And for once everything goes off without a hitch. That his car trunk Nazi killing machine feels like something Season 1 Walt would have imagined up is only fitting. His final act of self-sacrifice is taking a bullet for Jesse, even if it's a stretch to call what happens between them a reconciliation. It's more of a hostile, begrudging acceptance that they're finally squared away. Their nod at the end was a nice touch. Jesse was never going kill Walt. He's through doing what "Mr. White" says. The cathartic release when he strangles Todd and makes his escape works because the writers worked six years and dragged him through hell so he could get there. How many other shows would have the patience to wait? Where an undeniably scarred Jesse can go from here is anyone's guess, and there's sure to be plenty of guesses. But for once, we do get the feeling he's free and at least has a shot at some kind of normal life.

Walt, alone with his "Baby Blue" in the series finale ("Felina")
If Jesse gets to bask in his freedom, than Walt's ending is just as appropriate as he spends his final moments alone amidst his precious equipment, admiring what's left of his creation and all he's accomplished. And in a series filled with unforgettable musical moments, one of the best is saved for last as Badfinger's 1971  power-pop classic "Baby Blue" blasts over the soundtrack as Walt draws his last breath. His checklist is complete. And now we know what Gilligan was talking about when he called the finale a dark "victory" for TV's most complex anti-hero. It's hard to look at it as anything else. For good or bad, he got exactly the ending he deserved. And so did we. Though it's unlikely anyone will want to acknowledge it, it's interesting how similar the closing image is to that of Lost's finale, despite this image invoking an entirely different feeling in viewers when it reaches its finish line.

Yes, the ending was tied neatly in a bow with hardly a minute to spare. It was safely effective, while still not entirely predictable. But here's the thing. We're not used to finales doing that. We're not used to shows building up enough goodwill over the course of its run to earn the right not to show off in the finale. Confident enough to not do anything shocking or crazy. To just simply close its story as it should be closed. There are no more episodes or more obstacles or complications for Walt to face. Much of that was done before, as the seeds were already long sown for Gilligan to just quietly pull the trigger in the last episode. "Felina" stands as the end result of him knowing exactly when to step on the gas and put on the brakes throughout the series, giving himself enough slack in the story so it would peak at exactly the right time.

Any worries this finale would either break or make the show's reputation were completely unfounded, as it exists simply as it should: As the last chapter. And, in a way, that's such a relief. Did things work out too perfectly for Walt? Not when you consider hardly anything went right for him up until that point. More specifically in these final eight, and even more specifically in the penultimate and bravely depressing "Granite State." An argument can be made that the true finale was the pulse-pounding "Ozymandias," with the final two episodes serving as an essential, but no less compelling post-script. And it's hard to call what Walt experiences in his last hours "redemption" or a "happy ending," at least in any conventional sense. His family is irrecovably broken. His brother-in-law is dead. Countless other lives have been lost or destroyed. His son, no matter how much money he comes into, will always hate him. To say his initial plan hardly worked out as envisioned would be a massive understatement. What he gets instead is a dignity afforded to very few on the show: Dying on his own terms. It's such a fine line Gilligan walks in giving Walt the ending he deserves while still not morally letting him off the hook for any of his actions. And he gets it just right   

Walter White dies in the final shot of Breaking Bad
It seems there's always a tendency when we're in the midst of watching something to label it the "greatest ever," but what happens when it actually is? Name a series that can compete with this in terms of writing, directing, acting, or cinematography. What show has even had five consistent seasons, much less five consecutively flawless ones? It seems even unlikelier to come across two performances as complex and endlessly fascinating as the ones given by Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in any medium. And while it's certainly been show filled with carefully choreographed creative moves, there have also been more than a few happy accidents that morphed this into something far different and than when it started. And yet entirely similar. The core remained the same. Turn Mr. Chips into Scarface. Just that simple logline proved to be the jumping off point for what would eventually be the show no one knew they were waiting for until it actually arrived. Created by an X-Files writer and starring the dad from Malcolm in the Middle. Who would have guessed? One tightly told story from beginning to end. No filler. Vince Gilligan just pitched TV's first perfect game and most of it was laid out for us in the pilot when a nerdy, unassuming high school teacher named Walter White spoke to his class. It was always all about the chemistry. The study of change. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Dennis Has a Podcast: Breaking Bad Finale Recap (with Jeremy The Critic)

Well, Breaking Bad is over and the series finale is in the books. I once again joined my good friend Dennis on his top rated Dennis Has a Podcast to discuss all things "Felina." How did our predictions pan out? Were we satisfied with how everything wrapped up? What does it mean for the legacy of the series? A reminder that my full review of the final 8 episodes is coming soon (I promise). In the meantime, enjoy the show!

Oh, and tread lightly. There are SPOILERS.  

Click here to listen.

And don't forget to check out other episodes of DHAP on iTunes, TuneIn, and Stitcher, like him on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter.