Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 112

This past weekend, Ensley and I appeared at a book signing for Wanna Cook? at a nearby Books-A-Million. It was a fun event, and they're talking about having us back around the holiday season, although I'm slightly conflicted about that - Wanna Cook? is a guide to Breaking Bad, which just doesn't much seem like a heartwarming holiday show for the whole family. But hey - different strokes, right?

By the way, Ensley wrote a fantastic post about the book signing and the people-watching that went with it over at his blog - click here to go there!

We'll be making another appearance in a couple of weeks in the Triad area of North Carolina - catch our act at the Winston-Salem location of Barnes & Noble on August 9 beginning at 3 pm as part of their "Get Pop Cultured" events. Details are in the link over on the left - come on out and say "hi!" to us!  We'd love to see you!

In other Breaking Bad related news, there are these two items for your consideration:

Bryan Cranston recently played President Lyndon B. Johnson on Broadway in the play All the Way, a role for which he received the Tony Award. The play also won Best Play and I hated that I couldn't get to NYC to see it. Never fear! A television version is being prepared for broadcast on HBO next year with Cranston reprising his role. He will also serve as an executive producer for the show, along with Steven Spielberg and two others. The playwright, Robert Schenkkan, will take charge of the adaptation.

Also, Disney is working on a live-action version of Kipling's The Jungle Book, which I'm also excited about. The cartoon version was always a favorite of mine. What's that have to do with Breaking Bad, you ask?  Good question. Let me just say this, and then you can check out this link.  Gus Fring.  Wolf.  Fine, go click the link and then marvel.


Saturday, July 26, 2014

Lucy

I try mightily to stay review-free before seeing a movie (the better to make up my own mind), so I must admit to being puzzled at the mixed reviews for Luc Besson's new release Lucy. Over the last twenty-plus years, Besson has helmed some amazing films that prominently feature strong female characters, including La Femme Nikita (1990), Leon: The Professional (1994), and The Fifth Element (1997) and Lucy fits nicely into that category. Yet some of the reviews have been downright savage (Christopher Orr from The Atlantic really, really, REALLY hates it, for example). Most of the disgust hinges on two items that, quite frankly, didn't bug me at all, so let me get those out of the way and then try to convince you to give this smart, creative film a whirl.

1. Lucy takes as a core premise the idea that "humans only use 10% of their brains." OK, this just isn't true and we know it's not true. It's one of those urban legends that gets repeated over and over until most people believe it, which then irritates beyond belief anyone who knows anything about neuroscience and they've all come out to sputter and pontificate about what they know and what the movie gets wrong. This is where I patiently try to explain the difference between a "movie" and a "documentary." Never get your science from the movies and never get your law from TV. With that in mind, go have fun.
2. Then Lucy uses a plot device to propel the story - in this case, a synthetic form of PCH4, which is supposedly produced by pregnant women and permits the unborn child to rapidly grow a skeleton during normal gestation. Taken by a full-growed human, a tiny bit of PCH4 in Lucy makes you high, lotsandlots of it apparently catapults you to the next stage of consciousness.  (Note: the drug here is not a "MacGuffin" [as is the Maltese Falcon in that film and the "letters of transit" in Casablanca] since in Lucy the drug not only actually does something; it's the engine for the entire film). Guess what? PCH4 is not a thing. For some reason, critics are incensed that PCH4 is made-up, yet I don't see the same level of sniffing condescension at gamma rays being misappropriated in the Hulk movies or the Curie Radiation Association getting all bent out of shape over Spider-Man's improbable origin story. (Psst - there's no "Curie Radiation Association." Don't tell the critics!)

Other criticisms involve Lucy's use of stock footage and an ongoing "percentage count" screen. I'm not even going there. Some things are a matter of taste and reasonable people can disagree about any piece of art (although someone who doesn't think Blazing Saddles is funny is a person best avoided. I'm just saying and the advice is free).

You got me. Maybe Lucy asks a little too much of a summer audience, but I don't think so. Very occasionally, I think other critics saw a different movie than the one I saw, or maybe they just had a fight with their boss before they went to the movie. At any rate, I thought Lucy was smart, fast-paced (it weighs in just under 90 minutes, which means I could almost watch it twice in the time it took me to suffer through The Movie Which Shall Not Be Named. And I'd cheerfully watch Lucy twice) and features some wonderful performances, especially Scarlett Johansson in the title role. Besson is not American and you can tell that - he's willing to slow things down, ask big questions, and use non-American actors. Some of that is to take advantage of growing Asian markets (several actors will be familiar to audiences of South Korean films), but it's also because Besson has a wider worldview than many American directors do.

I've often said that good science fiction is far more willing than "realistic" films to ask the Big Questions, including "What does it mean to be human?" and "What's beyond what we already know?" Lucy asks those questions and comes up with some very interesting answers, although (like many films) Lucy has a few plot holes. (How PCH4 actually works is one of them. If it helps a fetus grow a skeleton, what the heck does that have to do with consciousness? But by the time I thought of that, I was having too much fun to care.) Go see this one - it's good on the big screen, but it could wait until it's a rental. But when you see it, remember (although the film will remind you as well), Johanssen's Lucy is not the first one to serve as a bridge between two kinds of humans. What might humans become? It's an intriguing question and one Besson explores with humor and warning.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 111

 . . . so this is the post that goes to a hundred and eleven!  Spinal Tap would be so proud!

This is a quick post this week and I promise to get back to the weekend movie postings as well. Occasionally, life is overtaken by events and schedules have to be readjusted.

First off, Wanna Cook? continues to generate interest and buzz, for which Ensley and I are both grateful. We'll be making two North Carolina appearances in the near future and would love to see you at one or both and hey - tell your friends, would you? AMC is kicking off their "how much dark can you take?" marathon of Breaking Bad beginning on August 10 with episodes airing in a block on Sundays from 5 pm to 1 am (so the entire run finishes on October 5th) and Wanna Cook? should be considered an indispensable part of the binge-watching experience, sort of like literary Funyons. So come out to see us - and maybe even snag a sample of the blue! - at the Gastonia location of Books-A-Million this Saturday (July 26) beginning at 2 pm or, for you Triad-based folks, come see us at the Winston-Salem Barnes & Noble just under the binge-watching wire on August 9 beginning at 3 pm. Details and links are on the left! Buy a copy for yourself or for a friend - we'll happily sign it and discuss your thoughts on Walter White and Company.


In other related news, we're learning more about Better Call Saul. AMC is showing tremendous faith in the scheduled for 2015 show by already ordering a second 13-episode season. A few spoilers and casting notes can be found here, if you're interested. 

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 110

Well, Breaking Bad did just fine with last week's Emmy nominations and is in the running for thirteen of the golden girls. In addition to seven nominations in more technical categories (such as sound editing and makeup), Bryan Cranston (who's having an amazing year!), Anna Gunn, and Aaron Paul are all nominated in the acting categories, the show is in the Outstanding Drama category, Moira Walley-Beckett is nominated for Outstanding Writing for the absolutely blow-your-socks-off episode "Ozymandias," and Vince Gilligan his own bad self is nominated for Outstanding Directing for the final episode "Felina."  A special shout-out to Michael Slovis, who is nominated in the Outstanding Cinematography for a Single-Camera Series category for the episode "Granite State" - Mr. Slovis kindly agreed to be interviewed for Wanna Cook? and we were so pleased with how that interview turned out - it's a gem in the book, seriously.  (That's him checking light levels for the episode "Peekaboo" [2.06] at the top of the post, by the way.)

Ensley mentioned the upcoming book signing over on his blog (you read both of our blogs, right?), so I'll just briefly remind you - we'll be at the Gastonia, NC location of Books-A-Million on Saturday, July 26 beginning at 2 pm (that's a change from the original 5 pm start time, so make a note!) to discuss Breaking Bad, sign copies of Wanna Cook? and generally pontificate and speculate on all things Gilligan-related. The store is located at 3710 East Franklin Blvd. in Gastonia and you can call them at (704) 824-0221 for more information - hope to see you there!

In other exciting news, a group of dedicated BrBa fans decided that Duke City needed its own convention to celebrate Breaking Bad and they're making it happen!  On November 8, the Albuquerque Convention Center will be home to the first annual Breaking Bad Fest and it's looking sweet!  While we won't be able to attend this year, we certainly hope you will if you're nearby.  Check out their site here, buy tickets here, and remember that you can also follow the latest con news on Twitter or Facebook.


Monday, July 14, 2014

First Tries & Sequels

 I spent four nights this past week at the 15th Annual Real to Reel International Film Festival, an event that began the same year I moved the Shelby. I always enjoy this festival, which is still to many people a sadly undiscovered gem in my own community. It's like that old saying about a prophet having no worth in his own country - surely a film festival in little ol' Cleveland County can't attract that much talent.

Well, more popcorn for me, I say.

While distribution deals are far more likely to be found at Sundance, Toronto, and some of the larger festivals, several films first shown here have gone on to be picked up for large-scale broadcast and/or distribution. I've seen this festival grow so much - the first year, it was held in a gallery space in the Arts Council and films were sent in on clunky VHS tapes to be projected onto the sort of screen you're used to seeing in classrooms.  Now, screenings are held at the refurbished Joy Performance Center in Kings Mountain. Further, due to the widespread availability of the internet, word about the festival has gotten out and films in digital format are submitted from across the country and (quite often) outside the country. In fact, the best, most creative film I saw this go-round was Mousse, a Swedish entry (yes, there were subtitles) that won for Best Professional Short.

Over the course of four nights for the cost of one Carmike ticket and a small popcorn, I saw feature films, shorts, animated films, and documentaries. Some were produced by students and nonprofessionals, others were professional efforts. There were actors you knew and some probably making their first appearance on camera. There were earnest "feel good" films and dark "human condition" films. Quite frankly, some were deeply flawed, which reminded me of just how much hard work goes into any film. I was also reminded of just how tired I can get from working all day, then going to watch three-plus hours of movies. While the life of a critic is not as strenuous as that of a ditch digger - I was glad to sleep in on Sunday!

Having had a chance to recover, I spent Sunday afternoon at (naturally) the movies. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes has just been released and I wanted to see it for this week's edition of Meet Me at the Movies.

To keep this post from getting far too long, I'll try to keep this brief. Dawn is getting incredibly positive reviews from critics and viewers alike and I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that the film belongs to that very exclusive club of sequels that are actually better than the original, when the original was already quite good on its own. (Empire Strikes Back is better than Star Wars, for instance, and wow! is Bride of Frankenstein better than Universal's telling of Frankenstein.) The effects are mind-blowing - and would someone give Andy Serkis an Oscar already? But pretty effects alone (apes on horses!) do not a fine movie make. So what makes Dawn a must see in my book?

The film does a wonderful job of positioning the two societies - humans in decline and apes in ascendance - as parallels with each other. In addition to some striking similarities in architecture in both, leaders seek a peace with the Others, families are formed, children are loved, loss is mourned, and those with a more violent streak see their way as the only one. Communication is the great barrier - more so than even DNA. How can you trust someone you can't understand when so much is at stake? Laws must be harsh in such circumstances and those who are outlaws cannot claim the protection of the law. Understanding can come with a touch as well as a speech. Fear can keep societies in line, but not for long. Knowledge must be handed down and a rough sketch of a window can evoke a long-ago home while becoming a symbol for something much larger.

In short, Dawn is an amazing film that did a great deal to remove the stench of the Film Who Shall Not Be Named from my nostrils. This is one to see on the big screen. I took a monkey with me, but that's completely optional. So far.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 109

Breaking Bad in 2014?
This post is a day early for the 2014 Emmy nominations, which will be announced tomorrow (July 10). One reason Breaking Bad's final season was split into two parts was to guarantee that the show would be eligible for the Emmy Awards for work produced in both the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons.  We'll see if that's a strategy that pays off in wins (surely in nominations!) As the Los Angeles Times points out here, there's an awful lot of superior TV out there right now and it's possible that voters will go for newer shows over Breaking Bad which broadcast its final episode in September of 2013.

Ensley has posted on his blog about our recent signing at Beers Books in Sacramento and we're ironing out the final details of a live interview with the fine folks of CultureSmash who reviewed Wanna Cook? - check back for the final arrangements shortly!

Also, at the end of July, we'll be appearing close to home to talk Breaking Bad and sign copies of Wanna Cook? for the discerning fan.  Look for both of us (and some of the blue!) at the Gastonia location of Books-A-Million on Saturday, July 26 beginning at 5 pm! That's at 3710 E. Franklin Blvd., if you need to find directions.  Wanna Cook? is the perfect companion for AMC's binge-broadcast of all five seasons of Breaking Bad which is scheduled to begin on August 10 and here's your chance to make sure you're ready, whether it'll be your first watch or your tenth re-watch!

Of course, Wanna Cook? remains available for purchase through the usual online suspects:


and here in Shelby, you can get your copy over at Got Books!

Sunday, July 6, 2014

More Than Meets the Eye?

I carried my popcorn bucket to two new films this holiday weekend - Michael Bay's latest installment of the Transformers franchise and Scott Derrickson's exorcism-in-New-York Deliver Us from Evil. Let's start with the one that's going to make bargeloads of money, an outcome that only encourages more of this sort of dreck - Transformers: Age of Extinction.

Disclaimer - nope, I haven't seen any of the other Transformers movies. I wasn't too worried that I wouldn't be able to follow the complex plotline, however. Look, I could snark my way through this, but let me boil it down. The first line of this swollen, bloated spectacle (2 hours, 45 minutes running time) is "Oh, shit" and that is indeed an accurate assessment. I was hoping for a loud, mindless, colorful summer movie - this is simply bad. And as a PG-13 rating for a movie based on kids' toys, children are going to go see this in droves. Let me explain, with just a small example, why I have a problem with that.

"Tessa" (played by the young and nubile Nicola Peltz, who showcases all the usual attributes sought after by actresses in a Michael Bay movie - click here for details!) is 17, the daughter of an overprotective father who comments on her revealing clothing, but never gets her to change into something more practical than tall wedges and shorts so short the pockets are longer than the hem. Tessa is involved with "Shane Dyson" (a character who thereby combines the names of an iconic Western hero and a vacuum cleaner. He is played by Jack Reynor, an actor of legitimate Irish descent who nevertheless has an Irish accent that slips and slides embarrassingly), who is established as being 20. When Dad (Mark Wahlberg) objects, since Tessa is a minor, Shane not only quotes the specific law that okays such a relationship in Texas - he pulls out a laminated card he apparently carries with him for just such an occasion! So how many teen girls does this guy mess around with? Tessa is a lamp, not a human - she exists to run around, get in trouble and need rescuing, and yell, "Dad!" a lot. The men don't really see her as anything else, either. As Shane puts it once, "I'm not here to help you rescue your daughter. You're here to help me rescue my girlfriend." Nice.

Oddly enough, another one of my anger moments triggered by this Kurosawa-length-but-nothing-else-like-that-master-of-film extra-large helping of garbage was the fawning treatment of China. Look, I know perfectly well that the Chinese market is HUGE in Hollywood financing and box office success. China wants 3D and IMAX movies, so that's what we produce. But this - gah! The American government is shown to be shadowy, corrupt, and willing to kill children while the Chinese government is benevolent and capable of dealing with all sorts of threats in an honorable and upright way. Right - tell that to the students who occupied Tiananmen Square.

Michael Bay elaborately doesn't care. He had a $100 million opening weekend, and he'll keep making this crap. Sigh. At least don't go see it.  Even the big "boomy" parts just weren't that good. Skip it.

As far as Deliver Us from Evil goes, it's a solid exorcism picture. It's not groundbreaking - you've seen all of this before - but the director, Scott Derrickson (who likes these sorts of films), has paid attention to the genre. You get some jump-worthy moments, some questions about the nature of evil and violence (and Latin!), and some reminders that some toys you just shouldn't give your kids (chief among them half-working jack-in-the-boxes, rolling plushie animal heads that go "ha ha hoo" and [number one and unchallenged champion] those creepy monkeys with cymbals). The marketing explains that the events of the film are "inspired by" the actual experiences of NYPD cop Ralph Sarchie, but not really. Well, let that one go. Enjoy the dangerous Bronx, where it rains all night, every night and Doors lyrics really DO have a sinister side. Also, the use of the bug carousel at the Bronx Zoo is just masterful. If you like exorcism horror pictures, you'll probably come out of Deliver Us perfectly happy.

You'll be happier than if you wasted three hours of your life in Bay's celebration of the smash cut, I can tell you that much.