Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Of Furry Feet & Long Journeys

I went into Peter Jackson's The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey with high expectations.  Jackson will forever be known as the man who brought Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy to the screen (and also threw Andy Serkis into the stratosphere) and fans everywhere eagerly awaited his take on Hobbit.

I may be in the minority on this one - and that's okay - but I found Hobbit to be middle of the road.  (See how I avoided the cheap pun there by not saying "middle (Earth) of the road"?  It was hard to resist, let me tell you!)  Hobbit is being split into three - count 'em, three - movies, which I find astounding.  Jackson is managing to do this by straying far from the actual text of Hobbit to bring in material covered in appendices (and, quite possibly, more than a touch of The Silmarillion).  This film, the first of the three parts, clocks in at a hefty two hours and forty-six minutes and in parts, I felt every second on it.  New Zealand looks gorgeous, but let's just say there's a lot of walking through it in this film.

I can't fault the actors - Martin Freeman is up to the task of playing Bilbo Baggins (the stay-at-home hobbit who discovers a bit of his wilder Took side), Ian McKellan and the aforementioned Andy Serkis resume their roles as Gandalf and Gollum in splendid fashion.  Other old friends appear as well and, while some purists will howl at the departures from the Tolkien book, I was willing to run with it.  Let's face it - book adaptations are always tricky - (what to keep, what to discard, what to condense are major questions to answer in crafting the script and you know that, no matter what path you take, you're going to make someone angry), and that's even more true for a work that includes "Tolkien scholar" among the credits.  Still, some of the humor falls flat for me and feels forced rather than springing from the scene itself.  On the plus side, I loved seeing Bilbo's "hobbit hole" invaded by a host of unexpected (and ravenous) guests.

Two items to mention:  the "riddle scene" between Bilbo and Gollum and the appearance of Thorin Oakenshield.  The Bilbo/Gollum scene is a the heart of all of the LoTR books, for without it, nothing else really matters.  We've got to get that ring to Bilbo so it can go to Frodo so that, so that, so that.  It was apparently the first scene Freeman filmed and it's marvelous.  Andy Serkis has had years to master Gollum and the technology of motion-capture continues to develop.  Utterly compelling.  On the other hand, let's discuss Richard Armitage (who played the villainous Sir Guy in the recent BBC production of Robin Hood) who plays the leader of the dwarves, Thorin Oakenshield.  I enjoyed his performance quite a bit, but I disliked how he stood out from the other dwarves.  Sure, it's a yeoman's task to distinguish 13 dwarves, but while other dwarves appear to be - well, dwarvish - Armitage has matinee-idol good looks, flowing dark locks, and overall appears to simply be a somewhat short human, rather than a member of another Middle Earth race.  I dislike this - it seems that Jackson didn't trust that the audience could accept a hero who didn't look like us.

In short (ha! Well, one pun's okay, I expect), Hobbit looks great and does a credible job of storytelling, although it also drags in places.  Big screen?  Maybe, but don't pay full price.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Ho, Ho, Ho!

Hung with care - check!
Okay, let's get one thing straight.  In a world which has entire radio stations switching their format to Andy Williams and Bing Crosby to saturate the airwaves with Christmas songs, there's really not a war on Christmas.  Don't believe the hype - Christmas is so far from being under attack in the USA that it's nearly laughable.  Retailers expect to turn a profit for the year based on sales made in the final six weeks of the year - the very name "Black Friday" comes from a business turning a profit (recorded in black ink) as opposed to running at a loss (red ink) and they certainly want to welcome Christmas shoppers.  (Note:  They also want to welcome Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and, I daresay, Solstice shoppers.  It's the desire for profit that drives the more inclusive "Happy Holidays," not some sort of animosity towards the Christ Child.  Face it - Santa sells.) For further evidence, I live in the American South which seems to have an entire cottage industry based on turning out bizarrely festooned Christmas sweaters.  And yes, I own a couple, so I know of what I speak.

Radio stations aren't the only media to hop on the Christmas bandwagon.  The world of the Christmas special is upon us and I thought it would be a good time to mention ten of my personal favorites.

  1. First off, you can't go wrong with any of the Rankin/Bass stop-motion specials.  Rudolph (you know, the one with the elf who wants to be a dentist), Frosty the Snowman, Santa Claus is Comin' to Town, and The Year Without a Santa Claus - all are lovely tales, best served with cocoa.  Don't blame me if you find yourself thinking about misfit toys or humming the Snow Miser song.
  2. Don't forget the Grinch!  C'mon, Boris Karloff??  Cindy Lou Who?  Plan time for this one.  Plan time to ignore the Jim Carrey one.
  3. And let's not overlook the special that gave us the "Snoopy dance" - A Charlie Brown Christmas.
  4. The Muppet Christmas Carol.  Words cannot express how much I enjoy this one.  Gonzo the Great as Charles Dickens (helped out by Rizzo the Rat) was a wonderful idea, but to really make this one work, you need to understand the source material.  (Think of it this way.  You can enjoy Blazing Saddles if you've never seen another Western, but if you know the general structure and tropes of that type of film, the jokes become much, much funnier.)
  5. Another parody of Dickens' tale is the Bill Murray film Scrooged.  I love this one, mostly for the spin it takes in having television take the place of Scrooge & Marley's bean-counting firm.  Darkly comic and it retains the transformative message that is the hallmark (if you will) of the Dickens story.
  6. So what version of A Christmas Carol would I suggest?  Honestly, there are a lot out there to choose from (see this list!), but I like the George C. Scott version.  Really - watch this before you tackle the parodies listed above.    
  7. Buffy the Vampire Slayer never did "a very special episode," for which I've always been glad, but there is a lovely Christmas-themed episode ("Amends" in Season 3) that deals directly with whether redemption is deserved or a gift without strings - and what to do if you feel you don't deserve such a gift.
  8. Supernatural has a Christmas episode ("A Very Supernatural Christmas" in Season 3) that's become a recent addition to my "must watch" list.  It's irreverent and slapstick-funny in places, but also too violent for the smallest among us.  It's also bittersweet as you see the young Sam and Dean try to create Christmas in one of Supernatural's many cheap motel rooms.
  9. And the very first Doctor Who episode I saw was the Christmas special ("The Christmas Invasion") from Russell Davies' relaunch of the series - and the first full one with David Tennant.  
  10. Also, if you can find it, the short-lived 90s series My So-Called Life has a fantastic Christmas episode ("So-Called Angels") that's well worth seeking out.

There are many others, of course, but there's a decent start!

By the way, there's not a Christmas episode of Breaking Bad, for which I think we can all be grateful.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Life of Pi

There's an old saying in filmmaking:  Never work with water, children, or animals.  The conventional wisdom is that the first is too hard to film, the second is too hard to work with, and the third is just too unpredictable.  Ang Lee's lushly gorgeous Life of Pi breaks all three elements of this adage and thank heavens it does.  This film is many things - a adventure tale about a shipwreck, a story of spiritual searching, a coming-of-age story, a fantasy tale of man and animal - and yet it manages to take all these things and create a coherent whole from them.  Pay attention to the layers of names throughout - "Pi" creates his name to escape an even more outlandish one that his school friends twist and mock, "Richard Parker" is not who you think he is, and really - what exactly happened on that raft?  And to whom?  At the end of Life of Pi, we have answers, but we also have more questions.

The film does not shy away from asking the Big Questions, including Who is God? and Do I control my life? These are questions not usually found in a PG movie, but one well worth taking children to go see.  Not everyone celebrates the Divine in the same way, but I don't think that makes the path less genuine.  Pi is searching for the One True Faith and he finds that the road isn't all that well marked.  He is a resourceful young man who wants to live and discovers that requires a tremendous amount of work and fortitude - and not just when he's trapped in the middle of the Pacific.

In addition to the depth of the story, I was stunned at the out-and-out beauty of this film.  There are several astonishing sequences that play up the sheer size of sky and sea as well as the infinite, and deadly, beauty of that seascape.

Further, I believe I may have seen a film in 3-D that does what all the hype has been about.  In Pi, it adds to the story rather than jolting me out of it.  Lee and his team use the effect of 3-D to add depth to the frame, rather than using the technology as a gimmick to break out of the frame and have things fly at the audience.  In fact, the one time I actually jumped at the 3-D, an object - a very large object - was moving rapidly away from the screen into the back of the shot.  Plus, the film lacks the muddy darkness that I've come to associate with so much 3-D.  Maybe - just maybe - there's something to 3-D after all.*

*Then again, maybe not.  One of the previews before Life of Pi was for the 20th anniversary release of Spielberg's Jurassic Park in - that's right - retrofitted 3-D.  Sigh.  I really don't like this sort of thing.  I was against colorization of old black and white movies and for me, this falls into the same camp.  George Lucas has made and re-made the original Star Wars trilogy so many times that T-shirts have actually cropped up reminding viewers that "Han Shot First."  It's another example of trusting your storytelling.  If that's good, there's no need to "retcon" the story with shiny new tech.  And if it's not good, well, why bother with the expense?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Breaking Dawn & Things That Matter

To be fair, I'm not the audience Breaking Dawn is intended to reach.  I read the first book about the time Twilight came out as a movie - I was teaching high schoolers at the time and I believed (and still do, mostly) that anything that gets that many people reading has to have some merit.  Alas, I think the only reason I finished reading Twilight was due to some sort of grim, morbid curiosity.  It had to get better, right?  You just couldn't put that many God-awful cliches into one novel - and you're telling me this claptrap spreads over another three books?

And don't get me started on the 50 Shades phenomenon - which began life as Twilight fanfic.

Look - I have problems with the whole Twilight franchise and I can explain them easily enough.  Bella is a throwback character who has little agency of her own.  She's clumsy, passive, always needs saving, and is never complete without a man.  The "bad boy" can only be understood by Bella, whose soul was made to be with his.  Being dumped is a reason to abandon those who love you and hurting yourself is a sensible course of action, for it will bring your One True Love back to you.  Lie to your parents and - oh yeah - violence is okay, because it's a mark of uncontrollable passion.  Sex, even within the bounds of marriage, is dangerous and will kill you, but that's okay, because you were born to be different and you can only achieve that transformation by subsuming all that you are or could be into another's desires.

Like I said - I have problems with it.

But I'm game, so off to Breaking Dawn I went.  It's not awful, but it is a fairly unimaginative, shopworn teen romance.  All the sharp edges of being a vampire are ignored - she's with her True Love; they have an adorable, problem-free child; they're rich beyond imagining; they're surrounded by those who love and understand them; they're faster and stronger than humans, and gorgeous to boot (albeit it a touch pale with oddly red-tinted eyes).  Really, what's not to like?  I far prefer the deeper, more troubled, approach Buffy gives to this sort of supernatural romance.

On the other hand, if you want stories of tough people enduring tough times, run - do not walk - to see Ken Burns' two-part series The Dust Bowl.  How soon we forget.  The largest man-made ecological disaster in American history happened not a hundred years ago.  Millions of acres of virgin grassland prairie ripped up to plant wheat, which was great - at first.  A bumper crop, coupled with the Great Depression, meant prices fell, so farmers plowed up more land, removing the very root system that held the rich topsoil in place.  Then came drought.  And tons of topsoil blew away.  Watch the footage of those dust storms rolling in - I expected to see orcs emerge from the blackness.  Magnificent stories, well told.

All without sparkly vampires.

Sunday, November 18, 2012


I was in such a froth to see Steven Spielberg's Lincoln that I couldn't wait until it came to my hometown, so yesterday FryDaddy and I met two of our faithful companions who were also anxious to see it at a theater out of town.  Imagine my delight to get into the theater (admittedly small; the larger theaters in the multiplex were taken over by Twilight which was playing every half hour) and find it crammed.*  We had a devilish time finding four seats together and wound up much closer to the screen than I usually like.  But as soon as the film began, I forgot all about those gripes.

Lincoln is a masterpiece.  I don't say that lightly - I think there are lots of good films and a fair amount of great ones, but "masterpiece" is a word to be used with great care.  Lincoln is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals (and I'm sad to report that portions of her earlier work have been found to be the result of plagiarism.  Our heroes often have feet of clay, do they not?) and Tony Kushner of Angels in America was charged with creating the screenplay.  (Kushner and Spielberg have worked together before - Kushner was responsible for the screenplay for Munich.) 

From the opening scene, Lincoln grabs you by the throat.  Daniel Day-Lewis is a masterful actor and in Lincoln he is not only given wonderful, rich material to bring to life, he is surrounded by a supporting cast that could make gravel sparkle.  And Day-Lewis ain't gravel.  Sally Field as a political Mary Todd Lincoln capable of genteel manipulation of her husband's political enemies, Tommy Lee Jones as the radical Thaddeus Stevens, David Strathairn as William Seward - all deliver bravura performances, but so do James Spader, Hal Holbrook, and Jared Harris.  (Full cast list here - it's truly amazing.)  Passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which forever after outlawed slavery in the United States, was not a slam-dunk piece of legislation.  Far from it.  And seeing the agony caused by (and, in some ways, still being caused by) That Damned War made this Southerner very, very glad to be watching this film.  Politics has always been a game  of backdoor deals played by the daring and the foolish - and sometimes, the line separating the two can be microscopically thin.

Spielberg captures this.  By 1865, hardly anyone was in favor of slavery, but hardly anyone knew what to do about it.  Four million people were to be freed from bondage by the stroke of a pen - then what would happen?  Abolitionists fought the moral battle - what came next didn't matter, it was the Right Thing to Do.  Most politicians looked cautiously further down the road and didn't like what they saw, so they wanted to delay the decision.  (As did the Founding Fathers - read Article 1, Section 9 of the Constitution.  They kicked the slavery can down the road when they wrote:  "The migration or importation of such persons as any of the states now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the year 1808 . . ."  They needed the support of the South, and the South depended on slavery for their economy.)

Look - I could go on and on about this film, but let me just say this.  Lincoln brilliantly lays out why passing the 13th Amendment was both crucial to preserving the Union and blastedly difficult.  And the film manages to make a roll call  vote positively riveting.  Go see it.  Then re-read the Gettysburg Address.  Then see it again.  At that point, you'll probably want to thrash those people who have recently called for their home state to secede following the election two weeks ago.  While I abhor violence, I could see your point.

And here's a weirdness not covered in the film, but definitely worth a "hmmm."  Edwin Booth, brother to Lincoln's assassin, saved the life of Robert Lincoln, who was the eldest son of the Lincolns.  Really - read about it here.

*Oh, and there was a line - a long one - of people waiting to get in to the next screening.  There's hope for this country yet.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 40

The family on break - like "Walter White Wednesday"!
Today, Dear Readers, is the day when "Walter White Wednesday" takes a brief holiday hiatus.  Think of this as the blogging version of the time period when the actors, writers, and crew take a much-needed break to recharge their creative batteries, unwind from the day-to-day stress of creating magnificent televisual stories under deadlines and within budgets, and spend time with their families.  After all, as Walt might say, "Nothing is more important than family."  And as Hector might say, "DING!"

It's crunch time around here for my not-to-be-ignored day job.  I have student projects flowing in that must be managed, evaluated, and returned, as well as an elephant-sized report to prepare for my college.  I'd rather not have "Walter White Wednesday" turn into something I just dash off so I have a place-holder out there - this will come back, but it will take several weeks and it may be longer than that before it becomes "regular" again.  We've had a forty-week run (approximately four times longer than Joss Whedon's Firefly!), and that's nothing to sneer at.  As Walt tells us in the beginning, "Chemistry is the study of change," and this is one (temporary) change that needs to be made.

But be of good cheer - there's so much more to write about and talk about that it's guaranteed that "Walter White Wednesday" will be back after Thanksgiving!  I thank you for reading and consider this - the Mythbusters guys have gotten their hooks into Breaking Bad and plan to air an episode in the spring to examine just how much of the science in the show would work in the real world.  No, you won't learn the secrets of Walt's cook, but it should be fun anyway!

See you in a few weeks!

But to tide you over - click the link to have some breakfast!

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 39

. . . which is the one that doesn't get written.

Sorry, folks - and I truly am, for I enjoy writing these posts every Wednesday - but last night was Election Night here in North Carolina and the U.S. of A. and I stayed up late.  Very late.  Too late for someone who has a day job and a 12-hour stint at it this too-early morning.  But I believe that some things are worth seeing live and this was one of them.  (Also - I think we can put aside our differences about the candidates and just admit that the Democrats have a much better soundtrack.  Also - rest of the world, please ignore Donald Trump.  Paying him attention only encourages him to continue acting the fool.)

At first, I thought about crafting a post about who would make the better First Lady, Marie (who'd probably steal the linen from the Lincoln Bedroom) or Skyler (who'd probably squirrel pallets of campaign donations away in the walls).  I also considered cobbling together my thoughts on who would prevail in a Hank vs. Walt tossup, but I got stuck on who would be Hank's running mate (although I have to admit, siccing Jesse on certain world leaders DOES make me smile on this under-caffeinated morn).  Instead, I'm going to simply admit that there's no post this week.

I'll be back next week with thoughts on Breaking Bad, but today, I need more coffee.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"I'm Gonna Wreck It!"

After 30 years, a guy wants a change.
Disney bought Pixar and boy - does Wreck-It Ralph make that abundantly clear.  Ralph features magnificent vocal talent, including John C. Reilly as the title character, a bad guy who wants - just once! - to be the good guy. He "game jumps" to achieve his goal of earning a medal to show he's really a good guy, which gives the moviemakers a chance to show off a vast variety of game environments, from early 80s herky-jerky movement to today's smooth HD silkiness.  The contrasts are great fun - Ralph is appalled by the violence and scare factor of Hero's Duty and I could feel my teeth ache at the sheer sweetness overload of Sugar Rush.

In part, Ralph has a very conservative message - we all have roles to play and trying to deviate from those roles leads to destruction and chaos.  Ralph is a bad guy - he shouldn't try to be anything else, for people have to Know Their Place for society to function.

At least, that's one way to look at it.  You can also see it as a message about blooming where you're planted and realizing that pastures are perfectly green on this side of the fence.  In this reading, Ralph needs to come to terms with what he is and yes, others should respect him for his "badness."  After all, without Ralph's mindless destruction, there's nothing for the hero, Felix (voiced with pixie perfection by Jack McBrayer of 30 Rock) to repair and therefore, no need for the game to even exist.

A third way of looking at Ralph occurred to me only after I'd left the theater.  Ralph is, strangely enough, a feminist movie.  It has two central female characters who are cast in traditionally male games - Sgt. Calhoun is a tough-as-nails soldier (and Jane Lynch does an awesome job with some deliberately obtuse dialogue here), who was programmed with "the most tragic backstory ever." She leads a platoon of tough-guy soldiers on a never-ending mission to obliterate the deadly "cybugs" in a ultra-violent shooter game.  The other, Vanellope (voiced by Sarah Silverman), is a wanna-be racer in a candy-colored game involving a go-kart bakery, candy forests, and a volatile diet soda swamp.  (There are also about a dozen other racer characters, who are all uniformly horrid little girls, giving rise to one of the great lines of the film where they are referred to as "children of the candy corn")  While the Sugar Rush game is over-the-top girly girl, the ultimate goal is to win a road race - a traditionally male-oriented game.  In the cases of both Calhoun and Vanellope, the gender of the avatar is never seen as worth remarking upon - Calhoun isn't a "female" soldier and Vanellope isn't a "girl" racer - and oddly enough, that's progress.

There's a lot here for viewers of a certain age who will, presumably, be taking the small fry to the picture.  I know that I spent plenty of time in video arcades during my early teens, carefully lining up my row of quarters to mark my pixellated territory before turning my attention to Asteroids, Frogger, Galaga, or (my favorite) Phoenix. For me, part of the joy of Ralph was in locating as many of the avatars of my youth as I could - the oft-overlooked Q*Bert makes several appearances and yes, that actually is Pong in the lobby of Game Central Station.  Plus, I'm in favor of just about any movie that gives Alan Tudyk work - and this role is a doozy!

Visually, Ralph is a treat. I saw it in 2D - I suspect the 3D version of the race sequences would have made me woozy, but it may be to your liking.

By the way, Wreck-It Ralph begins with a short that is definitely for the grown-ups in the audience.  "Paperman" is a delicate and charming story of magic realism that will delight you, even though it doesn't really fit the tone of the movie it precedes.  It's a lovely mix of classic 2D hand-drawn artistry and computer generated techniques.  Ah, animation - how much you can do for us!

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 38

This is the post where I step away from my usual analysis/update format to channel my inner Jesse Pinkman.  Yeah, that's right -- "Trick or treat, bitch!"

Haven't made up your mind about a Halloween costume?  Well, Breaking Bad is here to help you out!  The cast has a tradition of dressing up as each other for Halloween - great pics are here!

Here are some more photos from non-cast members to give you some (disturbing) ideas.

Here's even a "how to" site to make putting it all together that much easier!

And these guys will carefully walk you through the complete process of putting your Breaking Bad persona together because, after all, what's Halloween if not a celebration of change?  And no show does that better than Breaking Bad.

Now make with the candy corn, or something might happen to your pretty yard.  You get my meaning, bitches?

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cloud Atlas

It's a cumulus! Or a cirrostratus!
It's best to begin by a straight-up admission that I wasn't at all sure about this one. Cloud Atlas is long - like Gone with the Wind long and, for the most part, contemporary audiences get antsy around the one-hour-and-forty-five-minute mark. It involves actors playing multiple roles across multiple storylines, switching time periods, races, and genders. The film has come under fire for "yellowfacing" - having Caucasian actors play Asian characters rather than hiring Asian actors. There are three - THREE - directors, two of whom are the Wachowski siblings, who once were the Wachowski brothers and that's a whole other kettle of mackerel that I'm not getting into, aside from saying that I imagine that Lana Wachowski has a unique perspective on just how much a person can change. The Wachowski siblings have a track record that shows a definite bent for visually striking films that dabble in theology and Big Questions.

Not sure, not sure.  But this is my not-quite-job, so I bought my ticket, not at all sure if this was going to be the first Matrix movie or Speed Racer. (Hey, like your career hasn't had the occasional misstep?)

I have to say, I've never seen anything like this movie. Ever. I think it's absolutely brilliant and let me explain why.

All too often today, films lack ambition. Worse, they don't trust the audience to figure anything out, so the storytelling tends to be "tell," rather than "show." Cloud Atlas trusts you to be able to connect the dots (by the way, a "cloud atlas" is a real thing) and expects you to try. It's not about stunt casting, although some will seize on that, since you have Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugh Grant, and the incomparable Hugo Weaving (among at least half a dozen others) playing multiple roles. The key concept in the movie is that things, events, people, and (most importantly) love, repeat throughout time. Who's playing the "good guy" and who's filling the archetype of the villain might change, but the roles are always there because we have a hard time learning our lessons.  There's certainly some Carl Jung in here - I caught myself mulling over the concept of archetypes and the collective unconscious after the credits ran. And Joseph Campbell would swoon over this film.  Swoon.

Some will balk at the length. Some will balk at the pidgin language used in one part. Some will balk at the mixing of time periods.

I think all of these people are missing the pointCloud Atlas is huge and glorious and celebratory (there's a scene in a Scottish pub that had me punching the air in my seat) and tragic and funny and will both make you glad to be human and sorry to be associated with such a screwed-up species.

Go see it.  

Oh, and about the pidgin language part. I've read some criticism that griped that this part should come with subtitles. Really, buddy? Stop taking snarky notes on your popcorn bucket and try concentrating. (I know - that was snarky. Trust me, it was deserved.)

And about the time switches.  Just pay attention - the time period switches aren't random at all.  They occur when a significant plot point is reached in the Grand Story.  That's one of the key points - life is the same story told over and over.  It actually reminded me of John Gardner's line that "in all the world, there are only two stories.  You take a trip, or a stranger comes to town." (And Gardner showed in Grendel that he understands the power of telling a familiar tale through the lens of another character - he'd probably like Cloud Atlas just fine for that reason alone.)  Honestly, if you ever teach any sort of narrative structure class - playwrighting, screenwriting, or just plain ol' longhand fiction - Cloud Atlas could be a great film to use as a teaching tool, for it shows the same big events multiple times.

To sum up, Cloud Atlas is a movie for viewers who are willing to settle in for a long ride, who aren't afraid to think and who can still marvel at the way a movie can touch us emotionally. All that said, Cloud Atlas isn't for everyone - and it certainly doesn't make you a dunderhead if you decide it's not your cup of sweet tea.

But I'm oh-so-glad I saw it!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 37

Two of the best parts of co-writing a book like this (aside from simply being able to co-write a book like this) is that (a) the workload is shared and (b) you get to see things from more than just your own angle.  My co-author, Ensley F. Guffey, is in the midst of writing a longer piece for Wanna Cook? that deals with the concept of place in Breaking Bad.*

"Place?" you say.  "It's in Albuquerque.  Got it."  No, not that kind of place.  (Although you're right.)  Think of it this way - you buy a house, but you make a home.  If you get that, you're well on your way to understanding the significant differences between "space" and "place."  And this is a concept with which Breaking Bad's cup just runneth over.

Think of the RV, where Jesse & Walt spend such significant amounts of time early in the show - and think of that scene in which the faithful, shot-up RV goes to its final reward, marking the end of an era.

Rolling meth lab in the peaceful desert.  Sort of.

Will Walt's fate be much different?
Or think of Jesse's house, which begins Season 1 as very much his late aunt's house, and the changes it goes through as Jesse makes it his own place.  The house can be viewed as a metaphor for Jesse's squirrel-cage of a mind as he spirals down (particularly the beginning of Season 4) and makes some decisions (remember how he pretty much literally wipes the slate clean?  That's place, baby.)  These are the sorts of things Ensley describes and explains - great work, too!

Somehow, lace curtains don't seem gangsta to me.
Same house, Season 4
*The book will have several of these longer pieces.  Each episode gets about 1,500 words, which includes a brief "what's going on" along with notes on recurring images and themes, notable camera angles and "extras" that apply to the episode, like pieces on Pablo Escobar and Walt Whitman.  But there are a few concepts that deserved a longer look, such as the application of a great theory on the steps Walt travels to become so violent and the use on nonverbal communication (Hector's bell, for example) in the show.  The "place piece" is one of these.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Critiquing the Slasher Movie

Puppeteer at work?
To begin with, this post is going to be about the Whedon/Goddard not-quite-horror flick The Cabin in the Woods.  It's been out on DVD for a while now and if you haven't seen it, be warned that there will be a few spoilers in this post - nothing that a quick look at doesn't have, but still . . . if you want to skip to the "bottom line," here it is.  See this movie.

Okay, now that we have that taken care of - what sets Cabin apart?  It's a movie that viewers enjoyed, but critics loved.  The "Tomatoes" rating is a fine and respectable 76% for viewers, but a whopping 91% for critics.  Then again, I suspect critics saw different things in Cabin than most casual viewers did.  Whedon is known for genre-mashing and Cabin (which he and Goddard co-wrote) showcases his fondness for creating hybrids.  I daresay some purists in the horror world despised Cabin for that reason and I'm sure a few fans felt disappointed in the film.

Confession time - I'm not a huge horror buff.  I'm fine with suspense and I can handle creepy, but the trend towards finding more and more creative ways to hurt people (usually young females) leaves me cold.  Oh, I can trot out all the theories about why being scared serves a valid societal and psychological purpose, and I agree with part of those theories,* but I still have no desire to see most of it.  Like all genres, horror films have certain tropes that must either be obeyed or subverted - here's a great rundown of those tropes and cliches.  Cabin not only acknowledges these "rules" (for instance, the sexually-active girl has to be the first to die and the virtuous girl must be the "final girl"), it creates a world in which these rules are ironclad.  Whedon likes to toy with the "free will vs. game is rigged" conundrum and Cabin shows that off, too.

I like this movie quite a lot because it asks some questions about just who watches these movies. While there are several excellent scenes - including one in a stuffed-to-the-gills basement - the one that best underscores this point takes place in a sterile control room where a celebratory party is going on, with the relieved partygoers completely ignoring the live images on the giant viewscreens that show a girl desperately fighting for her life.  If you laugh at this scene, it's probably some very uncomfortable laughter - after all, we're also watching this and we paid money to be entertained by images of innocent people being hunted and killed.

I think that ought to make us uncomfortable.

*Stephen King has written extensively on this and his Danse Macabre is well worth a read.  If you really want to know more, check out the Journal for Horror Studies.  Yes, it's real.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 35

Breaking Bad is an incredibly detailed and nuanced show that sparks strong reactions in its viewers.  Many of these viewers feel a compulsion to write about the show (ahem), or Tweet, or create in other ways.  One of those ways is through fan art.  Like fanfic (oh, yeah - it's out there), some is good, some is less so, and some is just awesome!  I've tried to feature some fan-created art here with the weekly "Walter White Wednesday" posts and it's high time I pointed you toward some of the fan creations that deserve a good long look.  Some are touching, some are thrilling, and a few are just funny (see top of post - a weakness of mine is my inordinate love for puns).

First, this link takes you to a curated collection titled "Breaking Bad Art Project," which was displayed at Gallery 1988 in Los Angeles back in August. The works include both straight up fan art as well as pieces that were commissioned by the event organizer, Paul Scheer.  Show creator Vince Gilligan comments on the exhibit, along with Bryan Cranston (Walt), Bob Odenkirk (Saul), Betsy Brandt (Marie), and RJ Mitte (Walt Jr).  All proceeds went to the Alzheimer's Association in memory of Barbara Slovis, the mother of Breaking Bad's extremely talented cinematographer Michael Slovis.  Great, great stuff.

Buzzfeed collected their "25 Best Pieces of Breaking Bad Fan Art" - lot of focus on Walt here.

Like all good things (and some not-so-good things), Breaking Bad is active on Tumblr, where fans share their artistic creations inspired by the show.

Have you ever thought about taking Breaking Bad and tossing in other characters from other shows?  Like Game of Thrones or (heaven forbid) the Muppets?  Then this is the site for you!

Honestly, there is some wonderful, highly creative, professionally polished stuff out there - both visual art, writing, and video - that's done by fans out of love (or sometimes done by professionals trying to beef up a portfolio, but hey, it's still unpaid) that is well worth seeking out.  Find it, admire it, then let the creator know how much you liked it.  This stuff doesn't create itself, you know!

Until next week, chemistry fans!

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Visiting the Past

Truth, we are often reminded, is stranger than fiction.  Well, that's only true sometimes, but boy howdy! - when it's true, it's really true.  There are some things that most of us just couldn't make up if we tried for days, even if we were fueled by an unending supply of caffeine, sugar, and less reputable substances.

So what about this?  Here's the pitch - in 1979, six political hostages escape and find temporary refuge in the private residence of an American ally.  The only way to get them out is to have a CIA spook go in with the cover story that everyone is (ready?) part of a film crew who's in this catastrophically-screwy country to scout locations for a low-budget science fiction adventure movie designed to cash in on the global success of Star Wars.

Truth really is stranger than fiction, because it happened.  Details were declassified in 1997 by President Clinton and the resulting movie, Argo, tells a tale that is hard to believe, yet mostly true.  (Not entirely.  A few things aren't historically accurate, such as the run-down Hollywood sign, which was actually cleaned up in 1978.  Also, the Canadian government was more deeply involved than Argo lets on, but it's a feature film, not a documentary, so let's not nitpick overmuch.)

One aspect of Argo that I quite liked is that it doesn't take the jingoistic route.  While no sane person would approve of the actions of the hostage-takers, it has to be admitted that some of this situation was chickens coming home to roost.  Consider the hard facts leading up to the American embassy being overrun by armed and angry dissident students, screaming for USA blood.  First, the USA financed a coup to overthrow the freely-elected leader of the country and place "our guy" on the Peacock Throne as the head of the puppet government. (How appropriate that it wasn't really the real Peacock Throne.  The whole thing was a sham.)  Oil, don't you know.  Then we ignored decades of human rights abuses as "our guy" treats the country like his personal piggy bank.  Oh, and he's quite willing to turn a blind eye to widespread corruption and torture of political opponents, by the way.  Lastly, when the citizens of the country overthrow "our guy" after decades of this mistreatment, we offer him asylum.

If your brother had been hung upside down to be beaten and shocked with cattle prods, I bet you'd be a bit miffed as well.

Ben Affleck directs Argo with a deft hand and a slyly comic touch (John Goodman and Alan Arkin are absolute gold during their time on screen as the Hollywood contacts in the underlying scheme) that never loses sight of the fact that this was a dangerous, desperate plan that had absolutely no guarantee of working. You also have several instances where you realize that a single frustrated, "This isn't going to work!" from one of the tightly-wound not-quite-hostages could have spelled death by firing squad for the whole bunch.  Also, Bryan Cranston (playing the CIA boss back home) shows again what amazing range he has an an actor - the casting of this picture is just aces.  Be sure to stay through the credits - President Carter wants to talk with you!

In short, Argo is a thriller for the sort of movie viewer who's willing to wait for the payoff, rather than demanding 3.2 car chases per hour.  For this, Affleck can finally put Gigli behind him.  (Come on, like you don't have a few snapshots you hope never see the light of day.)  Argo is Oscar-worthy - see it now rather than waiting for the nominations to come out.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 34

Breaking Bad is on hiatus, both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul have movies coming out this weekend (Walt's is here, Jesse's is here) and Aaron Paul has Emmys for bookends. So it seems like a pretty good time to take a look at just why fans love the show.  In no particular order, I give you 6 reasons to love Breaking Bad - and why you should catch up on it.

1. Jesse. The story goes that the character of Jesse Pinkman, an ex-student of Walt's who's turned meth dealer and general loser, wasn't supposed to live beyond the first season.  But when you have an actor as talented as Paul, who can bring a fragility and layers of nuance to a character who is so basically unlikable, well - that's not something you just toss aside.  Over the run of the show, Jesse has deepened, matured and become a character to watch. He's got some talent for drawing, carefully moves a random bug so he won't crush it, but he's also a drug maker-and-dealer and, oh yeah, a murderer. Yet in many ways, he's become the moral center of Breaking Bad and yes, it's a little weird to realize that at first - and it's a clear indication of just how skewed Breaking Bad can get.

2. Family Life. Good stories are always about relationships and Breaking Bad's Vince Gilligan knows this. Jesse might be Walt's surrogate son (they do go into business together, after all) and Walt claims loudly and often that everything he's done, he's done for his family, but take a look at the Salamanca familia for a terrifying look at how tightly those family bonds can constrict. Hector has drawn so many into his orbit - some of whom are related by blood and some of whom are definitely not - but this is a man who understands loyalty and family, as well as murder and revenge. I wonder - think there's a parallel between Gus/Hector and Jesse/Walt?  Hmmm.
3. Skyler. Talk about a character who gets the social media nets a-humming!  There's a disturbing amount of Skyler-hate out there and any time there's that strong a reaction to a character, it's a good idea to keep an eye on her. Some of the hatred seems to come from fans who just can't stand the idea of anyone getting in Walt's way but - let's face it - Walt's off the rails. Sky is the one who keeps the family actually going. Once she's brought in to the mess that is Walt's retirement account, she has to figure out how far she's willing to go (pretty darned, it turns out) and where she's going to draw the line. The goalposts keep moving.
4. Tension & Drama. Breaking Bad is a thoughtful show that understands that you don't have to rush things. Sure, it uses time-lapse photography with changing light angles to show the passage of time, but it is willing to let stories unfold slowly rather than go for the quick solve. There are distinctive camera angles (look for the "up and through" shot) and images that echo in later episodes to pull viewers full circle. The show is primarily focused on Walt's descent into his own personal Hell (he even made the handbasket!) and the fundamental shifts his choices make in his own psyche. That's a story that takes time to tell and Gilligan & Co. aren't rushing it.
5. Humor. Without this, Breaking Bad would probably be too bleak for me. Humor runs throughout the show as a sort of leavening agent to keep things from getting just Too Damn Dark. It tends to be dark humor  (the kiddie pool scene, for example, or Ted's supposed end), but not exclusively.  Whenever I see Saul Goodman, I just start chuckling.
6. Walt. The diseased heart of the show. Walter White is a good man who goes bad and discovers that he likes it. He makes horrific decisions, bobs and weaves like a welterweight (hmm, close to "Walter White," isn't it?) to avoid being tagged with responsibility for his own twisted actions, yet we spend a good part of the first couple of seasons (maybe even longer) pulling for him.  That's the true genius of the show! Look, Walt is slowly becoming something terrible and malignant - he doesn't have cancer, he is cancer to everyone whose life he touches. And yet.  And yet. Can he change? Does he want to? And what price must he pay for the devastation he's wreaked in those lives?

In short, the show is fantastic and completely unlike anything else on television today. Watch. Catch up. Tell a friend.

But above all else - watch. Breaking Bad's like will not be seen again.

Monday, October 8, 2012

It's Alive! It's Alive!

Lookit, boy!  That's you!
Tim Burton's use of stop animation, that is.  Frankenweenie is this week's experiment and a successful one it was, too.  I have to admit that I didn't much care for the title, which I don't think fits the story all that well - maybe it fit Burton's original live-action short thirty years ago better, but I'm willing to let that go as a minor quibble.  Frankenweenie is a love letter to the old Universal Studio horror films of the the 1930s and these were the films that (in many ways) shaped our view of what the "monster movie" should be. There are lots of little nods to James Whale's granddaddy of horror films, Frankenstein, here.  It's rendered in black and white as were the original films and I think the B&W adds a certain nostalgic charm. (It also lets you set up Gothic angles and let the scare spring from the shadows, which can heighten the dread.)  The hero, who simply wants to bring back his beloved Sparky, is Victor, which is the name of the mad scientist in the original. The sweet girl next door is Elsa, a tip of the top hat to Elsa Lanchester, who played the Bride in the sequel.  One of the resurrected pets is a turtle named Shelly, which might have to do with the turtle's shell, but probably is a sly wink to Mary Shelley, who wrote the original Frankenstein in the first quarter of the 1800s.

Look for grace notes throughout - Elsa's poodle, who is named for the ancient Greek Queen of Death, goes full-on Bride after her nose touches one of Sparky's (love the name!) bolts, Victor has a would-be assistant who seems very familiar, and the town just so happens to have a fully operational windmill, which is crucial in the first Frankenstein movie.  Also, Shelly the turtle is transformed by his Japanese owner into an animated Gamera for the climactic fight sequence, showing that Burton's love for horror/comedy blends extends beyond the shores of America.  There's even a slavering mob with torches, although I did not notice any pitchforks.  Also - for anyone who's ever shot their own film - we first see Sparky as he stars in one of Victor's wonderfully creative monster movies.  Burton knows the power of making your own stories.

A few sequences might be too intense for very young or sensitive children - after all, you don't reanimate a beloved pet without first losing the pet to the icy grip of Death and there's a sequence in a creepy pet cemetery where Victor goes to retrieve Sparky - but overall, it's a fun, family-friendly ride and a delight to look at.  (For a long time, I've thought that Burton finds horror in the so-called normal. Watch the baseball game, which is usually a sign of "ordinary suburbia, nothing to see here, move along.")  Frankenweenie has lessons here about loss, love, science, and hope, as well as some wonderful vocal performances.  Catherine O'Hara and Winona Ryder both have prominent roles here and it's good to see part of the old team back together.  Martin Landau, who also is part of the Burton stable, is the slightly mad Old World science teacher who inadvertently gives Victor the idea of harnessing electricity in the first place.

Fun flick, made even better if you've seen the early films Burton is referencing.  If you haven't, now's a fine time of the year to catch up.  These original films are short - most are under an hour and a half - and quite worth your time.  2012 is Universal's centennial, so they're re-releasing all sort of cleaned up "creatures from the vault" - add a few to your viewing lists.  I'd suggest Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein (which just might be one of those rare sequels that tops the original), and Dracula as absolute must-sees, but there are plenty more.  You know what they say about monsters - you see one, but a dozen more are lurking in the shadows!

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 33

Pre Meth Walt - look, kids!
Chemistry is fun!  Like me!
Wanna Cook? is planned a quasi-commercial book. Or maybe it's a quasi-academic book. At any rate, it's a blend. While not as footnoted-and-polysyllabic as the genuine "television goes to the Ivory Tower" books are, Wanna Cook? is also designed to be far more than a recap guide. For me, this is a change. While the analysis of popular culture allows for a certain (shall we say) relaxing of tone, the overarching goal remains the same - take a solid background in the scholarship in the field and use it, along with your own independent research, to stake out and defend your particular position.

As you can imagine, these books tend to not crack the New York Times bestseller lists.  Oh, well. That doesn't mean they shouldn't be written. I'm quite proud of Faith & Choice in the Works of Joss Whedon, as well as my other publications (and really, they make wonderful additions to any holiday gift list!  Just sayin'). 

It's been great to write so freely and to express opinions without having to exhaustively support each and every contention, but I have to admit, it's also been a bit daunting.  I'm used to "well, so-and-so agrees with me right here on page 47 of the treatise Philosophers Take On Television* (published by Oh-So-Important Press 2008), so I must be right.  Took me six hours to find that quote so I have to be right!" Instead, this is much more "when you see something pop up four times in six episodes and the camera lingers on the item each time, that's no coincidence.  This is what I think it means."

Post Meth Walt - do what I say, or else.
A Very Bad Else.
However, it's a good idea to test-drive your theories.  So this past week, my co-author and I hied ourselves to the annual Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association in the South conference to present some ideas about Breaking Bad that will likely turn into longer pieces in the finished book.  We were fortunate to present alongside David Lavery (presenting on showrunner Vince Gilligan) and Jeffery Frame (presenting on secondary characters in the show), both of whom gave polished, artful talks.  (Keep in mind at these conferences, you're limited to a maximum of 20 minutes speaking time and that's with any clips you want to use. With a four person panel, your time is cut to a mere 15 minutes, so there's no time to fool around here.) My co-author has written about the panel over on his blog, so I won't duplicate it here, other than to say that the reception to our ideas was positive and it gives me hope that Wanna Cook? will be well-received and have some useful, creative, fun things to say.

In the next few weeks, I dive into the work of annotating and organizing Season 4, as well as re-writing the conference presentation into a book "extra." I daresay these weekly posts will show a focus on Season 4 as I work my way through that material - and what a season it was! Join me here on Wednesdays and I know Ensley F. Guffey would like to see you over at his place for the weekly "Meth Monday." Until then, stay safe and avoid angry chemistry teachers.

* Please note that, to my knowledge, neither this book nor the press actually exists, although I think the name of the press is especially cool and it probably should.

Monday, October 1, 2012

A Little Long in the Tooth

It's October, which means it's release time for the scary stuff.  Over the next four weeks, cartoon scares will jostle for theater room with suspense and slashers.  Some will be aimed at kids, others at near adults.  The first of these hit this week and, in the spirit of the Halloween sacrifice, I gave up a perfectly good afternoon to see it for you.

Hotel Transylvania isn't a bad movie; it's just that it isn't much of anything.  It wants to be - oh, how it wants to be! - and it has a heartfelt message about fathers wanting to protect their children and how that urge can cause great conflict with a teenage daughter who yearns to stretch her wings.  Literally in this case - the father and daughter are vampires who do that whole "turn into a bat" thing.  The basic premise is intriguing - Dracula is raising his daughter by himself, since his beloved Martha was killed in a fire set by humans.  He wants to shelter his little darling and he's built a fantastic hotel for monsters to be that bunker against humanity.  There's some interesting vocal talent here - heck, I think Steve Buscemi is one of the most under-rated actors out there - and there are a few sly winks at other films in the paranormal pantheon (I especially liked the Twilight nod) but overall, the movie feels flabby.  Not awful, just not ambitious.  Rather blah and I hate it when I find my attention wandering during a movie.  Then again, it's one of the only Adam Sandler movies where I haven't wanted to stab out my own eyes, so there's something.

Still - this one's a rental.

As a monster movie, Hotel Transylvania references so many classics - Wolfman, Frankenstein (and his Bride), the Mummy, the Invisible Man, skeletons, zombies, oh, my! - that it's a perfect spot to mention something else.

If you consider yourself a movie fan (and really - who doesn't?), do yourself a favor and go buy Jennifer Garlen's new book Beyond Casablanca.  In this book, accomplished movie critic Garlen first lists ten classic "must sees" that top nearly everyone's list - Casablanca, Wizard of Oz,  It's a Wonderful Life, and so on.  But the book itself is, as the title indicates, about going beyond those films to discover other classics that you might have missed.  Nothing in the book was produced after 1959 - she's discussing true classics that have stood the test of cinematic time here - and I guarantee you'll find something to trip your trigger.  It doesn't matter if you prefer romcom, action, Westerns, film noir, musicals, or whatever - Garlen's got you covered.

For about the cost of a ticket to Hotel Transylvania and a popcorn/drink combo, you can have something more lasting and, I'll argue, more useful.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 32

Way back in March, I wrote about silence in Breaking Bad. From there, the work grew a bit and I'll be presenting on some of the ways nonverbal communication is used in the show at the upcoming (I leave in a couple of hours) Popular Culture/American Culture Associations in the South conference. It's a juicy topic and I have limited time, so I really can only touch on a few highlights, including the Heisenberg hat and Hector Salamanca's "bell of doom." I'm really looking forward to this - it's always a lively conference and I come home flush with new ideas.

I'm also fortunate to be presenting on a themed panel - sometimes the panels are a little random and it's always nice to be part of a session that has a clear through-line. Seriously - check this out:

First, David Lavery, one of the howitzer-sized big guns of television studies, presents on "Vince Gilligan, Breaking Bad, and Television Creativity."  That's followed by Jeffrey D. Frame presenting on "Walt’s Wake: Chemical Disincorporation and the Break Down of Breaking Bad’s Secondary Characters." My beloved co-author, Ensley F. Guffey, will present on "Buying the House: Place in Breaking Bad" and then I wrap things up with "Pregnant Pauses: The Uses of Nonverbal Communication in Breaking Bad."

This is on Friday morning, so here's hoping the conference attendees are properly caffeinated!

Among the items in my luggage this year are a stack of flyers I'll be using to hawk JOSS IN JUNE!, which is a one-day conference devoted to exploring the work of Joss Whedon that I'm co-convening at my school in (you guessed it) June.  Interested? C'mon, you know you are!  After all, The Avengers was just released for home viewing yesterday!  The deadline for proposals is January 1, so you have plenty of time.  Of course, you can always just attend and not present, if that's what floats your boat.  Check out the link, and then contact me for details.

Now let me go pack!

By the way, the amazing artwork at the top of this post is by artist Martin Woutisseth.  You can learn more about him and his work by visiting

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Play Ball!

In baseball, the relationship and trust between a catcher and a pitcher is not to be underestimated.*  Sure, the pitcher gets most of the glory, but without a good catcher crouched at the plate calling the pitches, you got nothing.  Trouble with the Curve doesn't concern itself with that, but that's about the only relationship that isn't given quality screen time in this movie.  At its heart, Curve is about change and resistance.  Do we take a chance and trust our guts and and hearts, or do we cover ourselves up with gruffness and BlackBerry messages and hope to God that we never have to be honest about anything that really matters?  One's easy and the other's worthwhile.  But the choice isn't easy.

The film features four strong characters - Gus (Clint Eastwood), an aging baseball scout with failing eyesight; Mickey (Amy Adams), his nearly estranged daughter who's on the fast track to become partner at a high-powered law firm; Johnny (Justin Timberlake), a pitcher Gus signed to the big leagues but who blew out his arm and is trying to figure out his next move; and Pete (John Goodman), who's head of scouting for the Atlanta Braves and therefore, Gus' boss.  Seeing these four onscreen is a pure delight.

It's good that these characters are drawn with such detail and nuance, because the rest of the Curve is populated with characters taken straight from the Stock Character Warehouse, which is my major complaint.  Curve is a fairy-tale baseball movie in which the good are rewarded and the jerks get their well-deserved comeuppance and I'll admit I took great satisfaction is seeing the worthy elevated and the windbags deflated.  Yeah, yeah - we both know life doesn't really work that way (not often, at any rate), but it's still great fun to see.  And watching Justin Timberlake clog in some dive of a bar was nearly worth the price of admission.  And it seems to be true that Clint Eastwood pictures need to feature either a gun, a horse, or both.  (Note: this one has no guns.)

Clint Eastwood has had a career that makes strong men faint.  He's lasted longer in a business that is constantly scanning the horizon for the next big thing than just about anyone and he's done it with grace and style.  Look - Clint's career predates my entire life by more than a decade - his first credited appearance was as "Jonesey" in Francis in the Navy in the mid 1950s.  (That same year, he was "Jennings" in something called Revenge of the Creature proving that we all gotta start somewhere, I suppose.) He's given us the Man with No Name, he's been Dirty Harry, and ohmyheaven, he reclaimed the Western in 1992 with Unforgiven.  He knows jazz and gave us the wonderful Charlie Parker biopic Bird.  He's a talent to be reckoned with.  In Curve, he seems to be enjoying his status of Elder Curmudgeon of Hollywood and this is a worthy movie.  As Johnny reminds us, to get to that magic .300 batting average which denotes Big League talent, you have to be willing to strike out 7 out of 10 times.  Johnny's talking about far more than baseball and that's a lesson that Gus hasn't learned and therefore was one he couldn't pass on to his daughter.

Trouble with the Curve isn't as funny as Bull Durham or as touching as Field of Dreams, but it's a nice addition to the collection of baseball movies that remind viewers of just why America chose the devilishly-hard task of hitting a round ball with a round bat as our national game. 

*One of the best songs ever about this is Eddie From Ohio's "Catchers Drummers Anchormen" - check out the lyrics by clicking on the title.  And if you don't catch the song's reference to "with a wave of his arms/He kept it fair," check out this link.  Ah, baseball - you break my heart and make it soar at the same time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 31

One of the standout elements of Breaking Bad is the show's use of humor.  I maintain that without the lightness added by funny moments, Breaking Bad would simply collapse under the weight of its own shock, horror, and despair.  Certainly disposing of a person you've killed by dissolving them into human sludge isn't funny.

But add a couple of guys hosing human goo off each other in kiddie pools and you've got comedy gold!

"We never covered this in chemistry class, Mr. White."
OK, that isn't quite true.  Often the humor in Breaking Bad is darkdarkdark.  Even so, it still provides leavening for the pumpernickel-dark narrative bread that makes up so much of Walter White's downward spiral.

One of the lighter elements would be Saul Goodman.  Saul is pretty much the walking definition of "shyster," although he's also a really good attorney who zealously advocates for his clients.  (Incidentally, the problem is not that his clients are drug dealers, sleazeballs, and other skating-the-edge types, but that Saul actively helps them advance their schemes and plots.) But Saul's appearance on screen lets loyal viewers know that we're in for a few light moments.  He dresses like he's auditioning for Guys & Dolls, his office is a cartoon, his dialogue is laced with funny bits ("Hey, whoa! You're a Chatty Cathy today!" to Skyler when she's beginning to talk too much on an unsecured phone line), and he doesn't hesitate to put his own interests first, as when he insists Walt and Jesse put $5 in his pocket before he talks, so everything's covered by attorney-client privilege, despite the fact that the two have clumsily kidnapped him and are threatening him with grievous bodily harm.

Gilligan & Company know a fundamental truth - we can only handle so much darkness before the giggles begin to well up inside us.  Knowing that is one reason we can not only accompany Walt on his journey into damnation, but cheerfully pack a picnic for the trip.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Screen Dreams

Martin Scorsese making silents
As a movie fan, I'm sometimes surprised at how tricky it can be to make a movie about, well - movies.  Maybe it's the fear of too many "in jokes" that the crowd won't get, or maybe it's the fact that Hollywood often seems to have the attention span of a hyperactive gnat, but this is a genre of movies that seems to be pretty thin.  Mind you, often movies in this category are transcendent.  Altman's The Player is worth renting just for the opening shot (listen for the reference to Welles' Touch of Evil then go rent that) and I'll watch Singin' in the Rain just for O'Connor's "Make 'Em Laugh" sequence.

So why'd it take me the better part of a year to see Scorsese's Hugo? I have no answer, aside from the fact that the film was only at my local theater for a week, if that, when it was in big-screen release.  Ah, Hugo.  This was simply a lovely film. It helps if you have an appreciation for what it might have been like for the early pioneers of film, but even if you think silents are dull and boring (I disagree with you there, by the way), Hugo is a film to love.  Parts of the story are based on true events - which in and of itself is a sad thing.  We so often demand simple stories that immerse us in spectacle, but keep actual emotional content safely at arm's length.  Imagine, just for a moment, that you have never, ever seen a movie.  You've never seen images flicker and move on a screen in a darkened theater.  Then this technology comes along and suddenly, people are making stories that move.  For the price of a ticket, you can go to the bottom of the sea or to the moon (remember, it would be another seventy years before we actually knew what the moon looked like from human experience).

I fear we live in a cynical age which is often marked by being too cool to care - we've seen it all and done most of it and really, who cares?  Hugo makes you consider what it's like to care. Imagine going broke to the point of selling your life's work which is then melted down for scrap.  Imagine being an abandoned child trying desperately to stay hidden.  Then imagine finding refuge in a dim movie house.  Imagine being able to show that to your first friend.

The secret is the human ability to connect.  Movies have the power to do many things - and help us form many connections - and Scorsese knows this.  With Hugo, he created a beautifully crafted Valentine to the power of movies and to those who know the secret of this power, whether they are makers of movies or watchers of them.

Terry Pratchett captured this same sense of marvel in his Discworld novel Moving Pictures.  You know those primitive tribes who refuse to be photographed because of their fear that doing so might capture their soul?  Well, what if there's some sort of magic in making movies - and that magic wants to come into our world?  I've been a Pratchett fan since I was urged to read The Truth about seven years ago.  Pratchett writes great, complex fantasy novels that take place in a world that isn't nearly as nasty as Martin's Game of Thrones world (don't yell at me; I've read four of them, but I'm taking a break.  The random violence and misogyny got to me, even though I'm pretty sure it's there to make a point).  The Discworld is for people who enjoy sharp satire and clever writing - if that's you, go check out his work.  He has a new novel that's just come out - Dickens-based, from the title.  Not Discworld, but Pratchett's always worth a read.

Just as Georges Melies' silent films are worth a look.  From 1904 - The Mermaid

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 30

Well, well, well - for the first time since high summer, I don't have a new Breaking Bad episode to recap and speculate upon. I can deal with that - "Gliding Over All" left me with plenty to chew on - but I will admit to wishing that it wasn't going to be the better part of an ENTIRE YEAR before I learn how Walt goes from serenely watching his children play around the backyard pool to buying a heavy machine gun in the men's room of a Denny's on his birthday.

Damn you, Gilligan! (An oath I'm sure Skipper wanted to scream to the skies from time to time on that island, by the way.)

So what's going on in the meantime? Wanna Cook? The Unofficial Companion Guide to Breaking Bad continues to take shape. The first three seasons are drafted and my co-author and I are taking a short break to prepare papers for presentation at the annual Popular/American Culture Association in the South conference, which is due to be held in Nashville, TN at the end of September.  Ensley F. Guffey will be presenting on how Breaking Bad uses space and place (think of the transformations the house we first see Jesse living in goes through to become Jesse's house as Jesse himself transforms) and I'll be presenting on how the show uses nonverbal communication (think dingdingdingding along with creepy-crawly  Cousins, among other examples). It'll take us until the conference to put these ideas down on paper and prepare our clips, so Season Four won't really get rolling into draft form until early October.

I have to say, I think you're going to be pleased with the final book. Wanna Cook? was always planned to be far more than a recap or episode summary guide. The book is full of notes about ongoing themes in Breaking Bad, camera shots, episode titles, and lots of extras about everything from Pablo Escobar and money laundering to Ted's heated floor and Walt Whitman.

We both plan on continuing our weekly posts about Breaking Bad - you can find "Meth Monday" over at Ensley's site and I hope you'll keep coming back here for "Walter White Wednesday." There's plenty for us to talk about!

Throughout the run of Breaking Bad, fans of the show have put together some amazing fan-work centered around the show - here's a link to a re-imagining of the opening credits that I think is well worth a look! Maybe this will help tide you over until we get our answers about Walt, Hank, Jesse, and the rest!