Saturday, June 30, 2012

The Artist

I'm taking a break this week from writing about new releases.  Instead, I want to bring to your attention a movie that swept the awards circuit but that you may have missed, as I did.  You see, I live in a small town, and "artsy" movies either pass us by entirely, or make a brief half-week stay.  Which all goes to explain how I missed The Artist last year.  It's just been released on DVD, though, so you can easily pick up this award-winning gem.

The Artist is that rarity among films - a risk-taker.  Set during the tumultuous few years when film whipsawed from silents to "talkies," the film is a throwback to those days.*  You have to pay attention to what's happening on the screen; you can't drop your eyes and expect the dialogue to carry you through, for there is no dialogue.  Practically the entire film is silent, with a few title cards and a very few spoken words. (And this film is an excellent example of the power of having just a few words as opposed to lengthy speech after lengthy speech.) The entrancing story of pride, love, ambition, and innovation will catch you at the very beginning and keep a tight hold on you.  The cast is marvelous and it's worth your time.  

I'm not advocating for a return to silent films, but this one works.  Give it a try.

*Yes, the magnificent Singin' in the Rain farmed this same ground, but in a very, very different way.  See that one, too.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 19

Season 5 is coming quickly and I wanted to make sure everyone here is up to speed on the teasers that AMC is beginning to send our way.  (By the way, that means I'm posting with the idea that you've seen all of Season 4 by now.  Just saying.)  A few weeks ago, I posted the first Season 5 shot of Walt surrounded by bales of cash in what seems to be a run-down warehouse - you can see that at the foot of the post linked here.  Since then, AMC has given us a few more tastes.

Look at this cast shot for Season 5:

About which I want to say - YAY!  Mike's back!  I've missed him and I'm anxious to see what direction he's going to go in, once he finds out that, due to a slight case of explosion, he's no longer working for Gus.  Also note the dark, muted colors - even Marie's usual purple is leaning toward dull.  Walt's choices (he's front and [almost] center, of course) have bled the vibrancy out of everyone around him.  Hmmm.

And here's the first trailer for Season 5:

Mike's doing the voice-over, so yep, he's definitely back and in a big way.  Walt seems to be playing Billy Badass, which might work out okay for him, but it never has in the past.  And he's done darker and darker things to keep his head above water.  Too many secrets to keep straight and (to totally mangle my metaphors) chickens eventually want to come home to roost.  The scuttlebutt is that Season 5 starts full-out with no ramp-up to the action, so this is going to be quite a ride!

Check out the official AMC site for more still photos, interviews, minisodes, and more as we prep for the final cook of Breaking Bad!

I plan to spend the final two Walter White Wednesdays before Season 5 begins on July 15 briefly outlining Season 4 and where I think a few threads might be leading.  I accept that speculating on the direction of Breaking Bad is probably a useless exercise, since Vince Gilligan & Company perpetually surprise me by upending my expectations, but hey! I speculate anyway.

Sunday, June 24, 2012


This weekend's new pick for me and my Viewing Companion was Pixar's Brave.  I'll admit, I went in with high expectations - like Ridley Scott, Pixar knows how to make a stunner of a movie in terms of the look of the thing and on that score, Brave is wonderful.  The scenery is so detailed and realistic that I caught my breath more than once.  I wasn't sure of the storyline, though.  This is a joint effort between Pixar and Disney and I've been an outspoken critic of Disney princesses.  Don't get me wrong - I cut my milk teeth on Disney animation and I like it just fine.  However, Disney sanitizes its fairy tales to sell tickets to the Younger Set and the Mouse tends to like weak female characters.  Face it, the stories of Disney princesses tend to be of girls who are sweet and good and gentle who have bad things happen to them and who then need saving.

And don't even bother telling me to lighten up, that it's just a movie, and a kids' movie at that.  What on God's green earth could be more important than the messages we send to children?  As Brave puts it, "Legends are lessons."  We absorb a tremendous amount of identity messages through popular culture.  The rationale behind not having female-driven stories has always been that girls will go see/read stories about boys, but boys won't go see/read stories about girls.

Here's hoping the box office shatters that myth once and for all, for Brave tells a story we can all benefit from hearing.

I will admit that I sat in the darkened theatre as the credits played with tears running down my face.  Now, Pixar's made me cry before (if the first ten minutes of Up don't get you weepy, seek clinical help), but this was different.  My whole life, I've been waiting to see Brave, I just didn't know the title.  Maybe this is just a "girl thing;" I don't know.  But I've yearned to see a girl take charge of her own life.  A girl who demands that she be given the same choices that a boy would have - and the same opportunities to rule her own destiny.  Brave also does some really nice things with (of all things) hair.  Look at how wild and untamed Merida's red curls are as opposed to her mother Elinor's smooth, restrained locks - there's a nice metaphor going on there.  Also, unlike many Disney pictures, there's no evil here (which is often portrayed as female - a witch or a stepmother, for example).  In Brave,  the bad things happen because of poor choices that are made, including the failure to listen, and Merida then chooses to square her shoulders and fix the mess she created.  It's a powerful message to send to children - girls and boys both - and seeing that story told, and told so beautifully, got me to crying.

Nothing wrong with tears.  Madness often springs from the inability to shed them.

All this said, Brave has a few scenes that are probably too intense for very young children.  But they'll be old enough to benefit from this story of a strong girl raised by strong parents and the ties that bind us together soon enough.  And I'm so glad that kids are going to have this movie as a touchstone - girls and boys both will grow up thinking that Merida is pretty darned cool and we'll all better off for that.

By the way, Pixar also included a short called La Luna to go with Brave.  Absolutely gorgeous and another jewel in Pixar's crown of family-oriented stories.  Be sure you see it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 18

. . . which is the one about Junior.

Walter Jr. is (as you would imagine from the name) Walt's son.  He's a good kid.  He loves his parents (even as he's exasperated by their utter failure to understand him), he's trying hard to navigate the choppy waters of high school life, he doesn't get into trouble, he sets up a Website to generate money to help his cancer-stricken dad (which generates a LOT of cash, thanks to Saul's Not-Quite-Legal Laundry) and overall, really - he's a good kid.  (Also a kid who seems to eat a LOT of breakfasts!  Ever notice that?  It's like he's hollow or something.  Then again - teenage boy.)

Walt Jr. also has cerebral palsy.  This condition can manifest in a wide spectrum of ways - in Junior's case, his speech is a bit slowed (his mind is just fine, thankyouverymuch), and he walks with crutches, which has made learning to drive a little more difficult as it takes him both feet to manage the accelerator and brake when using only one foot is the standard method.  [Worthy sidenote:  It's worth noting that RJ Mitte, who plays Walt Jr., also has cerebral palsy, albeit a less severe case than Jr.  Mitte has used the visibility the role has brought him to both publicize CP and to champion the cause of actors with disabilities working in the industry.]

When Walt claims to be doing "all this" for the family, he's including Junior in that statement.  Walt Jr. (or "Flynn," a name he's trying out as a way to assert some independence from his befuddled parents) has had to develop a thick skin over the years, for children are not only the epitome of Pollyanna innocence, they are also the beasts of Lord of the Flies.  Teenagers in particular are quick to pounce on anybody who doesn't squarely fit into their template of perceived cool.  We see this early on in Breaking Bad when the Whites are shopping with Junior for school clothes.  Due to the financial situation (which includes baby Holly on the way at this point), they're shopping at a secondhand store where a gaggle of insensitive clods mock Junior's speech and mobility issues.  In just about the most satisfying scene in the first season, Walt thrashes the bejeezus out of the ringleader of this pack of peckerwoods in defense of his son.  Walt Jr. is (of course) embarrassed by this, but as a viewer, I find it extremely satisfying, although I don't recommend it in real life.*

It's Walt Jr. who takes his dad to task for his reluctance to get treatment for the lung cancer, reminding Walt that a little chemo is nothing compared with what Walt Jr. goes through every single day.  It's Walt Jr. who lashes out at Skyler when Walt moves out of the family home - a boy needs his dad, something Skyler admits but, with what she knows, she's not sure that he needs this dad.  

Walt Jr. knows nothing - repeat, nothing - about what Walt's been up to.  He's been sold the "lucky at gambling" story and can't fathom that his dad would lie to him.

Season 5 will get interesting.

By the way - there are only 3 more Walter White Wednesdays before Season 5 kicks off on Sunday, July 15!  Beginning that Wednesday (July 18), WWW will focus on the "new stuff!"    

*Instead, take out your house key and drag it firmly through the paint of the kid's car instead.  I joke, I joke!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Jazz Hands, Everybody!

Sometime in the next day or so, I'll go see Rock of Ages.  See the things I'm willing to do for you?  I have to admit, that's one movie that's going to have an uphill climb for me.  It might be great and if it is, I'll say so, but  I'm dreadfully afraid that it's karaoke night in Hollywood and the only category the machine is programmed for is "80s hair bands."

But that got me to thinking about musicals in general.  While Rock of Ages is a musical, it's not really the type I'm talking about, which is the kind where the songs are specifically written for the show and also serve to propel the plot forward.  Musicals are a genre that people have very strong feelings about - many people enjoy the escapism of a good show and others despise the non-realism of people suddenly bursting into song and dancing in perfect synchronization.  I get that, although I feel compelled to point out that going to the movies for realism makes about as much sense as going to an art museum to pick out upholstery.

There are some great, fun, moving musicals out there.  While not to everyone's taste (how boring a world would that be?), you might want to give the following a try - links are provided for each.  In no particular order:

1.  Chicago.  With coarse language and murderous characters, this is not one to share with the kiddies, but it is one that'll get you talking about crime as fame and the kinks of the American legal system.
2.  Evita.  I'm one of those who thinks Madonna did a great job with this role, which might hit close to home  for her with its themes of sex as power and sex appeal as the shortest way for a woman to move up the political/corporate ladder.  Catchy, complex songs and Antonio Banderas as Che, who's basically the Greek chorus.
3.  Jesus Christ Superstar.  Straight from the Gospel of St. Matthew, this early Webber/Rice collaboration has long been an Easter favorite of mine.  Carl Anderson as Judas - chills.
4.  A Chorus Line.  Not everyone can be a star, but everyone has rent to pay.  And everyone has a story.
5.  Little Shop of Horrors.  Alien plant life, a lovestruck geek, a sexy girl who wants to throw a Tupperware party, the Supremes as Greek chorus and a sadistic dentist.  Plus Levi Stubbs!
6.  The Muppets.  No way I could leave this out.  Frank Oz of Little Shop fame was Miss Piggy, after all. It's time to play the music.  It's time to light the lights.
7.  Purple Rain.  Maybe Prince can't act (and the good Lord knows Apollonia can't), but this is well worth a look.
8.  Hair.  Dated, sure, but the whole thing is worth is for the final shots of  Treat Williams.
9. The Wall. 'Nuff said.
10. Enchanted.  A charming take on Disney tales and "what if?" complete with a massive dance number in Central Park.  With Amy Adams, who was also central in The Muppets.

Lastly, don't overlook Disney.  Heck, The Lion King went from cartoon to Broadway smash.  And when you're ready, Les Miserables will be coming out around Christmas.  Shhh - don't tell anyone, but that show is a "sung-through" with serious themes and leitmotifs, which means it can just as easily be cataloged as an "opera" as it can a "musical."

I know I left a lot off - Sweeney Todd, Grease, Camelot, South Park - that's sort of my point.  There's something out there for everyone.  It's worth looking for.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 17

. . . which is the one about family.

The concept of family runs throughout Breaking Bad - most obviously with Walt, who uses his desire to provide for his family as his reason for getting into the meth trade.  For new viewers, when Walt is diagnosed of terminal lung cancer, he begins to take stock of his life and he doesn't like what he sees.  Teaching high school chemistry to bored teenagers hasn't brought Walt happiness or prestige.  Desperate to at least leave behind a tidy nest egg for his wife and children (Skyler is pregnant with a "surprise" baby at the beginning of Season 1, remember), Walt comes up with the hare-brained idea of using his stellar background in chemistry to manufacture the purest methamphetamine on the market.  He's got the skills in the manufacturing arena, but doesn't count on the casual viciousness of the drug trade.  I've argued before that his motives aren't really that pure, anyway.  With Walt, it's more about pride than it is about providing.  He refuses help when it's offered (and offered by well-meaning people, including his brother-in-law) and digs his hole deeper and deeper until he apparently decides he likes the darkness he finds underground.  He doesn't like - not one little bit - his son's efforts to raise money for his treatment.  Walt wants to be The Man Who Provides, but he's busy keeping secrets and shoving away the very ones he's supposed to be providing for.

Not that he's the only screw-up in that household.  Skyler has her own sins to atone for.

But the White family is not the only example of family ties in Breaking Bad.  Look beyond that small circle and you find the strong bonds of family loyalty in the Schrader household, for instance.  Marie and Hank have problems (mild kleptomania and a streak of jackassery), but their loyalty to each other is above question.  Exhibit A - see how Hank tears out of the junkyard when he thinks Marie has been injured, even though it means leaving ABQ's drug kingpins behind to flee (and if you don't think Walt owes a debt for that lie, just ask Jesse, much less Hank, or Marie, or Skyler).  And Exhibit B - see how Marie transforms from self-centered memememe! to Tiger Wife when Hank's treatment options are being discussed.

Now expand out to Jesse's circle.  From what we see of Jesse's parents and brother, he was raised in solid comfort, but his choices have caused his family to make the painful decision to cut ties with him.  Call when you're ready to actually change, not just when you're in trouble and we'll talk is the message his parents send to him after years of shattered promises and broken hearts.  Jesse comes close - so close! - to forming a family of his own with Jane (I'm not counting Skinny Pete and Badger here, although a case could be made), but that ends badly.  The bad ending is the result of a toxic combination of miserable choices and Walt.  Collateral damage here includes Jane's father and an entire planeload of innocents.

But go even further from the bright firelight of the middle-class American family.  Look at the family in "Peekaboo," but don't stare too long - that cracking sound in your chest is your heart breaking for the child.  Oh, and drug lords have families, too.  Just ask the bloodthirsty Cousins, who arrive in Season 3 to exact vengeance on those responsible for the death of Tuco, a hit that has the blessing of the patriarch of the family.  Well, the family that slays together . . .

Normally, family ties are seen to be good things that serve to hold the fabric of society together.  But the family values of Breaking Bad challenge that viewpoint.  Is it love that holds these people together and drives their actions, or is it something more sinister, like the desire to control and to be held in esteem by those under you?  And just what sort of family is it that has these levels of secrecy, violence, and a running body count?

Tune in to AMC beginning on July 15 for Season 5 to find out!

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Smoke, Not Fire

This is the problem with pre-screening hype - it gets expectations up.  Instead of just having a nice little movie, it has to be the BIGGEST THING EVER!!  Instead of showcasing stylish framing and camerawork, it has to SHOCK YOUR SENSES!!  And instead of adding a puzzle piece or two to an existing storyline, it has to ANSWER ALL THE BIG QUESTIONS!!

Prometheus does none of those things, although much is promised.  It's not a bad film; in fact, director Ridley Scott shows once again that he knows how to both capture breath-taking beauty through a camera lens and how to create memorable environments for his characters to cavort within.  But ultimately, Prometheus is a movie that didn't need to be made, much less hyped to within an inch of its life.

The chief problem here is Alien, which shot Scott to A list stardom some thirty years ago.  (His position there was cemented with Blade Runner a few years later, a two-fer that made him a science fiction darling, if not a downright wunderkind.)  Alien is so good and stands up so well after all these years that . . . well, let's put it this way.  Alien is the horror equivalent of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird and Lee didn't write a sequel, prequel, or much of anything afterward.  It's not that Prometheus is bad; it's that it's not Alien, yet it tries to answer the questions Alien left unanswered.  Here's a tip, Hotshot.  There's no reason to answer them and trying to just feels forced.  There's a heavy patina of philosophy and theology coating Prometheus and it doesn't fit well.  It certainly can fit well in science fiction; in fact, I've said repeatedly that science fiction is a genre that is ideally suited to asking the Big Questions such as "What makes us human?" and "What really matters?"  But just because a film asks those questions doesn't make it a Good Film.

Alien is all about cramped spaces, shadowy things-that-want-to-kill-us, and figuring out how to survive as the crew are picked off, one by one.  (And a cat.)  Prometheus can't do that, because we already know what was a mystery in the first film.  We already know what the aliens are and how awful they are.  We already know the shape of the ship and the look of the bridge.  Wisely, Prometheus doesn't try to flat-out copy that.  We get a large cast of scientists who have followed cave paintings to a faraway moon in hopes of "meeting our maker."

The problems begin early.  The first scene, which is lovely and terrifying in turns, is not needed and removes any trace of mystery from the rest of the film.  The film further suffers from too large a cast - it never gels as an ensemble and there's not enough screen time to develop each character, so a few become throwaways.  The scientists aren't particularly curious about the alien civilization they've discovered, they are overly mercenary, and they make some deeply stupid decisions.  While Alien gave us Ellen Ripley,  Prometheus thinks simply passing the Bechdel Test automatically makes it a Worthy Film.  Charlize Theron's Vickers has daddy issues and Noomi Rapace's Shaw has way too much symbolism tied up in jewelry.  Alien gave us a treacherous android and a shadowy corporate agenda.  While Prometheus retains both, those elements have lost the power to shock us.  Oh, and sex is bad and pregnancy is a horror.

Prometheus is not without its moments, however.  Michael Fassbender as the android David is especially noteworthy and Idris Elba as the captain could be - I suspect there's a scene or two on the cutting room floor that should have been left in there on that score.  The scope and sweep of the cinematography is jaw-dropping and deliberately invokes David Lean (maybe a key to the android's name, now that I think about it), especially Lean's masterwork Lawrence of Arabia.

In short, Prometheus wants to be an Important Film and it tries mightily to be that.  Unfortunately, along the way, Scott substituted bombast for joy.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 16

. . . which is the one about Skyler.

Skyler is Walter White's wife (hey, try saying that three times fast!).  She's the one who found the house they live in and she's worked hard over the years to make it into a cozy home for the family.  She understands numbers and has worked as a bookkeeper.  She loves her husband and her family.  She is also the perfect match for Walt in terms of manipulation and a sense of knowing more than she actually does.

In the beginning, it's easy to see Sky as an innocent.  She's at home getting ready for this unexpected baby to arrive and has gone so far as to sell various household knick-knacks to make ends meet for her family.  She's a little frustrated that Walt hasn't finished the nursery the way he promised to do.  Then she's hit with the whammy of her husband having advanced lung cancer that they can't afford to aggressively treat.  He goes off the deep end, disappearing for hours (and then days) at a time, and shutting her out of whatever's going on.  She's practical about expenses so when her sister's baby shower gift turns out to be a jeweled tiara, Sky's determined to return it to the store.  However, when she does, she is promptly threatened with arrest.  (Seems Marie has a problem that way.)

Here's where things get interesting.

Sky blusters and whimpers in turn until she cries her way out of a tight spot.  She will do this again when she needs a locksmith to let her in to Walt's condo without proof that she lives there (in fact, she doesn't).  She hounds Walt to tell her what's going on.  Okay, that's understandable to a point, but when Walt won't move out of the family house after she discovers his master plan of meth-making, she starts an affair with Ted to force the issue.  She's sneaky and sly and - just like Walt - says she's doing it all for the family.  While she doesn't go as far as Walt - you ARE watching Season 4 by now, aren't you? - Sky's no choirgirl.  In trying to protect her from the gritty details of just how degraded the drug world is, Walt has inadvertently left Sky exposed.  At the end of Season 4, Sky doesn't know everything (if she did, I have to think she'd pack up the kids and run like hell), but she knows enough to know that the water in which Walt is moving is both deep and swift.  She also knows that she's tethered herself to him.  If he goes down, she's very likely to go with him.

And then who's left to take care of the family?

Season 4 of Breaking Bad is now available on DVD and if you aren't watching (or re-watching!) it in anticipation of Season 5, maybe this teaser poster from AMC will convince you.  With the events of Season 4 behind him, is Walt truly the king?  I think the Sun King of France went for grander surroundings than some grimy warehouse and a tattered lawn chair for a throne, but maybe that's just me.

One last thing - beginning on June 11, AMC is running multiple episodes late night Sundays to get everyone up to speed before Season 5 begins broadcasting on July 15.  Set your DVR!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Evil Queens & Madonna

It's been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.  Of course, it's also been said that what goes around, comes around.  After watching Snow White and the Huntsman, I couldn't help but think that Madonna is probably doing a fair amount of deep sighing right about now.

I've always enjoyed Madonna's music and yes, I'm old enough to remember when she first broke onto the pop music scene, although I never imitated her style of dress.  (There is photographic evidence of any number of [shall we say] unfortunate clothing trends I took part in, but I wasn't a part of that one.)  When I first saw Fritz Lang's Metropolis, one of my reactions was, "Holy Giant Machine!  Madonna totally ripped off Lang with her "Express Yourself" video!"  And I'm right about that.

Madonna has often been an innovator, especially in the arena of music videos.  She has also freely borrowed from the past, from Fritz Lang to Marilyn Monroe.  Newer artists owe her a debt for blazing a trail - I'm looking at you, Gaga!  (In the interests of full disclosure, I should admit that I'm quite a fan of Lady Gaga, who I think can justly wear the Madonna mantle.  Or bustier.)

Look, I'm having this conversation to avoid talking much about Snow White, which honestly is thin on story and has some plot holes large enough to drive a battalion through.  (For instance, you're a cruel queen known for eating hearts.  You keep your chief rival locked up, but make sure she has sturdy footwear and leather pants under her bulky, Renaissance-style gown?  Seriously?)  I don't mind thin stories - this is a fairy tale, so a few things just have to be accepted, although there's some big-time sloppiness in setting up the world of the film.  And Charlize Theron is having a lovely time up there, chewing the scenery and showing us all how women dread aging.  (Thanks for nothing on that score, Theron!)

But if you're going to go light on story, at least go "whizzbangboom" on the effects.  Michael Bay taught me that.  Personally, I liked the effects - although I've had it with the hand-held camera work.  It's a big-budget major studio release - invest in a couple of Steadicams, please!  After Hunger Games, I've gotten very weary of the herky-jerky whip pans. My problem with the effects is that I've seen them before.  I loved Madonna's "Frozen" video when it first came out.  And it's a song all about hearts, so I guess it fits Snow White as an inspiration.  Compare the video to the film's trailer and you'll see what I mean.

First up is "Frozen" from 1998:

And the trailer from Snow White: