Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 28

We're wrapping up Season 5A now, with only one more episode to go.  In many ways, this season has been darker than previous ones, but the darkness is personal.  There's no big drug kingpin pushing Walt around, no homicidal Cousins sitting quietly with deaths-head boots - there's just Walt with no one to stop him.  Don't be fooled - from this, the terror springs.

This week's title - "Say My Name" - indicates Walt's desire to cement his identity as Heisenberg, his version of Billy Badass.  In the cold open, he brokers a deal with Gus' Phoenix counterpart and wins.  Not only does Walt now have access to Declan's distribution network, Declan will be moving the blue meth (not the trash he's been making with food coloring to fool the public.  Honestly, what's needed here is regulation in packaging).  Walt compares his 99.1% pure product to Classic Coke and Declan's 70-ish% pure meth to some off-brand cola.  Declan threatens to just kill Walt there in the desert and Walt coolly responds, "Do you really want to live in a world without Coca-Cola?"  Now THERE's some product placement!

Anyway, Declan backs down - he's a businessman, and there's heavy coin to be made here.  Walt doesn't get that and instead thinks he's won, missing the point that his "win" only lasts as long as his usefulness outweighs his liabilities.  But Walt doesn't understand, or care, about that and revels in the moment, demanding that Declan "say my name."  There's a certain sexual undertone here - when Walt tosses the bag of blue to the desert sand, I thought of a john flipping a $20 onto the dresser.  "Who's your daddy, baby?"

I suppose we should let Walt enjoy that, as it's the last thing that goes right for him for the rest of "Say My Name."  His children are gone from the house, his wife can barely stand to be in the same room with him (long gone are the pot roasts for dinner - it's strictly microwave-in-a-box now), his distribution network is out of the business (and when Mike's out, he's well and truly out), and Jesse has made a decision that Walt can't shake him from.

Yay, Jesse, by the way.  Walt tries it all - bullying, wheedling, guilt - and the tactics just aren't working anymore.  Jesse wants out and if he has to walk away from a cool $5 million, well, by God, that's what he's going to do to get clear of Heisenberg's riptide.  The weight of the sins on Jesse's soul have finally anchored it to his conscience. So Walt brings in another young, eager-to-please lab assistant - Todd the Child-Killer.  (By the way, the horn-heavy song "Goin' Down" that plays over this cook scene is by The Monkees.  That just made me smile.)

The DEA finally gets to Mike, not through a jail rat, but through the lawyer Mike's using to deliver the payoffs to Gus' men.  Mike had prepared for the need to disappear and Walt delivers his "go bag" to him.  When Mike does what the viewer has been wanting to do for many, many episodes and calls Walt out on his greed and ego wrecking an established "good thing," Walt has a tantrum.  With a handgun.

So no one else is going to die now that Walt's in control, huh?

Season 5A wraps up next week.  We know that Walt wants the names of the "Fring Nine" who could possibly turn on him and that he can get them from Lydia. Is Walt willing to pay for a killing spree as part of the cost of doing business?  Is the "breaking bad" that began in Season 1 complete, in which case cancer would be a sunny park compared to the sheer emptiness that looms inside Walt now?  And what about Jesse?  Who knows far too much and has cut all ties with Heisenberg, who owes him five million dollars?

Stay tuned.  I know I will.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Kids Don't Grow on Trees

When I was a teensy li'l critic earning my bachelor's degree, I encountered Sam Shepard's Pulitzer Prize-winning play Buried Child.  At 19, it both scared and confused me.  I mean, didn't the family know their own?  And how can you keep such a horrible secret?  These seemed like simple questions, but again, I was very young.

So what if Buried Child was a fairy tale instead of the darkest of dramas?  What if the thing that was buried was a heartbroken couple's wishes for their dream child?  What if moving on meant facing getting what you wanted, instead of confronting what you did?  Then you might wind up with The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a delightful, though weepy, movie about wishes confronting reality and reality confronting wishes.

The story is by Ahmet Zappa (yep, one of Frank Zappa's kids) and the screenplay and direction are by Peter Hedges, who did the screenplay all those years back for the magnificent What's Eating Gilbert Grape.  The film is best approached as a live-action fairy tale - I've read some critics who don't get that and seem offended that the film is so sentimental, so let me address that.  Sentiment is not a bad thing.  I think we often get so wound up in posing as cool that we run the very real risk of losing the ability to be genuinely touched by emotion.  Timothy Green deals with a childless couple who desperately want a child and a bit of unexpected magic that grants them their wish.  But wishes, like anything else in life worth having, come with consequences.  Timothy is everything his parents wanted - and they were very specific about what they wanted - but everything has a season and some are shorter than others.

Timothy Green is an unashamedly feel-good movie. It takes place in a small town where there is one rather outdated industry and the most colorful autumn ever.  The casting is spot-on with newcomer CJ Adams playing Timothy with a total lack of guile. (Adams worked with Hedges in Dan in Real Life a few years back, but this is his first starring role and I seriously doubt it's his last.) Be on the lookout for Joni (played by Odeya Rush) who, like Timothy, is more than what she seems.  I could go on and on about the cast - David Morse!  Dianne Wiest!  M. Emmet Walsh! - but I'll just say that Timothy Green is a rare flower of a film. It's a fairy tale, so come prepared to accept a few things.  And it centers around love, so come with a hankie. Because we all know that love is the best thing ever, but it'll also make you cry.  And sometimes, tears cleanse the dust from our souls.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 27


So Walt thinks of himself as being in the "empire business" and he sees the meth enterprise as being some sort of "see, I told you so" to Gretchen and Elliott who took Walt's ideas and kicked him out of Gray Matter all those many years ago. Only we know from Gretchen's uncomfortable conversation with Walt (really, is there any other kind of conversation with Walt in the last year?) that his version of events and hers are vastly different.  And referring to his letting Gretchen and Elliott buy the "birthright" of his children?  I'd be careful about throwing around Old Testament concepts when you just got finished dissolving a kid's dirt bike, among other things.  Note:  that lingering shot of the child's upturned hand in the mound of dirt in the dump truck is going to haunt me.

On the other hand (bad pun there), Walt seems perfectly okay with it.  Yes, it's a shame, so sorry it happened, don't want to have to deal with that again, but well . . . business.  Jesse is clearly having a hard time dealing with his part in the murder of a child and Walt claims he's been losing sleep over it, too, so Jesse - hey, rough couple of days, partner, go on home and I'll finish up here.  Then he starts whistling.

I think that's when Jesse makes his decision.

So Walt is faced with the breakup of the band - Mike is sick of the DEA tails and he's found a buyer for the methylamine, but Declan also wants the blue off the street, so the whole thousand gallons needs to be part of the deal.  (Declan - what's an Irishman doing in the Southwest?  Oh, right - the desert is a place with no memory.  Declan's built up quite a nice meth empire one state over in Phoenix and he has designs on expansion.)  Jesse, Mike, and Walt each stand to clear $5 million from the deal and have the ability to walk away.  Jesse's happy, Mike's happy - but there's Walt.

Walt's come a long way from just wanting enough cash (which he once estimated at $737K) to leave his family secure. He's not in it for his family - who's fractured beyond repair anyway.  That excuse just won't fly anymore, and Walt's really not even bothering.  Skyler can barely stand to be in the same room with him (Marie's spilling of the beans guaranteed that) and the kids are off at Marie's.  Walt has no allies and his wounded pride and greed are swelling him up like a puffer fish.  It's not about family and it's just barely about the money.  What's driving Walt right now is a desire for power and a desire to be feared.  he's a long way from the nebbishy chem teacher of Season 1.  And while I don't think Walt's as clever as he thinks he is, I have to give him badass points for his Mission: Impossible style escape from being zip-tied to the radiator.  As Jesse might say, "Yeah - science!"  See, Walt's got a plan.  And regular viewers know how much joy that usually brings.

Two episodes left in Season 5A.  I don't see this turning out well.  Especially since Mensa-reject Todd kept the spider jar.  You know, the one that has the kid's fingerprints all over it.

Could you please pass the domestic discomfort?
Also note to self:  Never accept a last-minute invitation to dinner at the White house.  What an uncomfortable dinner and what great comedic chops Aaron Paul has!  Did you notice that the ex-junkie is the one gulping ice water while the two supposed grown-ups are swilling liquor and guzzling wine from a glass the size of a colander?  The icy disdain at that table was enough to make me squirm, but I was enjoying watching Jesse try to bring the conversation around to the neighborhood of normal too much to not watch it.  Breaking Bad has always done a masterful job of mixing comedy with probing the darkness of the human soul and this scene in "Buyout" has that light touch that makes it possible to watch a show that so often goes so dark.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Stop & Click - Now Do It Again!

I've just come back from watching Laika's new 3D stop motion animation picture ParaNorman. Yes, I even saw it in 3D - more on that later. Laika's last effort was 2009's Coraline, based on the Neil Gaiman book of the same title.  I enjoyed Coraline tremendously - I've been a Gaiman fan since his uniquely creepy and literate take on the Vertigo comic Sandman and I thought the trailer for ParaNorman looked clever and fun.  Then again, trailers aren't the movie, are they?

Luckily, this is a movie well worth seeing.  ParaNorman is a twist on the "weird kid" movie.  In this case, Norman Babcock has a talent he never asked for - he can see and speak with the dead.  It doesn't seem to be much of a gift - he's considered a freak in his town of Blithe Hollow (nice name - a combo of Blithe Spiritthe Noel Coward comedy about the havoc the dead can wreak on the living and Washington Irving's Sleepy Hollow from the Headless Horseman tale) and even his family doesn't understand him.  About the only person he can confide in is his grandmother, and she happens to be (you guessed it) dead.  Through a strange series of events - or maybe not so strange, considering the town's main celebrity is a 300-year-old witch - the town must deal with the fallout of a curse no one really believed existed and non-normal Norman is the one best suited to bring the town back from the brink.

There's a lot in here to like.  The story is interesting, the characters are fun to watch, and yes, there's even a lesson or two in here, especially about doing what's right even if you're scared and precisely how stupid scared people can be. I enjoyed the vocal talent (a lot of new voices here) and there’s a lovely, almost throwaway line that I wasn’t expecting from the jock character.  Be on the lookout there – stereotypes are broken. 
Giant stop motion scorpions!!  Ah, Harryhausen!
Now let’s talk technique.  Stop motion animation is the catchall term for that painstaking process of taking objects and moving them just a tiny bit, filming a single frame, then moving the objects a tiny bit more, filming another single frame and so on until you have an entire movie.  It takes forever.  You’ve seen this if you’ve ever seen the Rankin/Bass Christmas specials (Claymation is a specific type of stop motion using clay figures) such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer or The Year Without a Santa Claus, but you’ve also seen it if you’ve seen The Empire Strikes Back – look at the AT-ATs invading Hoth, which was done with extremely detailed miniature models.  It’s a technique used in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies (see #5 on this list) and (sigh of contented reminiscence) Ray Harryhausen’s Sinbad and Clash of the Titans flicks.  (Harryhausen is so instrumental to this school of animation that the Pixar movie Monsters Inc. has a tribute to him – Mike takes his girlfriend Celia to dinner at a restaurant called “Harryhausen’s.”  It’s a nice nod.)  
Here, stop motion is used in conjunction with 3D (Coraline was the first film to do this all the way through).  I thought the animation was wonderful – there’s some especially nice rendering of hair, for example – but if anything, ParaNorman confirmed my distaste of 3D.  While this film uses 3D more to create depth than have things come flying out toward my face, I still just don’t like it.  It doesn’t strengthen the story and I think it detracts from the telling of that story.  And seriously – it cost a hair over $20 for two of us to see a matinee? (And that’s pre-popcorn.)  Plus I can’t re-use the blasted glasses?  No, thanks.

So the long and the short of it – go see ParaNorman, but don’t bother with the 3D.  And dig out your old, grainy Evil Dead tape.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 26

. . . which is the one where the game changes.  Irrevocably.  If you haven't already seen this week's episode of Breaking Bad, which is entitled "Dead Freight," please - please - stop right here.  "Dead Freight" is a masterpiece of storytelling and the shock of it deserves to be seen unspoiled.

A freight train is key to this episode and we hear the long, low whistle of the train in the cold open, long before we see it.  American folk music is littered with lyrics about lonesome train whistles.  In the songs, trains move through empty country, taking people from one place to another, where (hopefully) they'll find contentment, be reunited with loved ones, forget about that girl back home, or whatever.  Train whistles are promises that we can always be somewhere else.  Walt can relate to wanting to be somewhere (and someone) else, but what's a kid on a dirt bike have to do with any of this?  The kid's just out in the scrubland, tearing up trackless territory on the aforementioned dirt bike, stopping to gently pick up a tarantula and stuff it into a jar.  Remember that desert spider - they look dangerous, but actually tarantulas are quite timid. Sort of like kids on dirt bikes.

Turns out that Nervous Nellie, sorry Lydia, actually didn't plant the tracking device on the barrel of methylamine - the DEA in Houston did, and they did a sloppy job of it.  With that supply line cut off, a frantic Lydia (Jesse doesn't want to kill her, but he's in the minority - Walter and Mike both see her as a growing liability) offers a wackadoodle plan.  Pull a train job and boost an "ocean" of the necessary precursor for large-scale pure meth-making.  Walt loves this plan - it's big and bold and really pretty hare-brained - and he doesn't, under any circumstances he can conceive of, want to go back to cooking trash meth with pseudo.  Mike points out that there are two kinds of heists - the ones where the guys get away with it and the ones where there are witnesses.  Mike will kill - we know that - but he would prefer not to get involved in schemes that make killing a necessary component.  So it's Jesse who comes up with a way to avoid killing the train crew.  Note that Jesse does not want blood on his hands.  Surely there's a way to cook hundreds of pounds of meth on a regular basis without getting violent!  Oh, Jesse.

So the crew goes into action.  Crazy stuff here - in addition to the Duke City Three, others are brought in from Vamanos Pest.  How big a circle of secret-keepers is Mike willing to risk?  A single weak link can bring them all down.  The problem is, no matter how well you plan, your strategy can't cover all the variables in a plan with this many variables.  A Good Samaritan shows up to push the diversionary truck off the tracks.    Walt won't stop until his thousand gallons are siphoned off.  And a kid on a dirt bike happens along this madness in the desert.  "The ones where the guys get away with it and the ones where there are witnesses."

Kid on dirt bike or spider in jar?
As Breaking Bad has illustrated time and again, deserts are places to forget.  Blood on the sand can be covered up in a few minutes.  But what's done is well and truly done - and I don't think Jesse will be able to forget.  Walt has been reassuring Skyler that their family is safe - that their children are safe.

But no one else's children are safe from Walt.


Sunday, August 12, 2012

Ones to Watch - August

Breaking Bad has kept me busy lately - between working on the book draft and drinking in the new episodes (and rest assured that there will be much more about this week's episode, "Dead Freight," on "Walter White Wednesday" - I mean, holy cow! Did you see that??), I haven't been very good about posting with comments on new releases or DVD gems.  So let me take care of that with three to watch - a new release worth checking out, a somber and shocking documentary, and a swashbuckling Technicolor comedy.

First, go check out Hope Springs if you're ready for a movie that'll stick to your ribs after a summer of cinematic junk food.  Hope Springs is a optimistic drama about a couple who have been together for decades and who have built a comfortable life, but have also drifted so far apart that they might meet each other coming from the other way.  It's been said that acting is the one art that has no prodigies - a talented nine-year-old can memorize Hamlet, but you're never going to believe you're watching anyone who's gone through what Hamlet is supposed to be experiencing.  With that in mind, casting Meryl Streep (age 63) and Tommy Lee Jones (age 65) is genius.  Watching, we believe that these two have been together long enough to fall into a deep rut or routine and it's wonderful to watch these two magnificent actors explore being older in a committed relationship.  Hope Springs asks some of the big questions like "Do we really get older than 25 in our hearts, even when the body changes?" and "What's intimacy like after 30-plus years with the same person?" and "Why's it so damned hard to just talk to each other?"  Like life, Hope Springs is funny, sad, anger-inducing, and uplifting, all in turns.

Second, the 2007 documentary Nanking is worth a look.  It's a hard look, but don't look away.  This film uses the device of having actual survivors of the notorious Rape of Nanking tell their stories, intercut with interviews with some Japanese soldiers who were willing to talk about the atrocities, and further intercut with modern actors reading the letters and other communications of the very few brave souls who set up the Safety Zone in the former Chinese capital city, the formation of which is credited with saving a quarter-million people.  The sack of Nanking by the Japanese and the subsequent lack of law or decency is not talked about much in the United States stories of World War 2 - Nanking happened before we got involved in the war and hey, China's a long way away.  The stories are brutal, but they ought to be told.  And we ought to have the courage to serve as witnesses from the comfort of our living room couches.

Last for this installment of "Ones to Watch" is the 1952 Technicolor romp Scaramouche, which features the backdrop of the French Revolution (elaborate costumes and powdered wigs), bastards, traveling actors, true love, and swordfights.  Lots of swordfights. It's a silly plot, but great fun - and don't be fooled by the still shot on the right.  Scaramouche is in glorious Technicolor and I always enjoy the not-quite-right colors associated with that process.

That wraps up my grab-bag of Ones to Watch for this installment - but I have plenty more on my viewing queue, so I expect to come back with more!

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 25

Walt's first pool victim
. . . which is halfway to fifty, which is the birthday of Walt's that this whole maniacal Tilt-A-Whirl of a ride started with!

This week, we learn that it's been a year in "real world time" since the pilot episode.  It's Walt's birthday again and oh boy! how things change in a year.  Let's just look at a couple of items, all of which serve to accentuate Walt's descent into darkness.

  1. Ha! There's the Aztec.  Over the last year, that car's been in the shop so much that the mechanic can probably bank on putting a kid through college on the repair bills.  Walt's ready to get rid of it, this tangible link to his old chemistry-teaching life - but he takes the Heisenberg porkpie.
  2. Far from preparing Walt a big ol' birthday breakfast and throwing a surprise party, Skyler's keeping low to the ground.  She has to be cajoled into breaking the bacon into a "51" to decorate Walt's plate (and remember that by his 52d birthday, Walt's alone in a Denny's doing this birthday ritual all by himself) and the party is strictly family and mostly takeout.
  3. Marie and Hank driving to the family party.  Look at that shot - the Schraders are in Marie's car and the full-frame fisheye lens used to shoot through the windshield achieves two effects.  First, the distortion reminds the viewer that the Schraders aren't exactly seeing the situation head-on.  Two, Hank and Marie are in a sort of literal bubble, separated from the madness that is Walt and Skyler's world of secrets.  Ah, Michael Slovis, I adore you!
  4. The pool scene.  Has any show used the backyard pool to such great effect?  This is where Walt retreats to to think, to scheme, to drink, and to lie.  However, he never actually gets in the water.  As he's spinning his tale of reflection and the importance of family, Skyler silently rises, looks blankly at the pool's surface, and then simply steps into the water and keeps going.  Breaking Bad usually has at least one moment per episode that has me gobsmacked (that's for my Britslang readers) and this was this week's.  Skyler's literally hit bottom and what an echo to Season 2's scorched symbol of innocence lost to Walt's machinations, the teddy bear. Like the bear, Skyler is mute as she sinks beneath the calm blue water.  (And I loved how the tension in this scene was ratcheted up by [once again] Walt nattering on while the others stay quiet.  The man just can't shut up and therefore, he misses important information.) 
  5. The only good thing about hitting bottom is that you can't go lower.  After weeks of passive terror, Skyler rises up, ready to fight.  And she's now is willing to use anything - ANYTHING - to achieve her goal of keeping the children out of this.  At first, Walt tries to match her in some sort of domestic arms race, but Skyler wins this one.  All she has to do is bide her time.  The cancer will come back.  Did you hear the anvil hit the bottom of Walt's shriveled heart?  All this awful, done ostensibly to "save his family," and he's already lost his wife and the mother of his beloved children.  Further, the kids aren't even in the house at this point; they're with Hank and Marie.  
Skyler hitting bottom
Frightening stuff - and we're only halfway through Season 5A.  

Please recall that my co-author and all around swell guy, Ensley F. Guffey, is also writing about Season 5A over on his blog with a new feature called "Meth Monday."  Follow us both on Twitter for updates on Wanna Cook? The Companion Guide to Breaking Bad!

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Walter White Wednesday 24

Season 5A is really cooking now!  Literally.  In the third episode of this season ("Hazard Pay"), Walt and Jesse hit upon a new cook scheme - they'll hide in plain sight and cook in houses that are being tented as part of pest extermination.  No one is in the house during the process anyway, it's a loud process, so no neighbors will think anything of the extra noise, the smell will be chalked up to the toxic fumes used to rid the house of earwigs, roaches, and other nasty critters, and what's a couple of extra guys in jumpsuits?  Taking a page from Gus Fring's Mexican operation, there's a "tent within a tent" for the cook and all the equipment is moved in with the pest equipment - cunningly hidden in giant roadie cases.  (Who knew Skinny Pete had the hands of a concert pianist?  Ah, secrets.)  But Hank's on the scent of the "hiding in plain sight" plan, and I suspect that things are going to get very sticky for the new meth kingpin of ABQ.

There are several chilling, chilling moments in "Hazard Pay," and one of them is in the soundtrack.  As Walt & Co. are discussing the cook plans, we hear the sound of children playing near the house.  Later, we see stray meth fumes being vented into the backyard of the house which contains a swing set and a kiddie pool.  People are becoming collateral to Walt, and collateral damage, well . . . sometimes things happen.

For instance, what does Brock know?  Brock has always been a quiet kid - he's a little like the child in "Peekaboo" in that respect.  Watch the interaction of Brock and Walt on that striped couch - which echoes the striped tents of "Vamanos Pest Control."  On the couch, the stripes are almost like a boundary line - Walt has his space and Brock has his - but  both the striped tent and the striped couch are very toxic places to be, due to Walt's presence.  I was watching that scene with this growing sense of dread - if anything threatens Walt's world, we know that he won't think twice about removing the threat.  Permanently.

Walt's not the only one who knows that, either.  Skyler is terrified of what her husband has become.  She may not be entirely sure what that is, but she knows enough to be scared of it.  Look at her face when she comes into the living room to find her son watching (and quoting) Scarface with her husband, who's dandling their baby daughter on his lap.  "Everybody dies in this movie, don't they?"  Life's not a movie, Walt.  Skyler's box is getting smaller and smaller and she cracks in this episode.  Walt, by the way, doesn't hesitate a second before throwing Skyler under the bus to keep playing the victim to Marie.  (There's an interesting interview with Anna Gunn, who plays Skyler, here.  It's well worth checking out - Skyler is a character who drives many fans crazy and, while I have never understood the Sky-hate, she's got an interesting perspective on it.)

We also know that Walt doesn't do well either handling the business end of things or trusting anyone else to handle that end of things.  He doesn't see the need for "hazard pay" for Gus' old network just as he didn't understand the concept of "breakage" back in Season 2.  That stack of cash is his, all his, and I suspect his failure to understand certain realities is going to cause him to do something deeply stupid.  Like cut Todd out of his share of the pie, at which point Todd might just forget to disable a cleverly-hidden "nanny cam" in some house being treated by Vamanos Pest.

By the way, if you haven't been following my co-author Ensley Guffey's take on Season 5A, bookmark his blog as well.  He's added in "Meth Mondays" for his thoughts, comments, and rampant speculations, and we generally pick up on some different things, so it's a good idea to check up on both of us every week!  And of course, you can follow us both on Facebook and Twitter as well!  Love to hear from you as Wanna Cook? continues.