Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Walter White Wednesday 41

Welcome back to Walter White Wednesday, Breaking Bad fans!  I hope you had a restful break, because we're beginning to gear up for the final eight episodes of this astonishing show!  While Breaking Bad won't be airing new episodes until summertime, I plan on using this time to review, speculate, and underline a few things every week.  Let's get started.

Review:  Season 5A left us with a Walt who was even darker than the "I won" Walt from "Face Off," the Season 4 finale.  The mini-season started with a flash-forward to Walt's 52d birthday and we didn't get to that point in 5A.  In fact, there's a lot of ground to cover to get us there.  At the end of the mini-finale, "Gliding O'er All,"  Hank discovered Walt's copy of Whitman's Leaves of Grass and seemed to be connecting the meth-making dots.

Speculation:  Will Jane Kaczmarek appear in this final half-season?  Kaczmarek played the domineering wife to Bryan Cranton's milksop husband in Malcolm in the Middle, so her appearance would be a tip of the hat to longtime fans of Cranston's work.  (So would an episode written by  J. Michael Straczynski, but that's an extremely deep cut!)  No one seems to know for absolute sure (compare this to this) and I'd enjoy an appearance or two by Kaczmarek, provided it's not just a gimmick.  Then again, Breaking Bad doesn't really do gimmicks, so we're probably safe there.

Underline:  Too many people know too much about Walt's so-called secret life.  Too many people who have too much to lose could decide that giving up Walt is their ticket out.  Then again, Walt's shown a willingness to kill - and to have people killed - and he is a dangerous man.  Perhaps Walt, with his rampant ego, is even more dangerous than Gus was.  Heaven knows his ability to rationalize is without peer.

Meanwhile, the manuscript for Wanna Cook? is chugging along.  Between the holidays and some other writing obligations, prepping Season 4 took longer than we had originally planned.  Oh, and we heard that Wanna Cook? is scheduled to be translated into German!  Seems Madrigal Electromotive is curious about what we're doing.

And be sure you're keeping up with my co-author's take on things over on his blog - make "Meth Monday" a regular part of your Breaking Bad week!

Monday, January 28, 2013

Creepy Kids and Scurrying Shadows

Of all the tropes in modern horror, I think I find creepy children the creepiest.  Mama features two very creepy children, along with a host of other horror movie standards.  Abandoned cabin in the woods - check. Haunting music coming through the grates - check.  Scurrying things in the shadows that you can't quite make out - check.  Escapee from a lunatic asylum - check.  Near inability of anyone to carry a working flashlight - check.  Add to that a rabid curiosity that prohibits anyone from getting a generator and hooking up floodlights before going into a house that practically screams "Enter and Die!" - check.

But here's the rub - Mama still works pretty well.  You probably won't recognize Jessica Chastain in the role of Annabel at first and Megan Charpentier is a real find as Victoria, the older of the feral little girls.  Mama does some very nice things within the framework of a PG-13 rating - this is far more "jump scare" than "gore scare."  When first discovered after five years on their own in the woods, the kids are scary enough, but the children's crayon drawings are haunting clues into their time in the woods.  The idea is that something looked after them and is continuing to do so - and it's jealous.  The Mama site has some very intriguing supplemental material from the psychologist who works with (and just maybe sees his fortune in) the girls.

I found it interesting that this is a very female-centric tale.  The male characters aren't evil and are a definite presence, but this movie belongs to the females, primarily the two little girls and the two mama-figures, only one of whom starts off wanting the children.  (But keep your eye on the public records woman - she's a key part of the film as well - and the Ark of the Covenant is probably somewhere on Aisle 17!)

Also, here's something just for fun.  The cabin is the scene of any number of horrors and I kept thinking, "They're never going to sell that place."  Did you know that, in at least one case, the sale of a house was rescinded because the house was found to be haunted - as a matter of law??  Sure enough - some things you just have to reveal to a prospective buyer - malevolent spirits are about the same, legally speaking, as a case of termite damage.  Only, you know, more willing to kill you outright.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Some Things Only Happen in the Dark

Kathryn Bigelow had a career before The Hurt Locker, but she didn't exactly have respect.  Long known for 1991's Point Break and being James Cameron's ex-wife, Bigelow must've despaired from time to time.  Then came The Hurt Locker and more accolades than you could shake a stick at, including the Academy Award for Best Director.  When she won that, she became the very first woman to ever win the Best Director Oscar, which I find astonishing, but Hollywood still is skittish about womenfolk behind the camera.

Ten years of staring at the screen
trying to find the answers
Zero Dark Thirty both is and isn't a follow up to Hurt Locker.  While Hurt Locker dealt with a bomb-disposal team operating in the Iraq War, Zero Dark deals with fewer battlefields and more whiteboards.  Following the 9/11 attacks, locating and eliminating Osama bin Laden became Goal Number One of the American intelligence agencies.  Remember that it took ten years.  Ten years.

The trailer will lead you to believe that Zero Dark is an action/adventure movie about our good guys hunting down their bad guys and woo-hoo! we win!  U! S! A!  U! S! A!  Well, trailers can be misleading.  In this case, I get that - seeing SEAL Team Six invade the compound through night vision goggles is undeniably more exciting that seeing men and women in business suits sifting through lead after lead after lead, hoping to come across a scrap of useful information.  But that's how manhunts are assembled.  Someone - a lot of someones, actually - had to painstakingly put together those shreds of information before turning the SEALS loose on a target.  Zero Dark examines that tension - you have to be right about this and confirmation is impossible.  After all, if you're wrong . . . well, the fallout will be way worse than a substandard performance review.

Bigelow was overlooked for Best Director for Zero Dark, although the movie is nominated for both Best Picture and Best Actress (for Jessica Chastain's Maya) and Bigelow has already won the Golden Globe.  I hate this sort of thing - the picture didn't direct itself, nor did Chastain.

Zero Dark has gotten a lot of bad press due to its "enhanced interrogation" scenes, which I found to be raw and squirm-worthy.  Did torture lead to useful information?  Is torture acceptable?  Do we lose our standing as "good guys" if we engage in torture?  And is the sort of thing depicted in Zero Dark torture at all?

The answers will change depending on who is asked the question, but let me take a run at it:
1.  It'll be after my lifetime before they declassify enough information to truly answer the first question.  There's strong evidence that indicates that torture is notoriously unreliable, in part because people will say about anything to stop the pain.  So you get false leads which burn time to sort through.  The movie takes the point of view that torture led to useful information, but no one had bin Laden's personal phone number.  This took work and years of it.
2.  No.  It's not acceptable to make torture official policy.  There's always been the occasional instance of someone taking a recalcitrant prisoner off behind a hill somewhere, but making it policy was a mistake, at least in part because it's hard for us to condemn someone torturing Americans is we treat their people in that fashion.
3.  Yep, we sure do.  We can't claim the moral high ground and waterboard at the same time.
4.  Yep.  Sure, calling it "enhanced interrogation" sounds much cleaner, but I doubt the scenes will leave anyone in much doubt about whether common sense would define it as torture.

To be fair, it's clear that the characters who are in charge of the "detainee program" aren't sadists - they don't enjoy what they're doing, but they find it necessary.  That's almost a saving grace here; I want my torturers to have nightmares about what they're doing to other human beings.  Still, I want our people to be safe, too.  Zero Dark does a brilliant job of confronting you with the dilemma of whether you can have it both ways.  (Side note:  people are protesting this movie for its depiction of torture.  I want to see them turn out to protest Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3D.  Americans are fine with horrific violence as long as it doesn't seem real, a point I find exasperating.)

One last point - the depiction of the SEALS.  My hat is off to Bigelow here - these SEALS are the best America has.  They're big, bluff, and hearty, but also all business.  No cowboys need apply.  This is a job and they intend to do it quickly, quietly, and professionally.  They aren't indiscriminately spraying the compound with bullets and they understand the importance of rapidly gathering useful evidence - look at how quickly they strip out anything with a plug and catalog everything before they take off their helmets.

Zero Dark Thirty made me uncomfortable but it also, oddly enough, made me proud.  We have amazing women and men working tirelessly to keep us safe from attack from an enemy that is devilishly difficult to identify.  We give them incredible technology and resources to connect the dots and we know very little about just what they do, because they aren't busy crowing about it like a reality TV personality.  That said, Zero Dark is a movie, not a documentary, so grains of salt need to be taken - it tells A story, but not THE story, which I doubt is ever fully told.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Can You Hear the People Sing?

Confession - I like musicals.  Big, splashy, in-your-face musicals.  Lately, it seems that most musicals we get are of the kid variety - you know, Pixar and Disney; that sort of thing.  There's nothing at all wrong with that - there's some great stuff in that type of film.  But I occasionally like my singing to come from people, rather than from animated teacups and cartoon elephants.

Which brings us to the big-screen version of Les Miserables.  The original novel is by Victor Hugo (who also wrote The Hunchback of Notre-Dame - there ought to be a limit on how much talent one man gets) and it's a tale well worth telling.  Technically, the film is a musical (basically meaning that it's not entirely sung) rather than an opera, but the grand scheme and sweep of the tale deserves the operatic tag.  One song was added specifically for the film and while I certainly don't think "Suddenly" is awful, I have to admit that I don't think it adds all that much - mostly because Les Miserables needs no addition.  It's a lovely show as is.  The book of the original stage show is by Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil with lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer and Les Miserables has been thrilling audiences ever since its debut in the mid-1980s.  

A show such as this has a nigh-fanatically devoted following, so why film it?  What does film offer that the stage doesn't?  Valid questions - in a film, you can do take after take until you get it just right.  On stage - well, the show well and truly must go on, regardless of sore throats, emotional upheaval backstage, or rude audiences.  There's a certain immediacy to a stage show - yes, you have a script, but the show really is different from night to night.

All in a single take.  ONE!
I think Tom Hooper pulled it off.  Hooper is probably best known for 2010's The King's Speech and for the TV miniseries about John Adams.  With Les Miserables, he did something extraordinary.  He filmed it live.  Really.  It's usual for the cast to assemble in a studio, sing their parts, then lip-sync during filming.  Hooper said, "Nuts to that!" and had his cast sing live - take after take.  The results are breathtaking.  Anne Hathaway's Fantine will move you to tears (by the way, in an interesting bit of trivia, Hathaway's mother covered the role of Fantine in the touring production when Hathaway was a child) at the sheer unfairness of life and that's unlikely to be the only time you cry.  (Samantha Barks' Eponine is a sublime joy to watch, even though you have a sinking feeling this can't end well.  Trust your instincts.)  Hugh Jackman, a renowned song-and-dance man before he became Wolverine, does Valjean proud and I'm even willing to give Russell Crowe a pass, although his voice is noticeably weaker than that of the other main characters.

Les Miserables is a gorgeous show that makes you  itch for revolution - in three-part harmony.  The settings, even in the slums, are rich with detail (note the shivering Fantine as she tries to survive winter on the docks)  It depicts a world in which cruelty is everywhere and it's dog-eat-dog out there.  Watch out for yourself, for no one else will bother and if you're too stupid to understand that, well, you deserve to get fleeced.*  The haves living in comfort and luxury, oblivious to the misery of the have-nots.  It makes you angry.  Yet Les Miserables is also about grace.  Kindness extended to those who don't deserve it.  The law as an unforgiving snare versus the obligation to repay what can't be repaid by doing your best to live right.  Taking a chance because you made a promise, even though that promise makes your life much, much more difficult.  In many ways, it's not a happy movie, but it's one that makes you glad to be alive.  But no, the good guys don't always win here.  It's not called "The Happy Ones," after all.

*Side note:  I once overheard someone say:  "Thank God we don't get what we deserve."  Gruesomely true words.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Onward to 2013!

I'm back after a holiday hiatus - hope you had a great holiday season (my tree's still up, so technically, I suppose my holidays remain ongoing) and are ready for an exciting 2013!  It looks like some great movies are being released this year and I'm sure there will be more than a few stinkers, which can be sort of fun in their own right.

Breaking Bad will be airing its final eight episodes this summer and I want us all to be ready!  Look for recaps, reminders, and all manner of oddities as "Walter White Wednesday" resumes operation by the end of January.

I kicked off 2013 by seeing Tarentino's latest, Django  Unchained, which is his homage to spaghetti Westerns twisted round a unique take on the "blaxploitation" films of the 1970s.  Now, Tarentino's violence-drenched bloodfests are not everyone's cup of entertainment tea and that's fine.  Django is hyper-violent - to the point of almost being cartoonish, but not quite crossing that line.  It's rated R for several thousand very good reasons.  We live in a society that has deemed certain words too crass to even utter aloud, especially when those words are racial slurs.  Django wastes no time and gets immediately in the audience's face about that.  The film also shows the casual barbarity that comes with a slave-holding society. Human beings are shot, beaten, and tortured for trying to escape a system that would allow them to be shot, beaten, and tortured.  It's harsh and brilliantly sets up the revenge fantasy that is at the heart of Django, with an unexpected German angle coming at the audience through a (very) broad retelling of the tale of Siegfried and Brunhilde.  I liked the film - much more than I expected to - in part due to Tarentino's eye for framing violence in a way that makes you remark on the beauty of it, while still decrying the horror.  A case in point is a quick shot toward the beginning of the movie involving bright green cotton stalks, puffy white bolls, and a spray of blood.

Is Django accurate?  Heck, no (my companion pointed out that a Winchester repeating rifle is prominently carried by one character - a gun that wasn't invented for a good 20 years after the movie is set, but anachronisms are part of the spaghetti Western genre, so I'll let that slide) but it's not intended to be a documentary, either.  Jaime Foxx and Kerry Washington (who worked together on the film Ray) never let you forget that slavery is about real, actual people being stripped of their humanity.  Django also has plenty of scenery chewing - Leonardo diCaprio seems to be having great fun and Christoph Waltz (who brilliantly played the evil Nazi Hans Landa in Tarnetino's Inglourious Basterds, for which he won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor) is magnificent, with cameos by a host of spaghetti Western actors and others.  For example, Don Johnson is hilarious and Jonah Hill has a tiny role that'll leave you laughing. 

Laughing at racism - who'd have thought?  Django does it differently (and far bloodier) than Blazing Saddles, but they both work.