Monday, September 30, 2013

Porn and Food

Yes, trust me - I know that the Breaking Bad finale was last night - fear not, thoughts on that are coming for
"Walter White Wednesday," but this is "Movie Monday," so tune back in Wednesday for thoughts on "Felina," which closed out Mr. White's Wild Ride.

This weekend, I took in two new releases - Don Jon (which explains the first part of this post's title) and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 (which explains the second part).  It would be hard to find two more disparate movies, but that's part of what I do here.

I have a friend whose taste in movies often mirrors mine, but we disagree on Don Jon.  I'm not sure, but I suspect this might be one of those male/female divisions.  For me, this movie wanted to explore some interesting ideas and it started down that rabbit hole, but the film gets tripped up.  The premise is intriguing - a muscle-headed Jersey Shore type (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed) likes sex, but prefers the unattainable perfection of porn.  (And there's a LOT of porn imagery in this movie - be prepared for a conversation if you take a younger teen to this one.  The language is profane, yet repetitive and attitudes towards women - well, the central character is essentially addicted to pornography [the original title was "Don Jon's Addiction"], so there you go)  He meets a hot girl (Scarlett Johansson) who has her own unrealistic ideas of what should happen in a relationship - in her case, that's been formed by a steady diet of Hollywood rom-coms.

As I said, intriguing.  My problem is that the characters are two-dimensional - to the point that, if I were Italian-American, I'd probably be a little peeved.  Jon's family is stereotypical enough to make me ask two questions - How did Jon pick up his "I like to clean" habits in that house where his mama does everything for his papa and what's the point in having a sister if she only gets one line, regardless of how insightful that line might be?  Johansson's character is manipulative and basically unlikable.  Julianne Moore shines in her role and I maintain that Gordon-Levitt is an actor/director to watch, but this played more like an extremely well-polished student film than anything more.  Other reviewers disagree with me on this one, but I say give it a pass.

The second film this weekend was Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2.  As I've said before, sequels can be tricky.  The first movie was released in 2009 and was a success.  The film was fresh, creative, and had some good things to say to both its child and adult audiences.  Among them were some lovely messages about how news is an industry, how women are perceived within that industry, and the barriers that are often between us and our families.  (Plus, Neil Patrick Harris as a monkey.)

I wasn't sure about a sequel and, while I believe the first movie to be stronger, I have to say, this was just fun.  Then again, I have a weakness for puns and Cloudy 2 is loaded with them.  If the kids in the theater when I saw Cloudy 2 are any indication, kids will love the "foodimals" and adults will enjoy the serious jabs that are lobbed at Steve Jobs and a gorgeous nod to, of all people, Tom Waits.  (The original had a nod to Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," so . . .  (Plus, Neil Patrick Harris as a monkey.)  In both cases, Mark Mothersbaugh of long-ago Devo fame worked on the music.  Overall, a rental rather than a big-screen must-see, but fun.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Walter White Wednesday 74

Whew! "Granite State" provided us with a bit of a breather between the nonstop, hold-your-breath action of "Ozymandias" and the sure to be action-packed "Felina" this Sunday.  Behold - there will be some spoilers in this post, but not until after the picture, so if you want to stay (like Jesse's last cook) 96% pure, just read until the pic, then stop.

First off - yay for Breaking Bad at the Emmys!  Anna Gunn took home the Best Actress in a Dramatic Series award and the show took home the Big Kahuna Prize for Best Dramatic Series.  Obviously, I'm pleased that the show won this very public acknowledgement of its quality, but I'm also delighted that Anna Gunn, who has faced some truly dark, nasty, mean, and downright misogynistic twaddle, is able to raise Emmy high and say, as only a winner can, "Go jump.  All of you."  (And by splitting the final season into two parts, Breaking Bad will be eligible for Emmy consideration again next year.  No doubt that had something to do with the decision to broadcast the final season in this way.)

Also - if you're behind in your Breaking Bad viewing, you can call in sick for the next few days (not that we here at Unfettered Brilliance advocate that sort of thing) and binge-watch on AMC.  Beginning tonight (Wednesday) at 8:00, the network is airing Breaking Bad from the beginning, nonstop.  That's 61 episodes of Breaking Bad, with the finale left to go.  I'm not sure I suggest actually live-watching that much of it - for one thing, sleep is good.  Second, this show gets seriously dark and at some point, you're going to need videos of kittens and baby otters to balance it out.

Speaking of balancing . . . "Granite State" after the picture.

So - "Granite State" explains to us how Walt got across the country to New Hampshire and what draws him back to the Land of Enchantment at the start of Season 5A in "Live Free or Die" (the state motto of New Hampshire, by the way).  What struck me most about this episode is that Walt really hasn't learned a thing.  Yes, he's feeling sorry for himself that he's stuck in the middle of nowhere in the New England winter and yes, cancer treatment in an isolated hunter's shack is uncomfortable, but . . . this is his choice.  He chose to run (Saul told him to face the music and take the burden off his family, remember, but noooo - Walt's gotta save his skin.) and, by so choosing, he chose to be alone. And he's headed back because Gretchen and Elliott publicly downplayed his contributions to the incredibly-successful Gray Matter.  You remember, the company Walt claims they stole from him, although G&E generously offered him a job and gold-plated health benefits that would have easily covered his cancer treatment.  Pride goeth before a firefight.

Just look at that.  Mr. "Everything I did, I did for my family" has lost it all.  He has to pay some stranger $10,000 for an hour of playing cards, his family has lost the house to the Feds (RICO took it as part of an "ongoing criminal activity"), Skyler's going by her maiden name, Junior is now officially "Flynn," and Walt can't even give his blood money to his family.  His loving son, who always believed that his dad hung the moon, angrily asks him why he's still even alive - the odds are good that "Felina" does not include a father-son pancake supper.

And Jesse.  Yikes.  Poor, beaten, brave, stupid Jesse.

There's gonna be a body count next week - and I'm not willing to speculate on who's going to be left standing.

That doesn't mean others aren't willing to guess!  Check out this site for 4 predictions about "Felina."  Also be sure to check out Ensley's take on "Granite State" over at his blog.

And this is just fun - 10 Ways to Get Ready for the End!

Lastly - it may be too late to enter the contest, but it's a great charity and c'mon - the video is worth 3 minutes of your time.  Trust me.

One to go.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Walter White Wednesday 73

Holy.  Cow.

This week's episode is titled "Ozymandias," after the Shelley sonnet.  I mentioned the sonnet when Breaking Bad used it as a promotional piece with Bryan Cranston intoning the lines - click here for that - and the Wanna Cook? guide will have a brief discussion of it to go with the episode.  Spoilers aplenty.  Deal.

In what very well may be the absolute best cold open of the show, we see how far Walt has descended and just what he's lost - and our first image is of water coming to a boil.  The joy is gone and there are no exultant cheers of "Chemistry!  Science!  Yay!"  What began as a highly stupid, pissant criminal enterprise intended to create a nest egg for Walt's family (a loving, caring family, as the cold open points out) has vanished into the blank, bleak desert.  It vanished one lie at a time and the winds of change swept away the footprints so Walt can't even see where he began, although we know it was in this very place.  But the trackless desert has no memory.

Honestly, I've been reeling ever since I watched this one.  I've seen other amazing dramatic episodes of television that left me breathless, but "Ozymandias" is different.  It's more gut-wrenching, more horrifying, and if anyone remains convinced that Walt is somehow to be emulated and sympathized with - seek help.  Several diagnoses in the current version of the DSM apply and none of them are good.  Sure, his rant to Skyler very well may be his attempt to get her off the hook for her involvement, but so what?  That doesn't make up for a teenth of the bone-headed, petty, and just plain mean things he's done and said.  And nothing, nothing justifies that chilling line to Jesse regarding Jane.

Walt's lost. He's not noble, he's not heroic, he's a man whose choices have caused him to lose every single thing he once held as precious and valued. So he hooks up with Saul's guy out by the spillway with his one remaining barrel and makes tracks. In his wake are bodies, despair, cruelty, and blood.

I've often been amazed at how Breaking Bad ratchets up the tension and then keeps doing it!  It's like some sort of crazed Jack-in-the-Box that never quite manages to pop, instead going&going&going while your nerves fray under the tension.

So let's talk about Jack.  Not the one in the box; rather, let's talk about the one in the desert.  I'm not sure there's a better example of just how much control Walt doesn't have than his use of Jack.  Walt thinks he can tell Jack to "jump" and Jack will simply ask, "How high, Walt?"  Not happening.  Even Todd, who appeared to be a fairly dim bulb, turns out to have a strong streak of family loyalty to Uncle Jack, to the point of committing wholesale murder, enslavement, and just generally being a waste of human skin.  Walt has not just brushed up against evil, he made a deal - and shook on it.  Might as well of signed the contract in blood, Walt.  Preferably your own, but Walt gets squeamish that-a-way.

But I've got to give Walt points for one thing.  He raised a hell of a son, who I will no longer call "Junior."  He's Flynn all the way.  His world, the one that had Walt as its sun, was rocked and split and he didn't want to believe it.  But when Walt showed his true face, Flynn didn't hesitate - and the kid gets around on crutches!  Flynn chose his side - and it wasn't Walt's.

So Walt's in the wind.  Hank's in the ground, as in Gomez.  Jesse's chained like a beaten dog on a backyard run.  Todd's got help in the meth kitchen to up the purity in order to impress his heartless Lady Love, who probably won't like seeing Jesse beaten and enslaved, but hey, it's for the good of the brand.  Jack's rolling in stolen cash. Holly's safe at an ABQ firehouse.  Skyler and Marie are pulling together.  And Flynn became the man of the house.

Two to go.

For more, read my co-author's blog.  And also this one, which happens to be written by my good friend and editor.  Both posts brilliantly discuss this episode.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

A Dysfunctional Family

Luc Besson can count among his directing credits at least one amazing drama (The Professional) and one laugh-out-loud funny comedy (The Fifth Element).  Well, two out of three, as Meat Loaf might remind us, ain't bad.

The Family has several things going for it - a strong, strong cast of A-list actors (Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer as the parents and Tommy Lee Jones as the weary FBI agent charged with keeping them alive and off the radar) and of up-and-comers (John D'Leo and Dianna Agron [Quinn on Glee] as the teen children).  The film begins as a dark comedy based on the premise of a mob family being relocated to a small village in Normandy and the fish-out-of-New-York-waters tale shows promise.  But the film later veers into much darker, serious territory and, for me, the swerve didn't work.  It was as if Besson was trying to smash together the zany antics of Fifth Element (and the strong musical score of that film) with the heart-wrenching bloodbath of The Professional.  Tricky at the best of times - and this isn't the best of times.

That's a shame, as the comedy bits really do work.  There's good chemistry between the actors (De Niro and Jones are especially fun to watch) and the unlikely chain of events that brings the family's location to the attention of the imprisoned, yet living comfortably, mob boss is fun to watch, as is a lengthy bit about a film society screening mix-up.  But overall, the film just doesn't work.

Maybe a rental.  Maybe.  And while you're at it, pick up a few other films - like The Professional and The Fifth Element.  And, just for fun, grab Stardust which features both Pfeiffer and De Niro.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Walter White Wednesday 72

Breaking Bad doesn't usually do cliffhanger episodes, but the latest episode, "To'hajiilee" ended on a wooly-doozer.  As the final episodes come hurtling down the pike, it becomes more and more obvious that things will not end well - and not just for Walt.  There will be spoilers in this post, so please take that into consideration if you decide to read on.

First, my co-author, Ensley, has written brilliantly about this episode over at his blog and I suggest you check that out.  One of the best aspects of co-writing is the fact that we see different things when we watch and I think having the two perspectives makes for a stronger book - and Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad is coming along nicely.  We're really in the final 30-day push here, although there will be some loose ends to tie up (in a far less bloody fashion than Walt would probably employ) after the manuscript draft is submitted for these final eight episodes.  (OK - spoilers after the jump.)

We know that Jesse has been an avid student of Walt's (well, at least in the meth-making field; his high school chemistry work was apparently subpar) since the two first teamed up back in Season 1.  Turns out that Jesse wasn't just learning chemistry.  Having decided to turn sharply against Walt after discovering Walt's role in Brock's poisoning, Jesse is playing for keeps.  Back in "Rabid Dog," Jesse howled, "He can't keep getting away with it!" but later, having regained a sense of calm (and having come down from whatever chemical cocktail was dusted on that disc on the dashboard), he is resolved to hit Walt "where he really lives."

Interestingly, that's not Walt's family.  Jesse's not interested in going after Skyler, or Junior, or (God forbid) baby Holly.  No, Walt's the one who will stoop to injuring children.  Jesse knows that, despite all Walt's pious posturing about doing everything for the family, what truly matters to Walt is buried in seven barrels in the desert of the To'hajiilee Navajo Reservation.

Walt, who I have argued is the true "rabid dog," has loosed Todd's neo-Nazi Uncle Jack and crew on Jesse and Walt discovers that some things can't be taken back.  Make no mistake - this is Walt's doing and it's his fault.  Sure, yeah, he didn't mean for anything bad to happen.  That and a buck will get you a cup of diner coffee.  He set these wheels in motion and he's going to have to live with that.  And we know he lives (previous episodes have indicated that, going back to "Live Free or Die"), but I seriously doubt that goes for everyone else out in the Place with No Memory.

Three to go.

By the way - just yesterday, we got word that we could release the cover photo for Wanna Cook?  We're thrilled with the work ECW has been doing on behalf of the book so, to paraphrase Shelley (and Walt) "Look on our works, ye Mighty, and pre-order!"  (You can do that here!)

Monday, September 9, 2013

Are You Afraid of the Dark?

Back in 2000, a bouncer-turned-actor starred in a Little Movie That Could called Pitch Black.  Introducing a character known as Riddick and playing with classic themes such as our fear of the dark and fear of the unknown, Pitch Black succeeded well enough at the box office to spawn a sequel a few years later called The Chronicles of Riddick.  The larger budget (and Judi Dench!) didn't translate into a bigger and better story and the franchise seemed to be relegated to cult status.  Then came the Fast & Furious franchise and Vin Diesel had enough clout to start the ball rolling for a third Riddick film.  (It took some doing, too.  Diesel reportedly considered mortgaging his own house to raise the cash.)

Was Riddick worth it?

Probably.  It's a grim, anti-heroic tale and we seem to like our heroes conflicted and deep, deep into the gray areas of life these days.  There are some cliches that I wish had been avoided, but overall, it's a good science fiction thriller set on an incredibly inhospitable world that would never, ever reward softness or hesitation.  Riddick is set up as a basically good guy who does bad things only in order to survive.  (Hey, he even has a puppy!) There are solid performances throughout, especially by Diesel and Katee Sackhoff (late of Battlestar Galactica fame).  But here is also one of the big flaws.

The language throughout the movie is coarse and repetitive - to the point where I was marveling at the strain the script put on the "f-word" to serve as noun, verb, adjective, adverb and (just maybe) gerund.  Sackhoff's character is the only female and she is clearly established as tough-as-nails, capable, and not interested in men, despite her given name of "Dahl."  At one point, Diesel makes it clear that he's going to have sex with her, but only because she's asked him to, "sweet-like."  My radar went up immediately - surely they weren't going to go down the "all a lesbian needs is the right man" path, right?  To be fair, the later scene is just ambiguous enough that you could read it as "no sex, they just were bantering" but I don't think so.  I just hate that sort of thing - why is Dahl's sexuality an issue in the first place?  It's not a topic that comes up with any of the men-folk.  And Sackhoff is the only named character we see naked (or showering, for that matter.  Hygiene is apparently only an issue for female bounty hunters).  It's lazy and Riddick doesn't benefit from it.

In short, Riddick is not a bad film.  It's not great, but it's better than average.  The "R" rating is well deserved - lots of graphic violence and language that could blister the paint off a wall.  If you enjoy seeing rough justice and the ultimate survivor taking on an entire world bent on killing him, Riddick is for you.  Just don't take the kids.

By the way - I'm becoming a bit of a Diesel fan.  He comes across as a thoughtful actor in his approach to his craft - not what I was expecting, and shame on me.  Check out Find Me Guilty for an idea of the depth he can bring to a character.  But I still have major problems with the Dahl/Riddick dynamic here.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Walter White Wednesday 71

Ever notice how much Breaking Bad references movies?  It happens in nearly every episode and the references are worth paying attention to.  From Scarface to last week's mention of Hooper, this is a show that doesn't mind name-dropping.  So when Old Yeller came up in this week's episode (aptly titled "Rabid Dog"), I sat up straight.

So please - read on, but be aware that there are spoilers ahead.

Really - I just want to talk.
Everyone seems to be speculating that "Old Yeller" refers to Jesse, but I'm not convinced.  See, Old Yeller is one of those movies that most people know, even if they haven't seen it - that's how deeply ingrained this tragedy of shouldering the weight of adult responsibility has become in the American psyche.  Old Yeller is a faithful dog that worms his way into the hearts of his adopted family with his devotion and tricks.  Eventually, that loyalty and desire to defend the family earns him rabies when he tangles with a wolf and (just to remind you) rabies is incurable.  Yeller's family hopes against hope that he won't develop the disease, but he does, at which point the dog, who has done absolutely nothing wrong and has defended his family in the tradition of all the Best Dogs, must be put down by the not-yet-adult oldest son of the family.

Reading that, Jesse's not Old Yeller.

But Walt is.

Think about it.  Walt's desire to provide for his family drove him to the drug trade and, once bitten, he decided to live with the sting.  Gradually, he's become sicker and sicker, going from making a sandwich for a captive Krazy-8 to coldly planning the mass murder of witnesses.  If Jesse is read as Walt's adopted son - well, I think Jesse might be headed to the corn crib with a rifle.

Then again, Breaking Bad almost never does what I expect it to do.  Maybe the M-60 in the trunk is Walt's putting-down-the-dog rifle.  Maybe Skyler's the sick dog ("What's one more?" chilled me.)  Maybe it's Hank, who's turned sharply from the bluff, hale-fellow-well-met agent we met in the pilot.  At this point, none of the main characters (with the exception of Jr., who's always had more of a supporting role) can claim innocence.  But who's actually rabid?  And who's the heartbroken Travis Coates?

Oh, and Old Yeller will break your heart.  Watch the clip, but don't say I didn't warn you.

Four to go.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Dignity in Labor

Today is Labor Day in America and let's take just a moment in the midst of the summer cookouts and end-of-wearing-white to think about that.  Labor Day was not begun as a de facto end of summer celebration; rather, the holiday has its roots in bloody protest.  Workers, fed up, took to the streets to demand better working conditions and we should all be grateful.  The 40-hour work week, worker's compensation, and end to child labor - these are all direct results of the labor movement in this country.

Work should have dignity.

That notion is at the heart of the soul of Lee Daniels' The Butler.  (The long title is the result of an earlier movie called The Butler, but I'm going to truncate it from here on in this post.)  The Butler is one of those "inspired by actual events" movies and those can get tricky.  Let me make this point clear - this is not a biopic.  The character of Cecil Gaines (played by Forest Whitaker) is based on Eugene Allen, who served in the White House through eight administrations and saw history change and swoop and reverse itself.  Other characters are fictionalized to the point of being flat-out made-up.  (You can fact check The Butler here and here, and I'm sure there are plenty of other sources as well.)

Here's the thing - I don't care.  The overarching history of this film is solid, while the question of "did X really happen to Y?" doesn't interest me all that much, since the film is not pretending to be a biopic.  The civil rights movement proceeded in fits and starts.  Not all white people were horrible, but many were.  Not all black people agreed with Dr. King, but many did.  And the violence was widespread, ugly, and all too frequent.  Our history is a bloody one and we like the sanitize that by saying, "Oh, let's not dwell on that.  It's so unpleasant and now things are different."

Really?  Tell that to the black teenager who gets followed in a store.  Tell it to the woman who gets paid 20% less than her male counterpart for doing the same job.  Tell it to the gay couple who can't file a joint state tax return.  Tell it to the Sikh wearing a turban, or the Muslim woman wearing a headscarf, or, or, or.

We have yet to fulfill the promises of the Preamble.  We're doing better at "securing the blessings of Liberty," but no, we're not there yet.  The Butler shows us how far we've come.  It's a movie that we all need to see.  This isn't "black history."  It's our history.  Also, the star-studded cast is astonishing to watch - I won't even try to list all of the main performers, much less the smaller roles.  Just - go see this.  Take children.  Parts of this movie are harsh to watch.  I'm willing to bet they were harsher to live through.