Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 115

Since Breaking Bad concluded its run with the incredible "Felina" last September, Monday night's broadcast of the Primetime Emmy Awards was the show's final chance to take home some of the golden girls. Typically, Breaking Bad did not disappoint. Having already won a Creative Arts Emmy Award for outstanding editing for "Felina" (yay for Skip MacDonald, who also worked on Buffy back in the day), Breaking Bad took home Emmy Awards for Best Drama Series (the second in a row), Best Lead Actor in a Drama (Bryan Cranston, winning his fifth!), Best Supporting Actress in a Drama (Anna Gunn, taking home her second in a row), Best Supporting Actor in a Drama (Aaron Paul, taking home his third), and Outstanding Writing (Moira Walley-Beckett for the amazing "Ozymandias"). Vince Gilligan did not receive the Best Directing award, which I think is a shame - do they think "Felina" directed itself? Still, it's unseemly to complain with those results. (And yes, Walt, we know. You won. Really, you did.)

AMC continues the "binge broadcast" every Sunday night beginning at 5 pm and going until 1 am - check that out if you can handle that much depravity in an evening! AMC has thoughtfully provided companion material for binge watchers!

Speaking of companion material, Ensley F. Guffey and I are scheduled to do another signing down at the South Carolina coast - come see us at the North Myrtle Beach Books-A-Million on Saturday, September 13 beginning at 2 pm! We'd love to see you, talk Breaking Bad and even give you a taste of the blue! Tell your friends and spread the word!

And, since Ensley already posted the hysterical "pawn shop" skit with Cranston and Paul (click here for that post), let's take a moment to remember how things could have ended . . .

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Life in Black and White

It's extremely unusual these days for a wide-release movie to be filmed in black and white. (Oh, sure, the 2011 Oscar winner The Artist was [and it was a silent film, to boot], but that was a case of the exception proving the rule.) But just this week I've seen two new releases that are primarily filmed* in B&W, with radically different results. So let's take a look at Sin City 2 and The Giver, which actually have more similarities than you might think at first glance.\

Sin City 2 is the prequel/sequel to 2005's Sin City, which first brought Frank Miller's stark B&W neo-noir graphic novels to the screen. While Miller is listed as a director (along with Quentin Tarentino), the film is primarily Robert Rodriguez's effort. Stunning in its faithfulness to the original source material, audiences flocked to the first Sin City, for nothing like this had been seen.

But nine years have passed. Sin City 2 was stuck in pre-production hell for a while and the finished film suffers as a result. Several roles had to be recast - Brittany Murphy (Shellie) and Michael Clarke Duncan (Manute) had both passed away, and scheduling conflicts necessitated a few other changes, including substituting Josh Brolin for Clive Owen in the role of Dwight. Sin City 2 is based on four Miller stories - two of which were written for the film - and that may have been a mistake. (Again, the film is both a prequel and a sequel - if you go, just enjoy the ride and don't try to figure out how "B" could happen when "A" happened in the first film.) Sin City 2 feels stitched together; possibly the result of trying to cover too many stories. Then again, I understand the temptation with a cast this strong. Mickey Rourke is back as stone-cold killer Marv and Powers Boothe chews the scenery as the sociopathic senator Roark (no relation, I'm sure). Jessica Alba's Nancy seems tacked on to the story - I much prefer Miho in this film, but I always had a weakness for that character, anyway. The breakout performance here is undoubtedly Eva Green's Ava, the "Dame to Kill For" of the subtitle, although a strong case could also be made for Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

Visually, Sin City 2 is gorgeous. The stark black and white is shot through with pops of vivid color - red lips, a blue silk coat, emerald eyes, and so on, but some of the most memorable shots involve the black and white - look for Nancy curling up in satin sheets - and cigarette smoke hasn't been this sexy in years. The problem is, even as lush as it is, we've seen this before - and the stories are so-so. Ultra-violent in that Miller style (if you haven't read his "Dark Knight" work, do yourself a favor and seek it out), Sin City 2 is stylish and slick, but ultimately, not all that much to get excited about. I saw it in 3D, which just didn't add a lick to the experience. Rental.

The Giver is also shot primarily in B&W, but for other reasons. In Sin City 2, the B&W is a deliberate attempt to harken back to the noir feel of the graphic novels, while in The Giver it serves a narrative purpose - the people living in the "Communities" can't see color. Well, most of them, anyway. It's a very peaceful society; quite the opposite of Miller's (Ba)sin City, but it's just as corrupt at the core. Based on Lois Lowry's best-selling and Newberry Award -winning young adult dystopian novel, The Giver centers around some very basic questions - is safety worth sacrificing emotion? Is it a sacrifice if you don't know any other option is out there? How much control over your life should be entrust to others? Valuable questions to examine, but the film falls flat. It departs substantially from the novel in a few key places and a dream cast is basically left with not much to do. Seriously - Meryl Streep [18 Oscar nominations with 3 wins for Kramer v. Kramer, Sophie's Choice and The Iron Ladyand Jeff Bridges [six Oscar nominations with 1 win for Crazy Heart] should be an embarrassment of riches. Bridges gets to sink his teeth into his role, Streep doesn't, and Katie Holmes shouldn't view this exactly as her triumphant return to the big screen. On the plus side, The Giver is a good vehicle for Brenton Thwaites (Jonas) who is breaking into American films. His last role was as Prince Phillip in Maleficent, where he didn't have much to do. Here, he gets to show off his chops and Thwaites comes out of this standing tall.  Keep your eye on him. The Giver isn't bad - in fact, there are some very touching bits that I daresay the target audience will cling to and there was one montage about "receiving strength" that nearly had me tear up. It's just not that good, either. Read the book instead. Rental.

*I suppose it's not quite accurate to use the term "filmed" since most movies nowadays aren't shot on film stock anymore, but rather on digital media. Still, the old term dies hard and I'm so glad the term "talkie" never really caught on.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 114

Can they do it again this year?
The Emmy Awards are coming soon! For the first time in nearly 40 years, the Emmys are being broadcast on a Monday night, so make your plans for Monday, August 25 and tune in to NBC to find out if Breaking Bad has a big night - remember, the show is nominated for a whopping 16 of the golden girls!

Ensley and I have been busy talking up Breaking Bad and having a whale of a good time doing it. This past Saturday, we were part of Barnes & Noble's "Get Pop-Cultured" event and we had a wonderful time at the Winston-Salem, NC location talking to fans and swapping stories. Ensley wrote up the event over on his blog and he also talked about our guest spot on CultureSmash as well as our initial "The Ten Percent" column on the site.

We're also gearing up to start drafting Dreams Given Form, our exciting new project for ECW that will have us delving into All Things Babylon 5 for the next year-plus.

Therefore, I think you'll understand if Walter White Wednesday starts to wind down a bit. Oh, I'll still post about Breaking Bad - you can count on that! But I'm going to take a week off, then write about the Emmy results, and then it may be time to let Walter White rest in peace, if he can.

But we've still got Saul!  Have you seen the teaser?  Although Better Call Saul won't air until February of 2015, already I'm getting excited!  How'd Jimmy McGill turn into Saul Goodman? Oh, there's a story to be told!

See you after the Emmys!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

The Worst Sin a Movie Can Commit

. . . has been committed by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Well, it's August, which is often the dumping ground for releases trying for a their own ray of summer sunshine before Labor Day brings in more prestige pictures and we move into the serious Oscar fare. (Not exclusively, of course - Dumb & Dumber Too is a November release and Hot Tub Time Machine 2 [to answer all those nagging questions from the first one, no doubt] is a Christmas Day release). Anyway, back to the ninja reptiles.

The Turtles have been around since the mid 1980s. Beginning in comic book form, the snappy patter and mad martial arts skillz of the mutated terrapins were intended to parody some of the most popular comics of that time, including Marvel's Daredevil, Dave Sim's Cerebus, and Frank Miller's Ronin. Very quickly, the parody outstripped the source material in terms of popularity, no doubt aided by the first cartoon incarnation and unending tie-in merchandise. TMNT movies have appeared before so the Powers That Be (including producer Michael Bay; well, at least he didn't direct) must've felt that the time was right for another tale of the turtles.

Maybe.  But not this one. Look - here's my issue with this movie. It's dull. 

Oh, sure, I could point out that the reliance on hand-held camera work to cheat what's being shown is nausea-inducing, or that plot holes are gigantic (if you're using a rocket filled with deadly toxins to poison an entire city, maybe it's not a good marketing decision to put your company's logo on the rocket!) or that there's exposition well into what should be the third act (seriously - the villainous scientist [played by the always reliable William Fichtner] takes the time to Explain the Plan to his captive victims - mwa-ha-ha!), but whatever. The biggest problem here isn't Megan Fox (who's actually okay in this picture. Maybe she figured out that it's a joke and she decided to be in on it). No, the biggest problem is that the film is just meh. The CGI isn't very good, especially for a movie with an estimated $125 million budget. I was even willing to give that a pass - maybe director Jonathan Liebesman (Battle Los Angeles) wanted to go for a more cartoon-y feel - but the story is just not captivating, which is a shame in a picture with three (count 'em - three!) "daddy issue" storylines.

I acknowledge that the audience in the theater when I saw this seemed to very much enjoy the whiz-bang-boom! aspects, but I think part of that had to do with (1) dads who enjoyed the original Turtles wanting to share that with their kids and (2) realizing how much they'd paid to see this movie, they were grimly determined to enjoy it. Oh, and think about the level of violence before you take the young fry - it's rated PG-13 for a reason and there were far too many six-year-olds in that theater for my taste.

If you want to share the Turtles with your kids, use the cartoons.  Click here to start!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Walter White Wednesday 113

Although its final episode aired nearly a year ago, Breaking Bad continues to inspire fans. I've written here before about fan activities, ranging from nail art, to tattoos, to entire conventions, so let's add this to the mix - street art! Click the link to see gorgeous murals and paintings found around the globe - all inspired by Breaking Bad!!

If you're a fan and you're in the Triad area of North Carolina, come on out to see us at the Winston-Salem Barnes & Noble this weekend! We'll be appearing on Saturday beginning at 3 pm to talk Breaking Bad, sign copies of Wanna Cook? (which, c'mon, really is the must-have for AMC's binge-watching party that begins on Sunday, August 10 at 5 pm), and even hand out samples of the blue! Details can be found here!

Also, while Ensley has discussed this over on his blog in the most recent "Meth Monday," it bears repeating. We're broadening the discussion net for Breaking Bad with two upcoming events.

First, we'll be guests (hopefully of the honored variety) tonight at 8 pm on the CultureSmash webcast where we'll talk about Breaking Bad, writing Wanna Cook? and whatever else the fine CultureSmash folks allow us to yammer on about before they cut our mikes. The episode will be available live and also archived on the CultureSmash website as well, so please - check it out and let them know you're listening!

Also, we've been asked to write a regular column for BiffBamPop and our first one (about Breaking Bad, naturally!) goes live this Thursday, August 7. Our column is called "The Ten Percent" (the name comes from science-fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon's observation that "90% of everything is crud") and will focus on that magnificent ten percent of film/television/comics/etc. that isn't crud. Please click on over there as well!

Monday, August 4, 2014

Heart & Soul

Two new movies have just been released that both deal with how music can save your soul, or at least anchor yourself to who you are. Aside from that, the comic-based blockbuster Guardians of the Galaxy and the James Brown biopic Get On Up are very different movies, both of which deserve to be seen.

 For about a year now, audiences have been seeing trailers and advance clips from Guardians which featured a soundtrack that seemed at odds with a movie featuring outer space adventures undertaken by a ragtag group of reluctant heroes. This is due to hero Peter Quill's (Chris Pratt, who is having one heck of a year - he was Emmet in The Lego Movie earlier this year) incessant consumption of a mixtape (remember mixtapes?) given to him by his mother and simply titled "Awesome Mix Vol. 1." (You can access the playlist on Spotify here.) These were all songs his mother, a child of the 1970s, loved and wanted to share with her son. For me, the songs were one of the distinctive parts of this film, which I found to be delightful. Moviegoers are flocking to this one, which makes me glad - Guardians is not a familiar Marvel property (like Spider-Man or The X-Men) and it's good to see that Marvel is willing to take a risk. The director, James Gunn, had never had his hands on a movie this large (his gross-out B horror flick Slither is great fun, though) and he acquits himself admirably here. As with nearly any movie, not everyone is pleased - several critics have found Guardians to be a little too clever and to suffer from some plot holes. Legitimate criticism, I suppose, but then again, we're talking about a flick featuring a sentient space-faring Ent (who is literally a family tree at one point) and a cybernetically-enhanced raccoon (Bradley Cooper's best role in years), so maybe that rhetoric should be toned down a notch.

Look, it's been a while since I've come out of a movie just wanting to turn around and see it again, so maybe I'm a little defensive on this one. Guardians has humor by the truckload, but it also has heart - there are a few scenes that tug at your heartstrings (one comes at the very beginning of the movie, so the tone is set early), but I didn't find those tugs to be cheap ploys. Guardians is a great way to finish out the summer - no, you don't have to think too much and yes, enjoy the ride.

Get On Up is a different kettle of funk. There is no popular music - repeat, NO popular music - that has not been influenced by the work of James Brown. Musically, he was likely a genius. Personally, the story gets more complicated. Directed by Tate Taylor of The Help (he again teams with Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis from that film) and featuring an electrifying Chadwick Boseman of the Jackie Robinson biopic 42, this film tries to tell the story of an American original in just over two hours. Get On Up jumps back and forth in time and has Brown directly address the audience by breaking the fourth wall - techniques that not all moveigoers will enjoy, but that I thought worked well.

Boseman's performance is astounding as he brings Brown to glorious, messy, selfish, occasionally self-destructive, life. He is greatly aided by an extremely talented cast, including Spencer and Davis, as well as Dan Aykroyd as Brown's long-time manager Ben Bart (Elwood and Rev. James, back together again) and Brandon Smith playing Little Richard in a small role that jumped off the screen - he's one to watch, that's for sure! Like all biopics, Get On Up takes some liberties with the truth to tell a good story, but the harsh edges of Brown's personal life are not glossed over, nor are his triumphs, including his appearance in Vietnam with an integrated band to entertain troops at the height of the war. All in all, a good movie and if it causes horn sections to be added back to music hitting the airwaves, fantastic! If it causes anyone to seek out Brown's music, so much the better.