Monday, September 30, 2013
What a ride: Bye bye 'Bad' Part I
that STILL has yet to watch Breaking Bad in its entirety, close this story now.
By Edward Copeland
Kept you waiting there too long my love.
All that time without a word
Didn't know you'd think that I'd forget
Or I'd regret the special love I have for you —
My Baby Blue.
Perfection. I don’t intend (and never planned) to spend much of this farewell to Breaking Bad discussing its finale, but it happens too seldom that a movie or a final episode wraps with the absolute spot-on song. The Crying Game did it with Lyle Lovett singing “Stand By Your Man.” The Sopranos often accomplished it with specific episodes such as using The Eurythmics’ “I Saved the World Today” at the end of the second season’s “Knight in White Satin Armor” episode. Breaking Bad killed last night with some Badfinger — and how often do you read words along those lines?
We first met Walter Hartwell White, his family and associates (or, if you prefer, eventual victims/collateral damage) on Jan. 20, 2008. Viewers anyway. As for the time period of the show, the first scene or that first episode, I’d be a fool to venture a definitive guess. I start this piece with that date because it places the series damn close to the beginning of the 2008 calendar year. In the years since Vince Gilligan’s brilliant creation graced our TV screens, five full years of movies opened in the U.S. and ⅔ of a sixth. In that time, some great films crossed my path. Many I anticipate being favorites for the rest of my days: WALL-E, (500) Days of Summer and The Social Network, to name but three. As much as I love those movies and many others released in that time, I say without hyperbole that none equaled the quality or satisfied me as much as the five seasons of Breaking Bad.
For me to make such a declaration might come off as one more person jumping on the "what an amazing time we live in for quality TV" bandwagon. As someone who from a young age loved movies to such a degree that I sometimes attended new ones just to see something, admitting this amazes even me. On some level, early on in this sea change, it felt as if I not only had cheated on my wife but become a serial adulterer as well. In my childhood days of movie love, I also watched way too much TV, but I admittedly held the medium in disdain as a whole, an attitude that, despite the shows I loved and recognized as great, didn’t change until Hill Street Blues arrived. However, I can’t deny the transfer of my affection as to which medium satisfies, engages and gives me that natural high once exclusive to the best of cinema or, in those all-too-brief years I could attend, superb New York theater productions, most consistently now. It’s not that top-notch movies no longer get made, but experiencing sublime new films occurs far less frequently than in years past. (Perhaps a mere coincidence, but the most recent year that I’d cite as overflowing with works reaching higher heights happens to be 1999 — the same year The Sopranos premiered, marking the unofficial start of this era.) Granted, television and other outlets such as Netflix expanded the number of places available for programming exponentially, television as a whole still produces plenty of time-wasting crap. However, on a percentage basis, the total of fictional TV series produced that rank among the greatest in TV history probably hits a higher number than great films reach out of each year's crop of new movies.
Close readers of my movie posts know that when I compile lists of all-time favorite films, as I did last year, I require that a movie be at least 10 years old before it reaches eligibility for inclusion. With that requirement for film, it probably appears inconsistent on my part to declare Breaking Bad the greatest drama to air on television when it just concluded last night. However, I don’t feel like a hypocrite making this proclamation. When I saw any of the 62 episodes of Breaking Bad for the first time, never once did I feel afterward as if it had just been an “OK” episode. Obviously, some soared higher than others, but none ranked as so-so. I can’t say that about any other series. As much as I love The Sopranos, David Chase’s baby churned out some clunkers. The Wire almost matched Breaking Bad's achievement, but HBO prevented this by giving it a truncated fifth season that forced David Simon and gang to rush the ending in a way that made the final year unsatisfying following its brilliant fourth. Deadwood gets an incomplete, once again thanks to HBO, for not allowing David Milch to complete his five season vision. I recently re-read the one time I wrote about Breaking Bad, sometime in the middle of its third season, and though I didn't hail it to the extent I do now, the impending signs show in my protective nature toward the series since this came when it had a smaller, loyal cadre of fans such as myself who almost wanted to keep it our little secret. As the series moved forward, what amazed me — something that amazes me anytime it happens — was Breaking Bad’s ability to get better and better from season to season. That rarely occurs on any show, no matter how good. Programs might achieve a level of quality and maintain it, but rarely do any continue to top themselves. The Wire did that for its first four seasons but, as I wrote above, that stopped when HBO shorted them by three episodes in its final season. Breaking Bad not only grew better, it continued to experiment with its storytelling techniques right up to its final episodes. In this last batch of eight alone, we had “Rabid Dog” (written and directed by Sam Catlin) that begins with Walt, gun in hand, searching his gasoline-soaked house for an angry Jesse, whose car remains in the driveway while he can't be found. Then, well into the episode, we pick up where the previous episode ended with Jesse dousing the White residence with the flammable liquid and learn that Hank had tailed him and stopped Pinkman in the act and convinced the angry young man that the enemy of his enemy might be his friend. Then, in the episode “Ozymandias” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Rian Johnson), the amazing first scene (following the pre-title card teaser scene) at To’hajiilee following the lopsided shootout between Uncle Jack, Todd and their Neo-Nazi gang versus Hank and Gomez, lasts an amazing 13½ riveting minutes. The credits don’t run until after the second commercial break, more than 20 minutes into the episode. Throughout the series, despite being on a commercial network, Breaking Bad never shied away from long scenes (and kudos to AMC for allowing them to do so) such as Skyler and Walt’s rehearsal in season 4’s “Bullet Points” (written by Walley-Beckett, directed by Colin Bucksey) for telling Hank and Marie about Walt’s “gambling problem” and how that gave them the money to buy the car wash. The dramas on pay cable that lack commercials seldom provide scenes of that notable length. Fear of the short attention span. With as many channels as exist, I say fuck those fidgety fools. Cater to those who appreciate these scenes when done as well as Breaking Bad did them. That writing surpassed most everything else on TV most of the time and as usual at the Emmys, where I consider it a fluke if someone or something deserving wins, Breaking Bad received no nominations for writing until the two it earned this year (and lost). On Talking Bad following the finale, Anna Gunn compared each new script’s arrival to Christmas morning — and she also worked on Deadwood with a master wordsmith like David Milch.
Looking again at the initial moments of Breaking Bad, now viewed with the knowledge of everything to come, it establishes much about Walter White even though it occurred before Heisenberg made any official appearance. Watch this clip of our introduction to both Walt and Breaking Bad and see what I mean.
From the beginning, all the elements of Walt’s delusions had planted their roots in his head: the denial of criminality, his conviction that his family justified all his actions (which, compared to what events transpire later, seem rather minor moral transgressions now). One thing I wondered: Did Hank hang on to that gas mask somewhere in DEA evidence? It had Walt's fingerprints on it since he flung it away bare-handed. If Jesse told Schrader where they began cooking, hard evidence for a case existed and things might have turned out differently. Oh, well. No use crying over spilled brother-in-laws at this point. Dipping in and out of the AMC marathon preceding the finale and watching and re-watching episodes over the years (because, among the other outstanding attributes of Breaking Bad, the show belongs on the list of the most compulsively re-watchable television series in history), I always look for the exact moment when Heisenberg truly dominated Walter White’s personality because while I’m not in any way excusing Walt’s actions the way the deranged Team Walt types do, obviously this man suffers from a split personality disorder. You spot it in the season 2 episode where they hold the celebration party over Walt's cancer news and he keeps pouring tequila into Walt Jr.'s cup until Hank tries to put a stop to it, prompting a confrontation that mirrors in many ways Hank and Walt's after Hank deduced his alter ego. It also contains dialogue where Walt apologizes in the morning, saying, "I don't know who that was yesterday. It wasn't me." What caused that split, we don’t really know. We know that Walt’s dad died of Huntington’s disease when White was young and Skyler alluded to the way “he was raised” when he resisted accepting the Schwartzes’ help paying for his cancer treatments in the early days and he has no apparent relationship with his mother. Frankly, I praise creator Vince Gilligan for not taking that easy way out and trying to explain the cause of Walter White’s madness. I find it more interesting when creators don’t try to explain what made their monsters. I didn’t need to know that young Hannibal Lecter saw his parents killed by particularly ghoulish Nazis in World War II who ate his parents. Hannibal's character remains more interesting without some traumatic back story to explain what turned him into the serial killer he became. Since I brought up those Team Walt members, while I can't conceive how anyone still defends him, I understand how people sympathized with Walter White at first and it took different actions and moments in the series for individual viewers to accept the fact that no classification fit Walter White other than that of a monster. In the beginning, the series made it easy to feel for Walt and cheer him on. When he took action on the asshole teens mocking Walt Jr. for his cerebral palsy, who didn't think those punks deserved it? While an excessive act, when he fried the car battery of the asshole who stole his parking space, who hasn't fantasized about getting even on someone like that? Even when Walt's acts got more serious, you sided with him, such as when he bawled, sobbing "I'm sorry" repeatedly as he killed Krazy-8. Even the moment most cite as the breaking point as Walt watches Jane die plays as open to interpretation. He looks like a deer in the headlights, uncertain of what to do as much as someone who sees the advantage of letting this woman in the process of extorting him expire. The credit for that ambiguity belongs to the brilliance of Bryan Cranston's performance. However, once you get to that final season 4 reveal of the Lily of the Valley plant, I don't see how anyone defended Walt after that, if they hadn't stopped already. As Hank said at the end, Walt was the smartest guy he ever met, so why couldn't he devise a way to either save himself or kill Gus that didn't involve poisoning a child?
With all that said, Walt, while not redeemed, did rightfully regain some sympathy in the home stretch — surrendering his precious ill-gotten gains in a fruitless plea for Hank’s life, trying to clear Skyler of culpability, ultimately freeing Jesse and, most importantly, admitting that all his evil deeds had nothing to do with providing for his family but were because he enjoyed them, they made him feel alive. Heisenberg probably left that drink unfinished at the New Hampshire bar, but I think the old Walter White returned. The people he harmed deserved it and the scare he put in Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz merely a fake-out to ensure they did what he wanted with the money. He didn’t break good at the end, but he tied up loose ends and then allowed himself to die side by side with his true love — the blue meth he created that rocked the drug-addicted world.
Alas, my physical limitations prevent me from giving the series the farewell I envisioned in a single tribute, so I must break this into parts as much remains to be discussed — I’ve yet to touch upon the magnificent array of acting talent, brilliant direction and tons of other issues so, while Breaking Bad’s story has ended, this one has not. So, regretfully, as I collapse, I must say…
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Monday, September 23, 2013
More than any of us can bear
BLOGGER'S NOTE: This review originally ran on this blog on Aug. 9, 2006. I'm re-posting it for The Oliver Stone Blogathon occurring through Oct. 6 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
By Edward Copeland
I finally caught up with Oliver Stone's World Trade Center and, as indicated by many reviews, it certainly qualifies as the least Oliver Stone-like film Stone has made (though Oliver can't resist tossing in a couple of ghostly images of Jesus in a light but hey, at least it wasn't a mystical Indian). World Trade Center does end up being Stone's best work in quite some time.
Like most Stone movies, it contains fat that could be lost easily and in the battle of 9/11 movies, I still prefer United 93, even though Stone's film contains good performances. Cage gives his best straight performance in ages. Yes, I loved him in Adaptation, but I can't remember the last time he played a dramatic role in a movie that wasn't a time-waster.
He's also ably supported by Michael Pena as the fellow Port Authority officer trapped with him beneath the rubble, and Maria Bello as Cage's wife and Maggie Gyllenhaal as Pena's wife, awaiting word on their husbands' fates. If I prefer United 93 to World Trade Center, it's for one main reason: the emotional wounds of 9/11 remain so fresh, that it seems almost unnecessary to tell personal, albeit true, stories to wring emotion from a viewer. The relative anonymity of the passengers depicted in United 93 touched me more deeply than the fleshed-out stories in World Trade Center did, especially when they tack on a lapsed paramedic (Frank Whaley) and a former Marine (Michael Shannon) who abandons his office job, throws on his old uniform and marches into Ground Zero to help.
World Trade Center depicts well the confusion and communications breakdowns on 9/11, where the first responders themselves don't realize that a second plane has hit the second tower until well after they've arrived on the scene of the first tower.
As you expect from a Stone production, his production team delivers top-notch technical aspects. While World Trade Center as a film comes off as Stone's finest in ages, it's difficult to compete with the real images we saw that day. Paul Greengrass found a way to accomplish that in United 93. While Stone's film offers good performances, somehow the personal touch ends up being less emotionally satisfying.
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Monday, September 16, 2013
From the Vault: JFK
BLOGGER'S NOTE: I'm re-posting this review, originally written when JFK opened in 1991, as part of The Oliver Stone Blogathon occurring through Oct. 6 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
Seldom has reviewing a film proved as problematic as Oliver Stone's JFK. So much has been written about what is — and isn't — accurate in this film that I went in desperately trying to view solely on a cinematic basis, ignoring the fact that it concerns that fateful November day in Dallas in 1963. That sort of objectivity ends up being impossible because JFK demands evaluation and analysis and obliterates any chance of passive viewing with its strange hybrid of thriller, murder mystery and documentary.
Kevin Costner plays the lead in Stone's story as New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, who launched a full-fledged investigation into the conspiracy he believed left both John F. Kennedy and the country mortally wounded. "Fundamentally, people are suckers for the truth," Donald Sutherland's Deep Throat-type character tells Garrison at one point in the film. While it remains to be seen whether Stone's version contains more truth than the preposterous idea that Lee Harvey Oswald (played well by Gary Oldman, part of the film's gargantuan, excellent ensemble) acted alone, fascination with the assassination keeps this three-hour film compulsively watchable.
Problems plague the film other than the ones that spark so much debate. Despite allegations that the film comes off as homophobic (I see why that charge has been leveled) or exists as nothing more than propaganda (could be), it fares fairly well. Stone keeps the pace speeding along most of the time except for a middle section that lags. His editing and jump-cuts that mix real footage, re-creations and original material triumph, especially in the film's very good opening segments. The movie stumbles the most when it presents scenes of Garrison's domestic life with his wife Liz (a thankless task given to the usually reliable Sissy Spacek, saddled with dialogue along the lines of "I think you care more about John Kennedy than your own family!") It also doesn't help that Garrison's son (played by Stone's own 7-year-old son Sean) never ages though the film covers more than half a decade.
Other demerits include John Williams' score, which nearly overpowers important scenes such as Sutherland's magnetic spinning of key elements of the "conspiracy" so that it makes sense as he's sharing it, and, it should really go without saying, Costner himself. While he manages to be fairly consistent with his Southern accent, he still can't emote effectively. He's a star, not an actor. Much of the popular opinion about the real Garrison refers to him either as someone seeking publicity or a crackpot. Regardless, Costner can't convey his obsession or possibly unstable nature. In his overrated Dances With Wolves, his lack of acting skills presented a similar problem. Both JFK and Dances would have been better served if they'd cast a performer capable of portraying people losing control. Lt. Dunbar tries to commit suicide and then asks to be placed on the frontier, but Costner couldn't pull off that conflict any more convincingly than he pulls off Garrison's drive for the truth.
Thankfully, able supporting performers abound to pick up the slack, even if they appear for a single scene. Actors deserving particular praise include Ed Asner, Kevin Bacon, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Joe Pesci, Sutherland and Tommy Lee Jones, who gives a good performance despite the possible perception of his character as an offensive stereotype. Structurally, the film weakens in its final act by climaxing with Garrison's prosecution of Clay Shaw (Jones). While this conclusion comes naturally to a film focused on Garrison, it seems anticlimactic to the film's real subject — dealing with the demons of the past. Stone's obsession with the Vietnam era equals Garrison's with Kennedy's murder. Methods separate Garrison's obsession from Stone's. Stone uses cinema as his rosary to drag the audience kicking and screaming into his personal confessional. With JFK, that's not altogether inappropriate. Even people born since the assassination grew up with the myths and the facts of Nov. 22, 1963, as part of their lives, though for most of the younger of us, Jim Garrison and his actual prosecution of Clay Shaw was something few of us knew about until Stone's movie.
Growing up though with the history of the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations ingrained in our brains shortened our attention span of shock when John Lennon, Reagan and Pope John Paul II encountered bullets in a period of just a few months. The explosion of the space shuttle Challenger seemed to affect us for only an hour or two instead of the lifelong effect JFK's assassination had on an earlier generation.
Personally, I don't know if I buy the revamped Garrison theory that Stone offers. I don't see how anyone can believe Oswald acted alone or all the shots came from behind — watching the Zapruder film enlarged on the big screen makes the "back and to the left" motion of Kennedy's head unmistakable. However, Stone can't quite pull off the idea that the reason Kennedy was killed was so the Vietnam War could happen.
In that respect, JFK plays like a murder trial where only the prosecution presents its case. I'm certainly no apologist for Oliver Stone and I think most of his films grow weaker on subsequent viewings. Indeed, his tendency to pass off fabrication as fact can be troubling when most viewers can't tell the difference. Reservations aside, JFK holds one's attention firmly and deserves a look.
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Sunday, September 15, 2013
From the Vault: The Doors
BLOGGER'S NOTE: I'm re-posting this review, originally written when The Doors opened in 1991, as part of The Oliver Stone Blogathon occurring today through Oct. 6 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover
Then lack of character development proves to be the major problem with this film. Near the beginning of the film, a 5-year-old Morrison vacations with his family in 1949 when they see the aftermath of a car wreck involving Navajos. The movie refers to the incident time and time again, apparently to explain why Morrison sets out on a path to self-destruction.
Alex Cox produced a much-better illustration of drugs sucking the life out of a talented individual in his 1986 film Sid & Nancy. Stone makes no secret of his admiration of Morrison, which makes me wonder how The Doors would have turned out if made by someone who didn't like Morrison since the resulting film comes off as spending 2 hours and 15 minutes with a truly repellent individual.
Val Kilmer does look and, in the live performance scenes, sound like Morrison, and his performance can't be faulted. Morrison comes off as a zonked-out prick and, since Stone worships him, you have to think that's an accurate portrayal. Then again, who's to say? The film creates a Morrison without any depth. It doesn't play him as a tortured artist or, in many ways, even a human being. He's just a doomed curiosity trapped in an extremely long music video — film as a hallucinogen, if you will.
The other members of The Doors may as well be cardboard cutouts for as much time and energy the film spends exploring them as individuals. Poor Kyle MacLachlan, trapped in a blond wig as Ray Manzarek, gets little more to do that sit at the keyboards, look concerned and occasionally defend Morrison in a DeForest Kelley-as-Dr. McCoy tone with lines such as, "Dammit, Jim's an artist."
The result comes off as even more despairing for the characters of Robby Krieger and John Densmore (Frank Whaley, Kevin Dillon), the other two members of the band. I don't know where Morrison and Manzarek met them. One scene, Ray suggests to Jim that they form a band. In the next, suddenly Krieger and Densmore complete the foursome.
Stone again finds himself trapped in the era of his obsession, namely the mid-1960s to the early 1970s, and, while the look rings true thanks to brilliant and stunning cinematography by Robert Richardson, the stilted dialogue borders on laughable, making me wonder if secret giggles lurk beneath the lines. On the plus side, Stone makes no assertions connecting the band to U.S. presence in Vietnam.
In many ways, the film reminds me of Tron, Disney's 1982 film about life inside a video game. That film looked great, but at its core offered nothing more than good graphics. The Doors stimulates visually, but doesn't engage the mind at all. In the end, it becomes nothing more than a meaningless assault on the senses about people who made good rock and roll between the sex and the drugs.
Stone, usually reliably opinionated, seems to lack a point of view here. He's neither defending Morrison nor chastising him. More importantly, the film lacks what much of Stone's work lacks — structure. When you go back and look at much of his body of work, Platoon, Wall Street and Born on the Fourth of July all fail to hold up on subsequent viewings, usually because of a lack of structure. Talk Radio remains the Stone film that holds up best because of its built-in structure of the radio broadcast. In The Doors, except for occasional reminders of the year, structure does not exist, just a drifting, mind-altering montage of events leading up to the inevitable discovery of Morrison in the bathtub. The most glaring example comes in a scene with Meg Ryan as Pamela, Morrison's "ornament." Jim finds Pam shooting heroin with another man and. in a rage, frightens her into a closet where he locks her in before setting the door ablaze. That's it. We hear no more about it. Twenty minutes later, Pam shows up at a recording studio. In the film's context, it's unclear that it's even the same time period as when he lit the fire and nothing explains her escape.
There are moments of fun, such as Crispin Glover's cameo as Andy Warhol and Stone's own brief ironic appearance as Morrison's UCLA film professor accusing Jim of being pretentious.
The Doors produced great music, but this film doesn't attempt to look behind the talent. Instead, it just shows an unpleasant man marching to his own beat on the way to his doom.
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