Wednesday, October 16, 2013


Bouncing to a TV near you (plus a personal announcement)

By Edward Copeland
At 11 tonight Eastern time on a network I didn't realize even existed, let alone that I had until recently, a new series debuts (BLOGGER'S NOTE: Like Rick Blaine in Casablanca, I was misinformed. In this case, not about the waters, but that tonight's episode is the premiere. When I first learned about the series through an interview on MSNBC's The Cycle, Toure indicated the show's debut hadn't happened yet. I immediately did an AT&T U-Verse search and it didn't show an episode airing until tonight and gave no episode number. Because I wanted to switch the time I recorded it, I changed the settings just now and discovered that tonight's episode happens to be the third. A check of the the fuse website shows its premiere took place Oct. 3, which I'm fairly certain preceded the MSNBC interview.) that should be of interest to any fan of New Orleans' plethora of contributions to musical styles as well as fans of David Simon and Eric Overmyer's Treme, soon to end its too short run on HBO with an abbreviated five-episode fourth season that premieres Dec. 1. Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce airs at 11 p.m. Eastern/10 p.m. Central on Wednesdays tonight on fuse. This new show's connection to Treme and an announcement by myself concerning the HBO drama comes after the jump.

Jazz hardly stands as the sole musical genre born in the Crescent City, but as Treme's Davis McAlary (Steve Zahn) declared once, New Orleans' music scene tastes and has a recipe much like its gumbo: Lots of ingredients end up in the mix. One of the newer forms to spring forth from its club scene (and a particular favorite of Davis) goes by the name of bounce. Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce (which I haven't seen) promises to take viewers deeper into the culture and origins of that sound with one of its giants, Big Freedia, as our guide. The specific connection to Treme stems from Big Freedia's appearances in two of the second season's best episodes — "Everything I Do Gohn Be Funky" (written by Simon, directed by Tim Robbins) and "Santa Claus, Do You Ever Get the Blues?" (story by Overmyer and Lolis Eric Elie, written by Elie, directed by Alex Zakrzewski). Big Freedia took part in the constant attempts by Davis to enter the music industry, in this case by trying to recruit local artists to contribute tracks for a compilation CD so Davis can showcase his own work. Big Freedia got to take part in the priceless scene where Davis reluctantly takes his delightful Aunt Mimi (Elizabeth Ashley — even more priceless and delightful herself) to a club because she insists on seeing this bounce music for herself before agreeing to help finance her nephew's plan.

Speaking of Treme, my announcement. Provided that my fingers and hands hold up, I'm planning to recap the final episodes of Treme. Don't expect them to be as detailed as they were for season 2, but I'm going to try. I feel I owe it to the show, especially since my health problems prevented me from recapping season three, which turned out to be the series' best season. Keep your fingers crossed for me and hopefully my Treme recaps shall return for five more times in December.

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Thursday, October 10, 2013


Better Off Ted: Bye Bye 'Bad' Part III

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This contains spoilers for the entire series, so if you belong to that group
that STILL has yet to watch Breaking Bad in its entirety, close this story now. If you missed Part I, click here. If you missed Part II, click here.

"Schrader's hard-on for you just reached Uncle Miltie proportions."

— Saul Goodman to Mike Ehrmantraut ("Buyout," written by Gennifer Hutchison, directed by Colin Bucksey)

By Edward Copeland
Playing to the back of the room: I love doing it as a writer and appreciate it even more as an audience member. While I understand how its origin in comedy clubs gives it a derogatory meaning, I say phooey in general. Another example of playing to the broadest, widest audience possible. Why not reward those knowledgeable ones who pay close attention? Why cater to the Michele Bachmanns of the world who believe that ignorance is bliss? What they don’t catch can’t hurt them. I know I’ve fought with many an editor about references that they didn’t get or feared would fly over most readers’ heads (and I’ve known other writers who suffered the same problems, including one told by an editor decades younger that she needed to explain further whom she meant when she mentioned Tracy and Hepburn in a review. Being a free-lancer with a real full-time job, she quit on the spot). Breaking Bad certainly didn’t invent the concept, but damn the show did it well — sneaking some past me the first time or two, those clever bastards, not only within dialogue, but visually as well. In that spirit, I don’t plan to explain all the little gems I'll discuss. Consider them chocolate treats for those in the know. Sam, release the falcon!

In a separate discussion on Facebook, I agreed with a friend at taking offense when referring to Breaking Bad as a crime show. In fact, I responded:

“I think Breaking Bad is the greatest dramatic series TV has yet produced, but I agree. Calling it a ‘crime show’ is an example of trying to pin every show or movie into a particular genre hole when, especially in the case of Breaking Bad, it has so many more layers than merely crime. In fact, I don't like the fact that I just referred to it as a drama series because, as disturbing, tragic and horrifying as Breaking Bad could be, it also could be hysterically funny. That humor also came in shapes and sizes across the spectrum of humor. Vince Gilligan's creation amazes me in a new way every time I think about it. I wonder how long I'll still find myself discovering new nuances or aspects to it. I imagine it's going to be like Airplane! — where I still found myself discovering gags I hadn't caught years and countless viewings after my initial one as an 11-year-old in 1980. Truth be told, I can't guarantee I have caught all that ZAZ placed in Airplane! yet even now. Can it be a mere coincidence that both Breaking Bad and Airplane! featured Jonathan Banks? Surely I can't be serious, but if I am, tread lightly.”

“He’s all over the place! Nine hundred feet up to 1,300 feet — what an asshole!”
— Jonathan Banks as air traffic controller Gunderson in Airplane!

The second season episode “ABQ” (written by Vince Gilligan, directed by Adam Bernstein) introduced us to Banks as Mike and also featured John de Lancie as air traffic controller Donald Margulies, father of the doomed Jane. Listen to the DVD commentary about a previous time that Banks and De Lancie worked together. Speaking of air traffic controllers, if you don’t already know, look up how a real man named Walter White figured in an airline disaster. Remember Wayfarer 515! Saul never did, wearing that ribbon nearly constantly. Most realize the surreal pre-credit scenes that season foretold that ending cataclysm and where six of its second season episode titles, when placed together in the correct order, spell out the news of the disaster. Breaking Bad’s knack for its equivalent of DVD Easter eggs extended to episode titles, which most viewers never knew unless they looked them up. Speaking of Saul Goodman, he provided the voice for a multitude of Breaking Bad’s pop culture references from the moment the show introduced his character in season two’s “Better Call Saul” (written by Peter Gould, directed by Terry McDonough). Once he figures out (and it doesn’t take long) that Walt isn’t really Jesse’s uncle and pays him a visit in his high school classroom, the attorney and his client discuss a more specific role for the lawyer, with Saul referencing a particularly classic film without mentioning the title. “What are you offering me?” Walt asked, unclear as to Goodman’s suggestion for an expanded role. “What did Tom Hagen do for Vito Corleone?” the criminal attorney responds. “I'm no Vito Corleone,” an offended and shocked White replies. “No shit! Right now you're Fredo!” Saul informs Walt. Now, Walt easily knew what movie Saul summoned as an analogy there and I hope any reader easily can as well. It happens to be the same one referenced visually at the top of this piece when poor Ted Beneke took his fateful trip in season four’s classic “Crawl Space” (written by George Mastras & Sam Catlin, directed by Scott Winant). Gilligan from the beginning repeatedly told of how his original pitch for Breaking Bad was the idea of turning Mr. Chips into Scarface and he referred to Brian De Palma’s version of Scarface often, actually showing Walt and Walt Jr. watching the film together in the final season with the elder White commenting, “Everyone dies in this, don’t they?” — possible foreshadowing for how Breaking Bad would end, though it didn't play out that way. The show achieved homage more openly in casting key players from the 1983 film itself: Mark Margolis as Tio Hector Escalante and Steven Bauer as Mexican cartel chief Don Eladio. Of course, the entire series implies the reiterated refrain of De Palma’s film “Don’t get high on your own supply” because, while Walter White never used his blue meth literally, it certainly juiced him up and, as he told Skyler in the last episode “Felina” (written and directed by Gilligan), it made him feel alive. Unfortunately, I doubt any surviving cast members of 1939’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips remain with us so Breaking Bad might have cast them in appropriate roles, but many of the 1969 musical version still abound and what a kick it have been to see Peter O’Toole or Petula Clark appear as a character. Apparently, in 2002, a nonmusical British TV remake came about, but they needn’t have dipped that far in the referential well. Blasted remakes. As far as Scarface goes, I still prefer Howard Hawks’ original over De Palma’s anyway.

As I admitted, some of the nice touches escaped my notice until pointed out to me later. Two of the most obvious examples occurred in the final eight episodes. One wasn’t so much a reference as a callback to the very first episode that you’d need a sharp eye to spot. It occurs in the episode “Ozymandias” (written by Moira Walley-Beckett, directed by Rian Johnson) and I’d probably never noticed if not for a synched-up commentary track that Johnson did for the episode on The Ones Who Knock weekly podcast on Breaking Bad. He pointed out that as Walt rolls his barrel of $11 million through the desert (itself drawing echoes to Erich von Stroheim’s silent classic Greed and its lead character McTeague — that one I had caught) he passes the pair of pants he lost in the very first episode when they flew through the air as he frantically drove the RV with the presumed dead Krazy-8 and Emilio unconscious in the back. Check the still below, enlarged enough so you don’t miss the long lost trousers.

The other came when psycho Todd decided to give his meth cook prisoner Jesse ice cream as a reward. I wasn’t listening closely enough when he named one of the flavor choices as Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream, and even if I’d heard the flavor’s name, I would have missed the joke until Stephen Colbert, whose name serves as a possessive prefix for the treat’s flavor, did an entire routine on The Colbert Report about the use of the ice cream named for him giving Jesse the strength to make an escape attempt. One hidden treasure I did not know concerned the appearance of the great Robert Forster as the fabled vacuum salesman who helped give people new identities for a price. Until I read it in a column on the episode “Granite State” (written and directed by Gould), I had no idea that in real life Forster once actually worked as a vacuum salesman.

Seeing so many episodes multiple times, the callbacks to previous moments in the series always impressed me. I didn’t recall until AMC held its marathon prior to the finale and I caught the scene where Skyler caught Ted about him cooking his company’s books in season two’s “Mandala” (written by Mastras, directed by Adam Bernstein), Beneke actually raises his hands and says, “You got me” — words and movements that return in season four’s “Bullet Points” (written by Walley-Beckett, directed by Colin Bucksey) when Hank tells Walt about the late Gale Boetticher and speculates jokingly about whether the W.W. in Gale’s notebook stands for Walter White. In the same episode, Hank discusses his disappointment (since he assumes Gale was Heisenberg) that he never got his Popeye Doyle moment from The French Connection and waved goodbye to Alain Charnier. Walt reminds Hank that Charnier escaped at the end of the movie, but in “Ozymandias,” Hank imitates Gene Hackman's wave anyway when he gets the cuffs on Walt and places him in the SUV. Film references and homages abound throughout the series. I don’t recall any to Oliver Stone off the top of my head (except, of course, that he wrote De Palma's Scarface) and I hope there weren’t given that filmmaker’s recent hypocritical and nonsensical whining about Breaking Bad’s ending where he called it “ridiculous” among other sleights. If that’s not a fool declaring a nugget of gold to be pyrite. (“IT’S A MINERAL, OLIVER!”) I'd also like to commend the nearly subliminal shout-outs to two great HBO series that received premature endings in the episode "Rabid Dog" (written and directed by Catlin). You can see the Deadwood DVD box set on Hank's bookshelf and, though the carpet cleaning company's name might be Xtreme, the way they design their logo on their van sure makes the words Treme stand out to me.

I wanted this tribute to be so much grander and better organized, but my physical condition thwarted my ambitions. I doubt seriously my hands shall allow me to complete a fourth installment. (If you did miss Part I or Part II, follow those links.) While I hate ending on a patter list akin to a certain Billy Joel song, (I let you off easy. I almost referenced Jonathan Larson — and I considered narrowing the circle tighter by namedropping Gerome Ragni
& James Rado.)
I feel I must to sing my hosannas to the actors, writers, directors and other artists who collaborated to realize the greatest hour-long series in television history. I wish I had the energy to be more specific about the contributions of these names in detail. In no particular order and with apologies for any omissions: Vince Gilligan, Michelle McLaren, Adam Bernstein, Colin Bucksey, Michael Slovis, Bryan Cranston, Terry McDonough, Johan Renck, Rian Johnson, Scott Winant, Peter Gould, Tricia Brock, Tim Hunter, Jim McKay, Phil Abraham, John Dahl, Félix Enríquez Alcalá, Charles Haid, Peter Medak, John Shiban, David Slade, George Mastras, Thomas Schnauz, Sam Catlin, Moira Walley-Beckett, Gennifer Hutchison, J. Roberts, Patty Lin, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Steven Michael Quezada, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, (because I have to put them as a unit) Charles Baker and Matt Jones, Jesse Plemons, Christopher Cousins, Laura Fraser, Michael Shamus Wiles, (also need to be a unit) Lavell Crawford and Bill Burr, Ray Campbell, Krysten Ritter, Ian Posada as the most shit-upon child in television history, Emily Rios, Tina Parker, Mark Margolis, Jeremiah Bitsui, David Costabile, Michael Bowen, Kevin Rankin, (another pair) Daniel and Luis Moncado, Jessica Hecht, Marius Stan, Rodney Rush, Raymond Cruz, Tess Harper, John de Lancie, Jere Burns, Nigel Gibbs, Larry Hankin, Max Arciniega, Michael Bofshever, Adam Godley, Julia Minesci, Danny Trejo, Dale Dickey, David Ury, Jim Beaver, Steven Bauer, DJ Qualls, Robert Forster, Melissa Bernstein, Mark Johnson, Stewart Lyons, Diane Mercer, Andrew Ortner, Karen Moore, Dave Porter, Reynaldo Villalobos, Peter Reniers, Nelson Cragg, Arthur Albert, John Toll, Marshall Adams, Kelley Dixon, Skip MacDonald, Lynne Willingham, Sharon Bialy, Sherry Thomas, Mark S. Freeborn, Robb Wilson King, Bjarne Sletteland, Marisa Frantz, Billy W. Ray, Paula Dal Santo, Michael Flowers, Brenda Meyers-Ballard, Kathleen Detoro, Jennifer L. Bryan, Thomas Golubic, Albuquerque, N.M., AMC Networks, University of Oklahoma Professor Donna Nelson and a list of crew members and departments I’d mention but, unfortunately, my hands aren’t holding out. Look them up because they all deserve kudos as well because Breaking Bad failed to have a weak link, at least from my perspective.

In fact, the series failed me only twice. No. 1: How can you dump the idea that Gus Fring had a particularly mysterious identity in the episode “Hermanos” and never get back to it? No. 2: That great-looking barrel-shaped box set of the entire series only will be made on Blu-ray. As someone of limited means, it would need to be a Christmas gift anyway and for the same reason, I never made the move to Blu-ray and remain with DVD. Medical bills will do that to you and, even if tempting or plausible, it’s difficult to start a meth business to fund it while bedridden. Despite those two disappointments, it doesn’t change Breaking Bad’s place in my heart as the best TV achievement so far. How do I know this? Because I say so.

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Thursday, October 03, 2013


Sirota already did it: Bye bye 'Bad' Part II

BLOGGER'S NOTE: This contains spoilers for the entire series, so if you belong to that group
that STILL has yet to watch Breaking Bad in its entirety, close this story now.

By Edward Copeland
When envisioning the epic farewell I felt I must write upon the conclusion of Breaking Bad, I didn't anticipate an important section of the tribute would begin with a South Park reference to The Simpsons. (If, by chance, you missed Part I, click here.)

Now, anyone with even a smidgeon of understanding of the basic tenets of comedy knows that if you need to explain a joke, you've failed somewhere in the telling. Despite this rule of humor, forgive me for explaining the title of the second part of my Breaking Bad tribute, but I can't assume that all Breaking Bad fans reading this also hold knowledge of specific South Park episodes. Way back in that animated series' sixth season in 2002, poor Butters' alter ego, Professor Chaos (six years before any of us knew Walter White and his inhabiting spirit Heisenberg), finds every scheme he devises greeted by some variation of the episode's title: "The Simpsons Already Did It." I just spent a long way to travel to the point of my headline, which refers to the great columnist David Sirota's article, posted by Salon on Sept. 28, the day before "Felina" aired, titled "Walter White's sickness mirrors America." (If you didn't understand before, I imagine you comprehend now how explaining a joke tends to kill its punchline.) In his piece, Sirota posits:

"Maybe Breaking Bad has ascended to the cult firmament because it so perfectly captures
the specific pressures and ideologies that make America exceptional at the very moment
the country is itself breaking bad.
The most obvious way to see that is to look at how Walter White’s move into the drug trade
was first prompted, in part, by his family’s fear that he would die prematurely for lack
of adequate health care. It is the kind of fear most people in the industrialized world
have no personal connection to — but that many American television watchers no doubt do.
That’s because unlike other countries, Walter White’s country is exceptional for being a place
where 45,000 deaths a year are related to a lack of comprehensive health insurance coverage.
That’s about ten 9/11′s worth of death each year because of our exceptional position
as the only industrialized nation without a universal public health care system
(and, sadly, Obamacare will not fix that)."

Aside from the fact the Sirota misses the mark a bit concerning Walt’s original motives for entering the meth-making business and makes it sound as if his family encouraged the idea and raised money concerns before he even started to cook (more specifics on that later), Sirota’s piece covers ground that I always planned to discuss as well. Sirota might not be the first person to voice this hypothesis, but I’ve only seen and read his article (post finale, as I purposely tried to avoid other pieces to make mine my own as much as possible). I also saw the funny package envisioning how Walter's tale would play out if set in Canada. Health care costs in the U.S., significant in Breaking Bad, secured itself as a crucial aspect of my retrospective since the first half of season five given that I’ve existed as a permanent patient for nearly the exact same time period as Breaking Bad’s television run. Unfortunately, my experiences give me much in the way of first-hand knowledge on the subject through which to view the series' take. While Sirota argues that Walt began his criminal career to pay for his exceedingly costly cancer treatments and White indeed used his ill-gotten gains toward those bills, he never expressed a desire to make a load of money to keep himself alive. Walter White already resigned himself to the idea of his impending death. The meth money’s only purpose originally, according to Walt, merely meant leaving behind a nest egg for Skyler, Walt Jr. and his as-of-then unborn child. He said as much in the great scene from the first season episode “Gray Matter” (written by Patty Lin, directed by Tricia Brock) where the entire family gathers at Skyler’s behest to stage a pseudo-intervention of the health care variety, passing around the “talking pillow” to take the floor and address Walt as to why he should accept the Schwartzes’ offer to pay for his treatments. The scene turns particularly grand when Marie surprises (and pisses off) her sister by agreeing with Walt about not wanting to suffer through the chemo treatments and succeeds at changing Hank’s mind as well. A wonderful example of how the show (as all the best dramas do) successfully mixed levity with tragedy. One of the funniest moments in the history of The Sopranos came in its fourth season episode “The Strong, Silent Type” (story by David Chase, written by Terence Winter, Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess, directed by Alan Taylor) when Tony’s crew attempts a drug intervention on Christopher with disastrous and hilarious results. The night that episode aired, the premiere of “The Grand Opening” episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm (directed by Robert B. Wiede) followed it, with Larry David’s own singular attempt at an emergency intervention for his new restaurant’s chef (Paul Sand) who had Tourette syndrome. My stomach hurt from laughing so hard that night. What makes interventions so easily comical? When Walt agrees to treatments and uses his meth money to pay (while lying to Skyler that he accepted Elliot and Gretchen’s offer to help), what motivates him isn’t (at least consciously) a sudden desire to fight the cancer but the need to live longer and build up a bigger bequest for his family. While the insanity of medical costs floats around the series at this time, this isn’t where Breaking Bad truly takes aim on our broken system.

As I wrote in my sole previous piece on Breaking Bad prior to this post-series wake/celebration, I came to the series late and only began watching it live in the third season that premiered March 21, 2010, and ended with Gale Boetticher opening his apartment door to an emotionally fragile and gun-wielding Jesse Pinkman on June 13. As proved to be the case with each season of Breaking Bad, each new season topped the one that preceded it, even though no bad seasons or mediocre episodes exist. Breaking Bad tackled the high price of medicine, if not as an overriding concern, or motivation, in the first two seasons not only through the obvious costs of Walt’s cancer treatments, but also when Heisenberg first appeared and marched into the headquarters of the psychotic Tuco, demanding not only advance payment for his “product” but reparations as well to cover Jesse’s hospital bills from Tuco beating poor Pinkman within an inch of his life. For myself (and, admittedly, this came from overidentifying with someone losing the use of his legs, albeit not because of an assassination attempt by vengeance-seeking lookalike cousins), the series’ most direct discussion of the flaws in this country’s health care system came in the hospital scenes dealing with the aftermath of Hank’s shooting. In the early days, when Walt coughed up cashier’s checks for cancer bills since his health insurance coverage through his school district didn’t approach the needed benefits to pay for his treatments, viewers saw some of the costs, but we never received a final bill, especially after Walt went the surgical option, handled by Dr. Victor Bravenec, played by Sam McMurray. McMurray also played Uncle Junior’s arrogant oncologist, Dr. John Kennedy, in the classic Sopranos episode “Second Opinion” (written by Lawrence Konner, directed by Tim Van Patten), where Tony and Furio used some not-so-friendly persuasion on the golf course to convince Kennedy to treat Junior right. (When McMurray showed up on Breaking Bad as an oncologist, part of me wondered if his character wasn’t Kennedy, having relocated under a new name to Albuquerque out of fear of mob repercussions, unaware that his new patient might be deadlier than anyone in that northern New Jersey crew could be.) Back to Hank. We know the extra needed to get Schrader on his feet again. That even came up again in the final eight episodes: $177,000. Pretty pathetic that a loyal public servant such as Hank Schrader, whose job constantly required him to put his life on the line, didn’t get the kind of catastrophic coverage he required when he needed it. For all the times, she could annoy him and cause him grief with that little kleptomania problem, Hank Schrader could not have chosen a better mate than the former Marie Lambert. Marie might only work as an X-ray technician, but she spoke the truth as she yelled at the various people in the hospital that Hank had to begin work on regaining the use of his legs immediately because a delay of even two weeks would be too late. I actually cried when I watched the episode where Betsy Brandt spoke those lines as Marie because I’d yelled those words myself at people in the hospital when I went in there in May 2008. (For those unfamiliar with my personal plight, click here.) I already had limited use of my legs because of my primary progressive multiple sclerosis. Two weeks stuck in bed can do irreparable damage to a marathon runner. Quite some time ago, I was able to make contact with Ms. Brandt and shared my tale with her about how I wish that I’d had someone like Marie back then to fight on my side. She graciously wrote back, “Edward, Marie would have definitely been your champion…and we all need a champion at times.”

So much more to say. Who knows when I will get them posted? As I posted on Facebook, odds are this is psychosomatic or coincidental, but my M.S. symptoms have spread to parts of my body they had avoided before since Breaking Bad ended. Perhaps sheer force of will held them at bay until I saw the series until its conclusion. I haven't written all I planned to yet, but this makes for a good stopping point for Part II.


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Tuesday, October 01, 2013


From the Vault: Natural Born Killers

BLOGGER'S NOTE: I originally wrote this review (with some additions for this event) upon Natural Born Killers' original 1994 release. I'm re-posting it for The Oliver Stone Blogathon concluding Oct. 6 at Seetimaar — Diary of a Movie Lover

As Mickey Knox lies on his motel bed, watching various violent films while images of Josef Stalin appear in the window behind him, he asks, "Why do they keep making all these fucking movies?" Good question, Mickey, but perhaps you should pose your query to the director of your movie because no amount of Oliver Stone's rationalizations will make Natural Born Killers original or worthwhile.

Forget The Doors. This film from the ever-controversial and increasingly dull (in all senses of the word) director marks the most extreme example yet of Stone spanking the monkey perpetually perched on his back. Quentin Tarantino* originally wrote the screenplay for Natural Born Killers, but Stone and co-conspirators David Veloz and Richard Rutowski butchered Tarantino's script to the point that he's now credited only with its story.

The film contains two halves: The first hour deals with a murder spree that companions Mickey and Mallory (Woody Harrelson, Juliette Lewis) undertake; the second chronicles the duo's incarceration and a live TV interview with Mickey by the host (Robert Downey Jr.) of a fictional tabloid TV series. The problems with Natural Born Killers accumulate at such a rapid pace that a thorough dissection of the film could end up as a thesis instead of a review. Stone, using what I assume must be either black magic, hypnotism or extortion, still manages to keep many film writers in his thrall to the point that they can't admit what a botch he's produced with Natural Born Killers. It's not that Stone can't be effective. He even made the silliness in the three-hour plus JFK entertaining despite the absurd claim that Kennedy was killed in order to stop the president from preventing the Vietnam War and, by extension, the need for Oliver Stone's film career. Stone's point-of-view concerning Natural Born Killers doesn't register anywhere near the realm of coherence.

The real subject — and I'm merely guessing — of Stone's awful opus aims at media obsession with sensationalism, certainly as timely as ever in the age of Tonya and Lorena, O.J. and the Menendez brothers. The number of usually reliable film fans who praise Natural Born Killers as original and fresh when no original idea resides in its empty little head amazes me. As usual, Stone proves as subtle as an 8.0 earthquake and twice as shaky (Exhibit A: See film still above). All the movie's points have been made before and better, from films dating back at least to 1967's Bonnie and Clyde, 1976's Network and even through the looking glass to 1931's The Front Page, which itself has been remade three times, the greatest being 1940's His Girl Friday

Stone also experiments more with film styles, alternating as he did in JFK between color, black and white, 16 millimeter, Super 8, video and even adds animation akin to graphic novels. Unlike JFK, these switches serve no purpose other than to distract the audience. He also trots out other weird devices such as treating scenes with Mallory's monster of a father (Rodney Dangerfield) as if they exist in a TV sitcom, complete with laugh track and bleeped profanity — except for some reason some cuss words get bleeped and others don't. Of course, he can't resist tossing in some mystical Native Americans, just for good measure. It's hard to fault the performers (except for Tommy Lee Jones' inexplicable decision to play a prison warden as if he's imitating Reginald Van Gleason) since saving this mess would have been impossible for the greatest of actors, but at least Downey's wry performance injects some much-needed levity into this often tedious film. Downey appears to be the only actor aware that he's — in theory — signed on to the satire Stone believes he's making, but it's never a good idea to place a satire in the hands of someone without a sense of humor.

In the end, it's ironic that Natural Born Killers stars former Cheers regular Harrelson since a paraphrase of a question Frasier once asked Cliff on that show immediately sprang to my mind while watching this mess: "Hello in there, Oliver. Tell me, what color is the sky in your world?"

*BLOGGER'S NOTE: Shortly after seeing Natural Born Killers, I had the opportunity to interview Quentin Tarantino who was promoting Pulp Fiction. He shared his thoughts about how Stone changed his screenplay.

"Actually, to give the devil his due, he was very cool when I said I wanted to take my name off the screenplay. He facilitated that to happen. He could have caused a big problem, but he didn't. When it comes to Natural Born Killers, more or less the final word on it is that it has nothing to do with me. One of the reasons I wanted just a story credit was I wanted that to get across. If you like the movie, it's Oliver. If you don't like the movie, it's Oliver."

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