The Recaps: Breaking Bad “Confessions”

So far this season has been all about the relatively non-violent confrontations that started with Hank and Walt meeting in the garage in the premiere, Marie and Skylar at the White residence and now the public meeting at Garduños – along with Jesse and Walt’s meeting in the desert. Each made a point to prove the tension between its characters is far more potent than the violence – assuming no one will kill their others. Let’s look at each confrontation by themselves.

Confessions

Since establishing their positions in the past two episodes, it makes sense that the four members of the White/Schrader clan would meet in a local restaurant – with table side guac that they make at the table. The White’s wearing the blandest, most conservative of beige’s while Hank and Marie donned their darkest black’s and purples as a clever play on the classic white vs. black hat heroes and villains of classic westerns. After Dean and Marie refusing the White’s request to back off because it’s all over – not to mention Marie saying she’d consider it if Walt sent himself to Belize –  Walt drops the last hammer, a confession saying Hank forced him to cook meth, making full use of the sympathies granted to cancer victims.

“Breaking Bad,” is known for using even the smallest of story threads to their end though it’s use of Walt and Skylar funding Hank’s physical therapy seems to be the least likely to have been planned since Season 3. While it doesn’t help that Marie took the money, I would imagine – with an understanding of our justice system at a third-grade level – that the Schrader’s would have some level of plausible deniability. Also, if Hank was running a meth operation, wouldn’t he have the money to pay for it himself of which he would grant Walt access for this purpose?

Either way, Hank and Marie’s viewing party as both the audience and the Schrader’s learn the true nature of Walt’s “Confession” is the standout that tops both the Garduños and desert meeting. Seeing the couple’s different reactions – Marie’s terror, Hank’s Anger – is as telling about Hank’s control as much as their personality. Admittedly, Marie is still coming to terms with Hank’s true colors.

Less surprising was the re-emergence of Walt poisoning Brock at the end of season 4. In my first recap of the final eight, I incorrectly guessed that Hank’s discovery drove him to wreck the White house never seeing that their were two revelations – the other being the discovery that Walt let Jane die – that would drive Jesse into pure madness.

With Jesse dumping champagne over the White residence and Todd getting back into the meth game, it’s only a matter of time before Heisenberg has to off someone. With his confession likely putting any meetings with Hank and Marie on hold, leaving Jesse, Todd, Saul and Lydia as his only options. The peace has to come to an end sooner or later.

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The Reviews: Kick-Ass 2

Defining what counts as “satire,” seems to be more and more difficult, especially in the cynical internet-age where “irony,” and “sarcasm,” are losing their meaning by the tweet. Seth MacFarlene’s biggest detractors point to his Oscar hosting gig where he got away with making racist jokes or singing songs like “We Saw Your Boobs,” by making fun of immaturity and ignorance at the same time. In the end , the jokes are out there and those who don’t understand the intent and even those who do still laugh at them.

Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) face-off against The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in the disappointing Kick-Ass 2.

Kick-Ass (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz) face-off against The Motherfucker (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) in the disappointing Kick-Ass 2.

2010’s Kick-Ass managed to balance between making fun of the superhero blockbuster while still having plenty of ultra violence. In the sequel, new director Jeff Wadlow fails to find the balance of the first film by fully committing to making an action film. This wouldn’t be a bad thing if the film didn’t believe it was still lampooning the genre.

The film opens on the familiar narration from Kick-Ass/Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) that followed through the first film though it’s less used in the sequel as he takes a back seat to Hit-Girl/Mindy Macready (Chloe Grace Moretz) who is starting her freshman year of high school by cutting to train Kick-Ass so they can patrol the streets together, honoring her superhero-father’s legacy. Mindy’s adopted father (Morris Chestnut) puts the squeeze on this in an attempt to protect from the life her father led and caused his murder.

This is one of the areas where the film succeeds. The idea of these heroes being as responsible for their enemies crimes was touched on int The Dark Knight but is actually addressed more head-on here. When we get to the final showdown between the make-shift Justice League, Justice Forever and an equally amature League of Doom, it’s just a gang fight (two of the older superheros in the group even bring this up). While the brawl mines some inspiring moments from the minor Justice Forever heroes fighting together, the true motivations make it a selfish endeavor. Kick-Ass just wants to end the personal attacks from the worlds first real super villain, The Motherfucker/Chris D’Amico (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who seeks revenge from for Kick-Ass killing his mobster father at the end of the first film…and fame.

D’Amico and his alter-ego should be addressed because his character is one of the most problematic to come out of a summer blockbuster in a long time. Mintz-Plasse is very good at turning the spoiled D’Amico into a sinister super villain however the character is exemplary of the films reveling in violence. The scene that’s getting the most attention is a poorly conceived rape joke where D’Amico can’t get aroused to assault a female member of Justice Forever. The intent is to prove D’Mico is a true pretender but once he says a line showing his intentions, he becomes a rapist, regardless of his motivations or the outcome. Furthermore, his “failing,” the first go around doesn’t justify his successful attack later on.

Both of these attacks are meant to target the titular hero but the script belongs to Moretz despite Taylor Johnson making the most with not much to do. The best material in the film follows Hit-Girl’s transition into high school. Her Heathers experience with the local mean girls is a lot of fun and the script hits that annoying teenage girl character perfectly. Moretz is also the only actor asked to go through any internal arc and she handles it perfectly. Its her arc and performance that makes the penultimate scene find the films only truly touching moment.

Supposedly, the film’s message is “We Could Be Heroes,” but it’s in the stylings of The Wallflowers cover, not the David Bowie original. For some reason that song was on the Godzilla (1997) soundtrack and like that cover, the irony is lost, choosing to embrace the violence that was only a small piece of the charm of the original.

**/*****

The Recaps: Breaking Bad – “Buried”

Hey, this is a recap so there are spoilers for last night’s episode and past seasons of “Breaking Bad” so if you haven’t seen every episode, catch-up and come back.

It’s no surprise that “Buried,” doesn’t pack the dramatic-punch of “Blood Money.” Tonally, it was the true “first episode” of this half-season where the show readjusted for the direction and character dynamics of these final episodes. This marked by the opening scene where the old man stumbles on the money Jesse started throwing out of his car to then find Jesse back in his trance only to disappear until the final scene – much like the kid from the train robbery. Having is conversation with Hank pushed till next week was a welcomed contrast to last week’s showdown.

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As for those new dynamics, its even more clear this is going to be as much Hank and Marie’s season as it is Hank, Skylar and Jesse as was truly evident in the focus on Hank and Marie’s drive home from the White house. They have also taken the active role with a clear goal for the season whereas Walt and Skylar’s path are now a mystery, though that’s been one of the more compelling mysteries of this season.

Also slowing things down, Walt spent the majority of the episode digging holes for the storage locker money which is great because we needed to get up to speed on everyone else – except for Walt Jr./Flynn who was absent from this episode. Skylar, could have gone a number of ways when Hank confronted her with his discovery. Kudos to Anna Gunn who kept her intentions well hidden during her conversation with hank all through to the her home visit from Marie. With the reputation Skylar has built with fans as a nucience to Walt’s empire building, it’s surprising she didn’t drop Hank entirely. Then again, if I had a enough cash for Scrooge McDuck’s jacuzzi, I’d play the Tammy Wynette role as well.

We also caught up with Lydia who is set on fixing her own problems by any means necessary, even if it mean’s hiring Todd’s uncle and friend’s to send her current crew on an all-inclusive, one-way trip to Belize. Aside from pleasantly surprising fact that Jesse Plemmons has had one of the successful careers of the Dillon Alumni, it was important that we caught up with him after he was absent last week. While I would have loved to see him nearly set the the train-car lab ablaze played to comedic effect, I’m sure we’ll see him continue add at least one more tear tattoo this year.

“Blood Money,” was an incredible hour of television and post script to last season but now were in full new season mode. Six episodes isn’t a a lot of time but its more than enough to allow us to reevaluate and recalibrate to the storylines of the season beyond “the end.”

The Reviews: Blue Jasmine

With Blue Jasmine (opening in wide release this weekend) writer/director Woody Allen combines the duel plots his 2004 film Melinda and Melinda. Cate Blanchett plays Jasmine, an upper-class Manhattan socialite who can’t imagine a life without designer fashions and a guest home in The Hamptons. She’s forced to move-in with Ginger (Sally Hawkins) her blue-collar step-sister. Jasmine is dead broke – though she can fly first-class – because her late-husband (Alec Baldwin) was arrested for running a Bernie Madoff-esque operation that she’s willing to turn a blind-eye to because it funded her lifestyle.

Blue Jasmine

With his supplanted character, Allen returns to his fascination with class divide – even by having his main character move from one of the most expensive American cities to another – Jasmine still clings to her designer outfits and luggage, while Ginger owns her bohemian fashions. If there’s a positive personality quality in Jasmine, she looks down on her sister’s lifestyle, not her sister. “You could always do so much better,” Jasmine repeats throughout. She has reason to say it. Ginger is divorced with to kids by her ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay, in one of the film’s strongest performances) whom Jasmine suspects hit Ginger at least once. Ginger’s new boyfriend (Bobby Canavale) doesn’t register any better with Jasmine. She can’t imagine anyone not constantly striving for that elegant lifestyle though it’s clear she repeats because she has nothing else to say to Ginger.

While the repetition offers some characterization for Jasmine and sends us to the ending, it’s also the films biggest flaw. As with most rehashes, the material here is far weaker than it’s predecessors. Allen’s best work has a strong respect for the audience so the only reason for the repetition seems to be to fill time. The story arc isn’t clear and it certainly didn’t need to be but it’s far from compelling and when we get to the big reveal, it results in a shrug rather than a gasp.

It’s a shame because the acting is top-notch across the board. Blanchett continues to prove she is the best actress working today. She treads the line between trauma and insanity to its sweaty, murmuring, Stoli-downing perfection. Her performance allows the transition to the aforementioned ending to move smoother than it should. Beyond the lead, Louis C.K. is at his most charming as an alternative love interest for Ginger. It might be this reviewer’s love for C.K. but his short time on-screen is a joy to watch. Even Peter Sarsgaard, who has been spotty  as of late, fits into Allen’s writing style cleanly.

That’s what makes Blue Jasmine a win for Allen and as he continues to release a film every year, it’s what we have come to expect. They might be sloppy or derivative of his own work but thankfully there will always be actors ready to give him everything they have and make the most of what’s on the page.

*** 1/2 / *****

The Recaps: Breaking Bad – “Blood Money”

Hey, this is a recap so there are spoilers for last night’s episode and past seasons of “Breaking Bad” so if you haven’t seen every episode, catch-up and come back.

With season premiere’s, particularly in the post-golden age of the medium, shows often hit the reset button which is frustrating with a show like “Breaking Bad” particularly after the last finale. “Nothing’s probably going to happen in this episode,” someone in our viewing party said with a disappointing realization. She was wrong. Vince Gilligan managed to fit everything we wanted from the season in one episode which can only make us more excited as we poke and prod at any minute detail to guess at what’s to come in the remaining seven episodes.

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Flash-forward aside, it was nice to see the episode open right where the last season dropped-off, very much in the vein of early season premieres. The tension was thick when Hank came out of the bathroom. By shooting his first interaction with Walt with the camera in on Walt’s back set the tone that we are going to spend even more time with Hank, almost to the point where Walt might only be a vehicle to fill us in on other characters – primarily, Jesse.

Jesse being back in a funk (Mo’ money, Mo’ problems) is the result of the addition of story time given to Hank, who is the new audience surrogate. It’s a bold choice considering he’s the character we want to see make it through this at the end. His decision to drop the money might be the only way for anyone to come out alive at this point, i.e. winning by not playing. This probably means he’s Chekov in Badger’s “Star Trek,” spec script (Personally, I’d be fine if this is all just one of Badger’s drug induces TV pitches). Walt and now Hank are obsessed with winning but by giving up everything entirely, he puts himself in the best position to get out – maybe not in one piece but at least they will all be there. From what we’ve seen from the big showdown at the end of the episode and the flash-forward at the beginning, Hank and Walt might not be so lucky.

While Walt has been over the edge for a while now, it looks like Hank is well on his way. It might be just the shock but if my guesses about this week’s flash-forward are correct he’s getting there. The face-off was fantastic especially since it nailed the balance of giving us what we wanted right away while still leaving plenty of room to get excited for all that’s too come.

As far as the flash-forward, there only seems to be a few options for how Hank Walt plans to use the Ricin. Hank is the obvious choice at this point but Gilligan has shown us that he never goes the easy route. That only leaves him to either fulfill the original season one trajectory for Jesse and thus cement him as being television’s new personification of evil or maybe on himself.

It’s pretty much the consensus that Walt will meet some type of end this season. Judging by his “I’m in the empire business,” speech last season and now all of that seems to be gone it looks to be the most likely outcome. Maybe Skylar’s planned trip to Europe that baffled Marie in her ill-fated ride home with Hank becomes an extended stay with Walt Jr. and Holly and any overseas travels would be a drastic change for the show. Gilligan has earned too much audience goodwill to make that change. It’s safe to say we’re in good hands with no sign of final season troubles on the horizon.

One down. Seven to go. Have an A1 Day.

The Reviews: Fruitvale Station

True- story films, be they biopics or historical dramas have the difficult task of balancing fact and drama. On one end you have films akin to the The Social Network which favors the later. For the former, there’s United 93 which presents itself, particularly the actions on the plane at face value. Both of these examples are excellent films, partially because they commit to primarily one side of the spectrum. The more traditional entries of the genre – particularly the long stretch of biopics in the early 2000s – struggle with finding this balance. First-time writer/director Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station is one of the best out of that traditional group. There’s room for improvement as it occasionally falls into the same trappings of the genre but the performances elevate the film to the sobering experience many strive for, but few achieve.

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The most noticeable problems are when the drama interferes with real life. There are plenty of moments of foreshadowing that remove the reality. Two that stand out are a scene in which Tatyana tells Oscar she’s scared of the fireworks because they sound like guns and she’s worried about him getting shot, the other is where Ms. Grant encourages her son take the train into the city. The latter likely happened given the involvement of the Grant family in the film’s production but had that not been publicized at the film’s release, the scene feels like Coogler is using hindsight to remind us where this is going – though the excellent choice to open with the real-life video footage is impossible to forget , even if the audience has already seen it. The scene with his daughter is another story as it feels and in all likelyhood is made for the film.

Michael B. Jordan rises above these genre trappings though as he never loses the real life qualities that make the film strong. Very few actors could take a role that’s this complex and hit every note with as much skill as the last. Throughout his last day, he goes from charming, to angry, to compassionate and vulnerable. Even in the film’s lone flashback during a visit with his mom while he serves time in prison. His hardened demeanor jumps to desperation as he’s pulled away from his mother. It’s rewarding to see Jordan has evolved the talents that made him so memorable in both “The Wire,” and “Friday Night Lights,” while making this performance stand on its own.

It would be impossible for any actor to come out from Jordan’s performance so it’s forgivable that no one rises above it here. While Spencer struggles through the majority of the movie, although she isn’t given much to do. The film’s final fifteen minutes are a reminder of why she has an Oscar on her resume as she becomes the central character.

Credit has to be given to Coogler for the way the police are portrayed in the films climax. At the start of the sequence, it looks like we’re getting a stereotypical villan played by Kevin Durand. While there’s no attempt to justify his actions he clearly Grant’s murder crosses even his line. There’s even a shot of the guilty cop – a different one – during the sequence who’s clearly overwhelmed by what he had just done. In just a matter of minutes, Coogler creates a well-rounded recreation of the incident without justifying any of it.

That commitment to fully formed characters and moments – even the smallest – is what makes Fruitvale Station a successful film. Jordan’s performance makes it stick with you long after leaving the theater.

****/*****

The Reviews: The To Do List – A Pro-Sex, Sex Comedy

It’s hard to deny writer/director Maggie Carey’s The To-Do List stands out not only from its competition at the box office, but also from others in the “losing-it” genre. The film is one of the first pro-sex sex comedies that doesn’t sneak-in the syrupy message of sex being for the “right person,” amid jokes about bodily fluids, excrement and slang. This credit is due entirely to the films central character Brandy Klark (Aubrey Plaza) being the most three dimensional character in the genre since Steve Carrell in Apatow’s The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Like Carrell, Plaza gives a performance to back up the writing as she attempts to cram four years of sexual experience into one summer.

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The films greatest strength is in the way her character melds perfectly with the premise while easing into any issues with the gender twist on the genre. Klark’s Type-A personality and impeccable scholastic skills allow her to prepare for her journey the same way she would for one of her many AP tests – on all of which she got a perfect score – work her way up to losing her virginity to the guitar toting head life guard Rusty Waters (Scott Porter). Thankfully, neither Rusty nor any of her other marks turn out to be jerks in the way they are in Easy A – even if it is a better film. They’re sex-driven like any young adult but never to the point it makes them a bad person.

Unfortunately, the full lead characters don’t take away from rest of the film which is a run-of-the-mill sex comedy. We have seen the aforementioned gags – particularly the gross-out moments – in other films and while those might not be up to the level of To Do List and makes the sum of all that’s hear weaker than its individual strengths.

Among these is the use of the setting. I assume this won’t be the last 1990s but hopefully a few of them improve reach the mastery of the era as Adventureland did with the 1980’s. What we get here is best summed up in the opening credits which by themselves are effective, but is otherwise ripped from any given Buzzfeed list, highlighting Pearl Jam posters, Liz Frank binders and mix tapes. The film is peppered with other nineties trinkets that are end to themselves rather than serving the story or any of its characters.

While Klark doesn’t need any support, some of the smaller characters need all the help they can get. Brandy’s parents are played by the usually excellent Connie Britton and Clark Gregg and while the give their characters everything in their arsenal, the characters fail to deliver on their moments. I suspect Carey means Brandy’s father to be a role reversal on women’s portrayal in male oriented comedies but it would be better if Britton’s character was as well-rounder as her on-screen daughter. Unfortunately this lack of balance do hurts the impact of her one-on-one moments with Brandy.

This lack of focus in the film surrounding Brandy comes through strongest in the film’s final gag. I don’t want to go into too much detail but the punch line has some problematic implications that fall more in line with the plot of the 70’s adult classic Deep Throat than the feminist pro-sex nature of the rest of the film.

I suspect The To Do List will join its predecessors in the ranks of premium cable rotation and home video to find its audience – it will have to since it’s already out of most theaters. Those interested should seek it out if only for Plaza’s character and performance as well to see what is hopefully just the beginning of the pro-sex sex comedy. I’m equally hopeful that those future films will improve on it.

***/*****