Archive for Breaking Bad

X?

Posted in FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , on September 26, 2016 by dcairns

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For some reason we’ve started looking back at The X-Files. Partly this was a result of the revival of the series, which yielded two interesting episodes and a lot of really awful waffle from creator Chris Carter, whose indigestible exposition-dumps of mythos/backstory/conspiracy were the reason we stopped watching in the first place.

CC’s best show was probably the pilot, in which Fox Mulder (that name! that impossible name!) is much more eccentric and interesting, something they stamped on later. Then you had a season of the show being a bit too cheap and a bit too repetitive, before they learned that Dan Scully couldn’t always be skeptical and wrong without learning something (Mulder is always right) and then things started to get better, particularly when Darin Morgan was writing and the show could spoof itself while still being itself.

While Morgan’s latest episode drew fire for being TOO silly (and was cannibalized from an abortive effort to revive Kolchak: The Night Stalker), we rather enjoyed it, and got a lot of pleasure out of revisiting Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose (Emmy-winning per by the great Peter Boyle), War of the Coprophages (a plague of killer roaches — but each incident comes with its own debunking, with a real alien invasion lost in the shuffle) and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space (a RASHOMON of nested unreliable narrations).

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Then we moved onto Vince Gilligan’s episodes, all of which happened after we’d moved on, so they were all new to us. Gilligan didn’t bother deconstructing the show on a weekly basis, which probably allowed him to be more prolific. You do get more of a sense of the stories falling into a format which gets predictable, but on the other hand his specific twists usually still surprise even if you know when they’re coming. And here’s Bryan Cranston, showing what he can do as a racist conspiracy nut with an inner ear condition that will make his head explode if he stops driving, in Drive (basically SPEED, but with an actor’s head instead of a bus). And here’s Diana Scarwid being good and scary as a psychic who can make people do whatever she wants, and SEE whatever she wants.

Nice to see Gilligan addressing the kind of characters conspiracy theories actually appeal to — I mean, apart from everybody. The casual anti-Semitism of Cranston’s character is really surprising, and too complex to resolve in a 45-minute essay (or in a few thousand years of human civilisation, apparently).

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Unfriendlied

Posted in FILM, Politics, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 23, 2016 by dcairns

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TRUMBO breaks new ground, as a dramatic film about the blacklist, by featuring an actual communist as its hero. When Irwin Winkler was preparing GUILTY BY SUSPICION, he worked with Abraham Polonsky as screenwriter for a spell, but the partnership broke up over AP’s insistence that the protagonist had to be a communist and Winkler’s insistence that he couldn’t be. Prior to TRUMBO, only the BBC TV film Fellow Traveller had the guts to take an actual leftie as lead.

Put it this way — do you prove that the blacklist was an injustice by demonstrating that some people who were not communists got blacklisted? Would you be proving that the law against murder is wrong by making a film about an innocent man wrongly accused of murder?

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So director Jay Roach and writer John McNamara are to be congratulated for not making the million-dollar mistake, especially in a time when right-wing pundits in America have been attempting to restore McCarthy and HUAC to favour. They do offer excuses for those who were tempted by the Party — perhaps a stronger, simpler defense would be the one used in THE PEOPLE VS LARRY FLYNT — we don’t like what these people do, but in a free society they have a right to do it.

The film has been greeted by quite a lot of grumbling, not for its politics, but for its quality. I would group it along with movies like KINSEY and THE NOTORIOUS BETTY PAGE (though it doesn’t rely on musical montages to popular, on-the-nose hits, thankfully) — a biopic which struggles to craft a solid dramatic story out of its subject, or to find a satisfying cinematic style.

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A film on this subject cries out to be a film of ideas, since a writer’s life usually entails little action, certainly when he’s at work. To McNamara’s credit, he includes useful discussions illustrating the slippery moral slope one embarks on when trying to cooperate with HUAC, to the extent that Edward G. Robinson, chosen as main example of the friendly witness/traitor, can still seem somewhat sympathetic — he made the wrong choice, is all.

What’s rather lacking is strong emotional, dramatic scenes. Trumbo’s HUAC testimony is rather rushed through, which is unfortunate since it’s one of the rare occasions where he comes up against his enemies. Instead we have many, many short scenes in which he argues with friends, notably Louis CK, excellent in the role of a combination of various members of the Hollywood 10. Balking at crowding the screen with nameless pinkos, the screenplay is probably wise to conflate a few of them, but by name-dropping Dmytryk and other offscreen personae to no particular effect, and making the point repeatedly that there are ten of these guys whom we never get to see, the film is guilty of failing to have its cake and failing to eat it. There’s a feeling the real drama is happening elsewhere.

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As director, Roach is… OK. He was on surer ground with the AUSTIN POWERS films. He makes a terrible misstep in beginning Trumbo’s HUAC testimony as a newsreel, hauling us a way from what should be the most dramatic moment yet and putting the thing into the past tense before it’s happened, and the genuinely moving moment when Trumbo sees his name on the credits of SPARTACUS after years of enforced anonymity gets a flashy reflection shot it really doesn’t need.

That should be a simple moment for letting the actors act, which Roach is otherwise quite happy to do — whatever the consequences. Bryan Cranston’s mannered perf may reflect Trumbo’s real personality, but it still feels forced, especially, as Fiona pointed out, when Louis CK and Diane Lane are being completely natural opposite him. I wonder if what was needed was a more naturally flamboyant personality, or at least a character actor with certain built-in quirks, so that the eccentricity would seem innate rather than assumed. I love Bryan Cranston, and I worry that he’s painted into a bit of a corner — any TV show he does is bound to be compared unfavourable with Breaking Bad, which means he’s pushed into movies at just the time when the smart talent i heading the other way. And movies haven’t found the best use for his talents.

(Actually, if he took part in an ensemble piece like the magnificent American Crime Story, I don’t think there would be any negative comparisons with BB.)

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This movie also features some odd lookalikes and sortalookalikes and lookunalikes. The Edward G Robinson surrogate, Michael Stuhlbarg, bears zero resemblance to the man he’s playing, except when turning up with a beard in old age, when it’s rather too late. Perhaps wisely, he doesn’t try to sound like Robinson either. Dean O’Gorman seems to be putting all his efforts into sounding slightly like Kirk Douglas, which doesn’t help him sound like a human being or give a performance, and he still fails to call the star to mind with the force of a Frank Gorshin TV impersonation. Berliner Christian Berkel makes a good fist of the Viennese Otto Preminger, though my Facebook friend Matthew Wilder thinks the role should have been his. What that says about Matthew I leave to your own judgement.

 

In-Flight Mentaltainment

Posted in Comics, FILM, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 5, 2015 by dcairns

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Movies seen while going to America —

EDGE OF TOMORROW, directed by Doug Liman and written by THE USUAL SUSPECTS’ Christopher McQuarrie along with mockney specialists the Butterworth Brothers, which was really good by big Hollywood standards. Emily Blunt excellent as always — I knew she could do almost anything but I couldn’t have sworn she could be bad-ass. Tom Cruise is also really well-used, and has a huge character arc, starting out a bit like James Garner in THE AMERICANIZATION OF EMILY or if Don Draper got drafted. It’s really funny to see Cruise playing a conflict-averse wuss. And by the end he has of course become an unstoppable killing machine on the side of good. Yes, it’s GROUNDHOG DAY meets INDEPENDENCE DAY, but it’s refreshing to see a film with so many interesting narrative notions.

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By contrast —

The recent GODZILLA remake has a scene with an upturned Eiffel Tower, just like EDGE OF TOMORROW, but the one in the kaiju knock-off is the miniature imitation version in Vegas, which kind of sums up the relationship GODZILLA has to a proper movie. Thanks to some hectic editing they even manage to make Bryan Cranston look like a bad actor. If you’ve ever wanted to see Juliette Binoche outrunning an explosion, this is the film for you, and I hope you choke on it.

Fans complained that there was a bare minimum of the big green guy, and not very much of Cranston. The filmmakers had completely miscalculated their audience’s needs, like the makers of the previous US GODZILLA, who thought the public wanted Godzilla as an atomic bad guy stomping on cities for kicks. The great minds at Legendary Pictures grasped the fact that Godzilla, as he is known and tolerated by millions, is thought of as a benevolent colossus who breaths radioactive fire on other, nastier monsters, and only kills thousands of people by accident, a bit like America or Israel. What they failed to grasp is that audiences want to look at Godzilla doing these things for longer than ten minutes out of two hours. Ideally, what the film should have delivered is a 300 foot tall Bryan Cranston, in his Heisenberg guise (“Say my name!”), fighting the big lizard all over New Mexico. Or else Bryan Craston AS Godzilla, with Aaron Paul as Godzooky*.

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Pierce Brosnan is walking away from this explosion because it Simply Doesn’t Interest Him.

I usually seek out bad movies to watch on planes because I don’t like to see good ones “adjusted to fit my screen” or “edited for content.” THE NOVEMBER MAN isn’t totally awful — maybe it’s the best film Roger Donaldson could make now —  but the only thing that could have made it memorable would be a downbeat, 70s-style ending. A happy ending on a thing like this (spy thriller) suggests that the security services are basically benign and that rotten eggs will be filtered out (with one of those egg filters you can buy in the shops, I suppose — couldn’t find a way to write this sentence without a mixed metaphor) and that leaves the movie feeling pretty inconsequential.

Olga Kurylenko looks amazing, though, and after she gets over a regrettable impulse to smile on one side of her mouth to convey ‘tude, she acts well. Pierce Brosnan is someone I always enjoy, though I’m a bit fed up of him always playing a widower. It’s started to feel like a tacky exploitation of his own biography. He’s a fun presence, though — I watched PERCY JACKSON & THE LIGHTNING THIEF on a plane once, and the sight of him as a centaur was inexplicably hilarious. They should really have cast him as the statue of Talos from JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS though, so they could have the credit “with Pierce Brosnan as Bronze Person.”

Movies seen returning from America —

Flying back home was somehow much quicker. I watched an episode of Louie and one of Veep, neither of which I’d gotten around to. Clearly I will have to see more, they were both excellent. Man with hangover in Veep: “Find me a hamburger made out of aspirin, I’m going to get some air and be sick in it.”

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Then Fiona and I watched HOW TO DRAIN TRAIN YOUR DRAGON II, which was very nice, as good as the first one. Excellent vocal perfs, beautiful images (Roger Deakins advised on the virtual cinematography, as he did on RANGO), great action and storytelling and a lot of emotion. This one felt more like a flattering portrait of America — we always seek peace but if we need to fight, we will kick ass” (like GODZILLA) which made me feel a little uncomfortable. But for sheer craft approaching artistry, I couldn’t fault it.

Then I looked at X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (the title seems a riff on killer Bob’s rhyme in Twin Peaks) which was something of a return to form for Bryan Singer, only the plane landed seconds before it was over. It has the best bullet-time ever, with cheeky Evan Peters running around the walls of a circular room like a cross between Fred Astaire and Gary Lockwood.

The movie is action-packed, has a reasonably complicated story, and the dispute between Professor Xavier’s get-along-with-the-humans philosophy and Magneto’s kill-them-before-they-kill us attitude remains compelling, even as all the other characters are more interesting AS characters. And somehow, Jennifer Lawrence fighting in blue rubber pasties never got boring to look at.

BTW, United Airlines have the best safety film I’ve ever seen. We saw it twice in a week and didn’t get bored. The idea is novel, the production values immense, it’s all very slick, there’s some wit, but what helps most of all are the little non-professional moments, such as the flight attendant at around 1.54 who can’t stop laughing for unknown reasons.

*Purists will say that any miniature Godzilla should be called Minilla, after the pudgy reptile star of SON OF GODZILLA, but I recall the Hanna-Barbera series The Godzilla Power Hour, which, though completely without any artistic merit whatsoever, was, episode by episode, a lot shorter than any Godzilla film from either Toho or Tristar or Legendary.