Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 2: “Madrigal”

“Madrigal” is all about seeing that the repercussions of Walt’s actions have a critical outlying impact to people outside of his own immediate world. This includes Madrigal, a conglomerate based in Germany that owns a number of fast-food joints, including Los Pollos Hermanos. This week’s cold open encapsulates the way this show incorporates out-of-context intrigue and delectably dark humor. Mr. Schuler, a slightly hair-raising German man who also happens to be a Brian Wilson/Bruce Davison doppelganger, unknowingly has his last meal in the form of a sauce tasting presentation. Upon being notified that the police have arrived to question him (assumedly about his connection with Gus Fring), he decides to commit a very matter-of-fact suicide that recalls Gus’ pill-swallowing the season before. Walt really has no idea how far up this thing goes, and if he does, he clearly does not care.

Walt’s behavior here says a lot about the way he will conduct things going forward. He is too proud, too full of himself to spend time worrying about the consequential possibilities. Instead, he spends his time further tethering Jesse at his side through gross manipulation. The beginning of the episode has Walt recreating the ricin cigarette, going to Jesse’s house on the pretext of looking for it, and planting it so it can be found inside Jesse’s Roomba. The idea here is for Jesse to be able to cut the obsessive loose thread of a deadly lone floating ricin cigarette. So worry no longer Jesse. No random death will take place because of you (not that this was an actual possibility to begin with). Walt’s bigger play here is not only to cut off sources of distraction for Jesse, but to manipulate him into absolute loyalty over the guilt of what he thinks was a mistaken betrayal.

Jesse’s reaction to finding the cigarette was heartbreaking. Ladies and gentlemen, I present Aaron Paul in yet another Jesse-Pinkman-breaks-my-heart moment. It is a physical manifestation of his guilt, which is only present because Walt put it there. This moment represents the enormity of Walt’s manipulations. Jesse’s reaction is used to hammer down the seriousness of Walt’s subtle mind control. The torment it causes Jesse, the newfound loyalty he has for him, all of this is exactly what Walt wants, and it makes Jesse just a tool as opposed to someone who is in control of his own situation. Walt is a true master; the moment when he drops the plan to continue cooking on him is precisely placed and of course Jesse falls for it. It is all rather depressing to think about.

When Mike curtly turns down Walt’s offer to become a partner, Walt seems extremely okay with this. Why? Because Walt has his head so far up his own ass that he expects Mike will naturally gravitate towards him. Why? Because he’s Walter White after all. In his mind everything is primed in his favor.  He is so confident that when Mike calls to acquiesce, there is no sigh of relief, no outward display of emotion. In his head, he already knew this would happen. Things are merely going as planned. Little moments like this, a simple reaction or non-reaction, are used to show Walt’s new level of unrecognizability. This is not the same person we were dealing with last season.

What is so funny about all of this is that Mike consenting to Walt’s offer has nothing to do with Walt’s pitch, his demeanor or his ‘power’. Mike consents to Walt because he spent the entire episode dealing with the ramifications that Walt is too quick to ignore. These consequences are a direct result of the routing number found in the evidence room, ironically thanks to Walt’s magnet scheme. With 12 people on Gus’ payroll, the possibility of any one of them talking to the DEA is a source of worry for Lydia, the newest character introduced to Breaking Bad’s universe. She is fidgety, desperate and willing to do pretty much anything to protect herself. This almost gets her killed at the end of the episode.

The scene where Mike is about to kill her effectively calls back to his connection to his granddaughter as Lydia pleads to not be shot in the face or to have her body taken away. She cannot cope with the idea that she would simply disappear from her daughter and would rather have her child find her body. Mike’s humanist side comes out as he becomes incapable of following through on either of these options. Instead, he looks to her for methylamine, the missing compound that Walt and company needs, which similarly tripped the duo up back in Season 1. She believes she can get some. So now we’ve got Mike and Lydia in on Walt’s master plan, with Lydia sure to be a very unstable alliance.

Jonathan Banks dominated this episode and we are the more grateful for it. Mike has always been the coolest supporting character imaginable and to see him front-and-center for so much of “Madrigal” is a well-earned treat.

The show has begun to go out of its way to present Walt’s interactions with his family as cold and mechanical. The very short scene between Walt, Walt Jr. and Holly feels purposely empty. His family-man persona has become a false one. There is no longer any worth or meaning attached to simple gestures like sitting down to breakfast. The camera is placed at a distance, the writers and directors will no longer allow him to be presented as someone who can successfully convince anybody but himself of his familial devotion.

Skyler has fallen into an understandably paralyzing depression. She has gotten herself stuck in an impossibly shitty and frightening scenario. She cannot see Walt as anything but a source of fear. Her two scenes make a point not to focus in on Walt’s face unless he comes into frame. The camera is always pointed at Skyler’s front or back. It makes palpable her state of mind, her inability to face him and what feels like a holding of one’s breath whenever he is in the room. The audience needs to really feel what Skyler feels and this episode takes the premiere a step further in actually allowing us to see Walt from her perspective. Her depression allows her to hide in plain sight.

Walt’s faux-reasons for doing all of this is, as he constantly says, family. He claims to be $40,000 in the hole, yet another excuse he uses to continue cooking. Yet as Saul rightly advises, the fact that they are alive is equivalent to winning the lottery. Also, last time I checked, the money-laundering car wash had begun to turn a profit, but sure Walt. You’re broke. You keep telling yourself that. This second episode sets a lot of alliances into place moving forward. It also continues to show clear signs that Walt is going to fuck himself over in the end. I personally cannot wait to see what devastation he wreaks on himself and everyone around him.

Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 1: “Live Free or Die”

It feels like a detrimental waste to not review “Breaking Bad” Season 5 as it airs despite this being a film blog. To put it simply, I spend more time thinking about, analyzing, gushing and mulling over this show than pretty much any film that gets released. But, this is not the place for the superfluous film vs. TV debate. I am merely stating a fact based on my personal experience.

Along with “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” is upping the ante and pulling the medium to new heights. Anyone who watches the show understands why, and I do not need to go into those reasons here. If I started, I may never stop.

“Live Free or Die” is about settling loose ends from last year’s “Face Off” while simultaneously setting up the newly developed facets of important dynamics that the season will explore. While part of me wants to get right into the meat of the season, which will surely be the remaining seven of the penultimate chapter, everything happening here is necessary place-setting.

But let’s talk about that cold open. Bryan Cranston had been teasing this thing for a while, and boy does it hold up to the promises of mouth-drooling intrigue. Let’s go over what we can glean from this. Walt is turning 52; a fact displayed as he crunches up his bacon and forms the number on his plate, just as Skyler did for him when he turned 50. It has been a year since Walt was diagnosed, meaning that the time that has passed between where we are now and the flash-forward equals that of the entire series thus far.

He has taken on a new identity, one he wears with passive assurance (he robotically recites how long it takes to drive to his location from New Hampshire). I assume he took Saul up on last year’s offer? He is not wearing a wedding ring. The arms dealer played by the wonderful Jim Beaver made a brief reappearance, exchanging money for the keys to a car containing an M60 in the trunk.

Let us briefly touch on the way Bryan Cranston plays this scene. To state the obvious, it looks like Walt has been through some shit. He is alone. He looks resigned to his fate. Whatever has happened, one gets the sense his only reason for being alive is to finish the ambiguous task ahead. As he coughs and pops pills, he is presumably sick again and unlikely to want to survive. This is a new side of Walter White, a polar opposite of where we see him at the beginning of the season, victorious and newly restored to a self-justified egotism. He gives a waitress a hundred dollar tip in an act of (assumedly) meaningless guilt-absolving desperation. And finally, based on what we know about Walter White and the ever-enclosing endgame, whatever has happened to him by the time this flash-forward takes place, was certainly his doing. The cold open had a sense of tragedy about it, a reminder that for all the sick POV shots and Heisenbergian moments, “Breaking Bad” will loom large as the tragedy of one man’s insecurities, ego and masculine pride. It is about the lengths one will go to feel the sustained adrenaline of power and control.

Who knows when we will find out how all of this came about? Vince Gilligan and his writing staff tend not to plan super-far in advance, so I can only guess that we will understand the cold open by the end of these first eight episodes. Based on the left-field explanations of the Season 2 teddy-bear cold opens, nobody can begin to guess specifics to the events leading up to Walter White’s adventures with an M60.

A mini-caper with magnets, the premiere follows Walt, Jesse and Mike as they team up to cover their tracks regarding the surveillance footage on Gus Fring’s laptop. They need to somehow destroy the footage, now filed and locked away in evidence. The plot specifics are pretty standard stuff, but it is really satisfying to see all of this play out, especially because of the way it sets up important dynamics going forward.

The Three Amigos, Walt, Jesse and Mike, are now a dysfunctional trio filled with mini-dynamics that make up the larger whole. Walt and Jesse’s relationship is in a better place than it has been for a long time. Thanks to Walt’s careful manipulation of Jesse (the most recent being the poisoning of Brock), they are back on the same side. It may be founded on deception, but for now, the two are on shaky, but healthy, footing. Not only is it shaky because of the source of its foundation, but Walt’s inflated ascendance will quickly begin to distance our antihero from everyone else around him.

Mike’s involvement is filled with trepidation. He knows Walt is a ticking time bomb. He does not want to be around when everything blows up in his face. His associations with Gus have allowed him to witness Walt’s decision-making, situation-handling and his erratically successful schemes. He sees through Walt; sees what he is and what motivates him. Yet Walt managed to take down collected mastermind Gus Fring. Between his unemployment and being in too deep to simply walk away however badly he wants to, for now he is hesitantly hitching his britches to Walt. Mike has no tolerance for Walt, and vice versa, but for now they need each other.

Last season, Jesse was given another figure to look up to and seek approval from in the form of Mike. The two have become an alternative version of what Jesse seeks from Walt. Mike’s fondness for Jesse plays into his helping them at a crucial time. He has already taken to warning Jesse to get out while he still can. Jesse is pulling hard for this awkward trio to work; he very clearly wants Mike around.

As for the three when they are together, “Live Free or Die” is setting up the Walt/Jesse/Mike team which will be a central part of this season. As they embark on getting themselves back in the game now that Gus is no longer an adversary, the writer’s will play up the tension, the widening cracks and the humor inherent between the three and their encounters with one another.

A moment must be taken to point out that “Breaking Bad” is unmistakably the most cinematic looking show on television. It goes for the shots that are typically inadvisable. In TV, creativity as a director tends to be stomped out as far as visuals go. There is nowhere near the time, money, equipment or interest in achieving anything that goes outside the immediate logistics of the storytelling at hand. Technically, this show has developed its own visual and aural language, immediately recognizable at every turn from the cinematography and the music to the use of on-location shooting in Albuquerque, fleshing out a city as character. This week’s wonders include this shot of Walt and Mike speeding towards each other:


Two more topics on the agenda; ahh Ted Beneke. I didn’t think it was possible to feel bad for someone as haplessly doofy as Ted, but boy was I wrong. Skyler visiting Ted was sort of heartbreaking as Skyler sees physical proof of the damage this kind of life causes. Ted’s brokenly sputtered dialogue served as a revelation for her; Ted is afraid of her. Anna Gunn played this beautifully, an almost double-take, the way we feel her realization that she is his source of fear. Surely a new experience for Skyler and in that moment she sees herself through his eyes. Perfect execution, and the end where she also has the realization that in some sick fashion this reaction is what she wanted, what she needed from him is…..damn it’s good stuff.  She gets it together for a resounding and cold “Good”.

Walter White’s newly inflated state of mind begins to take shape in some tellingly small ways. His posture has become Gus-ified. Silence as intimidation. Overconfidence. Power plays abound. This season is going to be all about Walt meeting up with the power he so desperately craves. Vince Gilligan and the cast and crew have been very upfront as to the themes and concerns of these final 16 episodes. Walt is essentially morally bankrupt at this point, using transparent guises as his motivating factors. The episode lays out three moments/phrases of Walt as a newly risen force to be reckoned with as touchstones for his mindset are laid out.

“Because I say so”: Right off the bat, we have a reaction shot from Jesse that shows a sown seed of discomfort with where Walt is headed. Of course Mike looks in his rearview mirror with another “this one’s trouble” look, but more importantly we have Jesse recognizing that Walt is transforming into an intimidating evil. Cranston’s delivery could have been a repeat of his next moment of authority, but smartly a different route was taken. It is flippant, matter-of-fact, self-satisfied and deceptively throwaway to the character.

“We’re done when I say we’re done”: If Saul Goodman no longer wants to associate with you, there’s a problem. This is a moment of pure menace from him, testing out his power (this is a word that will likely appear a dozen times in each post so get used to it) on his lawyer. Saul is now unwillingly working for his client.

“I forgive you”: I laughed out loud when Walter White spewed this deluded statement of Godfather-esque proportions. Really, what other reaction is there to have at this point? What a prick. In a moment of false niceties, Walt calmly and unmistakably makes his place in the marriage known. Walt is now calling the shots, and if Skyler did not know that before, she certainly knows it now.

Aaron Paul has stated that this season feels “eerie”, likening it to the instant classic that is “Crawl Space”, aka the episode, or final scene, where Breaking Bad gets creepy and unnerving like a horror film. These moments present a detachment between us and Walt that not only has immediacy to how unsettling it is, but the idea that this is only going to expand as we progress looms large over these phrases. They sound like typical lines, simple statements out of context. But “Breaking Bad” is all about presentation, taking a familiar arc and making it prescient. Taking a protagonist and making him an antagonist. Taking a gimmicky series pitch and making it a staggering progression of the normalcy from good to evil. It took five seasons for us to earn these specific statements from Walter White, and they impeccably set the stage for the final chapter ahead.



Screening Log: July 1st-15th – Films #214-230

Hello all! I just thought I would give a heads-up on a few of the posts I plan on writing up over the next month. I’d like to review Breaking Bad Season 5 as it airs. Considering that I spend more time thinking about, analyzing, gushing and mulling over that show more than pretty much any film, I find it appropriate to air out my thoughts as each episode airs. So expect some thoughts on Sunday’s premiere in the next few days. I will also be watching and reviewing Joachim Trier’s sophomore work Oslo, August 31st. A review for 2004’s A Very Long Engagement, a Reintroduction Post, a Worst-Blu Ray Cover file, a Potential Double Feature and finally the 90’s Edition of Film Character I Have an Irrational Hatred Towards are all posts I am aiming to have up over the next month.

This has been an exciting week between Breaking Bad premiering, Shut Up and Play the Hits having its one-night only showing and The Dark Knight Rises on Friday, which I will be seeing at midnight. I plan on rewatching The Dark Knight, a film I like a great deal but (!) that’s about it. Suffice it to say I am still very excited for the final installment. However, the vitriol being spewed onto critics are have ambivalent/negative reactions to the film is not surprising but still despicable and depressing. I hate to generalize, but sometimes fanboys just piss me the hell off. Rant over.

All grades are ultimately arbitrary and are there mainly for my own posterity.

214. Caged (1950, Marshall): A-

215. Mirror Mirror (2012, Singh): D-

216. Street of Shame (1956, Mizoguchi): A-

217. The Deep Blue Sea (2012, Davies): B

218. Executioners (1993, To & Ching): D+

219. Party Girl (1958, Ray): C-

220. Smiles of a Summer Night (1955, Bergman): A

221. A Very Long Engagement (2004, Jeunet): A-

222. On the Beach (1959, Kramer): B-

223. Bullhead (2012, Roskam): B+/B

224. Pather Panchali (1955, Ray): B/B-

225. Harakiri (1962, Kobayashi): A/A-

226. Red Desert (1964, Antonioni): A

227. Seconds (1966, Frankenheimer): B/B-

228. The Passion of Anna (1969, Bergman): B-

229. The Naked Kiss (1964, Fuller): B+

230. John Carter (2012, Stanton): C+/C




Review: Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Anderson)

IMDB Summary: A pair of young lovers flee their New England town, which causes a local search party to fan out and find them.

By now Wes Anderson’s aesthetic style is well-documented. Baroquely precious with a meticulous attention to detail. A precise and equal care is taken for each object and/or person in the frame. Composition is key. Each shot feels like a mini-presentation. He alternates between shooting people or objects head-on and employing what seems like a record number of tracking shots. He is always calling attention to himself but not in a way that takes from the experience.

His impeccable taste in music has resulted in choices that always feel like a varied and inspired fit. Love in Bottle Rocket. The Kinks, Chad and Jeremy and The Who in Rushmore. Nico and Elliot Smith in The Royal Tenanbaums. Satyajit Ray in The Darjeeling Limited. A consistent collaboration with Mark Mothersbaugh. A gifted penchant for picking tracks by The Rolling Stones. The list goes on and on. For music lovers, there is an added thrill to seeing how he will incorporate songs into his works.

His films are about eccentric outsiders who are trying to fit in and find their place in the world. The world that Anderson has created for them to experience life in fits their mentality and supports their whims. They go on journeys, both physically and emotionally, often at the same time. Their idiosyncrasies both hurt and help them. And of course, there is usually a strong familial link in his work.

There is a fantastical element as well, an unashamed basking in the very idea of the ‘cinematic’. He fuses the artificiality of his aesthetic with the real emotions of the peculiar individuals that populate his films. It is easy to write off Anderson as someone working in empty exercises, but his aesthetic goes far beyond its own surface-level indulgence and his stories are sincere and filled with fleshed –out characters that support the director’s whimsy.

If this all sounds like a love letter so far, that’s because it is. Like many folks my age, Rushmore is one of a handful of films that had what I would call a profound impact on me as an adolescent. Since then, his films have felt like gift-wrapped treasure troves. There is an immediate satisfaction to his work, but it is often so overwhelming to the eye, that the rewatch value on them is exponential. Suffice it to say that Moonrise Kingdom has taken over my top spot for 2012 films thus far. It is his best since The Royal Tenanbaums, and one that seems to have made an impact on a great many people even as Anderson pushes his style about as far as it can go.

It is curious to note that it has taken Anderson this long to focus his attention on kids, although come to think of it, Max Fischer was only a few years older than Suzy and Sam. Where Rushmore looks at, among other things, the obsessive naiveté of unrequited first love, Moonrise Kingdom is about a mutual relationship between troubled youngsters.

A self-consciously purposeful awkwardness exists between Sam and Suzy that goes in line with how Anderson presents his material. It pervades over their lovely performances. Gilman in particular is a riot; he has a line delivery about turtles that had me in tears. In fact, a significant portion of this film had me laughing out loud. Sam is an orphan and the least popular kid in his Boy Scout troop, by a ‘considerable margin’. Suzy is pent-up with inner turmoil and is prone to violent outbursts. The affectations of the performers are integral to the result. A side effect of Anderson’s mini-presentation execution is that he redefines how films can flow moment to moment. Stiltedness lingers as awkward beats exist between bits of dialogue. Jared Gilman and Kara Hayward are very clearly ‘performing’ but at the same time they fully inhabit their characters.

Anderson uses the awkwardness for specific purposes that directly relate to the nature of Sam and Suzy’s relationship. These are two lovably strange kids, but strange nonetheless. They are running away together, yet have only met face-to-face up until this point for a momentary blip. Their epistolary communication has taken place over a year’s time. So by the time they meet, they are embarking on a life together, having only met for a matter of seconds. This is how Anderson uses his flamboyance to enhance the story; the stiff beats that occur are fused with the as yet unknown dynamic between Sam and Suzy, two kids who are peculiar on their own, let alone together in unconventional circumstances.

The adults in the film are all reacting to the situation that Sam and Suzy’s absence has thrown at them. Of all the adults, Edward Norton makes the biggest impression as Scout Master Ward. He is a member of the ‘aw shucks’ generation trying to sustain a connection and impact the lives of his Boy Scout troop to increasingly no avail. Norton has a way with making his eyes seem puppy-dog like, forcing a palpable investment in his character as his lovable earnestness makes itself known.

Bruce Willis, even in a Wes Anderson film, still manages to save the day. His Captain Sharp has an important part to play that allows his life to have more purpose to it than his current sad-sack existence. I also really enjoyed the material featuring Bill Murray and Frances McDormand. Murray is easily my favorite ‘regular’ of the filmmaker’s, a droll match made-in-heaven if you will. Anderson and Roman Coppola give just enough of a sense of their marriage to see the sadness of behind it. Their mutual nonexistent level of investment in each other, her affair, and his self-pitying, depict two people who just happen to live together. It is a snapshot image of the failings of adulthood that coexists without distracting from the main story.

The structure is on-point. Delaying the introduction of the children and beyond that, delaying the necessary backstory to their relationship, are both nuanced decisions that bring a lot to the proceedings. A little touch that also worked to striking effect is the decision to only hear the beginnings of their letters to each other.

Moonrise Kingdom treats Sam and Suzy’s flight from their respective residences with the grandiosity that parallels the fact that this means everything to our protagonists. Even though it carries that weight, it never becomes self-serious. The humor is very easily extracted from the situation and played for all its worth, which is quite a lot.

The second night centerpiece of their excursion has a particular importance. Taking on the children’s perspective also allows Anderson to indulge in the ways we expect him to. These include our titular slow-motion sequence, French New-Wavy touches, Bob Balaban’s narrator who deals in geographical factoids with a this-is-where-it-all-went-down resolve. One could go on and on and on. For example, what would a Wes Anderson movie be without something like Suzy carrying around a Francoise Hardy record in her suitcase?

Of course the choice of music is, as always, inspired. Alexandre Desplat’s wondrous score is used in a way that manages to support a 1970’s filmmaking sensibility despite taking place in the 60’s. There is also a reliance on Benjamin Britten and a healthy touch of Hank Williams that all organically fit.

There is a cluttered quality to the final 20 minutes that loses a bit of what it had built up. Sam getting struck by lightning is one of a handful of touches that were a mite too much even for me.

Something I love about Moonrise Kingdom is how Anderson and Coppola never confirm or deny the permanence of Sam and Suzy as a pair. They seem very likely to move onto other phases and people in their lives. It never dampens the occasion though because all that matters to the filmmakers is the ‘present’ moment and what matters to the characters within the timeframe of the film. Moonrise Kingdom is as enchanting as one of Suzy’s fantasy tales and a triumph both within the scope of Anderson’s career thus far and outside of it.

Poll: Approaching the 1960’s

It only took until July, but I am finally closing up the 1950’s (I have four films left to watch), and am preparing to enter the 1960’s. I am taking a slightly different approach this time. This decade experiment is mostly an effort to focus on ‘canon’ films I have yet to see with a few semi-obscurities thrown in. Problem is, the number quickly piles up as there is so much to see! I have a hard time cutting down my to-see lists , especially when everyone so kindly offers up their recommendations. If I ever want to smoothly make my way across the decades, I need to cut my losses a bit more. After this year, it’ll be a free-for-all and I’ll hopefully make my way towards some hidden gems. My launching number for the 1960’s is 31. I will list them and I ask for recommendations from those 30 (as opposed to the over 60 listed for the 1950’s). I’m going to try and get through as many as I can.

First! A list of the films I watched for the 1950’s:

The Big Heat (1953, Lang)
Ivan the Terrible Part II (1946/1955, Eisenstein)
Journey to Italy (1954, Rossellini)
Los Olvidados (1950, Bunuel)
Animal Farm (1954)
Ordet (1955, Dreyer)
Senso (1954, Visconti)
The Furies (1950, Mann)
Nights of Cabiria (1957, Fellini)
A Man Escaped (1956, Bresson)
Floating Weeds (1959, Ozu)
Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Melville)
The River (1951, Renoir)
Casque D’Or (1952, Becker)
Le Plaisir (1952, Ophuls)
Night of the Demon (1957, Tourneur)
The Band Wagon (1953, Minnelli)
Les Cousins (1959, Chabrol)
House on Haunted Hill (1959, Castle)
Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, Sturges)
Sudden Fear (1952, Miller)
The Wrong Man (1956, Hitchcock)
Mon Oncle (1958, Tati)
Caged (1950, Marshall)
Street of Shame (1956, Mizoguchi)
Party Girl (1958, Ray)
Pather Panchali (not yet watched)
Smiles of a Summer Night (not yet watched)
Crazed Fruit (not yet watched)
On the Beach (not yet watched)

Here are my choices for the 1960’s. All recommendations based on these choices (or others you may deem noteworthy) are much appreciated. 

Review: Mirror Mirror (2012, Singh)

Plot Summary from IMDB: An evil queen steals control of a kingdom and an exiled princess enlists the help of seven resourceful rebels to win back her birthright.

Before going into Mirror Mirror, I heard that it closes with a Bollywood number. My immediate reaction, despite not having seen it at that point, was one of vague irritation. Lo and behold, it ended up being the only few tolerable minutes in this lifeless and obnoxious monstrosity. It is the sole occasion where it musters up any semblance of energy or feeling. As Mirror Mirror death-marched itself to the finishing line, it sunk in that I quite simply hated this film.

Since I do not see everything that is released, not by a long shot, it is not often that I find myself rejecting something with this kind of fervor.

There is one thing about Mirror Mirror that I loved which, it should come as no surprise, are the costumes. It is the final film to feature the late Eiko Ishioka’s work and it is a haute couture extravaganza where all bets are off. There is so much pattern, architecture, structure, color and off-the-wall fun to be had in her designs. This is the one aspect that never bores; a costume-lover’s dream. The production design is also stellar, but suffocated by CGI and an overall cheap look the film acquires.

It is important to get those bits of praise out of the way because everything else to come is going to scathe.

Mirror Mirror tries to be a frothy and funny confectionery take on the fairy tale that plays it straight, but throws a few twists in whilst remaining self-referential. It fails on all counts. Instead of funny, we get a series of half-jokes that barely arrive and fall flat at that. There are meta-jokes about focus groups and Snow White being a pretentious name. This is really the best they could come up with? There is even a makeover scene involving parrot poop getting smeared on Julia Roberts face. You read that right; parrot poop.

It goes through the motions every single step of the way. It hits its plot points and sluggishly moves on to the next bit. At least if there were any enthusiasm to be had, there would be something to grasp on to. Instead, there is a zombified feel to the proceedings where there should be a perpetual skip in its step. Everything is covered in layers of dullness.

Those few twists previously mentioned? That mainly revolves around Snow White becoming a Robin Hood figure via a montage scene where she fences, tries to guess which cup the ball is under, and dons lots of costumes to find her ‘bandit look’. Lilly Collins is monotonously one-note. This, not to mention the uninventive script, gives nothing to propel any kind of engaging arc from forming. It does not help that Mirror Mirror does not take Snow’s ‘transformation’ very seriously. It deals in the kind of child’s play faux-feminism akin to the Spice Girls use of ‘Girl Power’. Collins and a lack of dedication to Snow on the screenwriters’ part make her arc dead on arrival.

There is also a central focus on Julia Roberts’ Evil Queen. Roberts turns in a very smug self-satisfied performance. It does not help that she is given nothing to go off of, but she overcompensates, forever snapping her fingers and hovering over a fake accent. Armie Hammer is game but awkward in a role that requires him to lose his shirt, react to what happens around him, act like a puppy and have ineffective banter with Collins. Nathan Lane is Nathan Lane. The main problem with the performances is that everyone is playacting.

The action scenes have conceptual potential, but are predictably struck down by shoddy choreography and execution. The sword-fight in the woods between Snow and the Prince is laughable. It, like all of the action scenes, is lackluster and fails to create any momentum.

Perhaps Mirror Mirror’s biggest snafu is that no flicker of genuine emotion can be found; thus no stakes can be felt and no fun can be had. It creates an immense detachment. The result is to be left with one’s own boredom and aggravation.

This is the first film directed by Tarsem Singh that I have seen. I cannot say I am eager to see more.

The longer Mirror Mirror goes on, the angrier I got. It may seem like a harmless kind of misfire, but rarely have I seen a film that puts so little stock in its own plot, characters or humor. It puts all of its stock in a tone that is painfully misguided. It thinks it’s whimsical but it’s nothing. It is 100 minutes of nothing. At one point Julia Roberts says to Lilly Collins that there is something about her that is just irritating. Well, that is Mirror Mirror for you in a nutshell.

Review: Brave (2011, Chapman & Andrews)

Is it a crime to be a minor Pixar film? Apparently so. While it is fair to have high expectations for the animation studio’s output, which has reached great heights in the past, Brave seems to have been hit with backlash that suggests that this is forgettable fare that plays it entirely too safe. Brave has its weaknesses, but overall this is a gorgeous female coming-of-age story about independence, maintaining identity in the face of tradition, and the complicated bond between mother and daughter. It takes the Disney Princess formula in a fundamentally progressive direction if not nearly radical enough in execution.

At first, the story follows a familiar structure. Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) is a princess and her mother Eleanor (Emma Thompson) has spent her entire life slaving to get her daughter ready for the responsibility of being a queen. This goes against everything Merida wants. She has devoted her life to archery, riding her horse and exploring the endless forest around her. She lives for these days. It is apparent that the conversations between the two have long taken a repetitious route of rejection and scolding. When the day comes, Merida rejects custom by boldly claiming her own hand via an archery competition. A particularly intense fight between the two sends Merida off into the woods devastated, and from there…well you will have to see the film and discover its developments yourself.

Female protagonists in children’s films can and have been feisty, independent and true-to-themselves. Yet, despite several of these films being outstanding achievements, at some point we must remove the fact that these stories are all being filtered through romance. This does not have to go away, but there must be additional contexts with which we deal with female characters and their stories. Brave goes a long way in setting us in the right direction. It is easy to take for granted how meaningful it is to see this kind of story being told.

Merida jumps out at the screen from frame one; her fiery red mop-head hair, her rambunctious nature, her obstinacy and passion. She may be an adolescent, but she knows who she is. She does not want to be forced into a marriage and life that do not feel true. It goes past not being in love with the three particular boys. It is the principle of the thing; this is not what she wants. Not only is she not ready, but for the unforeseeable future, she holds no stock in this as an eventuality. Between Kelly Macdonald’s voiceover work and the Pixar animation team, Merida is fully realized. Her movements, mannerisms and speech patterns all have a specificity and spontaneity that make her, without a doubt, one of the most memorable characters the studio has produced.

Brave is ultimately about the relationship between mother and daughter, an under-explored arena in children’s films to say the least. We always seem to be dealing with father and daughter, with the mother often long deceased.

This is where Merida’s character arc lies. She must learn to listen and see through Eleanor’s eyes and vice-versa. The film stresses the lapse in communication between them throughout, and the film’s central event forces them to build the way they communicate with each other from the ground up. Part of growing up is learning not to take your mother for granted. The journey their relationship takes is where the heart of the film lies as well as its strongest bits of humor. The marketing, at least what I was exposed to, was smart in that it managed to keep its central event a surprise.

Many of the complaints against the film are not unfounded; they are just not enough to derail what Brave is doing. It does not make the most of its time. By having a tendency to draw out and repeat scenes (such as the men fighting), it loses a chance to do more with its runtime. I wish it strived for a deeper whole, though it has sections that reach that level. A sharper execution was needed for some of the humor. It never falls flat, but it does not often stick the landing.

The magical aspects are confusing and feel like a rough draft. Suspending my disbelief is one thing, but how the hell do we come to the conclusion that fixing the tapestry will solve everything? Finally, the supporting characters could have been more distinct and were underwritten. When I think of how many memorable characters Finding Nemo has, still a shocking number to process, surely the characters surrounding Merida and Eleanor could have had a bit more to them. Although, the way the film shows the three brothers and the other men shamelessly making fools of themselves as a representation of the kind of behavior men can get away with was a nice touch.

Brave is about a young woman staying true to herself and maintaining the courage to be who she is. It is about the bond between mother and daughter and the evolution of communication and understanding between them. Pixar is always at the top of its game from a technical standpoint and here is no different; the Scottish highlands are endlessly rich and watching Merida’s hair is alone worth the price of admission. Brave is entertaining and heartfelt and a step in the right direction for the types of children’s stories about girls being told. Its only crime is that it is not a masterpiece; I would hope we can forgive Brave for being merely accomplished.

Screening Log: June 16th-30th, 2012 – Films #193-213

All grades are arbitrary and subjective; they are there for posterity.They reflect on what level the film worked for me personally on a first viewing and are not reflective of their ultimate worth. Obviously a film like Casque D’Or is not B- level work, but the film failed to fully cast its spell on me, thus a B- grade.

193. A Man Escaped (1956, Bresson): A/A-

194. High Art (1998, Cholodenko): B

195. Floating Weeds (1959, Ozu): B+/B

196. Les Enfants Terribles (1950, Melville): A-

197. The River (1951, Renoir): B-/C+

198. Casque D’Or (1952, Becker): B-

199. Le Plaisir (1952, Ophuls): B+/B

200. Night of the Demon (1957, Tourneur): B+

201. The Band Wagon (1953, Minnelli): A-

202. The Grey (2012, Carnahan): B/B-

203. Les Cousins (1959, Chabrol): C

204. House on Haunted Hill (1959, Castle): C

205. Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, Sturges): B+

206. Headhunters (2012, Tyldum): B-

207. Brave (2012, Andrews & Chapman): B+/B

208. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Anderson): A/A-

209. The Intouchables (2012, Nakache & Toledano): B-

210. Sudden Fear (1952, Miller): B-

211. The Wrong Man (1956, Hitchcock)
: B-

212. Chronicle (2012, Trank)
: B

213. Mon Oncle (1958, Tati): B