Video Review: Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 11: “Confessions”

In case you haven’t heard, the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad” have started airing. I’ll be doing video reviews of these final eight in an effort to preserve the more visceral enthusiasm I’ve had for this show, and to hopefully share some thoughts, observations and reactions with fellow fans.  I can’t put into words what watching this show has meant, as someone who is a lifelong fan of great storytelling. It has truly a privilege to watch this unfold. I was going to write episode reviews, but I prefer to capture the play-by-play and to share my obsession with this show through video rather than typing. It’s a more immediate way for me to be able to look back on the show’s wrap-up. So I’ll be posting the videos from each week.

This week was the third of the final 8 titled “Confessions”.


Films Seen in 2013: #147-152

#147. Like Someone in Love (2013, Kiarostami)
At the tippity top of 2013 film viewings so far. A rigorously contemplative character piece that exists in the spaces of loneliness and human connection. The film functions around what would normally be central events but not on them. It ponders what brings these people together, the lies they have told themselves and each other, and the untold history of the choices they’ve made. Abbas Kiarostami is a master filmmaker, using every single camera choice to maximum effect and dangling the possibilities of character perspective in front of us like catnip. I think of that first scene for example, and the way he quite simply has the audience from the word go, all because of where he places his camera and the way he uses sound. The return value on this film, just like Certified Copy, his first film made outside of Iran, is enormous. Leaves a lot to think about, particularly that slam-bang fade-in to the closing credits.

#148. Beyond the Hills (2013, Mungiu)
Can we all just agree that Cristian Mungiu has the best shot compositions by a director currently working? This is a harrowing work of good intentions gone horribly wrong under the perverted superstitious-driven perspective that can come through religion. It looks at a system misused in the daily life of this monastery where judgment becomes clouded and oppression against women comes through in ways that fundamentally misunderstand people’s motivations, emotions, feelings, reactions and inner selves. There is so much going on in this scathing but always admirably level-headed critique. Mungiu likes to make films that present a story that, while from his own point-of-view, promotes individual response and thought. He wants people to be thinking about the issues that are brought up and how they feel about the story presented. He doesn’t want the audience to be thinking about what he was trying to say. This makes for a film as complex as life itself.

There are no villains; everyone involved is all-too human but unable to see what is in front of them. Meaningful values have been dwindled down into limited perspectives and a medieval way of living. It’s all backwards. It becomes difficult to pinpoint when everything starts to take an uncontrollable turn in this story which is unfortunately based on an actual event.

Like the masterpiece that is 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, this is rooted in a complex and loyal female friendship, this time with unspoken intimacy and hinted history. Both women have been and are continuously let down by various institutions they come in contact with. One has committed herself to God and the other, who has some unchecked mental sickness, clings to her friend, the only person she has left. That stalemate allows the eventual tragedy to unfold in the way it does. Mungiu continues to use tension, a lack of music, long unbroken takes with precise composition and a disturbing overlay told through bleak humanism. I had been waiting for this film for 2 years and it did not disappoint. It enthralled me at every moment even when I so desperately wanted to look away.

#149. Ex-Lady (1933, Florey)
Buoyed by of Bette Davis’ presence and her progressive free-thinking ideology, which the film surprisingly never directly throws back in her face. Unfortunately the story itself is just as non-committal as Helen. This is really just about two people who have a hard time sustaining their relationship, first in rebellion of marriage and then within it. Despite all the Pre-Code goodies (and there are plenty of bed-sharing, pre-marital sex and statements like “I don’t want babies” to be had), Ex-Lady is largely flat and nondescript.

#150. The Place Beyond the Pines (2013, Cianfrance)
There is a critical difference between interweaving the concept of fate into storytelling and having every plot motion forward feel predetermined by the writers themselves. In The Place Beyond the Pines every choice made by every character and every tragic piece of happenstance feels forcefully pushed into place, taking any organic notion or weighty pull out of play. I appreciate the novelistic ambition of Cianfrance’s sophomore effort, the grand reverberation of father-son bonds and breakage and of class consciousness between the lower and middle class. But there’s no glue holding it together; just intent. Many have said the film falls apart in the last third, but it all feels equally hollow. First, second, and last.

No matter the purported thematic or epic scope, The Place Beyond the Pines aims to be rooted in its characters. Yet every single person is presented as a stock substitute for the real thing, led by an invisible hand towards their in-the-cards conclusion, with the women unsurprisingly faring the worst by way of archaic peripheral placement. It may be hard to believe, but merely casting Ryan Gosling does not mean a character earns my understanding or sympathy. Those puppy-blues gotta give me something more. Every single character beat is about getting to the next place, getting to the next place. As visual ellipses and dissolves abound, we steadily move our ciphers towards their non-sensible full-circle conclusion. You walk away feeling the limped strain of its message instead of its intended impact.

#151. You’re Next (2013, Wingard)

#152. The World’s End (2013, Wright)
If this kind of film were made by anyone other than Edgar Wright, the four men with grown-up lives would be seen as a problem to be fixed, as ‘stuffed shirts’ in need of letting loose. Gary King would be seen as a bringer of fun, a harbinger of good times. But The World’s End takes a much different, much more rewarding road by depicting Gary King as an alcoholic whose life peaked at 17. He is the odd one out. He is the one with problems. He is the one that needs to grow up. Whether Wright and Simon Pegg meant to or not, this is a deconstruction and a much-needed reversal of the overplayed man-child that has populated films this past decade (sometimes brilliantly sometimes tiresomely). This is a sci-fi film rooted in reality.

Matt Singer’s review over at The Dissolve put it perfectly by pointing out the fact that Wright and Pegg use spectacle to serve ideas and character, a rarity these days. What we experience with The World’s End is like an antidote to the disappointments and the unoriginality of summer ‘blockbuster’ films. The World’s End continues to take a lifetime of movie influences, both within pop culture and more obscure realms, and to refurbish them in ways that are original and exciting.

The World’s End also, like everything Wright does, rewards repeat viewings far more than the first viewing experience. Everything is intricate and interwoven in structure. The first five minutes are a mini-version of the entire film, the pub names all mean something, the exchanges fly at you with abandon.

I found myself so invested in the broken dynamic between the four men and Gary that part of me didn’t even want the genre play to kick in. The entire cast is perfect but Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both completely take me aback here. Both play against type and their interactions are the most affecting of their other onscreen pairings. Pegg in particular is something to behold with his alcoholic desperation, his put-upon obliviousness and his impossibly high energy level. Frost, Marsan, Considine and Freeman all have each other to bounce off of, but Pegg has to be on his own wavelength throughout and convey that his life is on the line in more ways than one.

It is clear (as per usual within the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy) that everyone commits to performing far more choreography that would normally be asked of actors. Between that and Wright’s ability to photograph action scenes with clarity and style, we get to see some really exciting physicality on display. Anyone who knows my tastes understands this means major points. The World’s End doesn’t stay as strong in its final minutes, but it doesn’t matter much. This is one of the most rewarding movie-going experiences I’ve had in a long time. It’s hilarious and heartfelt and built around its characters. Stasis is damaging; stasis is death. Nostalgia cannot mix with the present because bad things will happen.

PS. I’ve been waiting my whole life to see Alabama Song used to great effect in the film. My wish has finally been granted.

Review: You’re Next (2013, Wingard)


You’re Next (2013, Wingard)

You’re Next, the long-awaited slasher-pic by Adam Wingard, operates on a familiar and basic level but manages to get by with the skin of its clever script and the headstrong Aussie bad-assery of its female lead.

Introducing us to an unsympathetic familial lot sets up the bloodshed to come as well as the shrewd switcheroo of victim-trading friends for family.  The crucial dinner scene allows for some the funniest bits to come through. Arguably the highlight of the film comes in a little exchange when Drake (played by filmmaker Joe Swanberg in a gem of a turn) antagonistically prods Tariq (a filmmaker played by filmmaker Ti West) about the meaning of underground film festivals only to then suggest that commercials are the highest form of the visual medium. It’s a great bit if you don’t know that the two actors are real-life filmmakers; it’s even funnier if you do.

The scene illustrates the three-pronged tonality of You’re Next. Much of the film is played for laughs by way of black comedy, but Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett lose their way a bit by simultaneously trying to play it straight in certain respects. This is a problem because the film certainly amuses but doesn’t succeed in its attempts at conventional scares. It strains itself trying to blend the two (for other reasons I’ll get to soon) but there’s enough of that third prong, spots of applied banality, to keep the tone afloat even if it threatens to further complicate matters. The very first scene is a standout example of this; a strong sense of mundane dissatisfaction wafts off the two characters. This becomes engaging to watch because of that tone and its lack of context even though we know we are watching a standard kill-scene.

You’re Next doesn’t quite come together the way it should because of the willy-nilly direction and inconsistent acting. There are moments of inspired havoc and verve throughout, but there is a general lack of focus on Wingard’s part; a focus necessary to stick the landing. Part of this has to do with a missed opportunity in establishing the space of the house, a tactic used to great effect by James Wan in The Conjuring. Part of this has to do with failing to consistently establish the space and chaos within even one room and one scene. The fallout of the aforementioned dinner scene has the right manic energy but is unable to spatially harness the scene. The camera exists in heavy hand-held terrain without effectively utilizing it as a stylistic choice and the result is flim-flam camerawork and editing amidst moments of stimulating punch.

The acting becomes a problem most noticeably when two key performers are unable to sell an already preposterous twist. Distracting performances make a script transparent and as a viewer I start to ‘see the pages’ while watching. This is always a bad sign and there were moments throughout when I became aware of said transparency.

Luckily Joe Swanberg and Barbara Crampton (words do not describe how happy I was to see her in this) are MVP runner-ups. But the best thing about You’re Next is Sharni Vinson who walks away with this film as Erin. Her brimming competence and makeshift strategies make this bloody affair a two-way street. Vinson plays a worthy Final Girl, refreshingly written in her self-assuredness. This is a woman who doesn’t just make it by the skin of her teeth, but who slaughters her way through with everything she’s got, which in this case are considerable survival skills and relentless determination.

Despite the issues laden within You’re Next, this is still a consistently fun time. A killer 80’s horror movie synth score kicks in late in the game, a Dwight Twilley Band song is memorably used to nightmarish repeat effect, the streak of dark comedy emerges in some regard more often than not and the script has a much-appreciated self-aware inventiveness.

Video Review: Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 10: “Buried”

In case you haven’t heard, the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad” have started airing. I’ll be doing video reviews of these final eight in an effort to preserve the more visceral enthusiasm I’ve had for this show, and to hopefully share some thoughts, observations and reactions with fellow fans.  I can’t put into words what watching this show has meant, as someone who is a lifelong fan of great storytelling. It has truly a privilege to watch this unfold. I was going to write episode reviews, but I prefer to capture the play-by-play and to share my obsession with this show through video rather than typing. It’s a more immediate way for me to be able to look back on the show’s wrap-up. So I’ll be posting the videos from each week.

Due to my battery dying halfway through my review, this is being split into 2 parts. Don’t worry, it isn’t any longer than last week’s review.

Covered in Part 1:
– A few lingering thoughts re: “Blood Money”
– A female-centric hour
– Jesse bookends
– A twist on Western tropes
– The tour-de-force Skyler/Hank diner scene, Skyler’s trajectory and how Hank completely screwed up
-Continuing efforts to humanize Walt
– The money; forever buried?
– A heartbreaking scene between two sisters.

Covered in Part 2: 

– Sisters at odds, grappling over a baby
– Natural lighting
– Where is Walt Jr? With Louis I guess?
– Walter offering to give himself up?
– Shrouded eyes and Louboutins
– The return of Meth Damon
– The end of Hank’s career in sight.
– Where we leave off; Jesse fallen into Hank’s lap. Can he capitalize on this happenstance?

Video Review: Breaking Bad Season 5B, Episode 9: “Blood Money”

In case you haven’t heard, the final eight episodes of “Breaking Bad” have started airing. I’ll be doing video reviews of these final eight in an effort to preserve the more visceral enthusiasm I’ve had for this show, and to hopefully share some thoughts, observations and reactions with fellow fans.  I can’t put into words what watching this show has meant, as someone who is a lifelong fan of great storytelling. It has truly a privilege to watch this unfold. . I was going to write episode reviews, but I prefer to capture the play-by-play and to share my obsession with this show through video rather than typing. It’s a more immediate way for me to be able to look back on the show’s wrap-up. So I’ll be posting the videos from each week.

If “Blood Money” is any indication, then we are in for something really special over the next 7 Sunday nights.

Some topics covered:
– Why Breaking Bad, unlike recent show endings like Lost and BSG, is likely to actually live up to its expectations
– The ancient ruin of the White household and disorienting beginnings
– Pacing worries dissolved (!)
– The one tangible thing left to root for
– The “devastatingly casual” reveal of Walt’s current health
– We’ve been waiting for that ricin to be used for seasons now; How I Am Convinced It Will Come Into Play
– Walt and Skyler; bonded by costume color palettes
– The absence of a best-case scenario for Jesse
– The transparency of Walt’s bullshit
– Bryan Cranston’s masterful direction of that Walt/Jesse scene
– Jesse infects a random street with poisoned cursed money; discussing a haunting scene of perverted charity (big kudos to Dave Porter’s work here)
– Walt/Hank showdown: Diving into that game-changing climactic scene
– Thoughts on next week’s possibilities

Short Review: Lore (2013, Shortland)


This is a coming-of-age film, a deconstructed fairy-tale and a crash land to reality. It could have been horribly melodramatic, put-upon, slickly ineffectual. It deals with touchy subject matter to begin with by focusing on the suffering of German kids at the end of WWII. These kids have been brought up on the same ideology as their Nazi parents who taken to prison. Lore and her four siblings are left to fend for themselves, to trek through the Bavarian forests to Hamburg with nothing but their mother’s jewelery to hock. It’s tough for film to make a WWII story without it feeling somehow exploitative and disrespectfully sentimental and manipulative. But Lore tows the line surprisingly successfully; it’s only blatant weakness is that the often stunning cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (who also photographed Top of the Lake) can at times veer towards sensualist preciousness. But the photography is essential and evocative in ways that make up for this quality.

Told entirely and loyally from Lore’s point-of-view, the film stays committed to depicting her isolation and deeply naive existence. The camera keeps a shallow focus on faces, hands, and feet, straying to glimpse the falsely inviting forests and disturbing decaying environment. As information comes out about der Fuhrer’s actions, the people around her stay in fierce denial. But she is silent as she lets the heaviness sink in as she continues her difficult journey.

Lore doesn’t feel affected; it feels disturbingly real and lyrically honest. It conveys its feeling through faces and filmic construct, shying away from feeling plotted. The entire film rests on Saskia Rosendahl, who is a revelation. It’s one of the best performances by a young woman I’ve seen in years. Her face tells a self-sustaining narrative. She is steadfast and fierce but we can see that inside, her mind is being pulled in every which direction from devastation, denial, realization, sexuality, exhaustion and the shattering of innocence that comes with discovering the indescribably horrific consequences of the ideals she was brought up to believe in.

Films Seen in 2013: #138-146

Sorry that I’ve been away folks. I haven’t been watching as much recently due to focusing a little more on reading and also with a heavy focus on learning German at a snail’s pace. Also, in efforts to save money I’ve been cutting back on theater excursions and canceled subscriptions to Hulu Plus and DVDs from Netflix. But I signed up w/ Warner Archive again so I’ll be watching a handful of their offerings soon.

Strangers May Kiss

#138. Strangers May Kiss (1931, Fitzmaurice)

This is basically a carbon copy of The Divorcee, but not quite as quintessential or iconic. But still entertaining because Norma Shearer literally sleeps with all of Europe!!! And she gets a couple of big speeches about gender hypocrisy and what not. Of course she ends up with the total tool at the end and it is absolutely frustrating as a modern viewer to see her double back on her philosophies. However, we have to keep in mind that the depiction of any of this, that a woman would want to sleep around, does sleep around, a woman who is not playing a prostitute, who we sympathize with, who isn’t ‘fallen’, etc. All of this is highly scandalous. Highly highly scandalous. And even though the ever-fabulous Robert Montgomery plays a drinking goof, that playboy element is missing making him less fun than he is in The Divorcee. Still an important Pre-Code nonetheless.

#139. The Heat (2013, Feig)

If I were a member of the Academy, chances are I’d submit Melissa McCarthy in The Heat for Best Actress. If there’s been better comedic work by a female in the last few years I haven’t seen it. She dusts off one-liners like they are nothing at all (they come flying at us at breakneck speed) and creates a full and layered character within a comedic framework. Her and Bullock create the best onscreen duo since Hill/Tatum in 21 Jump Street. Not coincidentally, both are buddy cop films. And unlike 21 Jump Street, which falters in its last third, The Heat manages to stay consistent with its weaknesses trinkled throughout (including a mean-spirited streak) without hindering it too much at any given time. I had such a blast watching this and Feig’s direction really comes through in getting the most laughs out of chaotic situations. Two examples being the scene at the club and the drinking montage. I’ve realized over the years that I like Sandra Bullock a lot, but she is one of those actresses who I never get to appreciate because of the projects she attaches herself to. The Heat really gave me a chance to appreciate her comedic timing. Also, I wasn’t aware until the opening credits that it was also written by a woman so; extra points.


#140. Lore (2013, Shortland)

Short review post:

#141. The Conjuring (2013, Wan)

It may be a one-function film without much longevity impact to it, but damn if James Wan isn’t honing his skills for some seriously effective mileage. Something I really admired about The Conjuring is just how aligned we are to the Perron family. Though the first shot of them is seen from the perspective of the house, which creates an immediate long-lasting sense of unease, we are mainly experiencing events with them instead of the more common sadistic slant. We feel upset and unnerved by the family’s experiences; genuinely spooked along with them. There is a naturalism to them which makes their experiences feel somehow more realistic. It’s nice to feel that level of empathy for the characters involved instead of them just being figurative punching bags. It also helps that the cast is full of class-act actors who sell the material with straight-faces, elevating everything to an even more respectable level. Wan knows how to spend an entire film building up to something chaotic. His sense of control both within individual scenes and how it fits into his overall trajectory of manipulation for the audience is mighty impressive. He also knows when to use flashy techniques or references and have them be effective, not distracting. The Conjuring had me at giant yellow-retro scrolling title card and long tracking shot set to “Time of the Season”. A solid and effective film like this stands out in a sea of disappointments for me so far this year.

#142. Blue Jasmine (2013, Allen)

My favorite Woody Allen film since Husbands and Wives released just over 20 years ago. I’ll say outright that the film is somewhat riddled with potential drawbacks; the men mostly represent things, Allen’s continually simplistic look at class which can veer into caricature, and some clunky expository dialogue. But this is a genuine gut-punch from Allen, possibly his bleakest film but also his most refreshing turn in some time. It has a flashback-heavy structure that bleeds past and present as we sit in Jasmine’s mindset. Watching it recalls the back-and-forth information letting of a stage production. The sense that this could be a play, along with Jasmine’s heavy Blanche DuBois vibe, is part of what makes Blue Jasmine so memorable.

I don’t really know what to say about Cate Blanchett. She’s one of my top five living actresses and this is her best performance, indeed one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She alternates between barely contained put-upon niceties, acidic selfishness, spaced-out madness, twitchy high-strung drunkeness and everything between. This is not a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown. This is a woman who has already had a nervous breakdown and is not in a state of mind to be out in society.

Andrew Dice Clay, Bobby Cannavale and especially Sally Hawkins are other stand-outs. I really hope what with all the deserved recognition Blanchett is sure to get, that Hawkins is not lost in the mix.

When it is over you don’t really know what to do with yourself. Allen seems to almost hate his protagonist, and indeed she’s a pitiable monster who has made her own bed. But Allen and Blanchett do such a mesmerizing job of getting into her state of mind that Blue Jasmine is a rewarding experience and a tough one to shake off.

The Wolverine
#144. The Wolverine (2013, Mangold)

This seems to be the summer that really has people divided and riled up over the state of the blockbuster. I admit I ended up seeing very few of them. The main one I did see disappointed me greatly. Despite being from a director I love, and having some really refreshing philosophical ideas and themes at its root, Pacific Rim greatly disappointed me in its execution. Based on others reactions, I honestly felt like I watched a different film. I love and agree with what people have to say about it in theory; but for me it largely fell flat. I’m not saying The Wolverine gets it right; but among other blockbusters and superhero films of late, it’s comparatively scaled-down and I respect that. It is surprisingly rooted in Logan as a character. It’s not a gripping character study by any means, but the effort is there. We need more of that. Especially since it takes a great deal for me to care about any kind of superhero film at this point, or really at any point. This is coming from someone who was never really on this train to begin with. Unless we are talking about Batman Returns or Batman: The Animated Series.

I really enjoyed Rila Fukushima as Yukio, whose dynamic with Logan is purely based entirely on equal footing and eventual friendship. Even Mariko, the love interest, is given far more agency than normal. This is one of the things that worked for me in Pacific Rim by the way; relative equality in gender dynamics.

The third act is where the film completely falls apart. Until then, it is solid summer popcorn. My huge problem with Wolverine as a character has always been his immorality and lack of invulnerability make him inherently uninteresting to me as far as stakes are concerned. Hugh Jackman has long-standing synergy in this part but when his big dilemma really comes down to him being slightly tired after a fight and temporarily mortal like the rest of us (still with claws and strength), I can only care so much.

#144. Ruggles of Red Gap (1935, McCarey)

A beautifully wry, moving and patriotic cross-cultural comedy that wears its gentle earnestness on its sleeve even as it pokes fun at the very thing it promotes. What surprised me about Ruggles of Red Gap is the way in which the changes within Ruggles sneaks up on both him and us. It’s so subtle and so genuinely affecting almost 80 years later. The realization of opportunity and its potential. It all shines through a remarkable performance by Charles Laughton in his first onscreen comedic role. An actor known for playing in extremes, this is a deceptively subtle performance; indeed, extreme in its subtlety. It’s a consistently surprising bit of acting too; the mileage you can get out of interpreting and dissecting what he does here is considerable. And this is a genuinely funny film to boot. It’s got everything, including a divine stop’s-everyone-in-their-tracks reading of the Gettysburg Address and an uplifting ending that demands the use of a hankie. A new favorite and though it’s relatively well-known amongst film buffs, this really should be a part of the public consciousness of iconic 1930’s films.

145. Thirteen Women (1932, Archainbaud)

A preposterous and thus impossible-to-resist early slasher-like Pre-Code. I’ve always been fascinated by the systematic yellowface casting of Myrna Loy in Eastern dragon-lady parts throughout the early 30’s. Here, her character blurts out her sufferings in the final minutes, stuck between desperate attempts at assimilation and not being seen as human to those around her, which the film itself further perpetuates at every turn. She is mystical, a villainous Other, with a left-of-field revenge plot that might be the most absurd revenge scheme ever in a film. This is all intriguing stuff and Loy is easily the most interesting part of Thirteen Women with her piercing eyes, unmovable stance and fabulous costumes. The rest of the women are just sort of there, barely developed and then offed; the film clocks in at just under an hour. Along the way there are bombs planted in rubber balls, suicides, murders, happily single and proudly independent mothers, hints at past promiscuity and heaps of gullible women who succumb to the power of suggestion. It’s a bizarre oddity, which makes it a lot of fun to watch.

Anytime I encounter yellowface I always try to promote the PBS documentary Hollywood Chinese, which looks at the history of yellowface within Hollywood films.