Review: Dark Shadows (2012, Burton)


When I say that Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows isn’t quite the disaster he spewed forth with Alice in Wonderland, don’t mistake that even for the faintest of praise. It’s merely a testament to just how awful his 2010 fantasy revisionist film is. While Dark Shadows shows an uptick in his visual palette, the improvements end there. Here he takes a 1960’s campy soap and transforms it into an at times excruciating misfire that is headlined by an incomprehensible script by Seth Grahame-Smith.

Tim Burton’s interest in storytelling has been, for the most part, pretty low on his priority list. He is more into atmospheric world-building that fits both his imagination and a consistent evocation of his long-standing influences. By now, he is treading muddy water, refusing to attempt creative expansion and is bogged down in increasingly unsalvagable scripts. It is clear now that Sweeney Todd was not a return to form, but evidence that he still has life in him provided he has solid material to work with. Sadly, this is now rarely the case.

There’s a reason that most reviews of recent Tim Burton fare include a by-now mandatory Burton-centric rant. The handful of his films that I will always cherish are enough for me, and many other youguns who grew up with his work, to remain masochistically loyal to him. He’s sort of like the Weezer of filmmakers in that way. Batman Returns essentially represents my childhood; it has so much added personal meaning for me that it is in many ways the Burton film that means the most to me. As a stereotypically moody adolescent I worshiped Lydia Deetz and tried to recreate her bedroom by nailing sheer fabric to the ceiling, putting up an imaginary fortress fit for an angsty queen. At 12 years old, Sleepy Hollow was the first R-rated film I saw in theaters. The day I saw Ed Wood for the first time I was 13 and I loved it so much that I watched it 4 times in a row, still the only time I have done that. And then there is the discovery that the older I got, the funnier Pee Wee’s Big Adventure became. And so that loyalty persists, despite my better judgment.

There is infinite possibility in the advent of CGI which is more often that not wasted by the absence of balance. Once Burton started working with and embracing CGI, his work lost that indefinable something. His visuals now veer towards the opposite of idiosyncratic, disabling his calling card. There was something about the concrete physicality of his worlds. What he does with shapes, sizes and structures; those marks feel largely absent. The way he used to employ effects (Large Marge anyone?) quite literally popped. CGI gives him a broader paintbrush and he uses it to showcase the wider landscapes of his worlds. But the result is a look that, beyond the often still memorable room-based production design, is transparent and flat. AKA the antithesis of his films looked like in pasttimes.

The final problem is the mutually assured destruction pairing of Burton and Johnny Depp. The two continue to bring each other down, a statement that long ago I never thought I’d have to make. Basically studios give Burton boatloads of cha-ching cha-ching to make shit adaptations of whatever the piqued interest of the year is. Then Burton ropes Depp in, pays him boatloads of cha-ching to play dress-up and create increasingly rote variations of the same bag of eccentricities. Depp used to be non-conformist, always taking chances and making interesting choices. Now he is conformist and predictable and is being paid absolutely ludicrous amounts of money for it (he’s the highest paid working actor). Somewhere along the line he stopped playing characters and we are left with bad makeup, a vaguely British over-enunciated accent and garish flailing mannerisms.

So what about Dark Shadows? Let’s start with the story. In the 1700’s, young Barnabas Collins and his family travel to Maine and make a name for themselves by successfully taking over the seafood business. He gets involved with a witch named Angelique (Eva Green), but his feelings for her are surface-level. His heart truly lies with young Josette (Bella Heathcote). When he spurns Angelique, she hypnotizes Josette into throwing herself off a cliff and turns Barnabas into a vampire in addition to chaining him in a coffin and burying him underground. This all happens in the first five minutes.

In 1972, a young woman named Victoria, who happens to look exactly like Josette, arrives in Collinsport to be a governess to young David (Gulliver McGrath). We meet the many Collins descendants and learn that Angelique still lives in the town and is the family’s main competitor in the seafood industry. At the same time, Barnabas is unearthed by construction workers and has to adjust to the 1970’s, meet his family and face Angelique.

The story consists of languorous exposition and subplots that are introduced and then dropped with no warning. Oh, and then randomly picked up again when it’s convenient. The dialogue has zero punch or wit. The pacing is akin to a hobbled man walking and the film’s identity crisis is apparent throughout. Perhaps most disconcertingly, we are never given any reason to be invested in anything, and I mean anything, onscreen. The rushed prologue tells us a lot and thinks that equals effective storytelling. Economic maybe; but effective?

There’s no throughline with the characters and no established family dynamic, and this is a film that wants to be about family; at least that is what it tells us. There are way too many characters that screenwriter Smith has no idea what to do with. They register on the most basic of levels and by the skin of their teeth at that. The actors are given no room to individualize their work. Eva Green is the only one who manages to do something with her character. The always welcome Michelle Pfieffier is one of many actors wasted. Depp is exactly what you would expect; recycled and gaudy. Helena Bonham-Carter manages to be semi-effective with a couple of later scenes. The worst of the bunch is Chloe Grace-Moretz who showcases the traits of hers I have always had a problem with; the entirety of her performance consists of an over-pronounced snarl.

An example of the unforgivably clumsy storytelling is the handling of Bella Heathcote’s Victoria, played by the kind of wide-eyed ingenue with just-so styling that Burton loves. She is introduced during the opening credits as Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin” plays, thereby automatically earning the ‘Best Scene in Dark Shadows‘ award. It turns out she is only being used as a gateway, not as a character in her own right. Once she is used to get us introduced to the wacky family, she is unceremoniously hung out to dry. The governess pretext is just that; it never remotely comes into play. She disappears for a hefty 30-40 minutes only to be jarringly reintroduced so she can out-of-nowhere express her feelings for Barnabus. And once again at the end so she can be saved.

On some level this is how the film treats every character, though none so dismissively as Victoria. A pattern of zero characterization and flung-in backstory appearing solely to justify their existence in a half-assed effort to give them something to do.

The humor has one mode, ‘weren’t the 1970’s funny?’, that proves Dark Shadows inability to commit to anything or handle its identity crisis. The jokes themselves are either corny observations or short exchanges with log-like landings that are delivered half-heartedly and take on the low energy level the pacing dictates. Worst of all, the jokes are bad. Really bad. Smith could have found genuine humor in the fish-out-of-water plot or imbued comic timing with scenarios, situations or in the dynamics between characters. The best he could do are piss-poor kind-of jokes that first and foremost do not compromise the overall non-tone. Since this is how Dark Shadows deals with each genre courting; the result is that the film has no discernible tone at all.

This lack of genre commitment means that Dark Shadows is too frightened to throw itself into anything but ‘well I guess it could count as soapy’. The original show is oft described as a campy soap. The film does not commit to camp. It commits to soap only in plot details, not tone. Nor does it commit to comedy, as discussed above, or horror. By trying to be a wispy hint of everything, we are left with not much of anything. A poorly written, indeterminately characterized not much of anything at that. Yes, the costumes and production design are notably satisfying; and that’s basically what Burton and his regular collaborators bring to the table at this point. We can only hope that Frankenweenie represents some kind of return to form, however fleeting that may be.


Review: Detachment (2012, Kaye)

Synopsis: A substitute teacher who drifts from classroom to classroom finds a connection to the students and teachers during his latest assignment.

In Detachment, eccentric director Tony Kaye’s examination of the everyday minutiae of an urban high school, picked his form of attack–full-scale assault—and decided that was enough. He crams so much horror and extremity into every scenario he presents that the film has no room to breathe. There is a train-wreck quality that keeps this consistently watchable but not for the reasons Kaye wants. A ‘what will he throw at us next’ pull resides. He uses the guise of the school education system as a cipher for a no holds barred sustained shrill that is always pitched at 11, and unfortunately cares only about being pitched at 11.

Now this is Tony Kaye we are talking about. Clearly subtlety was never in the cards. Instead of exploring what lies behind the risible mulch we are subjected to, he focuses on the endless existential crisis of Adrian Brody’s Henry Barthes. Barthes floats from school to school, careful not to stay in any one place for too long. Seething anger lingers underneath his exterior, but he is able to present a serene demeanor in the classroom that is purposely difficult to penetrate.

Henry keeps everyone at arm’s length. Why is he so ‘detached’? Besides the fact that he witnesses everyday atrocities of all kinds, grainy flashbacks, at every opportunity, clue us into Henry’s past. The repetition of it never further illuminates; like the rest of the film, it is a trussed-up sledgehammer. And so we watch him wander through life, wondering where it all went so wrong. Otherwise he spends his time staving off desperately unhappy teenage girls who cast him in the role of savior. Woe is him.

Brody is effective here, making the most of having something to work with, a luxury none of the other actors can claim to having. The centrality of Brody’s character suggests the actor’s complicity (he boasts an exec producer credit too) in aiding Kaye’s self-indulgence. The director and star leave everyone else out to dry in what amounts to a bunch of interchangeable glorified, and at times embarrassing, cameos. Surely there was more material with an ensemble roster this strong, but their roles are collectively whittled down to nothing. Somehow all of the performances outside of Brody from the veterans to the ingénues are distractingly gaudy. All of the acting fits into one of two possible molds; a stilted table read or some kind of amateur theater exercise where the goal is to scream oneself into a state of hysteria.

I can appreciate the tangible wrath fueling every frame of Detachment. In its way, it is a refreshing antidote to the arms-length caramel gooeyness that plagues other plight-of-educators films. One thing going for it is that it is a never dull assault you will not quickly forget. The undeniably high IMDB rating suggests it is having an impact on many who see it, a good thing for sure. Normally I would never name-drop an IMDB rating in a review, but 7.7 with 13,000 votes? That is high. But Kaye’s unparalleled miserablist wankfest favors hyper-stylized rage over any kind of story, idea or purpose.

Review: Oslo, August 31st (2012, Trier)

Oslo, August 31st opens in the Boston area for five shows between August 29th and September 3rd at The Museum of Fine Arts and for a limited engagement at the Somerville Theatre starting August 31st.

Norwegian director Joachim Trier burst onto the international film scene in 2006 with Reprise, a stylistically inventive debut about two young writers which alternates between overindulgence and the flashily sublime. Overall, the film left me cold but with the internal understanding that yes, I would make it a point to see all of Trier’s future output. His second feature, Oslo, August 31st, capitalizes on the evident potential seen from his debut as he reins himself in for a more subtle, somberly reflective work that is markedly more rewarding.

Set over the course of one day, Oslo, August 31st follows Anders, played by the marvelous Anders Danielsen Lie of Reprise, over the course of 24 hours. 34 years old, he leaves his drug rehabilitation center for a day to attend a job interview. He takes the opportunity to reconnect with his past, roaming around the city visiting old friends and relatives.

There is something ever-so-slightly vague about Anders’ existential quandary that, despite the specific nature of him and his struggles, cannot help but propel a similarly existential spirit in the viewer. It pulls you along in its ability to promote simultaneous self-reflection, without losing the story it wants to tell. By the end it becomes clear that in a subtle way, Oslo August 31st feels as if it is representing something bigger than itself.

A very early scene depicts Anders unsuccessfully attempting suicide by drowning. A consequential unshakable sense of fragility follows Anders around for the rest of the film. We know that with every encounter, with every stroll through Oslo, a question is eating away at this man; what’s the point? This might sound miserablist but it strikes such a sincere tone as to avoid becoming a mess of self-indulgent sulk.

What makes Oslo stand apart from other ‘drug addiction’ films is that it is not about the struggle to stay clean. It is about what one is left with after the fact and questioning the point of continuing. Anders has money, friends, family, looks and talent. But when addiction comes to define and ruin, at the end of the day, what is left when a layer of disconnect invades him, his former haunts and his interactions with others? That ever-palpable ‘why bother’ and the honesty with which it ponders this question is what stood out for me most in Trier’s sophomore effort.

Anders spends the day looking for some sort of sign to continue living. A series of conversations and experiences bring him closer and closer to his fate. A planned meeting with his sister does not materialize. His job interview is at first promising and then awash in the self-destruction that eats at him. He continues to call his ex-girlfriend and leave messages for her even though she is in New York. A party where old friends abound reminds of lost time and a place he cannot get back to.

There is a stand-out early sequence in which Anders makes his first visit of the day to see an old friend. Thomas (Hans Olar Brenner) is now married with a kid but the two friends used to live it up with booze and drugs as they intellectualized with each other. Those days are gone and after a scene with Thomas’ wife, the two speak alone. It becomes clear that while Thomas may be in a conventionally better place in his life, he has lost something. He is somehow unhappy. And he cannot reach any real level of insight when it comes to Anders. By the end of the scene it feels like neither can really do anything for the other though each vaguely wants to and it is heartbreaking.

Thankfully the film doesn’t victimize Anders. We feel badly for him and want him to pull through but it is also evident that he has screwed over many a friendship and family member in his efforts to fuel his addiction in the past. While the audience is given tidbits of backstory, each encounter he has only supports the immediate understanding that these are very complex and history-filled relationships. He wants to want to live, but he just cannot seem to find any reason to keep going.

It also serves as a love letter to Oslo. There are two scenes that broaden the scope of the individual experience of living in a city. The capital is highlighted throughout as Anders wanders the streets like a ghost of himself. Trier uses the setting to make a point about the collective memory a city holds for its many inhabitants. For all the good and bad times that come with it, the result is the magical significance of a city unattainable by any one individual but enjoyed, despaired and contributed by all.

The juxtaposition of broadening the Oslo experience and then focusing on Anders highlights the importance of each individual life and the joys, heartache and crises that come with it. Many films that try to do this sentimentalize or overtly make this point, but again, Trier strikes a perfect note here. Bleak but not miserablist. Gently nostalgic without a drop of saccharine. Oslo, August 31st overcomes the many pitfalls of the addiction drama, making for a haunting and contemplative existential journey through Norway’s capital over the course of one day.

Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 3: “Hazard Pay”

“Just because you shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James”. This line, spoken by none other than gruff one-liner extraordinaire Mike, will certainly end up being one of the most telling pieces of dialogue in “Breaking Bad”. With each episode that passes this season, it becomes clear that Walt’s reign on top is destined to be even shorter than we may have anticipated. With every inspired decision he makes, his God Complex interferes in ways the audience can see will hurt him and those around him in the long run.

“Hazard Pay” is bookended with scenes showcasing Mike’s considerable efforts towards keeping his guys, who were on Gus’ payroll, in place. The episode starts with Mike (in a suit!) posing as a paralegal in order to visit Dennis, who managed the industrial laundry where Gus’ team did their cooking. He is there to reassure Dennis that the hazard pay will keeping coming, lest he feels compelled to talk. Not only does he have to convince everybody on the payroll that keeping quiet is in their best interests, but he then has to follow through by continuing to supply hazard pay, or ‘making them whole’, as Mike awesomely calls it. And he has to calm everybody down about Chow’s murder. Mike is the one holding all of this together. I only hope that Mike can get out of this okay because I have gotten to the point where Mike’s survival is almost as important to me as Jesse’s.

The Logistics of Building a Business:

The business logistics of “Hazard Pay’s” first half is captivating to watch unfold. We get some excellent location work (particularly the box factory, seen above) as Saul and company trek to various possible locations to house their meth lab. This gives us the chance to see Saul work his magic again (though Walt ends up coming up with the pesticide idea) and it shows all of the potential pitfalls that have to be taken into consideration when embarking on such an enterprise.  I love the little touch of Saul bringing them to the Laser Tag location again. Their reactions:

Walt: No.
Jesse: Hell no.

The hiding in plain sight plan that Walt comes up with is pretty ingenious. I do not see a ton of longevity in it, although that is more likely because of the various other internal cracks that are already starting to appear within Walt’s endeavors. But for now, it has a touch of the dry humor that this show always likes to inject into the minute plot details. There is the dichotomy of cooking meth within the innocence of people’s homes. Then there is the additional dichotomy of creating a different kind of poison than the kind that allows for bug extermination. There is a great shot where the camera focuses on the innocuous family photo as Walt and Jesse cook in the background.

We are introduced to Jesse Plemons who plays Todd, who will assumedly make his mark sometime this season. After being explicitly instructed by Mike not to speak to either Walt or Jesse, he makes sure they know that he found and disabled a Nanny-Cam for them.

A shout-out is in order for the lovely green and yellow color scheme of the tent colors. It feels intuitively right for this show. I enjoyed the way it changed the lighting in the interior house scenes, not to mention the added value on the visuals by having the tent within a tent set inside the house.

Walt and Brock Meet:

In one of the squirmiest scenes to date, Walt and Brock formally meet. The scene begins with Walt and Jesse brainstorming how to solve problems for the upcoming cook. Something that works really nicely here, and in this season in general, is that it shows that Jesse has grown into being a legitimate team member and not just a hanger-on. Walt may only need Jesse because he can mold him, but Jesse still understands enough and has enough experience to contribute ideas that actually morph into viable solutions. Walt and Jesse are collaborators. Adorable. Also; is he the one drawing these diagrams? Using his artistic interests? Double adorable.

Anyways, back to the creepiness of the Walt and Brock meeting. The scene somewhat prays on the fact that we still do not quite know how the poisoning went down, although it is clear that Saul was certainly involved. Also, I do not believe for a second that Walt would have taken the chance of being at Jesse’s house if he had been the one to carry it out, covert poisoning or not. What works about the scene is that it is not the ‘does Brock know’ quality, but the fact that we know that Walt poisoned Brock. It uses context as a means for single-handedly creating discomfort.

The meeting itself is short and minimalist. 3 shots. A close-up of Walt looking at Brock. A close-up of Brock looking at Walt. A long shot with the two sitting on opposite sides of the couch. The only sound we hear is of Brock’s video game. Cut to commercial. The audience can really project whatever we want to onto this visual exchange. Having watched the episode multiple times, the ambiguity here is enormous, which is why it’s so effective. For me it comes down to a deeply unsettling atmosphere. It also uses the fact that Brock is always uneasy around new people to add a level of instinctive ‘I don’t want to know you’ vibe that comes from the kid. On Walt’s end, to me, there was a humanistic moment of him being almost afraid to look at the child whose life he actively endangered. But then there was also the next moment where he seemingly has no real problem facing him. That breakdown at the end of “Face Off” when Jesse leaves and Walt lets out his relief has basically been supplanted with no real remorse. Brock is sitting on the opposite side of the couch playing video games. He’s fine! And to Walt, as long as he’s fine, why should he feel bad about what was done in the past? In the end, I took it as a moment where Walt finalizes his own validation towards the poisoning.

Cooking Again:

It is a safe bet to say that this cooking montage was the best “Breaking Bad” has done. It has been a while since we had one of these, right? The song choice, “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)” by The Peddlers, had a laid-back cool to it with a wistfully nostalgic tone. The montage went full speed ahead in glorifying the art of the cook and turning it into a beautiful looking process. The yellow, blue and silver colors pop out and the music combined with the subtle use of slow-motion, the editing, and the ridiculously stunning effects work of close-up of chemical close-ups achieved one of the show’s best sequences to date. The dripping, the smoke, the translucence; all of it. I lost myself in this scene.

In the first half I will admit that two moments felt like a retread to me. Both are lines from Walt. The first is “Mike handles the business. And I handle him.” The second is “Why?” in response to Saul’s request that they take a vote on Walt’s idea. It was very easy to see both coming and I feel like we have already established these kinds of remarks out of Walt and that they did not really add anything to the proceedings. But they also did not take away, considering that character work is low on the priority list for the business-heavy first half.

The montage segues into the second half of the structurally succinct episode. What would an episode of “Breaking Bad” be at this point in the game without Walt blatantly manipulating Jesse? Nothing I say.

The Cruel Manipulation of Jesse Pinkman Continues:

The second half is all about the enormous chess game Walt is playing with everybody around him. The catch is that nobody else, except perhaps Mike, knows about this chess game. Walt continues to carefully maneuver those around him right where he wants them to be. He does it to Jesse here. He does it to Marie later. He does it to Skyler through the tale he spins for Marie. He has already done it to Saul. Again, Mike is the only one he cannot control.

What starts as a seemingly touching scene with the father/son dynamic that Jesse has always craved from Walt soon turns into something else. Everybody watching probably saw the turn the conversation takes coming. As they sit, drink beer and watch The Three Stooges in the temporary house/meth-lab, Walt expresses delight over Jesse’s relationship with Andrea. “And the way she looks at you…oh-ho.” Then he starts in on his ploy to get Andrea and Brock out of the picture while making it seem like Jesse’s ultimate decision. “Have you thought about what your plan is, vis a vis honesty?” I really truly hate you Walt. You are just the worst.

Basically Walt needs everyone else that would elicit loyalty from Jesse out of his life. Jesse cannot really have anything else going for him outside of Walt and the work they do. He proceeds by asking if Andrea knows anything. Jesse mutes the TV and immediately makes sure Walt knows without a doubt that he would never say anything to her, although she likely knows something is up (my favorite bit of acting from Aaron Paul in this episode). Walt then states that he has to decide how much Andrea knows, that “secrets create barriers”, and that he trusts that Jesse will make the right decision.

So basically, Walt implants this seed of uncertainty in Jesse. Walt knows that Jesse would not have the heart to tell anybody he loves what he has done. Let’s face it; Jesse’s committed some horrific crimes. So with that in mind, Walt is subtly saying, without actually saying, that nobody will ever accept Jesse as he truly is because “everything you’ve done is a part of you”. And he throws in an “everything we’ve been through, the two of us” in there for good measure.

What I love about Walt’s manipulations is the way he uses truth to create a lie. He uses truth to manipulate and in some ways, theses manipulations are the only time his human side comes out. It’s evil in one way and yet, at least a little of how much he reveals to others in service of manipulation feels genuine. This comes up again when Walt throws Skyler under the bus in order to save face with Marie.

Skyler and Marie:

Clearly Skyler is starting to crack in some big ways. If anyone could instigate a mental breakdown of sorts it would probably be Marie (in her first appearance this season). Anna Gunn was marvelous here. We are moving through the stages of trauma with her and I feel like something has to give very soon. We have gone from a catatonic kind of depression and paralyzing fear to frightening outbursts. Pretty soon I am assuming we will move to the next stage where Skyler will break out of this enough to see that something has to be done to, in her words, “protect the family from the person who protects his family”.

Walt plays selective truth-telling to Marie in a scene that goes down exactly as Walt would want it to. Marie’s presence forces Walt to think on his feet. While her immediate insistence is a challenge, Walt very easily slides into storytelling mode in yet another cruel masterstroke. He allows himself to be a cuckold and plays the victim by painting a picture of Skyler as the two-timing wife of a cancer-ridden husband. Yes, Skyler cheated on Walt. And yes, part of Skyler’s depression is induced by the harm she caused Ted. But it makes Skyler seem like somewhat of a villain to her sister, and it also paints a picture of Skyler that she has no control over. This harks back to Skyler’s gambling backstory that she simultaneously sprung on Walt and Marie, and seems like a dose of payback for that as well.

In a moment that registers as particularly callous coming from Walt, when Marie leaves, instead of checking up on his wife, he struts over to the kitchen table and takes a very self-satisfied bite out of an apple. It is a minute moment but it permeates with a passive maliciousness that counteracts the grander moments of Walt’s heartless persona.

The Scarface scene at first seemed a bit too on-the-nose for me, given how many times Vince Gilligan uses the “Mr. Chips to Scarface” line. But the way it unfolded and stayed so insistently in Skyler’s point-of-view made it work. There was something nightmarish and surreal about it. She cannot get away from her mindset to the point where she is living in her own personal hell. The “everybody dies in this movie, don’t they” line that happens off-screen is like the cherry on top.

Walt and Mike Have Their First Dispute (aka well that didn’t take long, did it?):

To reiterate, Mike is under more pressure than anybody else on this show right now, by a long shot. That he is working with Walt should make that evident enough. But he’s got every single person on the payroll to worry about, the business end of the partnership to deal with and his new corroborations with Walt and Lydia, who each present their own set of problems. This coupled with the fact that Mike is now the only character on this show willing to cross Walt makes him a major player we root for, but also a major character we have to most immediately worry about.

As Walt and Jesse watch their cuts dwindle away, Walt has his first breaking point as he witnesses just how much money is taken away when Mike is the one conducting business. The legacy cost is what does the trick. That Walt cannot see why taking a major pay cut for the hazard money is the right call is downright imbecilic. I get that the blunt visual of your money being taken away for others who do not even work for you might be upsetting, but Walt’s increasing inability to look at the big picture is very quickly getting out of hand. He sees himself on Gus’ level, not least because he was able to take him out. But he is not on Gus’ level. Walt has no experience and yet he expects to be hauling ridiculous amounts of money from the get-go and conveniently ignores how many other people are necessary in order for him to continue cooking meth. I love that Mike reminds him of this when Walt asks him how much Gus paid his mules. “Gustavo Fring didn’t use mules. He didn’t need them. He spent 20 years building his own distribution network.”

Walt is very quickly starting to see Mike as a nuisance. They are already butting heads. Most of their money is going towards paying off other people he doesn’t know. To Walt, it is becoming increasingly clear that Mike really isn’t worth all this. The catch is that, yes, Mike is indeed worth all this but Walt cannot see it.

In these Walt/Mike scenes, the editors do a consistently great job in strategically cutting to Jesse, the awkward middle man in all of this. The cuts of just Walt, just Mike, just Jesse and of Walt and Mike with Jesse lingering in the background are always immaculately juggled. Jesse tries to alleviate the situation by emphatically offering up his money. Walt declines and tells Mike to take the share. By the end of the episode Walt is already to the point of rethinking his partnership with Mike and I would assume that Mike knows Walt will likely pull something in the future because he is not stupid.

The last scene is a particularly complex one (in a show chockfull of complex scenes) and features a new interpretation of a major event by Walt that I do not quite buy. Whether I am supposed to buy it or not does not really matter, because this is delusional Walt we are talking about. We learn that Jesse broke it off with Andrea, which is too depressing for me to entirely process right now. “Instant family” indeed. And then we get the sucker punch of Walt not giving a shit and interrupting Jesse mid-sentence. “I meant this—how are you feeling about the money”. Jesse is looking at it the smart way. It may look like less money, but in reality they are clearing a bigger piece of the pie in addition to being owners and not employees.

Not good enough for Walt though. He’s been thinking about Victor and now thinks that perhaps Gus killed Victor not only to teach them a lesson but because he cooked the batch on his own; taking liberties he was not supposed to take. “Maybe he flew too close to the sun; got his throat cut”. We then cut to Jesse, whose face pretty much mirrored my own at that point, a face of immense confusion, concern and fear. The eyebrow crunching was in full effect from both  Jesse and myself and likely many other fellow viewers.

Walt walks away and we are left with Jesse looking on with astonishment. With each passing episode even though he continues to not realize that Walt manipulates him constantly, he is beginning to see that being this inextricably tied to Walt may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Jesse’s loyalty to Mike will be a problem if Walt wants to do try and remove Mike from the partnership. It will be very interesting to see how that plays out.

I have written way more than I planned on. Next week is “Fifty-One”, an episode that not only marks the one year point from where the show started in its pilot, but marks the halfway point between the pilot and the cold open in the season premiere. Rian Johnson, director of Brick, the upcoming Looper and “Fly”, arguably this show’s best episode, directs next week. It looks like Heisenberg is back. I cannot wait.

Please feel free to comment on your thoughts of “Hazard Pay”. I would love to hear what fellow fans thought of the episode!

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.



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.

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.

Reintroduction #1: Persona (1966, Bergman)

Reintroduction #1: Persona:

In recent days, I have made an important and permanent decision regarding my viewing habits. My constant drive to expose myself to new films has shifted into a more balanced determination to revisit films I have only seen once or twice. I recall little from many of these films. Many I consider favorites and yet have seen a measly single time in my teenage years. I never denied the importance of getting to know a film beyond an introductory how-do-you-do get-together. But my priorities always lay with a greedy desire to taste things I hadn’t before. My tastes have changed quite a bit between my fourteenth and twenty-fourth year and films I did not like, liked but did not love or loved very much must be revisited. No; it goes backwards, past revisiting, past re-familiarizing. I speak of basic reintroductions. And while a lot of these films are essential canon works and have been deconstructed to their limits, every once in a while I would like to jot down some thoughts on a few of these re-watches (let’s officially call them ‘Reintroductions’ when it fits), as well as keep track for any readers which Reintroduction films, whether I write about them or not, I have been spending time with.

So far this year I have re-seen: Grand Illusion, The Rules of the Game, Ugetsu, Rashomon, The Night of the Hunter, Three on a Match, Alien, The Navigator and Persona.

Persona is a difficult film to write about. First, because its initial elusiveness has made it that much more a target for analysis. Second, because at its core it is an intuitive poetic experience that almost defies words. At a certain point, despite all discourse being entirely justified, it scrapes away at the film’s core profundity.

The first thing I thought after the film was over was that, to a considerable degree, it makes all the praise I heap onto other films seem like overblown hyperbole by comparison. Persona is the rare film that can never wear out its welcome. Each viewing seems like it would be a slightly, and maybe even radically, different journey for the viewer. A rejuvenating quality amidst its construction makes room for viewers to inscribe individual meaning, to interpret freely and to bask in its black-and-white bliss.

Time, memory, and a sense of self slipped away from me in considerable chunks during Persona. This is not something that often, or ever, happens.

There may never be a more striking or memorable use of black-and-white. The great Sven Nykvist forms a union with the film’s other qualities. The minimalist sets and costumes, the beach that surrounds the seaside cottage, the postmodern narrative and formal techniques, and the dependence on Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullman’s faces. These all come together through Nykvist. Stark yet sensuous and uncomfortably honest, he creates a majestic palette where basic truths may be questioned.

What do we know of the two central characters? Alma is a nurse, looking towards marriage and kids with a ‘preordained’ acceptance. She is increasingly unable to reconcile her perceptions with her actions, which Elizabet points out in her letter. Elizabet’s presence is causing her to fall apart at the seams. Her identity and self-understanding cannot handle the scrutiny of Elizabet’s silence, judgment and questionable sincerity.

Elizabet is an actress who has chosen silence as her form of expression. She rejects the roles of wife, mother and actress, reducing the fact of her life to an invigorating simplicity. She did not want her child and is assumedly hyper-aware of the part she plays towards him. Where is the line between being an actress in work and in life? She spends her time studying Alma and she has trouble coping with catastrophe in the world.

Based on only a second viewing and some reading about the film, some questions that Persona seems to raise come to the forefront. What is real when it comes to the individual sense of self and the cinematic medium? In life, can we stay true to ourselves? Is it possible to retain authentic identity despite the constant self-betrayals daily life perpetuates? Can you truly reconcile this and how do we do so? Do responsibilities define us? Can you get at truth within a medium, or any medium for that matter, when it is all construct? That Persona also grapples heavily with female identity, an issue that almost fifty years later is grossly underexplored, only adds to the film’s treasures.

There is so much more. Who knows what I will see and feel the next time I watch it? Some of those questions may not make themselves known and new ones will sprout up. Maybe there is a possible answer or two to be found. Maybe a clearer interpretation of the narrative will gel. Maybe an understanding to the rhyme and reason with which Bergman uncharacteristically pushes and plays around with the form itself.

Most essentially I look forward to the fresh and previously unformed gut feelings and new experiences to be had. As I said before, at a certain point all dissection must be let go in order for this film to be simply felt.

And then there is the act of losing oneself in the expressions of Bibi Andersson and especially Liv Ullman, whose face here is elevated to the honorary position of being its own medium. Both lead performances are raw, vital and erotically charged. But Ullman is a work of art within a larger work of art. Like said larger work, Ullman is tantalizing and impenetrable, but only up to a point, otherwise she and the film would be distancing where the opposite is in fact true.

To conclude my thoughts with the somewhat obvious and unoriginal statement; Persona is an endlessly mesmerizing and challenging masterpiece. As I go through life, I have a feeling that few films will end up meaning more to me than this one.

Edit: After watching it a third time, Persona has made its way into my all-time top ten favorite films.

Review: This Is Not a Film (2012, Panahi & Mirtahmasb)

Posted on CriterionCast May 13th, 2012

I am unreservedly ashamed to admit I have never seen a Jafar Panahi film. The seminal Iranian filmmaker, whose work which includes Crimson Gold, The Circle and Offside, is familiar to me in name only. But you do not have to have seen anything by Panahi to feel the staggering act of defiance that this non-film represents.

It also serves as a treatise on the stifling state of Iranian cinema where talent is certainly in abundance (case in point; A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Foreign Language Oscar). The Culture Ministry’s recent decision to disband the House of Cinema, the only domestic independent film organization, has been a critical obstruction to the already censorship-ridden national cinema. Painstakingly constructed subversiveness is no longer an option for Jafar Panahi. The 51-year old Iranian filmmaker has been handed a 6-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, leaving the country or giving press interviews of any kind.

This Is Not a Film, shot by Panahi’s documentarian friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, seemingly takes place over one day, although it was shot and edited over ten days. Panahi and Mirtahmasb clearly have some idea of what they wanted to be contained within, although how much of that was discussed we do not know.

The finished self-described ‘effort’ shows Mirtahmasb coming over to film Panahi, who is under house arrest and has been waiting for the verdict from the court appeal of his sentence. Mirtahmasb expresses how important it is to document Panahi’s struggle. Mirtahmasb’s presence slyly exonerates Panahi from formally directing. If he is merely in front of the camera, in his natural state, he is breaking none of the bans placed on him.

There is a structure to This Is Not a Film. We start with Panahi and the camera, which Mirtahmasb left with him and told him to keep on. He eats his breakfast seeming somewhat awkwardly aware of the camera’s presence. He speaks with his lawyer on the phone. Then Mirtahmasb comes over. Neither knows what the end goal of this ban-dodging experiment is or should be. This uncertainty is what lends the non-film its structure.

Panahi’s thought-process launches an intellectual and emotional journey beset with rumination. He spends much of the film working through his recent rejected screenplay, trying his best, with descriptive mise-en-scene and masking tape, to paint any semblance of the picture he meant to one day create. To see this is to see an artist at work; it is heartbreaking to witness the man’s crystal-clear filmic map merely described, and his and our simultaneous understanding that it will never come to life.

Describing the story and its blocking does bring it to a sort of half-life in this film, and its seemingly meek half-existence is a courageous statement within the larger courageous statement that is this ‘film’. Panahi eventually stops, overcome by the apparent pointlessness of trying to create something in an unnatural fashion. He goes through clips of a couple of his previous films, frustrated by what actual production brings and what he no longer can do through paltry reenactments. He wistfully speaks of the unpredictable nature of working with actors, how the act of filming captures something that cannot be planned, blocked or staged. Showing clips from his previous films incorporate his works into a new artistic context, and is another way Panahi exercises as much control as he can over a situation he has no control of.

We see Panahi taking pictures and videos with his iPhone (because surely he can make use of the phone’s video features), on the day of Fireworks Wednesday, signifying the Persian New Year’s. He ponders aloud, goes online where most websites are restricted, watches the news, and looks outside. A neighbor comes by and asks him to temporarily watch her yelping dog Micky. His companion throughout is his pet iguana Igi who languidly slurps around.

There is constant fascination by the film’s very existence and its contents. At times it became surreal that I was actually sitting in a theater and seeing this complete with trailers and ads. Hell, there was even a spot for the new ABC Family show “Bunheads” before the film started. That this made its way into a theater that was accessible to me and everyone in the surrounding area goes beyond words.

Throughout, the sense of restlessness that we can only imagine he experiences minute-by-minute is forced upon us. There is also a simultaneous transmission of suffocation. We cannot imagine what he is going through, but this effort gives us a sad and bitter taste of his claustrophobic experience. Is it a coincidence that Buried, the story of a man helplessly and powerlessly encased in the ground, is the most visible DVD on display?

The immediate affinity that we feel for Panahi somehow heightens this already heartbreaking human rights issue. He comes off as kind, mild, realistic and emotionally beaten down by his circumstances (though this work’s existence proves him as anything but). We immediately care for him, beyond the empathy inherent in the situation.

The spontaneous final scene and image is something to behold.  I will let you discover it on your own.

There is so much to think about and unpack in This Is Not a Film, and hopefully these initial thoughts do some basic pondering. This may be the last participating effort from a director whose voice has been irrevocably muffled. It represents the concrete fact of creative expression being snuffed out. To say this film should be seen is an understatement; it must be seen. This statement has been made many times in relation to this film but I make it again; if you care about cinema, about the right we have to tell stories and why we tell them, and about human rights, you must seek out This Is Not a Film.