Monday, September 30, 2013

My crazy interpretation of what happened in the series finale of "Breaking Bad" (spoilers, obviously)

Endless speculation on the final episodes of Breaking Bad, particularly "Felina," is simply addicting. And now, I'm going to add fuel to the fire with what might be the most ridiculous interpretation of what happened in the final episode and a half. I have to do this, I'm sorry. The idea popped in my head, it kept growing, and now it must come out. Basically what I'm trying to say... take this interpretation with a grain of salt.

Spoilers ahead, obviously.

Walter White died in New Hampshire. Ed (Robert Forster) drove him up to New Hampshire with a completely different identity and Walt stayed up there for god knows how long. Months. The nearest town was eight miles away. An eight mile walk can take up to, approximately three hours. In the snow? Perhaps much longer. Needless to say, it's quite the hike. A non-stop drive from northern New Hampshire to Albequerque, New Mexico would take upwards of 33 hours. Again, that's not including snow or traffic conditions. There's simply no way Walt could've driven to Albquerque without stopping a few times along the way. He had to get some sleep at some point. Where would he go? To a motel? Sleep in the car?

Point being, we don't see that in between part. We don't see how Walt escapes the police in New Hampshire. We don't see what his drive from NH to New Mexico is like. Obviously, Vince Gilligan wouldn't want to bore us with the details, but considering his emaciated, sickly condition, you would have to imagine that Walt's trip wouldn't be such smooth sailing. Ed told him, repeatedly, do not go out in public. You will get caught. Walt chooses to disobey. And, somehow, manages to never get caught in the process. Not during the trip to New Mexico, and not while he's in Alberquerque. Now, of course, Walt's look has changed quite a bit, but not that much. Shouldn't he have been recognized by an authority figure at least once? We'll get to that a little later...

Let's stay at the bar. The first thing Walt does when he gets to the bar is talk to Walt Jr. He tells Flynn that he has a package that he's going to send to him via Flynn's friend Louis. He's gonna send him a box with $100,000 inside. Walt Jr., as we all know, tells him to "just die already."

Walter White has already died though. And it is of my belief that none of the events, starting from the bar, actually took place. Obviously, Walter White would never want to die alone in a cabin in New Hampshire. So what does he do? He constructs this fantasy, this neatly-wrapped version of events with him as his alter-ego, Heisenberg. See, we all knew Walter White as this brilliant mastermind, a tactician, whose plans always have unintended consequences. That's what made the show so powerful and thrilling to watch. But of course, in Walt's ideal world, his Heisenberg character would be that same brilliant tactician, except everything would go according to plan with no repercussions.

Walt wanted to get back at the Nazis, he wanted to settle the score. He wanted to do it for himself. As Heisenberg, he is doing it all for himself. Why? Because it makes him feel good, it makes him feel alive. The only way that he can allow himself to go back to New Mexico and settle the score is to have the innate knowledge that he can't do it for his family. No. Instead, he's doing this for himself. He's doing it for his soul. And at that last moment, in the final scene of the show, when he's gazing up to the ceiling, having dropped to his death (a self-inflicted gunshot wound), finally his soul is able to leave his body and make peace. He gets to die the way he wants to die, being able to own that Heisenberg legacy. But Heisenberg cannot be real. There is no Heisenberg. There never was. "Heisenberg" is a myth Walter White created, and in his mind, as he lays dying, he's able to live out this glorified fantasy before his soul can officially leave earth.

After he got off the phone with Walt Jr. in the bar, Walt calls the DEA. Then Walt sits at the bar, ordering a drink, watching TV when it just so happens that Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz are on Charlie Rose. We haven't see these characters for quite some time. Yet, here they are, talking to Charlie Rose. The very moment Walter asks the bartender to leave it on, Rose is in mid-conversation with the Schwartzes about Walter White. Walter White/Heisenberg uses the Schwartzes as a tool in which he can finally give Walt Jr., and the rest of his family, his money. The Schwartzes were literally the only option he had left and they just so happened to have appeared on Charlie Rose, the exact moment after Walter White had that conversation with Walt Jr. and tipped the DEA to his location. Convenient? Yes, very much so, indeed.

Skip to New Mexico, as Vince Gilligan does. Walter White is somehow able to pose as a reporter, getting the New York Times on the phone, tracking down the Schwartzes. When Elliott and Gretchen arrive at their place, Walt is already there. Their house is typically gorgeous. "Nice place you have here." This mansion could represent the kind of place Walter White envisions the Schwartzes would be living in. Isn't it a little weird that they live at this new place? Does it really exist or is it Walt's fantasized construction of where the Schwartzes would be living?

But, moreover, the biggest thing we all have a tough time getting over is how Walt is able to already be in these places, going unnoticed. Whether it'd be at the Schwartzes, Skyler's place, or the cafe where Lydia and Todd meet. Walt's already there, like a ghost. And each time, he's able to coldly confront them as Heisenberg. He's able to win one over with the Schwartzes, he's able to make amends with Skyler, and he finally has a reason to use his ricin. Everything goes exactly according to plan, the exact way Heisenberg imagines it.

By the time we reach the compound where the neo-Nazis are, Heisenberg has constructed an elaborate machine gun apparatus inside the trunk of his car. He strategically parks his car where he will use this device. He manages to get all the members of the gang within aim of machine gun. He manipulates them into bringing Jesse out. He dives at Jesse, the machine gun goes off, and Heisenberg manages to protect his surrogate son whilst killing all of the gang members and, eventually, himself. He's a hero. Jesse's able to have his revenge on Todd, and when it's time to settle the score with Walt, he ultimately decides not to kill him. Even though, Walt gives him the opportunity to do so. In Heisenberg's world, he's able to settle things with his family and with his partner Jesse. Some people have commented that Walt dying by his own bullet was the one flaw in his plan, I disagree. What better way for him to die than to be saving Jesse whilst dying? He's able to save his partner, someone he really did care about. He treated him like such shit and yet, here he is, saving the man's life. Sacrificing himself for his surrogate son. He's able to live just long enough to watch him ride off, alive and well, while being able to die in a meth lab, where his legacy will forever live on. Convenient? Oh yes. You're goddamn right.

"Felina" isn't really just about redemption, it's about the culmination of the evolution of Walter White. For 62 episodes, we've watched him go from the meek Chemistry teacher to the "brilliant mastermind" that is Heisenberg. "Felina" is the end of his transformation, it's who he was supposed to become all this time. Is it completely fantastical? Yes, yes it is. Because, in reality, Heisenberg could never actually exist. Even the Gus Frings of the world couldn't be as elusive as this Heisenberg character, and Gus Fring took down an entire Mexican cartel. I think this episode was a complete fantasy, and it starts in the previous episode with Walter in the bar. This transformation needed to happen. The real, true story ends with Walter decaying in a New Hampshire cabin. The final episode and a half is Walter White/Heisenberg being able to completely absolve himself so his soul can finally rest easy. This show was always about Walter White, it was always about the transformation. It needed to happen. He needed to go out this way. He needed to own up to this mythical figure he so desperately wanted to become. By the end his name is all he had left.

Walter's fantasy isn't the only thing that occurs during "Felina." In the episode, we see Jesse Pinkman at peace, woodworking, only to be woken up to a cold reality: him being trapped, forced to cook meth as a slave. For Walter? We already know his cold reality: it's him being trapped in New Hampshire, forced to have his cancer wither him away. The rest of the episode is Walter's fantasy.

And that's my ridiculous interpretation of "Felina," the final episode of Breaking Bad. I can enjoy "Felina" at face value, I thought it was a great conclusion to an amazing series. But I have a sneaking suspicion that all those elements in the episode that felt "convenient" were by design. Ultimately, I think the final episode is Walter White in pure fantasy mode. I don't think he ever truly got his comeuppance. I don't think Vince Gilligan would be so careless. The entire episode has a weird dreamlike feeling to it. Even those flash forward teasers we saw in the other season 5 episodes felt off from "the reality"of the show. I don't think they were ever real. I think they're all in the mind of Walter White.

Feel free to completely tear down this interpretation below. Thanks for reading.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Don Jon" review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt has to be one of the most likable actors out there today. In interviews, he comes off as sweet, funny, affable, charming. We all pretty much know him or know of him. He's been around for a long time, yet he's only 32. So, naturally, his directorial debut comes with great interest. He's worked with a lot of interesting directors, his film has a promising premise with an interesting point of view. After being such a likable actor for almost twenty years, could "Don Jon" be the start of a great directorial career?  The answer is... sort of.

Originally called "Don Jon's Addiction," "Don Jon" is all about its title character. He's in every scene. For 90 minutes, you are inside the mind of this muscle-bound, porn-obsessed guido from Jersey and Gordon-Levitt straddles the fine line between playful satire and flat out mocking Italian-American/Jersey culture. I was surprised by this. Why choose this particular character with these particular traits? Thing is, his characterization of Don Jon is perfectly fine. He's an interesting dude. He likes his bros, likes going home with girls at the club, likes to keep his apartment clean, often eats dinner with his family, goes to church, lifts weights at the gym, has road rage. JGL does a great job of making Don Jon feel like a real character. I just wish he paid as much attention to his supporting cast.

The one thing Don Jon loves more than anything else in the world is his porn. He gets more out of it than he does with sex, though his libido is strong enough that his porn addiction does not affect his sex life. When the beautiful Barbara Sugarman (Scarlett Johansson) enters his life, however, and they begin having a serious relationship, Don Jon must make a choice. His porn or his girl. Barbara makes it clear where she stands, she's not having it. He tries having it both ways. After all, what guy doesn't watch porn? Why can't she understand that?

Barbara doesn't want Don Jon to simply give up watching porn. She wants him to go to night school, wants to meet his family, wants him to have a housekeeper, etc. Basically, she wants him to change his entire life for her. He tries. Unfortunately, it's not enough.... he just cannot stop watching porn. And he's apparently not figured out how to clear his browser history... in the year 2013.

Aside from being introduced to his parents (played by Glenne Headly and Tony Danza) and his friends, the other character of interest in 'Don Jon' is Esther (Julianne Moore). This is where the film starts to lose its edge with me. She enters his life rather crudely, as they wind up in the same night school class together. She catches him watching porn on his phone, tries striking up convo, tries to make friends, but Jon's not really having it. Tonally, her character seems off with the rest of the film. She tries to help Jon and eventually they wind up becoming friends, and something more, but something feels off about her character. We get only a hint of what her backstory is and, even then, it doesn't seem to tell the whole story. Her character seems sad, broken, desperate to make friends, and their relationship doesn't come across as being all that healthy.

Julianne Moore's presence in any film is more than welcome, she's a wonderful actress. I just wish there was more to her character than what we wind up getting. Especially considering where the film winds up at the end, their relationship just doesn't feel earned. It feels under-explored, underdeveloped, and the movie rushes to finish line without giving us more insight. The movie ends almost too abruptly. The film's brisk running time is nice, it leaves us wanting more. But, it also ends on a weird note. The last five minutes of the film feels cut from a different cloth than the rest of the film and it's a shame because things could have gone so much better. There were so many directions JGL could've gone after the midway point of the film, I'm just sad he didn't go all the way.

That said, "Don Jon" is often very charming, insightful, and occasionally very funny. It's clear that JGL has something to say with the way our culture and our society sexualizes everything. There's just a few too many problems, tonally and from a story standpoint, that keeps the film from being a success. It's an interesting debut, but I wish Joseph Gordon-Levitt would've shone the light on his colorful supporting cast instead of focusing the story mostly on him. And, most important of all, the film doesn't really have an ending. There was a nice build-up, but no money shot. Don Jon would've been disappointed.

Grade: C+

Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Prisoners" review

In "Prisoners," mazes are a common motif throughout. Each character has to go through their own personal, seemingly endless maze to find the answers they're looking for. And when they're not actively crawling their own way out of their maze, they find themselves trapped in confinement. There are the characters who are literally imprisoned: Annie and Joy, two young girls abducted, drugged, and held against their will. Alex (Paul Dano), believed to be the main suspect in their abduction case, winds up being held captive as well, by Annie's father, Keller (Hugh Jackman). Figuratively, Keller is in his own prison as well. Sure, he has a degree of free will, but as long as his daughter is missing, his mindset is stuck in a prison it cannot get out of. He cannot shake the idea that Alex doesn't know where the girls are. He's willing to do what it takes to find his daughter, even if it means playing the role of abductor himself.

For Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), he's not necessarily imprisoned, mentally or physically, but in a way he is through his work. Loki is utterly dedicated in helping to find Annie and Joy and his search for the two girls leads him to some very strange places. He's been tasked to solve this endless maze for which there seems to be no solution for. Everytime his case takes one step forward, he winds up taking two steps back.

Watching "Prisoners," you find yourself caught in an endless maze too. The 153-minute running time only helps to compound that idea. There have been many similar crime/thrillers made about child abduction, but few manage to pull it off as well as this film does. What the film lacks in the way of character, it more than makes up for in plot detail. "Prisoners" never fails to be compelling. While the detective's search for Annie and Joy may lead to countless dead ends, the film has a very steady, confident flow. Director Denis Villenueve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski never give a sense of "making things up as they go along." No. Everything here feels deliberate. Whether it's the details the filmmakers choose to give us, or the ones they withhold from us (like, the POV shot from inside the RV at the beginning of the film). The film is Hitchcockian in the way it knowingly keeps details from the audience, and it's that devilish sense of storytelling confidence that makes "Prisoners" such an enjoyable, albeit intense, watch.

To go any further in terms of talking about the plot would be to ruin the film for you. The film still works whether key plot details are spoiled or not, but man, it's really fun to let the film unfold for you. The less you know going into the film, the better. My main complaint with the film is that I feel things wrap up almost too neatly. It's a little too convenient that Detective Loki manages to get as far as he does in solving this case, and even with the film's slightly open-ended ending, you still feel as if there's not a stone unturned in this film.

Of course, in a way, that's an unfair criticism. But compare "Prisoners" to David Fincher's "Zodiac" and you'll find out why "Prisoners" is merely a very good thriller instead of a classic (which is what "Zodiac" is). The film is so stuck in "plot unspooling" mode that there are times where you wish you got more in the way of character. This is a two and a half hour movie, after all. At the end, we barely know who Detective Loki really is. But more than that, we spend so much time with Hugh Jackman's character as he beats the living shit out of Paul Dano, that we never really get to spend much time with the rest of his family or the family of the other daughter that's been abducted (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis).

That said, Hugh Jackman gives a very strong and emotionally complex performance. Jake Gyllenhaal is solid as usual as the headstrong detective. Everyone else, especially Paul Dano and Melissa Leo, are great as well. "Prisoners" is one hell of a film to watch as you watch things unfold the first time. It's a film that keeps you guessing until the very end. The film's a rarity in that it's a two and a half hour long thriller/police procedural that almost relies solely on plot. A lesser film would've completely derailed itself after the one hour mark, but "Prisoners" is an intense, and at times, brutal film that always manages to get by despite its shortcomings.

Grade: B+

Saturday, September 14, 2013

The Spectacular Now review

Films like The Spectacular Now do not get made often these days. The teen romance/drama genre is a very tricky thing to nail and takes a lot of special attention and care. It's easy to resort to cheap jokes or cliches, but The Spectacular Now does a pretty good job of avoiding all the usual cliches that typically belie films such as these. The film has its set of problems and there's a few missing elements to it that keeps it from being great, but let's face it, a good teen romantic/drama is a rare find these days and The Spectacular Now deserves credit for being just that.

Miles Teller stars as Sutter, a high school senior who's trying to get over a bad breakup. Shailene Woodley plays Aimee Finecky, a smart "good girl" who hasn't had a serious relationship before. Sutter will be her first. Sutter struggles with the idea of moving forward beyond high school. He frequents the high school parties, has developed a bit of a drinking problem, and is obsessed with living in the "now" instead of planning for his future. He comes across Aimee, perhaps, at the right time. Sutter finds himself falling for Aimee without really understanding why, something I'm sure some of us can relate to.

The film is at its best when it explores this relationship. The film moves at a nice, calm pace which makes this relationship feel more natural, realistic. And it's just rare to see a teenage relationship approached with such maturity. The filmmakers really seem to care about the evolution of Sutter and Aimee's relationship and it shows.

It's when the film delves into Sutter's rocky relationship with his father where things aren't quite as strong. Sutter has been living with his mother for a few years now, his father having left him when he was still a kid. Sutter hasn't been able to see his father for years which has been a point of contention between him and his mom. When he finally manages to find the man, he's disappointed in what he sees and fears that he'll grow up to be just like him.

The subplot ties into the overall story and arc of the character, thematically, but it doesn't really play out in a fresh or interesting manner. Plus, it winds up driving a wedge between Sutter and Aimee and leads to a climax that, tonally, feels off from the rest of the film. Then suddenly, this rift between Sutter and Aimee is left unexplored and it's as if the film made a conscious effort to be as light as possible. Overall, the conclusion to Aimee and Sutter's story just feels disappointing since, for the most part, it's handled so beautifully.

Still, this is a nice little film. While it's strongly reminiscent of Cameron Crowe's "Say Anything," it manages to have a voice of its own. At times, it can be too on-the-nose thematically and strains when it moves away from the romance between the two charming leads in favor of the more dramatic subplot, but overall, it makes for a very enjoyable watch. The Spectacular Now is not quite great, but it still has a lot to offer. Director James Ponsoldt deserves a lot of credit for what he manages to do with this script. He handles the material with such class and really elevates things with his confident direction. I just wish he, along with the writers, could have ended the film on a stronger, more powerful note.

Grade: B

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Butler review

 That "inspired by a true story" blurb on the poster. You see it? Take that seriously. There's a great story here about a White House butler who has served every president from Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, for over thirty years. He had his own family, a wife and a son. He grew up on a plantation, and worked his way to help serve the most important person in the world. Then, amazingly, he lived to see an African-American get elected into the white house twenty years later. That is a great story, for sure.

"Lee Daniels' The Butler" contains only a small chunk of this story, the rest is largely fictionalized for dramatic purposes. The strength of The Butler lies in the solid performance of Forest Whitaker and the restrained (for the most part) direction from Lee Daniels. There are times when he can't help but play up the more dramatic aspects of the film, but he actually did a very solid job. Many critics have noted a remarkable similarity between this film and Forrest Gump, and you know what, they are pretty damn similar.

The films starts out in 1926 on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Young Cecil Gaines helps pick cotton with his parents, but soon the plantation owner walks on over, grabbing Cecil's mother and raping her in the shed. Then, just because Cecil's father looked at him, the owner shoots him in the head. You can't help but feel bad for Cecil, of course, because those are two very traumatic events happening one right after the other. And guess what? They didn't actually happen. The man Cecil's based on, Eugene Allen, grew up on a plantation in Virginia and actually had fond memories of his childhood there.

We see Cecil break into someone's home because he's starving and he's looking for food. An elder butler catches him and soon takes a liking to him, giving him work. None of this really happened either.

Cecil eventually winds up working as a butler in a very fancy DC hotel and the professionalism of his work soon leads him to a job in the White House. By this time, Cecil has a wife and two kids. His youngest son, looks up to him, and winds up fighting in the Vietnam War (did happen). Sadly, the son winds up dying in Vietnam (didn't actually happen). He has an older son who looks down at his father's profession and winds up going to college, getting involved in numerous historical Civil Rights events. It's unbelievable what his eldest son goes through... probably because it never happened. Eugene Allen only had one son, a son who was never a Civil Rights activist nor did his son wind up working for Congress. None of it happened!

Nor did Eugene's wife wind up having a drinking problem due to Eugene being away all the time. Nor did Eugene's wife have an affair (that we know of) with her next door neighbor. Eugene's first day in the White House wasn't during the historical moment when Dwight D. Eisenhower made the decision to racially integrate a high school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Eugene was certainly there, but by that time, he had actually been working for the White House for five years! Eugene Allen began his job under the Truman administration not Eisenhower's.

There's also been talk about the inaccuracies of some of the policy decisions some of the presidents make throughout the film. There are actually so few similarities between Cecil Gaines and Eugene Allen that you wonder what makes the film special in the first place. Was Eugene's life too boring for the filmmakers? Did he not have enough interesting events happen in his own life? The film is framed in a way that strongly mimics "Forrest Gump" and it has all of the sentimental schlock to go with it. 

So many of the film's emotional moments simply feel hollow. Why say that the film is based on a true story in the beginning if you're going to fabricate nearly all of it? I can even forgive inventing the Civil Rights activist son in order to further delve into that territory of the time period, but does the son really need to be at every historical Civil Rights event? Can't we at least somewhat make it believable? Why does every aspect of Cecil Gaines's life have to feel so goddamned contrived? Instead of making his wife an alcoholic cheater, why not just focus more on his work in the White House? You know, the part of the story that's actually unique and interesting? Why invent so much bullshit about his personal life? Why kill his youngest son? Why do we have to feel so bad about this guy? Can't we just feel happy for him, that he has this job, that he's been there so long, that he's been a witness to all these events from inside the most famous residence in the country?

While, again, there are some solid performances here such as Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, Cuba Gooding Jr., etc... The film is also marred by the bizarre casting choices such as Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower and John Cusack as Richard Nixon. Or Liev Schreiber as Lyndon Johnson. Or James Marsden as JFK. Or Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan! Good lord! All of these actors appear in the film for, maybe, one or two scenes, thus making the scenes all about the actor playing the character instead of making it about the scene that's taking place. It's just distracting and it further de-legitimizes the film.

There is so much crammed into 132 minutes, so much unnecessary story details. We are given so much detail into this life of a man who didn't actually exist, why can't we just be told the true story? Why make it all up? The film's at its best when we're at the White House with Cecil, when he's interacting with his fellow butler friends or with the president. But at home? Because none of his home life is based on fact, it just feels like contrived overly-sentimental bullshit.

Here's the thing - I was duped. And perhaps I'm just bitter. I did not do my homework until after I saw the film and I just feel betrayed as a film-goer. Because the film covers one "big, emotional" event after another "big, emotional" event, over and over again, I thought all these events were grounded in the truth. 

When a film delves into genre territory, like a thriller or a horror film. Or if a film is made pretty clear that it's a dramatization of events, like with The Social Network, you can forgive liberties here and there. But "The Butler" is a straight up historical drama and it's presented as if it's a biopic. To have so much of Cecil's life not be based on fact, it just makes all the drama feel hollow and superficial. As it stands, this is the most superficial film I've seen in quite some time. It's Fool's gold. It's not even a movie, really, it's an experiment in making the most cliche, made-up Hollywood biopic of all-time.  There's no way I can recommend this film.

Grade: D