Awesome Moments at the Movies (#1)

fargo

Advertisements

Review: Captain Phillips

captain-phillips

For the most part of my life I have resisted Tom Hanks as an actor. I am not a fan of either of his Oscar-winning performances in Philadelphia and (especially) Forrest Gump. With time, I found the nuances of his work in Cast Away and discovered his earlier comedic work in Big and A League of Their Own. I’ve been slowly warming up to Hanks as an actor and the culmination of that growing appreciation seems to be his downright amazing performance in Captain Phillips. I would dare to say this is his very best performance and I’m not the only one saying that. In this movie, Hanks yet again plays an everyman trapped in a difficult situation. Captain Rich Phillips is piloting a commercial ship from Yemen to Mombasa when he is boarded by a band of Somali pirates. Throughout the film, Hanks does his usual, but immensely effective work of injecting personality and familiar charisma to a relatively shallow character (not that the film needs the character to be deeper, as a matter of fact, it’s probably a better movie for it). But it’s in the final moments of the story that Hanks shows one of the best single pieces of acting I’ve seen this year. It’s something we haven’t seen him do before in a scene that makes the film come together much better than I was expecting. The moment is so effective not only because we’re seeing such a big star as Hanks delve in an unprecedented level of vulnerability, but because he does it so flawlessly.

Hanks is by far my favorite part of the film, but the movie is not as much a showcase for his acting as it might seem from the promotional materials (or what I’ve just written). Director Paul Greengrass (United 93, The Bourne Ultimatum) and screenwriter Billy Ray (Shattered Glass) are interested in two protagonists. Our pirate leader is Muse, an incredibly skinny and pragmatic man. He is played by Barkhad Abdi, who downplays his lines in a way that works great with Greengrass’s docudrama style. He is also as much a lead in the film as Hanks. We don’t know all that much about the character’s lives beyond their roughest motivations. Captain Phillips’s is his family, Muse’s is his boss’ violent demands. The careful interaction between these two is the centerpiece of the film. It’s a survival story for both characters, as they keep trying to play each other in order to keep their lives. The two performances are essential for the movie to work, giving human energy to cool and methodic filmmaking. The result is the tensest thriller of the year.

However, similarly to the recently reviewed Gravity, the people behind Captain Phillips are not content with making an effective thriller. What Greengrass and Ray are really trying to tell is the story of two victims. One is the kidnapped captain, the other one is the man who is driven to piracy. This kind of approach is a tricky one to work with. Movies like Blood Diamond have failed miserably at it, feeling like condescending products of liberal guilt. There are a few lines in Captain Phillips, mostly spoken by Muse, that spell out the theme a little too bluntly, but unlike Gravity which used full scenes of terrible dialogue to make its theme clear, Captain Phillips only uses a couple lines and lets the visuals be the real punch to its theme. The most notable image of the movie comes once Phillips is being held captive in a lifeboat by the pirates. The U.S. navy is called into action. Three gigantic armored ships surround the little lifeboat, and still, there is little to nothing to be done. No matter how mighty the power, there’s no quick solution to this problem. The navy can destroy the lifeboat, blow those four pirates to pieces, but it can’t prevent thousands of men, still in Somalia, from having to turn to piracy.

I don’t consider it a spoiler to say that Tom Hanks survives the kidnapping (the movie is based on the real Captain Phillips’s memoir), but even if he is still alive, I consider this to be a very pessimistic film. There is a deep bleakness to Captain Phillips, and the notion that nobody wins in this kind of situation. The lives of the pirates who rob these ships won’t get better, neither will the possibilities for future cargo ships. There is a big question in the back of this great thriller and it is driven home with what ultimately happens to Muse and that last scene we get from Captain Phillips: An overwhelming scene that reflects the movie’s view on these problems.

Grade: 8/10

Stuck at Childhood: Mighty Morphin Power Rangers

22GENZLINGER_SPAN-articleLarge

In the “Stuck at Childhood” series, I’ll be taking a monthly look at the television shows that shaped my childhood. Let’s see what made them special, why they appealed to me and if they hold up as art or entertainment. 

When I came up with the idea for this series, I decided fairly early on that the first show I was going to cover, had to also be my earliest obssession. I don’t know if Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was, in fact, the first show I was a fan of, but chances are very much in its favor. I suppose you can have memories of when you were three years old, because I remember particular moments of a time when the world I lived in (composed mainly by kids) was absolutely obsessed with the Power Rangers. They were one of the biggest and most powerful marketing machines of the early nineties, with all kinds of merchandise going from toys to sheets (which I had) to walkie-talkies (which I had) and culminating in their own motion picture (which I obviously saw in the theater). Going back and re-watching some episodes of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers made it immediately clear that there was probably no more depressing option for the first installment of this series than this show. I know 3-year-olds are not the standard barrers of taste, but Power Rangers was an awful, awful show.

According to executive producer Shuki Levy, the idea for the show came to producer Haim Saban on a trip to Japan. As we have been recently reminded by Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, the Mecha vs. Kaiju genre has been a japanese favorite for a long time inspiring many manga, movies and television series. One of such series was Super Sentai, whose sixteenth installment (season) would end up being what we saw in Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Saban noticed how huge the show was in Japan and bought the rights hoping to spread the fever to the U.S. The original idea was to dub the Japanese show, but it was later decided to just keep the footage from the fighting sequences in which we saw the masked rangers and have an American show built around that.

There were a lot of difficulties in building a show based on pre-existing Japanese footage. The writers had to adhere heavily and quickly adapt to the Japanese story-lines as far all footage concerning fights and whatever scenes featuring the villains. I, of course, didn’t notice this as a child, but watching the show now it’s incredibly obvious whenever we jump from the American teenagers to a group of costumed fighting japanese men and only partially because many times such jumps include a radical change of location (the first episode, for example, doesn’t even bother give an explanation why the fight suddenly jumps from the desert to a city, except for the fact that you wouldn’t get the scale of a giant robot and a giant monster fighting each other otherwise). It’s also now obvious that the voice of chief villainess Rita Repulsa (played by Machiko Soga) was sloppily dubbed. And that the broad performances given by most villains have a characteristic Japanese style to them. However, this wasn’t going to be the hard part for the producers. Whatever worked in Japan was sure going to work in the United States. They had to focus on the original material.

I feel fairly safe saying that Mighty Morphin Power Rangers was a cash-grab. It wasn’t a work of art, it was a product. It should appeal to children and the original material created for the U.S. version reflects the desire to reach the widest possible demographic. Everything about it seems carefully calculated. We have a group of racially diverse teenagers who present a Breakfast-Club-like variety of high school archetypes (the jock, the nerd, the prom queen, etc.). They live in the small town of Angel Grove and hang out at a dojo/juice bar. That is until Zordon (a floating head supreme being) calls them up to turn into the Power Rangers and fight whatever monster evil Rita Repulsa has unleashed in order to conquer Earth. It was unfortunate (or too carefully calculated) that the yellow ranger was an asian and the black ranger an african america, but that was fixed in season two when ethnicities were traded between the two rangers.  

Watching “Day of the Dumpster” -the first ever episode of the show and the one that gives somewhat of a backstory on how these teenagers became Power Rangers even if the whole premise of the show was effectively presented each week in the intro- it’s apparent that there was little time and place for inspired work in the Power Rangers writing room. Building around the Japanese footage didn’t leave much time, and so, the motivations are never questioned or explained very deeply. Rita Repulsa, for example, is simply evil and wants to destroy Earth just because. This first episode also features the teens being initially doubtful about taking on the Ranger mission, but after they are forced to fight Rita’s main warrior Goldar, they just accept their role.

The archetypical characters were a quick way to not have to lose time to much characterization, but the writers might have taken it too far. The first episode makes a point of showing what’s each teen’s personality while still making it clear that these are all good kids and that jock Jason is going to help nerd Billy become good at karate. The acting is for the most part horrible. Not that the writing helped at all. The biggest. It is particularly sad that the absolutely worst lines go to Kimberly, the Pink Ranger, who is obviously the prom queen type and says stuff like “these outfits are super cool” and such other nonsense. It’s not just an offensive portrayal of femininity, but also a pity since Amy Jo Johnson, who played Kimberly, was far and away the best actress of the bunch* on account of how she was the only one to inject some kind of life or personality to her lines.

*A statement proved right by the fact that she’s the only one of the cast members that went on to have a somewhat successful career as an actress, getting a role in J.J. Abrams’ “Felicty” as well as in “The Division” and “Flashpoint”. 

Most every episode of Mighty Morphin Power Rangers followed the structure set up in “Day of the Dumpster”. The Rangers are doing something cool, then Rita suddenly sends an evil monster to earth. Sometimes, the monster sort of ties into whatever it is the Rangers are doing, but it’s important to emphasize the “sort of” part of that sentence, since these thematic tie-ins weren’t anywhere close to the way monsters reflect on the themes of, say,  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or to play on a fairer level, Sabrina the Teenage Witch. The Rangers would fight the monster (and Rita’s Putty Patrolers) and when they’re about to beat him, she would use her magic wand to make the monster grow into giant size. That’s when the Rangers would call their “Zords” (giant dinosaur robots) and combine them to form the “Megazord”. That would be the moment when two actors, one in a robot suit and one in a monster costume would fight it out on our television screens.

The simple plotting could have been enough to keep children glued to the screen for a while, but the people behind Power Rangers (and Super Sentai, for that matter) knew that they had to shake things up every now and then. This would not only keep audiences interested, but would be an opportunity to sell more toys. The first of such changes came in the five-part episode titled “Green with Evil”, in which Rita created her own evil Ranger. The Green Ranger, aka Tommy, being a classic saturday-morning-cartoon badass was an instant hit with young boys. I remember when I played Power Rangers with my friends, there was always going to be an infinite debate over who was going to be the Green Ranger. Like it happens to many popular villains in children’s action shows, the Green Ranger became a good guy, and not much time later, changed the green for white.

This change in colors coincided with the start of the second season, which began with the arrival of a bigger villain: Lord Zedd takes the place of Rita Repulsa and destroys the Ranger’s Zords. Now, this didn’t mean the end for the Power Rangers, but a new, more profitable beginning: they would get new Zords! (This charade was repeated at the start of the third season, after Zedd and Rita got married and, once again, destroyed the Ranger’s Zords). By this moment in time, the Rangers were at the to of their popularity. They were probably bigger in America (and around the world) than the Super Sentai had ever been in Japan. Lord Zedd, for example, was an original creation for the American cartoon, which still used Japanese footage for the battle sequences, but wanted to be able to script their villains. The next logical step for the Rangers was to have their own movie. And they did.

The movie ended up being a financial disappointment. The decline of the Power Rangers’s popularity had started. There was one last Mighty Morphin season. Ratings weren’t huge anymore, but along with the money made from merchandise, they were good enough for the show to keep going. Like the Super Sentai series, that worked in short installments that changed characters and robots, Amerca’s Power Rangers followed suit. There have been 20 seasons/versions of the Power Rangers, but none of them have been nearly as popular as the series’ first three years. I’ve actually watched some of the later seasons and think there were some interesting or at least entertaining (and technically better) stuff done.

I guess there is some campy fun to be had rewatching Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, but I don’t know if I could have made it through a single episode without my childhood nostalgia being a factor. I might revisit one of those latter seasons in the future. I also might take a look at the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Movie, which judging from what I can recall could be either surprisingly nuanced or incredibly hypocritical. Just don’t expect that to happen anytime soon, I think I’ve had enough Power Rangers for at least a few years.

Next Time: I’ll go the safe route and pick something that I know is good. It also features giant robots fighting monsters, but Dexter’s Laboratory is one of the best animated shows of the 90s.

Disney Canon: The Black Cauldron (1985)

the-black-cauldron-11

I was going to say The Black Cauldron is the most infamous film in the Disney Canon, but a most accurate statement would be to say it is the most non-famous film in the Canon. How many people that aren’t film or animation buffs know what The Black Cauldron is? When I first heard of of the movie, at age 9 or 10, I thought people were shitting me. Could there really be a Disney movie I wasn’t aware of? It seemed impossible, considering how I had been to Disney World and hadn’t seen a single clue of the existence of The Black Cauldron. It suddenly became apparent that one of the things in the Disney Canon was not like the others. For some reason, The Black Cauldron was an outlier.

From a small age I could tell there were some old and some newer movies that were beloved Disney classics; and that there were other, not as well loved films in between. But I couldn’t yet grasp the historical circumstances that led to The Black Cauldron being forgotten and the key place it holds in the history of animated feature films. The story of what happened with The Black Cauldron is one of my favorite behind-the-scenes Disney stories. And one that officially signals the first steps towards the “Disney Renaissance” and the animated movies that made me fall in love with Disney.

The quick way to explain what happened with The Black Cauldron is the following: Disney invested a lot of time and money in a project that didn’t work out. The film made 21 Million dollars at the box-office, and despite the official budget of the movie never being released, all signs point at the fact that making it cost much more than that. Some sources say it was one of the most expensive animated films produced up to that point (maybe even the most expensive) and the failure was a huge blow for Disney Animation, which was counting on it to bring back the glory days of yore. Its commercial failure, however, shouldn’t have been a huge surprise. At that point in time Disney was a company mainly known for the Theme Parks in California and Orlando. Nobody gave much attention to their animated films. They were an afterthought.

What the people behind The Black Cauldron set out to do was, pretty much, to change that perception. They wanted to make a movie that would live up to the spirit of the older Disney Classics and something new and different that would capture the zeitgeist. Now, capturing the zeitgeist when making an animated movie, especially at the problematic pace Disney movies were developed at the time was not going to be an easy thing. The Black Cauldron, however, does kind of fits with the kind of fantasy and adventure movies that were popular in the mid-eighties. The source material for The Black Cauldron are the first two novels in the Chronicles of Prydain series by Lloyd Alexander. They mainly tell the story of young pigkeeper Taran, as he becomes a forceful warrior and fights the evil Horned King. The story is heavenly influenced by Irish mythology, but also, and most importantly, by the classic hero’s journey storyline that features enough similarities as to lure the teenage audience that made Star Wars into the biggest hit of the time (it even has a magical glowing sword!). The film also plays into the popularity of medieval fantasy and Dungeons and Dragons throughout the 1980s, but considering the film’s long production, it must have been a coincidence.

Needless to say, The Black Cauldron didn’t attract much of a teenage audience. It also alienated family audiences that were expecting traditional Disney product and were met with an epic story featuring violent dark magic and an army of zombies. It was the first Disney film to receive a PG rating. I guess Disney gambled on pursuing a bigger audience and not only didn’t get it, but alienated the one it already had in the process. What’s fascinating to me about the failure of The Black Cauldron is that from any financial and logical point of view, it should have meant the end of the Disney Animation Studios, but for some reason the men in charge of the company at that time: Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg, some of the most money-oriented executives in Hollywood decided to not only keep the animation department going, but make it successful again.

Maybe it was the fact that by the time Katzenberg arrived at Disney, he was already wiling to bring the animation department back to the top. Maybe it was the fact that the studio itself seemed to be willing to do the same. The Black Cauldron was so expensive to make because the animators were determined to make the first great Disney movie since Walt’s death. For starters, they developed a new animation system, the ATP process, to replace the cheap-looking xerography that dominated the movies Disney made in the past decades and was also the first animated feature since Sleeping Beauty to be shot using the Cinerama process. Sleeping Beauty is actually a good example of the kind of epic the studio was trying to recreate in the visual style of The Black Cauldron. Whether it did so is a point of debate, I, for one, think it failed. But more on that later.

The main problem with Black Cauldron all the way from the time of production was the story. The production was messy. many talented animators fleed the project when they had the chance. Like eventual Little Mermaid directors Ron Clements and John Musker, who went on to work on The Great Mouse Detective or a young man named Tim Burton, who left the studio in frustration. When Katzenberg arrived at Disney and saw the film, he decided to recut it eliminating entire scenes and some of the darker sequences. This is something that is usually not done in animation, especially after you’ve got the final cut of a film, since it would mean that the sound and score would jump or not sync-up properly. And so, when The Black Cauldron was released in theaters in the summer of 1985 (it was going to be released at Christmas 1984), the sound suddenly jumped whenever a scene had been cut. 

So, was the story of The Black Cauldron such a disaster? There’s no way of knowing what exactly Katzenberg saw before he cut the film (as far as I can tell, the complete cut has never been released), but what we get, although not exactly messy is far from compelling. As ambitious as the project might have been in the mind of the animators that worked on it, I can’t help but feel like the film is lacking anything truly inspiring .The closest thing to something truly memorable in the film is its villain: The Horned King (amusingly voiced by John Hurt). The design of the guy is appropriately terrifying and even though we do see him once earlier in the film, the scene in which Taran sees him for the first time is one really cool Darth Vader-like introduction (embed at around the 1:22 mark in the video below).

The Horned King, sadly, departs the film in a very muted and anticlimactic way. And none of the other characters have a similarly slick or particularly original design to them. Neither is the look of the film or the art direction memorable in any way, certainly nowhere near the beautiful medieval tapestries of Sleeping Beauty. Like I said above, even if the film cost millions and it doesn’t look exactly cheap, it does look very uninspired in almost every aspect of its design. Most characters are also animated in a weirdly chopping way (the best animated character is Hen Wen, a pig designed in the very traditionally Disney way). It would also take a couple more years until the cinematic style of something like Pinocchio would be regained in a Disney feature, with most of The Black Cauldron being staged in a way frustratingly similar to that of a saturday morning cartoon of the time. The best example of this, and perhaps the worst scene in the movie, comes when our heroes bump into a trio of witches that must be the absolute nadir of character design in Disney history (I tried to find the clip on Youtube, but couldn’t find one of good quality).

Going back to the story itself is also not much better. It’s true that the film follows the relatively effective hero’s journey structure, but that is not enough when the script around it is as bland and boring as this one. For something as different and dark, it is surely very boring to watch. Maybe it’s the fact that with the resurgence of fantasy adventure in the past decade I’ve grown overly familiar and merciless of the genre, but I can’t escape the fact that the most effective word to describe the story and characters in this movie is bland. Taran, our hero, is kind of a jerk and is really hard to root for him as our Luke Skywalker. The one character that shows true life, albeit briefly, is princess Eilonwy, who in her standing up to Taran and her role as a “girl” is a prototype for the great Disney heroines yet to come.

This must be the longest post in the Disney Canon series yet. If you’ve gotten this far and haven’t seen The Black Cauldron, then I would say it’s worth the watch just to see what exactly this movie is. There are not many people I know that would call this movie a creative success, but there are many that appreciate the effort. I really don’t care for the film. I can’t stand its generic look and the script doesn’t really help much. I had only seen the movie once when I was a kid and first heard of it. I wasn’t a fan of it then, finding it very boring. I was curious to see what I thought of it with this re-watch. I was ready to appreciate the daring movie that didn’t quite work. I don’t know if maybe I was overwhelmed by the history of the movie, but The Black Cauldron remains a big disappointment for me. And one of my least-favorite movies in the Disney Canon.

Next Time: One of the few Disney Canon entries I’ve actually never seen in full. The not very famous, but beloved, The Great Mouse Detective. 

Gravity (Review)

gravity

Director Alfonso Cuarón is one of the most interesting and respected filmmakers working today. Two of his previous films, Y Tú Mamá También and Children of Men, are two of the best films of the past decades. I would call both of them masterpieces, but I’m still not sure if someone can make more than one masterwork. That definition of the word “masterpiece” seemed like was going to become an even bigger problem with the arrival of Gravity, his first film in seven years. The film premiered at the Venice Film Festival and went to on to garner rave reviews from every place it played at. Critics and filmmakers were quick to praise the movie and call it a masterpiece. Now, it’s on theaters and the mere mortals like myself get to experience Cuarón’s 3D extravaganza, which somehow both does and does not live up to what was expected from the festival reaction.

The unquestionably great part about Gravity is the visuals. It’s almost impossible while watching the film to contemplate the idea that this has to have been shot on earth, using filmmaking and computer graphics to achieve the look and feel of floating around in space. While this is superbly done, it’s also not perfect. There are a few moments in which the CG imagery is apparent and considering the hyper realistic style Cuarón is going for, is weird to find moments in which the director makes us aware of the presence of a fourth wall, like when a couple of water drops crash against the camera. But those are just minor flaws that wouldn’t keep the film from being a masterpiece, which sadly, it is not.

In the long wait for Gravity, a lot of rumors arose surrounding what the movie was going to be about. I think a lot of people were awaiting a 2001-like space adventure with philosophical undertones. What Gravity really is, though, is a straight forward story about a woman trying to survive after a catastrophic accident in space. Sandra Bullock plays astronaut Ryan Stone, who is aided by another astronaut played by George Clooney in her quest for survival. The fact that the movie is essentially a thriller is not a disappointment, in fact, its best moments are those that build on the tension of whether or not Bullock will achieve the next task in her quest for survival. The experience of watching the best scenes in Gravity is exhilarating, some of the most thrilling filmmaking of the year is in display here. However, there are two big flaws that keep Gravity for being one of the year’s best movies.

First, Gravity is not content with being “just” a thriller, but it’s also not interested in going in finding the depths that a more intellectually substantial film would require. The first sign of this is when we get a very awkwardly scripted scene in which we get some of Bullock’s character backstory. A backstory that is groan-inducing in its unoriginality. We didn’t really need the movie to take a look at deeper philosophical questions and we especially didn’t need for Cuarón and his son Jonás (who co-wrote the script) to try and deepen the movie in such a half-assed way. And so it is that later, rght after one of the movie’s most poignant and visceral moment (without many spoilers, this is when Bullock’s character has a radio conversation aboard the russian spaceship), we get a terrible, terrible series of scenes plagued with dialogue as clunky as to have been written by James Cameron.

The second problem with Gravity is its use of sound. The movie opens with a title card that tells us there is no sound in space. And it is at its most thrilling when it follows this premise, letting us know how truly terrifying the idea of being trapped in a completely soundless vacuum is. Many other powerful moments, however, are undercut with an overbearing, frustratingly generic and loud score (one of the most tiring trend to come out of Christopher Nolan’s Inception). Not to mention how puzzling and nonsensical the decisions of what does and doesn’t get a sound effect is. Things randomly do or don’t make sound for no apparent reason. These two aspects become increasingly frustrating as the movie goes along, since it opens with a scene that promises an interesting approach to sound and a daring and original aural experience.

Despite the flaws, which are frustrating, the experience of watching the movie is quite something. I’m not a huge fan of 3D, but I’d say that the inflated prize in order to get the IMAX screen is worth it. I would say go watch Gravity and enjoy its thrills, just don’t expect it to be a transcendent experience; but the truth is that there is something incredibly frustrating and sad about the failures of this movie. Avatar, Hugo, Life of Pi and now Gravity have been movies praised for the work of their auteurs with the tools and visuals of 3D. And while they are technically impressive, they all lack in the screenplay department. I’m still waiting for the first great 3D movie to be made. And it seems like I’ll keep on waiting.

Grade: 6/10

If you haven’t heard enough about the ‘Breaking Bad’ finale (something that’s probably impossible)

breaking bad

I did not love the finale of Breaking Bad. Right after “Felina”, the last ever episode of the show aired on Sunday night, twitter was immediately filled with thousands of comments of people who thought it was the perfect finale to a perfect show. It would have been hopeless to have tried to start a conversation about what did and didn’t work in the finale then and there (Twitter is seldom the right place for that), but after five overall great seasons, this last episode has left a weirdly sour taste in my mouth. This is not to say that it has retroactively ruined the show for me. Most of the run of the show is fantastic. Not many series (if any) can build suspense and deliver emotional payoffs as well as Breaking Bad did at its best (which was in seasons 2 and 3, in my opinion). There have been so many amazing episodes of the show. Even if the show always felt to me a little too plot-driven instead of character-driven, the character development was mostly very good and the amazing performances delivered by the cast certainly helped.

In the context of all the anti-hero shows that rose to prominence with the success of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad felt like the perfect thematic culmination to this trend. By this point in time, anti-heroes are as original as cop shows. Recent shows that wanted to piggy-back on the formula, like Ray Donovan and Low Winter Sun were disastrous (and with good reason, both are terrible shows). Amongst this wave of lingering anti-heroes, Walter White seemed like the perfect response for finally putting a cap on this genre. Unlike with Tony Soprano, Vic Mackie or Dexter Morgan; creator Vince Gilligan was willing to show us how truly horrifying Walter White’s descent into criminal life really was. He was not a glamorous hero. He started out as a sympathetic character, but as his darker side started to show, he became more and more repulsive. By the time we got to season five, there was little sympathy left for Walter. There was none of the charismatic edge and sexiness that we were supposed to find in other shows’ lead characters.

This second half of season five seemed to back that theory up. Especially the last few episodes leading up to the finale, which seemed to paint a very ominous and inglorious end for Walt. First, “Ozymandias”, one of the show’s most harrowing (and outright best) episodes, stripped Walt of everything he cared for (his money, his family) and then reminded us of his most horrible sides when he sent Jesse to his death and kidnapped his own daughter. In “Granite State”, the next-to-last episode of the show, we saw an even more beaten-down Walt. A shadow of his former self, a forgotten old man waiting to die in a New Hampshire cabin. In the last moments of that episode, it seemed like it was once again going to be Walter’s pride that would take the best of him. As he watched his Gray Matters ex-partners destroy his legacy -the one thing he had- it seemed a pride-driven return to Albuquerque would be the final nail in Walter White’s coffin.

The last episode of the show, though, went in a completely different direction. This wasn’t Walt’s fall. This was his triumphant return. He engineered a plan to get money to his family and get revenge on Uncle Jack and Lydia that went way too smoothly. Many a critic has pointed out how the show ended with the ultimate Deux Ex Machina: a machine gun acting out the fury of an avenging God. I didn’t like this. Not because the plan worked way too perfectly (usually, it takes Walt two or three tries until his plans work), but because I felt this was a cop-out on the show’s part. Walt’s last adventure seems to be his redemption and he is a character that shouldn’t have been redeemed. As the most disgusting of the anti-heroes, the end of the show should have reflected his soul.

This finale makes me think Vince Gilligan understood the show differently than I, even though it seemed pretty obvious to me that my understanding was what the show was going for. It’s not that I’m mad that the show might have ended up being a different thing that what I thought it was. It’s that I thought of Breaking Bad as the one show that would bring this fascination with the anti-hero to an end. It thought this show was putting a mirror in front of us and making us see the terrible things we wanted to see the leads of our shows do. I though Walt’s fall would be the perfect beginning for a new era of even more adventurous and creative television. I guess that just wasn’t quite true.

Breaking Bad was still a terrific show. I still think it’s possible to get the reading I had out of it. It’s just a little different now and I’m still trying to figure out if there was a particularly interesting statement I’m missing in the finale, or if it was just a case of Gilligan pandering to his fans.

‘Enough Said’ (Review)

enough_said-620x338

It’s inevitable that the most notorious thing about Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said is that it features the late James Gandolfini in one of his last roles. I’m not quite sure how to feel about that. I can only say that he is great in it. It seems like people are turning out to see his last performance, and are hopefully being as surprised and captivated by the movie as I was When I was watching Enough Said I was so immersed in the story that it wasn’t until the end credits rolled that I realized the great loss cinema has suffered with Gandolfini’s passing. This performance is not only great because the actor was distancing himself from Tony Soprano and the roles he was usually cast in. An actor like him playing a romantic lead is something different and refreshing, but the level of pathos, charisma and raw feeling Gandolfini brings to the performance is brilliant. The promise of this beautiful performance will obviously go unfulfilled, but there’s no denying Enough Said is a great movie and a melancholic swan song for one of the greats.

Well, on to the movie itself. As I’ve already said, I really, really liked it. I was surprised because up until this point I hadn’t been a fan of writer/director Nicole Holofcener. Friends with Money and Please Give, the only two of her movies I had seen before, didn’t really do much for me. Enough Said, however, connected with me almost instantly. The main character in this movie is a divorced massage therapist named Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). She meets Albert (James Gandolfini) at a party. They bond over the fact that both their daughters are leaving for college and decide to go out. The movie is mostly the story of their relationship and Eva’s changing perception of it as she is influenced by a new friend played by Holofcener’s favorite actress Catherine Keener.

Holofcener has been previously criticized of making movies about “white people problems”. This is an accusation that bothers me very deeply. Yes, her characters are often upper middle-class, but their problems and dillemmas, specially in Enough Said are not only not exclusive to wealthy people, but poignantly relatable. This is not a Nancy Meyers movie, in which we should worry whether or not Meryl Streep will get to redecorate her kitchen. This are real characters with real feelings. And most importantly, Holofcener’s is an original voice with ideas worth listening to. Enough Said is by all intents and purposes a romantic comedy. It is, however, unlike any other American romantic comedy you’ll get to see this year. When will you get to see the love story about a middle-aged woman and an overweight man play out without irony? If there is any irreplaceable value to this movie, is its point of view. We don’t get enough movies written and directed by women. Especially women as smart as the ones involved in this movie. This is a smart movie. Made by adults for adults, but also one that can be enjoyed by everyone. I saw this movie with my family. My parents, my teenage sister and I were all thoroughly entertained and moved by the film.

The other true winners coming out of the movie, are the actors. I already said how great Gandolfini was, but it’s worth repeating. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also nothing short of fantastic. And their chemistry together… Their scenes filled me with joy and energy, they made me happy to go to the movies. I guess I’m doing nothing but sing the praises of this movie. It’s certainly not perfect, there’s a major plot development that may seem a little too rom-comy to some (it didn’t bother me), but it’s a film worth seeing. A buck well spent. I can’t recommend it enough.

Grade: 9/10