Friday, July 2, 2010

Breaking Bad Season 3 Review and Analysis

Breaking Bad Season 3A sign of a great modern day TV serial is that it gets better with every passing season. The characters have more depth and nuance, the storylines become more complex and intriguing, and everything bleeds together in a fantastic mix of themes, suspense and tension. Using that standard, Breaking Bad can now be considered one of the best crime dramas of the past few years. The third season has just wrapped up and AMC has renewed the show for a fourth season. 

Happenings in the Third Season
Albuquerque, New Mexico is still reeling from the mid-air collision of two airplanes that was caused by Jane's air traffic controller father who was destroyed by her drug overdose death. Jesse is in rehab, getting clean but also developing a fatalistic, harder edge that will serve him well.

Walt White's meth cooking activities ramp up to a new level. He gets more involved with the local drug kingpin Gus Fring (fast food chicken chain owner and local drug distribution king) and essentially goes for broke in terms of making as much money as he can in the time that he has remaining. Walt at first tries to tell Fring he wants to quit cooking, but in that long standing crime drama cliché, Fring and his thugs won't let him out.
Fring offers Walt $3 million dollars for 3 months of cooking and Walt at first turns down the amount. However, it isn't long before Walt goes for the dough, and later negotiates a longer-term deal worth $15 million per year.

Skyler (Walt's wife) knows for certain that Walt is a drug dealer, though she initially thinks he is only dealing marijuana. She claims that she wants a divorce, starts having an affair with her boss, but then starts having second thoughts. Later, she accepts Walt's involvement in the drug trade and the money that goes along with it.

A pair of evil twin brothers (known as The Cousins) from Mexico make their way towards New Mexico, and based on some wild-ass mysticism BS, there is little doubt that they are on a mission to sort out Heisenberg/Walt. The brothers are the cousins of Tuco, who was killed by Hank in season one. The twins figure out through some divination that Walt is the one they should kill to avenge their cousin's death. Later, they are also on the trail of Hank.

Saul, Walt's lawyer, is also in deep with Fring, and lets him know that Skyler is hip to Walt's involvement in the drug trade. This is the impetus for one of Fring's thugs (Mike) to start keeping tabs on Skyler.

Hank Schrader starts obsessing over the blue meth that is once again flooding the region thanks to Walt's production and Fring's distribution. He does some serious police work and tracks down the RV that Walt and Jesse Pinkman had used to cook meth.

While Hank is genuinely interested in finding the link to Heisenberg (Walt) and the meth dealers in the region, he also uses it as a way to avoid another promotion that would require he do work near the Texas/Mexico border. He tracks down Jesse and Walt as they are about to have the RV destroyed at a wrecking yard. Unknown to Hank, Walt is locked inside the RV with Jesse.

Hank receives a phone call telling him that his wife is in the hospital and he races off, allowing Walt and Jesse to have the RV destroyed. Later, Hank lays a severe beating on Jesse and is suspended from the force as a result. However, he receives a reprieve when Saul realizes that it would be in his best interest for Jesse to drop any charges against Hank.

In one of the most intense scenes in season three, Hank takes out the The Cousins, killing one, and slicing off the legs of the other with his SUV. But he also gets shot numerous times and is hospitalized for the remainder of the season.

A back and forth takes place between Walt and Jesse as their friendship sours, followed by the expected cool peace as they start cooking together in the state of the art lab that has been built beneath the industrial laundry that is part of Fring's fast food operation. When Walt first starts cooking in the new lab, Fring provides an assistant, the good-natured Gale. When Walt patches things up with Jesse and brings him back into the cooking fold, Gale is out.

Through one of those wild coincidences that come up in dramas (and for which audiences are fully accepting when the quality of the show is so high) Jesse hooks up with the sister (Andrea) of the youngster who shot Jesse's friend, Combo, in season two. As Andrea talks about how her 11 year-old brother Tomas is already lost to drug dealing, Jesse deduces who the drug dealers are who killed Combo.

Jesse's resulting dispute with the drug dealers causes him to get turfed from the cooking operation, and Gale is brought back in as Jesse's replacement. Despite an attempt at a truce between the drug dealers and Jesse brokered by Fring and Walt, the drug dealers murder 11 year-old Tomas.

In the penultimate episode of the season, Jesse heads out one night to avenge the death of Combo and Tomas. Armed and prepared for whatever comes his way, he stalks towards the drug dealers near the same corner where Combo was blown away. However, at the last moment Walt takes out the drug dealers with his car, and then blows apart the skull of one of the creeps as he lays dying on the street. Jesse is now on the run from Fring, and Walt senses his days are numbered as well.

The season ends as Walt is taken one night by Mike and another one of Fring's thugs to the lab at the industrial laundry facility. The ostensible reason given to Walt is that there has been some problem at the lab that needs to be sorted out, but he is convinced that he being set up and will be killed. A frantic phone call to Jesse and the season closes as Jesse heads to Gale's apartment and shoots Gale (or does he?). Whether or not Gale is dead, Walt may learn that Gale was in fact looking out for him, and the reason provided for taking him to the lab late at night may well have been legitimate.

Cranston is Breaking Bad
Bryan Cranston as Walter White continues to be the force that drives this show forward. Great acting on Cranston's part was on display again this year although the character of Walt White flattened out somewhat. White was in a constant state of unrelieved anxiety, and any internal conflict that he experienced was dealt with in one way: doing whatever a ruthless, money-grubbing piece of filth involved in the drug trade would do to protect himself.

This callous, do-whatever-it-takes and continue to shock the audience that such an apparently decent person is in it up to his neck and is going to out-nasty the real bad guys, has been part of White's character throughout the three seasons.

No saccharine sentiments or schlock to be had. White wants to be a nasty piece of work, and so it comes to pass that he is. He maintains the sympathies of the audience because we know he feels guilt, and there has to be a tipping point. There has to be a moment when some kind of revelation changes his character to a degree that will carry the show spiraling off towards its final conclusion. It's not quite there yet, but it's getting close. He either pulls back and seeks redemption (likely) or he breaks completely and is irrevocably changed.

While actor Aaron Paul, who plays Jessie Pinkman, doesn't have the chops of Cranston, he demonstrated some impressive acting in the third season—range that he really didn't have in the first two seasons of Breaking Bad.

Dean Norris, who plays Hank Schrader, also had an increasingly major role to play and he should be back with a force and playing a major part of the story in the fourth season.
Unfortunately, some of the other regulars really didn't have a chance to be part of the major action this season. Walt's wife, Skyler, really seemed to have a diminished role this season, despite the amount of time she spent on the screen. Her waffling on Walt's involvement in the drug trade, and her equivocating on whether to seek a divorce became tiresome after a while. Still, there were some great scenes between Walt and Skyler in which the familial conflict ratchets up.

Sour Notes
While Breaking Bad is a superb show, it is far from perfect. In the third season, as in past seasons, there were a number of examples of script transparency. In those instances, it is so brazenly obvious what the writers of the show were trying to do, that the results are awkward and cack-handed.
The clearest example of this was The Cousins, who made an early appearance in season three and were a major part of the plot for the first seven episodes. There might as well have been a text introduction flashed on the screen that said: "Now, we want you to know these two are bad. They are nasty. They are so bad that you are not going to believe it."

And they were correct. I simply didn't buy it. With no resistance early on, the badness of these two mostly fell flat and left me snickering on more than one occasion. The choice of twins was likely also an indirect metaphor for the duality—good vs. evil, internal conflict, two sides to everyone's character etc.,—that has been a theme throughout the show (although they were identically evil and there was no real difference between them).

The fact that these two were supposed to be two of the hardest, nastiest individuals to ever walk the face of the earth was telegraphed in such a contrived and absurd way, that any part of the story in which they were involved became somewhat clichéd and annoying. The only exception is in episode seven in which Hank blows one of the twin's skulls apart and slices off the legs of the other with his SUV. Now, if the intent all along was to use these two walking clichés to build up to that one particular scene—one of the most riveting and intense in the series so far, and easily the best scene not involving Walt White—then OK, job accomplished!

While the creators of this show no doubt have the plot arc for the remainder of the show all mapped out, they are probably flexible and likely adapt on the fly when certain storylines don't seem to be working out or generating the suspense that they initially expected. I'm guessing that they too saw the absurdity that these clowns had turned into.

Wild Speculation
Numerous unresolved issues will no doubt be dealt with in the next two seasons (which is what I expect will take the show to its conclusion).

First, the fact that Walt witnessed the death of Jesse's girlfriend, Jane, and did nothing to save her will have to be sorted out. This is either going to be the point on which Walt seeks salvation or the spark that will cause an explosion between Walt and Jesse that cannot be patched over.

Walt's actions on that fateful evening, which saw Jane expire and ultimately led to the collision of the two airplanes, have been eating away at him ever since. And he came close to confessing to Jesse in the third season.

I expect that further details of that night in which he broke into Jesse's house and witnessed Jane choking to death on her own vomit in a drug overdose will be revealed. Maybe a flashback scene in which something further is revealed. Someone the audience didn't previously see perhaps witnessed the scene. Or maybe something much simpler such as Jesse reconstructing the events of that night in his mind and realizing that things aren't quite right.

The issue of Walt's cancer has two components that have to be resolved before the show finishes its run. It has been alluded to a number of times that Walt's cancer may be a result of the years he worked as a chemist developing products that made his former colleagues wealthy. I expect this storyline to be picked up in season four.

I can't see the focus of season four being solely on the machinations of the cooking and the drug operations conducted by Fring and his thugs. In keeping with the trend of this show to expand the scope of the drug dealing every season, I can imagine that the final step will see some link made between the former organization for which Walt worked and the world of illegal drugs in which he is now involved.

It may be as simple as highlighting some of the destruction wreaked by large organizations as compared to the world of illegal drugs that always generates disproportionately more heat. Or, we could see the characters from season one, Walt's former partner and his wife who Walt was involved with romantically many years ago, somehow worked back into the story.

Of course, Hank will return to the police force and take up his case against the meth dealing in Albuquerque and the surrounding regions. Is there a bent copper on the force who is helping Fring to remain untouched?

A show that really takes chances and isn't scared to send characters careening off in unexpected directions, season four of Breaking Bad is likely to contain the great writing, acting, and suspense that the audience has come to expect. Read a review of the first two seasons of Breaking Bad

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Movie Review: The Honeymoon Killers

The Honeymoon Killers
How do audience members rate verisimilitude in the films they watch? We sometimes say that a certain film has a realistic feel to it. A certain visceral impression that the situations in the film could have happened just the way they are presented to us.

Maybe low production values combined with a decent story contribute to an authentic feel. And sometimes even the passage of time may allow that tangible sense of "real" to creep into a movie.

Or perhaps because of the fact that so many of the films we watch are churned out by Hollywood, the good, non-Hollywood ones that come along are so jarringly different in comparison that we are inclined to attach the authentic label to them.

Regardless, filtered through the lens of movie-speak and other suspension of disbelief aspects, there is something about particular films that strikes us as being somehow more real or believable than others.

Twisted Relationship 
A refreshing and unusual movie released in 1970, The Honeymoon Killers, starring Sharon Stoler and Tony Lobianco, has that raw, unpolished feel that contributes to its memorable quality and, at times, sense of realism.

Stoler plays Martha Beck, a damaged woman who has never known love, and as a result has become a bitter, angry individual. But she still shows glimpses of warmth: when she tries to soothe herself and when she finally does find someone to love her. But a twisted love it is.

Martha meets the essence of seediness: a swarthy, shameless lothario—Lobianco as Ray Fernandez—who is creepiness distilled into its purest form. Yet he possesses the uncanny knack that so many predators have: preying on the weak and lonely.

Ray responds to a letter that Martha writes to a lonely hearts dating agency. He spins some horribly clichéd missives professing his love for her. But of course, he really wants to use up Martha and throw her away. She senses this and homes in on that predatory element in him, nurtures it, and makes it a part of who they become together.

After a few meetings, Ray tells Martha that she was just one of many. He regularly writes to women who advertise in the lonely hearts pages of newspapers. He shows romantic interest and then tries to suck them dry financially. Instead of showing revulsion and disgust at what he does, and the fact that she was one of his targets, Martha gets involved with his scams. She tags along as his "sister" when Ray meets up with his victims.

Sick, Murderous Little Vignettes
A series of simmering, twisted, and sad vignettes in which Martha's jealousy and the vulnerability of the women being set up make for good drama. It also provides a painful look at the lonely lives that so many people lead, and what can happen because of that desperation.

The swindles get nastier and more ruthless, and Martha and Ray start murdering their prey. There really is never any doubt how things will turn out, but the situations can be at times intense, and the growing warped relationship between Ray and Martha creates a great deal of voyeuristic appeal. As some couples bond through a life of ups and downs and various challenges, a twisted yet real love seems to develop between these two pathological freaks.

The Honeymoon Killers features two of the most harrowing murder scenes you will ever see. The banal, bathetic manner in which Martha and Ray destroy their victims is part of the power of this film. It switches from black humour and near farce to ruthless, nasty violence in a heartbeat. But they are so wrapped up in the surreal world that they have created that it is all rationalized away with little effort.

Absurdity and Realism Mix Well
While there is that sense of realness about the film, it also has an absurdist quality about it. And after all, since reality is absurd so much of the time, this aspect of the movie is very appropriate. The film is "based on a true story," but as with most such claims, and especially regarding obscure crimes that happened so long ago and for which there is little historical evidence, it's hard to say how true to life this movie is. That's not important though.

The movie was ahead of its time, or at least not in sync with its time, in terms of editing and pace. It ticks along and jumps from scene to scene in a way that will appeal to the move-goer of today who has little time for long, drawn out scenes and extended dialogue.

A tale about how far some people will go to alleviate the loneliness and existential drudgery that plague their bleak lives. The Honeymoon Killers will seem gratuitous and exploitative to some but others will enjoy the film's haunting, bleak depiction of a strange murderous little world.