You Must Remember This

You Must Remember This

Saturday, 31 August 2013

PARANOIA

A REVIEW IN 200 WORDS


Paranoia is a lavish techno-thriller with no central processor. Director Robert Luketic, who’s made a career out of forgettable romcoms, and Barry Levy, the writer behind the Rashomon-derived Vantage Point, cobble together a motion picture out of spare parts. Liam Hemsworth makes for a bland, generic lead - cocky AND dull - with a back-story written by Microsoft paperclip (a pitiably schlubbish Richard Dreyfuss plays his long-suffering blue collar dad). A bow-tied Gary Oldman and bald-headed Harrison Ford play dueling corporate giants, in whose power struggle Hemsworth gets caught up, but it's all rote villain stuff, sadly predictable and ultimately beneath them. Corporate espionage makes for plenty of boardroom meetings and Paranoia is ultimately reduced to playing at Wall Street. Moral dilemmas mean nothing when we don't give a shit about the characters. Amber Heard is wasted as an obligatory sparky love interest and Josh Holloway gets even less as a run-of-the-mill dogged FBI agent. The one scene featuring the combative Oldman and Ford together crackles, but, like the turning of Hemsworth's worm, it's too little too late. Paranoia has no spark to it and a redundant title; if, as Ford's character says at one point, "competition breeds innovation" then do your bit for the cinematic gene pool and give this turkey a miss. 4/10

 

PAIN & GAIN

Before we see anything, before even the whirling stars of the Paramount logo form their triumphant arc above the idealized mountain peak, we hear the agonized grunts and yells of a man indulging in brutal self-abuse. Then comes the money shot: Mark Wahlberg doing full-body sit-ups from a leg rest halfway up a twenty-foot billboard of an Atlas-like figure pumping iron.The camera tilts disorientingly in over-exposed close up as Wahlberg sweats and strains to a chorus of police sirens. The next thing you know, the world tilts right way up with a silent scream of "Fuck!" as armed units arrive in the street below sending Wahlberg scrambling across rooftops, past AC units and through clothing lines. After throwing himself from a second floor hotel balcony into a dumpster, he sprints in slow-mo down the street, accompanied by a simple introductory v.o.: "My name is Daniel Lugo and I believe in fitness." Enter super slo-mo, intro to SWAT team van, smash cut to credits. If this opening paragraph sounds overly descriptive, it's only because Pain and Gain is a film that lends itself to adjectives: big, bold and with lots of (steroid shrunken) balls.


The small, personal movie of a director whose small personal movies involve a $26 million budget and big-name actors like Wahlberg and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, not to mention the up-and-coming Anthony Mackie (shortly to be appearing as superhero Falcon in Captain America: The Winter Soldier) and esteemed character actors, Golden Globe and Emmy winner Tony Shalhoub and Oscar nominee Ed Harris (as a craggy P.I.). Michael Bay, the director, is Hollywood royalty: the Transformers trilogy alone grossed more than $2.5 billion (yes, with a "b"). With a fourth installment already in the pipeline, who can blame him if he wants to take some time off to adapt the intimate, "unfortunate" real-life story of three bodybuilders who, in the mid 90s, kidnapped, tortured, extorted, and, in some cases, even murdered the wealthy patrons of their gym? The words "understated" and "subtle" are not in Bay's cinematic vocabulary. Never the critics' darling, his "movies" are unashamedly aimed at the teenage boy demographic, but could this actually be, well, "good"? In a few words, "sorta, yeah". In a few more words...


Our protagonist and, indeed, part-time narrator in this testosterone-soaked work of semi-fiction is Wahlberg's Lugo, a small-time con artist turned devoted gym rat. Wahlberg is at his dramatic best in films that give him a simple motivation - be it to catch crooks (The Departed), make it in the porn industry (Boogie Nights), or just laze around on the couch (Ted) - and in that regard Pain & Gain plays to his strengths. Lugo believes that his love of fitness makes him entitled to the good life - "insert quote" - and his skewed moral compass means that he's willing to do whatever's necessary to make it. For Lugo, the world is quickly divided into "do'ers" and "don't'ers" and it's this overly simplistic, black-and-white philosophy that leads him into some pretty morally reprehensible shit. When Tony Shalhoub's slimily entitled businessman makes his appearance at the gym, Lugo sees a way to make money without breaking a sweat. Together with two fellow fitness freaks, trainer Doorbal (Mackie) and "reformed" former drug addict Doyle (Johnson), Lugo sets out to rob businessman Kershaw of everything he's got. The only issue is they're all three of them idiots.


Rather than settle for a straight-forward criminal idiots comedy - like Woody Allen's Small-Time Crooks or perhaps Dirty Rotten Scoundrels -, Bay seems to be genuinely interested in exploring what makes these meatheads tick. Doorbal, for instance, has been rendered impotent by years of steroid abuse. The unconditional understanding shown to him by his oddball nurse, Robin, played by Rebel Wilson, despite his condition, shows that dripping machismo isn't everything, but these idiots are already set on wheels towards tragedy. Bay's recognizable shaky-cam remains intact, though here it feels like a stylistic choices, as opposed to simply a means by which to wring every drop of adrenaline out of each frenetic frame, and Commuity's Ken Jeong gets a bit part as an obnoxious motivational speaker (as my review of The Hangover III testified, he's better in small doses). Lugo and Co. are not likeable characters per se, but, with a multitude of accompanying voice-overs, we more or less understand why they do what they do: Not gifted with great intellect or innate talent, all they can do is sculpt their bodies, become buff, pumped.


Things get caught in explosions and shootouts, the usual Bay fodder, as the film progresses. Nevertheless, Pain & Gain has an interesting thematic question to cover: the idea that all men (or at least most) are created equal, physically speaking, and it's through our actions, our struggles, that we achieve our potential. The struggle of Lugo et al. to define their bodies is therefore a struggle to define their lives. That may sound overly portentous, but, compared to 2 Guns, my most recent review - also starring Mark Wahlberg - this is surprisingly meaty stuff. It's a difficult proposition, generating depth while commenting on a lack of it - more acclaimed filmmakers have fallen down on the job, like Baz Luhrmann with Great Gatsby - but Bay just about pulls it off. The film also provides something of a dramatic breakout for Dwayne Johnson, who gives a deft turn parodying his former meathead persona as a tormented ex-con. It may be too soon to predict as career reinvention in the vein of Matthew McConaughey, but it certainly outstrips the likes of Fast and Furious 6.


The protagonists in Pain & Gain are a bunch of roid-riddled, semi-losers who do horrific, reprehensible things for the sake of money and yet you end up caring about them for a bit: they're shallow and they're in over their heads without an ounce of complexity in their bodies, but, compared to Pearl Harbor and Transformers, these are Chekovian character portraits. With production on his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle that no one asked for ongoing, Bay might be showing a return to form (in this case, regrettable), but Pain & Gain shows that he's capable of more than just films for teenage boys (though, with violence and nudity aplenty, this newest release isn't exactly going to turn them off). It may be garish, gory, and a tad on the nose - again, not to flog a dead gym bunny, but this is the sort of subtlety you expect from the man behind both Bad Boys - but not only has Pain & Gain already doubled its production cost, some of the professional critics have actually admitted to liking it. It has a 49% rating on IMDb and, when you factor in the number of reviewers who could never countenance a Michael Bay flick, that's some fairly impressive feedback.


Michael Bay has never apologized about making films for teenage boys. I've certainly shown him my fair share of contempt on this blog - it's easy to hate the man behind the generic $250 million blockbuster currently clogging up cinema screens - but, you know what, I like Pain & Gain. I like Pain & Gain a great deal. Who knows, maybe even the Transformers franchise is worth a rewatch. I never thought it would come to this, but Pain & Gain gets a 7 out of 10.

Thursday, 29 August 2013

2 GUNS


Denzel Washington and Mark Walhberg banter with friendly acrimony, speed around in a variety of cars, and generally blow shit up. If you like the sound of that, you'll probably get on with 2 Guns.

Washington is winningly cool as Bobby Trench, Wahlberg likeably guileless as Michael Stigman - two law enforcement officers who end up undercover and unaware of the other's background - the type of character types both actors have built careers around playing. There are double crosses and betrayals, a few neat twists along the way, and Bill Paxton, James Marsden, and Edward James Olmos appear as a disparate trio of villains. Paxton's sadistic corrupt CIA agent and Olmos' grandstanding Mexican drug lord are entirely generic, but they both elevate their respective roles; Marsden comes across unavoidably as slimy as a backstabbing naval officer.

 

It's classic buddy cop-action comedy fare, which builds nicely to the obligatory end standoff/shootout. Paula Patton appears as Washington's colleague and would-be love interest, but the real chemistry is between him and Wahlberg. If they're not quite Riggs and Murtagh, in coolness stakes they come pretty close. That is, ultimately, what 2 Guns is all about: cool guys doing cool things; the moments of heart and playfulness between the bullets are what sells it, though. It's well acted, tightly scripted, and nicely directed (Blake Masters and Baltasar Kormakur pulling their weight) and holds the attention well enough that its lack of originality never grates.

2 Guns is a fun, throwaway summer movie, but, given the caliber, who could ask for more?

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

THE CONJURING


 

A REVIEW IN 150 WORDS 

Latest in the new genre of exorcism films (see: 'The Rite', 'The Exorcism of Emily Rose'), 'The Conjuring' is directed by 'Saw' and 'Insidious' creator James Wan; as you might expect, it's "bloody… scary" (eh, eh?). An All-American family moves into their dream home in rural Rhode Island, are immediately beset by a selection of terrifying phenomena, and forced to call in experts, the Warren’s – engaging Patrick Wilson and winsome Vera Farmiga – a pleasant couple with a locked study full of possessed toys in place of a rumpus room. Tension builds, things escalate nicely, then fall apart a bit with the manifestation of a demonic hag in a nightie and dubious reappropriation of US history. Haunting procedural and showcase of established tropes, ‘The Conjuring’ works well at slow burn but is let effective when it lets its ghosts out the bag. In any case, the sequel’s already been green-lit. 6/10

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

BREAKING BAD S05E11

  "Confessions"

Having signed off last week with the old adage, "Be sure your sin will find you out"; the newest episode of Breaking Bad seems determined to push that saying to its limits. The confessions of the episode's title apply to every member of the cast in one form or another, except the most important: Jesse, who - as you know if you've seen "Confessions" - is set to make a discovery of his own.

We open on Todd smoking outside a diner on Route 66. After placing a courtesy call to Walt, whom he calls Mr. White, to let him know of a change in management with his former operation, he heads inside for a chat with his new partners. Despite appearing in more than half the episodes of Season 5 thus far, Todd remains a cipher, an unfailingly polite, nonchalantly ruthless cipher. There are elements of both Walter to him - he regales his would-be accomplices with the story of the train heist from "Dead Freight", minus his murder of the kid - and of Gus' manner. There's a definite sense that Todd is already beginning to build his own legend. Might this scrawny, unassuming twenty-something, perhaps the show's only out-and-out sociopath, be the future of the New Mexico meth trade? 

However, given that one of the shit-kickers he was hanging with seems to have tracked in blood all the way from the massacre back in "Buried", there seems to be a distinct lack of professionalism among the new contingent. They might be satisfied with Todd's comparatively paltry 74% yield as a cook, but it's hard to believe that this is ever gonna be a sustainable operation. Case and point: them apparently leaving a tanker full of methylamine out in the parking lot while they went inside for coffee (and leering at the waitress). Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Down at the Twist and Shout" plays as they haul ass over the New Mexico state line, and - while it's difficult to predict exactly how this plot line will tie in with Walter's current preoccupation - it seems that last episode's mass execution is unlikely to be a one-time thing.1

Meanwhile, Jesse is laboring in custody. As the interrogating officer's buzz around him in time-lapse, accompanied by sinister whispering, Jesse seems utterly unaffected by their presence. Still bleary-eyed and miserable, he's clearly out of it. Jesse's reticence is borne not of attitude or self-preservation, as in previous encounters, but apathy, a lack of self-preservation: he doesn't care if he lives or dies. Even when Hank enters and attempts to reach Jesse off the record - laying it all on the line ("Your partner... I know he's my brother-in-law, Walt"), offering to help him out ("He really did a number on you, didn't he?"), making a plea for solidarity ("Help me put him away"), all Jesse can muster is a withering "Bite me", his first line of dialogue in almost two episodes. It's comforting to see that Jesse is still the same fundamental person, that there's still that spark of defiance on him, as he suggests that, on previous form, Hank beat the information out of him.

Hank seems almost genuinely sympathetic to Jesse's plight, however, recognizing Jesse's unhappiness, that he too has been used. He presents the confession that he's trying to solicit from Jesse as an opportunity for reprisal against Walt, an opportunity that Jesse turns down simply because collaboration with the police goes against his nature. Saul Goodman's barnstorming entry with reminders of Hank and Jesse's acrimonious past and threats of a civil right's lawsuit is, as such, superfluous, but nevertheless highly amusing. Saul, as usual, is on damage control; his "complete lack of chill", though, that's new. With Walt playing the high-power, asshole boss on the other end of the line - "Stop talking, I don't care. Just get it done" - and Jesse tossing around unlaundered money lik it's a Macy's Day ticker-tape parade, it's easy to feel that, however much Walt is paying him, Saul doesn't get paid enough for this shit.2


Meanwhile, Walt may be out of the empire-building business, but he still has his peons and is still used to be obeyed. However, Walt is still tiptoeing around the truth with his son: putting on Skyler's concealer (comically the wrong skin tone) in order to conceal his new bruises from Walt Jr., despite his never having drawn any conclusions from Walt's previous ones. Home is, ironically, now the place where Walt is most vulnerable,3 from Marie's attempt to snatch Holly (and now to "lure" Walt Jr. over to the Schrader household with the promises of dinner) to Hank's vendetta to Skyler's newfound sense of malaise. Working on the fly, Walt decides to tell Walt Jr. about the return of his cancer, but downplay it, of course (no need to create a crisis).4 With the exact progression, of his cancer still uncertain when Walt tells his son that he'll beat it as he did before, it's impossible to know to what extent Walt himself believes this. He's certainly not beyond lying to keep Jr. in his domain.

Hank and Marie, meanwhile, are working through their own crisis. Marie's gambit to get Walt Jr. over has failed - just the fact she refers to him as Flynn shows how much she honestly cares about him - while Hank's refusal to tell his colleagues what he's uncovered has estranged him from them, particularly his former partner, Gomie.5 The idea that Hank might be roped into the blame is implied even here; as always, the way Breaking Bad brings back and capitalizes on what it's already set up is one of its chief delights with things you thought were immaterial coming back into play episodes, seasons even, down the line.

For instance, the next scene - in which Walt makes his "confession" to camera - calls back perfectly to his "not a confession" in the pilot with the recitation of his full name and address. My how our "hero" has changed since then: Walter Hartwell White striding in a dark room, Skyler watching from the doorway: the two Whites bound in deception, bound in sin. Even as Jesse refuses to make a confession, even if it might save him, Walt is setting up a possible end game should Hank force his hand, twisting the confession to his own purposes. It's a surprisingly simple narrative structure, but one full of thematic synchronicity. And unlike his desperate, desert-bound talking-head all the way back in the pilot, Walt is now utterly in control of himself, if never quite his own destiny.




Their meeting with Hank and Marie over tacos has all the elements of mordant comedy: hostility, the potential for tragedy, that damn interrupting waiter. With Walt in his cardigan and Skyler in her turtleneck, the very picture of suburban normalcy, we can feel something brewing.6 When Hank limps over to the table, glaring balefully, in his blue shirt, Marie in her usual purple, it's clear that, like Walt and Skyler, they are a (color) coordinated front. Life goes on around them as Walt makes his non-confession. His response to Marie's concern for the children is cool, officious, like he's helming a PTA meeting: "While we respect your opinion...". It's easy to forget that this is the first time Marie's seen this side of Walt - everything she knows she knows from Hank. It must be terrifying, watching a man you know and love using his kids' innocence as a shield.

Out of any show I've seen, Breaking Bad remains the best at these sort of table scenes, dialogue heavy, full of raw emotions. Just having people talk is a deceptively tricky proposition: it's all about the subtext, the history between the characters, their interaction. Skyler, apparently against Walt's wishes, for instance, tells Hank and Marie determinedly that Walt's criminal enterprises are all in the past: "There's nothing to go after, nothing to accomplish". Walt, full of self-righteousness, tries to paint Hank as reckless, destructive. Hank, meanwhile, is simmering with fury of Walt's hypocrisy - his gall in throwing around the word "right" - reverting to macho form with telling Walt to be a man, confess. It's Marie's quiet devastation, her suggestion that Walt kill himself, solve all their problems, that is the most affecting. She wants to seal off the damage, to have it all be over, but, given the cross purposes they're all at, it's clear no one's walking away from this untouched.


It's now that Walt's "confession" comes into play in the form of a burner disc. Later, as Marie and Hank stand by in their living room, we watch as Walt counters each of Hank's accusations with his own retelling of the truth: Hank the drug lord, Hank the blackmailer, Hank the murderer. In a measured narrative, Walt portrays Hank as a corrupt DEA agent, a man who threatened Walt's family; the ride-along Walt requested all the way back in the pilot becomes a form of coercion on the part of Hank, forcing Walt to acknowledge the fiduciary incentive of criminal enterprise. Vince Gilligan, the show runner, has had this up his sleeve for five years now and the reveal, the turnaround, is stunning. Alongside Walt, doesn't Hank look so much more the drug kingpin.

The tale Walt weaves is more or less plausible, laying out the events of previous seasons firmly at Hank's door. Walt puts himself in the firing line, admitting to building the bomb that killed Gus Fring, but Hank himself, he says, was responsible. The whole thing is pieced together fairly haphazardly and doesn't quite fit - why, for instance, would Hank need Walt to pay his bills? - but it serves another purpose to the plot: lest we forget, Hank had no idea his treatment, his physiotherapy, wasn't covered by insurance. Marie's admittance that she took the White's "gambling money" sends Hank into a tailspin as he realizes the depth of predicament that Walt has placed him in. Hank cannot afford to bring him down yet... Walt's claim, "I have often contemplated suicide, but I'm a coward", rings true, as more that just another twist to the tale.7 Then again, Walt suggests that Hank might murder him. Given he has no way to turn Walt into the police without ruining his own life, Walt might just have put him in a position where Hank, the moral man, views that as his only option.8



Walt is pathetic in selling his story, pointing out the black eye Hank gave him, his voice cracking. As the scene ends, Hank and Marie are downcast, too. Jesse, however, is on the up and up. Watching a tarantula crawl across the sand (another callback to "Dead Freight"), Saul suggests he should be nervous; the setting, which recalls so many other bloody fates, not least of which occurred last week, is enough to make you feel that, perhaps, Jesse might not walk away from this. The question is open: he is, like Hank, "family"? Is he covered by Walt's limited blanket of conscience? In any case, Jesse's reproachful glare at Walt's car as it approaches speaks volumes. After checking Saul's car for a tracker - Walt is nothing if not adaptable - Walt pumps Jesse for information then pitches him on the idea of a new life, a plea to let Jesse help him. When Walt suggests that Jesse can get away, get a clean slate, get a job he likes, start a family - reminding him that he's "still so damn you" - we can almost believe he sees this as some kind of vicarious redemption; after all, Walt's right when he says there's nothing here for Jesse and if he's willing to pay for it...


Jesse, however, has seen too much of Mr. White's "whole concerned dad thing": he knows this is all about Walt getting him out of the way. He sees Walt as an unambiguous monster - who else could claim that, "In a few years, this might all feel like nothing more than a bad dream?" - that he had Mike killed, that they're meeting out there, perhaps, in case Jesse says no. Maybe we can't quite buy that Walt would have Jesse killed, though we know he did Mike - after all, Jesse hasn't seen all the things we've seen.9 Saul stands by, louche, but Jesse, Jesse just wants to feel useful; he wants some emotional reciprocation from Walter White, something honest. What he gets is a hug, a hug that, as revolted as he is by it, Jesse can't help but return. However they might feel about it, Walt and Jesse are locked together and spiraling down; however it might end, it'll end for both of them. We know that Jesse can't really leave, not forever, but it's good to see him back on his feet.10

Skyler, meanwhile, is making a mess of the change in the car wash. She's distracted, staring off into the middle distance. After all the pressure coming from Jesse and Hank and Todd, might it be Skyler who cracks, who brings Walt down? Maybe, especially given Jesse almost succeeds in torching their family home. In a sequence of almost genius simplicity, Jesse starts off in Saul's office, waiting for his travel arrangements to be made10 to standing on the roadside, discovering something is missing, to back at Saul's and pulling a gun on his (now presumably former) lawyer. And all it took was the disappearance of a baggie of weed and the placement of a packet of cigarettes. After Huell lifts Jesse's weed after he insists on lighting up in Saul's office - ignoring Saul's request, like an angry gym teacher, to hand it over - and Jesse finds it's gone, the sight of a pack of cigarettes is enough to trigger a mind-altering revelation: Huell lifted the ricin cigarette! Saul gave it to Walt!! Walt poisoned Brock!!! Jesse, jittery and nervous, still bottling up his rage and grief, is arguably just looking for a chance to break from the plan, to break bad, as it were, and this definitely qualifies.


Saul, for all his lovability, is, after all, a scumbag. While Jesse would be off seeking atonement in Alaska, Saul would be sunning himself on a beach in Florida surrounded by supermodels. When, in the previous scene, Jesse stands at the roadside in front of huge concrete slabs, resembling giant, square tombstones, it's enough to suggest that someone's about to die. The ominous industrial music, the thrum of power, Jesse storming into Saul's office, locking the door and beating the shit out of him: when the weapon comes out, it's enough to believe that Saul Goodman's card has been marked. He pleads innocent of Mr. White's purpose, bloody-nosed and desperate, and Jesse, for whatever reason, lets him live. As sorry as I would have been to see him go, Breaking Bad might well have benefited from the death of another lead cast member in its build up to the final few episodes.11

"Confessions" might have opened with Todd, but it ends with us firmly at Jesse's viewpoint. Jesse's attack on the (fortunately empty) White family home is a literal retaliation for Walt's assault on the family that Jesse was attempting to build with Andrea and Brock, a family that threatened to draw Jesse away and disrupt Walt's empire-building ambitions. Even as Jesse, red-faced and bursting with incoherent rage, is booting the door open and throwing petrol, Walt is recovering a long-concealed gun-and-grenade combo from the vending machine (the same vending machine into which he fed Bogdan's precious "first dollar" all that time ago, remember?). As a show, Breaking Bad veers between the mundane and the exciting, often burying them within each other in unexpected ways - the weaponry in the vending machine, the mundane routine of running a drug lab - while packing more compelling character development and plot twists into 47 minutes than most other shows manage, well... ever.


The end is coming - five episodes off. Todd is scheming, Hank and Marie are paralyzed, Jesse is raging, and, slowly, inexorably, Walt's Old Testament-style comeuppance is looming. After all, Walt has become Scarface, and how does that work out for Tony Montana again? Vengeance is mine, sayeth Jesse,  and it's hard to believe the buck stops with some light property damage.


1 Might Todd and Co. be the intended target of Walt's M60-related vengeance in this season's flash-forwards, Walt finally taking on the darker, meth-dealing angels of his nature? 
2 Might a literal one-way ticket to Belize be in Saul's future, getting out while the going's good, or are going to have contend with Breaking Bad's "light relief" meeting an untimely demise?
3 Saul, for the time being, remains more or less a get-out-of-jail free card. Those adverts may be cheesy as heck, but, when you get down to it, he is an excellent sleazebag. 
4 This scene might just be a series of two-shots and closeups, but Bryan Cranston and R.J. Mitte sell it brilliantly. The writing and direction are superlative, but nothing without the performances.
5 With the alternate version of events that Walt's moving to establish might Hank's errant behavior later come back to haunt him, being read as a guilty conscience?
6 Of course, it's easier to justify treating yourself to dinner when you have millions in meth money buried in the desert. I wonder how the Whites and the Schraders would've split the check... 
7 Returning to the ricin and the flash-forwards, what would take Walter to a place where he might take it himself, end his life? Let's just say, the absence of Skyler, Jr., et al is conspicuous.
8 Gennifer Hutchinson's script is the best of Season 5, Part 2, so far. Silence can be golden, but sometimes there's no substitute for words, glorious words.
9 In reminding us that Jesse isn't the perfect audience surrogate, is it also worth remembering that, three seasons on, he still doesn't know about Walt's involvement in Jane's OD?
10 At least this way, if Walt does decide to bump Jesse off, it won't be so easy to justify it to himself as a mercy killing, the sort of self-deception at which he's become an expert.
11 That whole dust filer cover story on the phone falls apart fairly quickly: “He's a little hot, just out on bail”. Because no Fed would ever be able to see through that.
12 Then again, I'm probably speaking too soon (vis-a-vis the aforementioned absence of the White family in Walt's flash-forwards). Saul definitely isn't getting paid enough, though.

Friday, 23 August 2013

RIPD

"Say what you want about the tenets of The Lone Ranger, dude, at least it's an ethos."

RIPD, the newest big-budget adaptation of an obscure comic book series, sounds like a concept being sold on its title. Based on the trailer, it looks like a hodgepodge of MIB and Ghostbusters, but fails to be much more than derivative schlock.

Starring Ryan Reynolds as a blander, less attitudinal version of Will Smith as a good cop in a bad city, yadda, yadda, yadda. No offense to the guy - he's certainly likeable enough - but after Blade: Trinity, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Green Lantern, and now this, it might be best to step away from the superhero banquet. In any case, Reynolds' protagonist, Nick Walker, is clearly doomed from the off: cute French wife, unyielding integrity. Plus his corrupt cop partner is played by Kevin Bacon - smug, leather jacket, a performance straight out those EE adverts - who is suspicious in exactly the same way as the shady best mate from Ghost (more on that later).

There's an intriguing moment involving a newly-planted orange tree in Nick's garden, covering the location of untraceable gold stolen off a bust; oranges, as we all know from The Godfather, being the symbol of encroaching death... Then again, it's difficult to give the script - by Clash of the Titans writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi - that much credit. This isn't the sort of film that really goes in for symbolism, or subtlety, or, well, anything really.


Anyway, Nick gets offed by his partner, walks through a frozen bullet-time-style explosion before ascending into a vortex in the sky. Then, in the space of five minutes, he meets his new commanding officer, Mildred Proctor (an endearingly weird but otherwise wasted Mary-Louise Parker), enlisted into the RIPD, and meets his new partner, former Wild West Marshall Roy Pulsifer AKA Jeff Bridges as Rooster Cogburn as Agent K. The word "dead" barely gets a look in, let alone a chance for the audience to ground themselves in this world.

Before we know it, we're off on a whistle-top procedural tour: taking down Deados (spirits of the damned that pose as human and only become monstrous when confronted with the menu from your local curry house), reveling in our heroes invulnerability and the fact everyone else sees them as an old Asian guy and blonde swimsuit model (quirky but hardly low-key).

This is a Looney Tunes world where elevators get catapulted out of their shafts, smashing down on rooftops, and everybody walks away unscathed, a world where Pulsifer gets to comment on Nick's "very impressive crumple zone". It's all action without purpose, light banter, light entertainment - even Pulsifer, portrayed with commendable commitment by Jeff Bridges, is just a vehicle for wisecracks (Zach Galfianakis was originally cast in the role). There are touches of Dylan Dog, Constantine, and a throwaway, almost cameo appearance by Robert Knepper, who was, for years, one of the best things about the TV show Prison Break.

It's toothless, unfocused, and unnecessarily coincidental (the gold buried under Nick's tree just happens to tie in with the villain's grand scheme). The partners quarrel about "modern bullets" and having your corpse abused by coyotes, but there's a total disconnect: RIPD is just about self aware enough to hold the attention, but does nothing with it once it has it. There's crazy physics, fever dream logic, and plot twists ripped straight from The Avengers.


RIPD has no sense of its own identity - it's an IKEA furniture film, a flat-pack premise assembled bu suits. It doesn't know whether it wants to be Beeteljuice - a brief shot of monsters sat on a bench in police station booking seems a less morbidly imaginative version of the waiting room from Tim Burton's sixth or seventh best film (by my count) - or Ghost (there's a less saccharine but less well-earned version of the Whoopi Goldberg/Demi Moore dance).

Still, this is MIB 3 territory - all the box tick appeal, none of the originality: it touches on every major blockbuster in recent years. Even the trailer for the new Percy Jackson gets a look-in, storm clouds massing overhead, etc. It's perhaps not surprising then that RIPD seems set to make back less than half its budget.

At "only" $130 million, it's less damaging a blow than either John Carter or Battleship (Lone Ranger looks like it might, at least, break even), but it's yet another sign that the current Hollywood system is unsustainable. I'm not an accountant, but it seems like a return to the mid-range budget might be in order - it's possible to make a good film for $50 million, right? *sarcasm* - as well as a willingness to take more interesting risks. Heck, give Rian Johnson a chance to make his own Inception - there's no way that doesn't make a mint.

Verdict: RIPD invests money and some talented actors on a shamelessly derivative premise. A Frankenstein's Monster of a film sewn together with goodwill and slow-mo, for the filmic equivalent of being in limbo, RIPD gets 3/10.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

ELYSIUM

SOME SPOILERS

It's probably premature to, on the strength of one film, call a filmmaker a genius. Orson Welles might have earned that plaudit based on Citizen Kane or maybe Jean-Luc Goddard for A Bout De Souffle, Rob Reiner for This Is Spinal Tap, Pajit Ray for Pather Panchali, or Tarantino for Reservoir Dogs. Then again, there's always David Lynch's debut with Eraserhead, John Huston's The Maltese Falcon, Nicholas Roeg's Performance, Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night, or Terrence Malick's Badlands. In any case, what all these films suggested was that great things lay ahead for their directors (perhaps a self-defeating prophecy in the case of Welles); the same can be said of South African filmmaker Neill Blomkamp and District 9.

One of the few instances I can think of where a director made their break into Hollywood directly through sci-fi (even Sir Ridley Scott started with period drama The Duellists), Blomkamp's 2009 debut was genre with a social conscience, set in a modern-day Jo'burg where interstellar refugees have become the victim of a new apartheid. A work of social science fiction in the vein of The Man in the White Suit or Minority Report, District 9 sort to examine the social issues that had plagued South Africa - institutional racism, for instance - through the lens of an alien world. Receiving four Oscar noms, including Best Picture, it provided a breakout role for the unknown (and still underutilized) Sharlto Copley as Wikus, an Afrikaner bureaucrat forced to come to terms with his own prejudice. Four years on, the two have teamed up again for Elysium.


Just as its predecessor was an allegory for, amongst other things, segregation, Elysium similarly engages with two major issues of our time, namely immigration and universal healthcare. Set on Earth of the none-too-distant future - 141 years down the line to be exact - our planet is polluted, impoverished, and desperately overpopulated. As the have-nots, like Matt Damon's protagonist Max, slave away on terra firma under the control of polite but tyrannical droids, the haves - most notably prissy businessman John Carlyle, played by William Fichtner - live a life of luxury aboard the space habitat Elysium. Content to spend his days as a factory drone, an industrial accident leaves Max with just days to live and forces him on a desperate end-run to the orbiting paradise.

The plot of Elysium hinges on the existence of advanced medical devices known as Med-Pods, which have the ability to heal seemingly any sickness or injury. While the masses throng on the world below - Los Angeles has become a seedier, more ramshackle version of Mega-City One - on the torus above, the privileged few live off their backs. Smiling robotic civil servants dismiss the excuses of the downtrodden, interpreting sarcasm as a cause to dole out mood-influencing drugs - the attempt of corporatism to put a human face on exploitation, but with none of the accountability of flesh and blood. Meanwhile, Jodie Foster's Secretary of Defense upon Elysium employs any methods necessary - including the unauthorized deployment of feral sleeper agent Kruger, played by Copley - to ensure the poor remain on Earth "where they belong".


The political subtext here isn't particularly subtle, but it more or less works. Max's attempts to make it to Elysium and save his skin at any cost could serve to make him an unlikeable character were it not for Damon's relatable everyman presence in the role. Always an actor capable of doing a lot with very little - just see The Talented Mr. Ripley or The Good Shepherd for proof of this - Damon manages to sell the character's pain, his determination, with nothing more than a level gaze. Additional complications come in the form of Max's former best friend, Frey (Alice Braga), and her dying, doe-eyed kid. With its strangely idyllic flashbacks of Max and Frey as kids Elysium treads on the verge of saccharine - one scene involving Max and the eight-year old's attempt to tell him a story coming particularly close - but the relationship between the leading man and woman is remains refreshingly unmilked for romance and the constant threat of Kruger prevents the film from becoming bogged down in family drama.

Though initially out for himself, Max - by a mechanism I won't spoil - finds himself cast as the would-be savior of mankind. Strapped to an exoskeleton that both increases his strength and, at points, simply keeps him on his feet, Max is given the capability to right the status quo. In a world where technology is used to keep people down, to keep them in fear, Max comes to embody the militarized proletariat. Though the ever-talented Foster is fairly wasted as a xenophobic, tight-ass corporate agent - essentially the role she played in Inside Man with an added side of sanctimony - it clearly establishes that this is a society of binaries: rich/poor, self-interested/self-sacrificing. Only Kruger, a borderline psychotic outcast, transcends this boundary.


A bearded mercenary who takes simple pleasure in violence, Kruger - with his robes and his katana - feels like a throwback to a different era. Copley inhabits the part with gleeful ferocity and sardonic menace, from his detonation of an explosive shuriken stuck in a victim's chest ("It's only a flesh wound!") to his coaxing of a child to look away so he can beat their parent. Though Kruger apparently wasn't written for him, it feels fitting that Blomkamp's former compatriot should have the showiest role in the piece. While it lacks the subtlety or the ambiguity to stand along side, say, Heath Ledger's Joker (though it compares favorably with Raoul Silva in Skyfall), Kruger is a dynamic villain in a film that might otherwise feel schematic. The whole plot, after all, is set on rails from Earth to Elysium and Max himself is clean cut, his arc archetypal, as it were - from self-interested to self-sacrificing. From his high-tech yet believable arsenal - which includes, semi-topically, drones - to his guttural accent, Kruger provides a necessary feeling of grit when, surrounded by the paradisiacal beauty of Elysium, things are in danger of getting a touch aesthetic.

In keeping with auteur theory, Blomkamp not only directed the film but wrote it - each aspect is as good as the other. From the dusty slums of future L.A. to the appropriately verdant fields of Elysium, Blomkamp has a real feel for whatever he turns his camera to. While Earth has a sense of gritty reality to it, the fully rendered environment of Elysium, rich and pristine, often resembles a matte painting, not a criticism of the effect so much as their serene unreality. That Elysium seems so close to its namesake, a magical place where any problem can be solved, ultimately, however, comes to undermine the film's political message. Elysium's denouement may be uplifting, but it's a purely symbolic gesture: though it feels right in context, there's no reason to believe the new state of affairs is at all sustainable. Practicality may be dull, but it bears thinking about.


In this regard, Elysium feels more like a fable, a high-octane, politically-charged fable, but one that never quite manages to reconcile the demands of "social realism" with its hopeful message. The idea that one man can make a difference, that the little guy can win out, are messages grounded in the American consciousness (the country of whom the film's critiques may be most immediately relevant), but there will be those that read it as liberal propaganda or, alternately, perversely even, as an anti-immigration tale (ironically those who would otherwise likely praise Elysium's essentially Christian symbolism). Still, beneath the film's grand utopian ambitions, there are strong characters and a resonant story at play here in a world both like and unalike our own.

VERDICT: Not quite the brave new world we were promised, but brave enough. Elysium might not live up to District 9's exquisite blend of social study and science fiction - the issues on display here are arguably more politically complex - but its a bold and entertaining, if occasionally muddled piece of genre filmmaking. It might not be on the level of Pulp Fiction, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, or The Magnificent Ambersons, but it's certainly no Prometheus either. Elysium, for what it's worth, gets a respectable 7/10.

Fraking toasters...

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

BREAKING BAD S05E10

 

"BURIED"


Breaking Bad sure is committed to its almost scientifically precise dramatic arcs. For instance, if last week's episode, "Blood Money", was all about the chemistry then this week's is pure physics.

In the teaser a trail of discarded money leads a skinny old guy to an abandoned car and a zonked-out Jesse spinning on a merry-go-round. Just as that trail leads him - and us - to Jesse, so a personalized copy of Leaves of Grass has brought Hank, at least, to Walt's door. We watch as Walt leaves the garage immediately after their confrontation - his brow is still bleeding from Hank's sucker punch; his words of warning to Hank - "Tread lightly" - still ringing in the DEA agent's ears. As they face off silently face off, the low-angle tilts or shots framed by their hands, twitching for action, the scene is reminiscent of two weary gunslingers facing off. The rivalry between Hank and Walt has only very recently been brought to the fore of the show, but the implication is clear: only one man will be left standing.


Despite being, in Western terms, the black hat, Walt refuses to, in Saul's parlance, "Send him to Belize". He might be a loose end and a threat, but Hank is still family. His snide retort that he ought to send Saul to Belize seems less in character for the Walt we saw in Season 1 than for, say, Tony Soprano. It's indicative of Walt's warped sense of his own identity: for all he's done, Walt still believes he has integrity; he's offended that Saul would even suggest that he off a member of family! Much of Breaking Bad's power continues to be in how much it can say through implication. The moment in which Walt places a phone call to Skyler while pulling away from Hank's drive only to discover that Skyler's already taking a call, Walt's desperation and anger at discovering, his demand to get her on the line, shows how everything is already beginning to unravel for the master manipulator.

"Buried", though, is almost in equal measure Skyler's episode as Walt's. From her tentative meeting with Hank in a restaurant diner to the intervention of Marie, Anna Gunn gets a chance to display a more vulnerable side to the increasingly implacable matriarch of the White clan. Hank may misjudge their initial meeting - from the forced hug to the assertion of Skyler's victimhood - but it's hard to believe he could have gone about it any other way or that Skyler might have responded differently, even if Hank hadn't prematurely broken out the digital voice recorder. His desire to turn Skyler into an asset fails to take into account Skyler's complicity in Walt's crimes, her need for reassurance, for a lawyer even. Having already had to contend with so much, it's understandable the thought of getting it all out there could bring Skyler to near hysteria.


Having been so unsuccessful himself, it shows how far Hank is willing to go that he effectively uses Marie as an attack dog, setting her on Skyler for maximum emotional damage. Marie, so often an object of comedy for the show, goes from sympathetic to outraged as the depth - indeed duration - of Skyler's involvement becomes clear to her - "Hank said when you walked into the pool, that's when you knew... But not then, before that...". Skyler's tearful lack of response damns her as it draws Marie inexorably to the conclusion that Skyler knew "before Hank had his accident". Skyler's unspoken culpability for Hank's near death unleashes from Marie a resounding slap, a slap followed by an attempt to rescue Skyler's infant. After family having so long served as an excuse for terrible deeds, it's nice to see someone taking a genuine interest in Holly's safety, even if it does come from a place of recrimination. 


Walt, meanwhile, is taking care of business at Saul's office. Saul's henchmen, Kuby and Huell, recover Walt's stack of money from the storage garage, but not before taking a moment to act out a Scrooge McDuck family (after all, when else are you going to get the opportunity?). It's a nice little bit of wish fulfillment given that Walt is too uptight to ever indulge in something so goofy. After all, he is the man who coordinated the deaths of ten prison snitches within a two-minute window; whimsical's not exactly within his ballpark. In order to preserve his cache, Walt takes his cache - all $80 or so million of it - and single-handedly buries it in the desert. Despite being built into the premise of the show, Walt's making money has almost always been abstract to us - you never exactly see him pick up a pay check; even now, stuffed into unmarked drums, it almost seems unreal.


That being said, "Buried" is the first episode in a while to address Walt's supposed motivation behind, well, everything. From him sweating away in the desert, sun beating down, framed beautifully by the surrounding rock formations, to his offer to Skyler to turn himself in as long as she promises never to give up the money, we understand that, for all his ego and empire building, the money means something to him. With the coordinates of the bury site pinned to the fridge in the form of lottery numbers, however, it's easy to believe that something may yet go awry on that front: Walt is the only one who knows roughly where the money is and to anyone else those lottery tickets are just scraps of paper. For all it supposed importance to Walt and to the plot, might those riches yet be lost in the depths of the Chihuahuan Desert. With its emphasis on family and lucre, perhaps Episode 10 might better have been called "Blood Money".

Talking of both those things, Lydia's problems with running Walt's empire in his absence resolve themselves (most likely temporarily) with a bloodbath in a desolate scrap metal yard. The men who've taken over cooking operations just aren't up to scratch - their underground desert lab, however nifty, can't rival Gus' super-lab or even the RV. Lydia, like Walt so concerned with the grime and lack of professionalism, is, unlike Walt, unwilling to get her hands dirty. While he slaves away to bury heavy drums out in the desert, donning an unflattering Gumby handkerchief hat, Lydia takes refuge in the meth lab/bunker in thousand dollar stilettos as, in the scrapyard above, a gang of armed killers take out the cooks. When Todd - goddamn Todd - pops the hatch and offers her a hand up, she can't even bring herself to look at the carnage she's wrought: Lydia has to be led through the crime scene, eyes closed lest she espy the slaughter.


Todd, meanwhile, remains a strangely compelling character. Though not as good a chemist as either Walt or Jesse, his matter-of-fact willingness to commit whatever atrocity he deems necessary could make him the most immediate physical threat that Walt's currently facing. A sense of scope dictates that Walt, in those flash-forward sequences, is taking that M60 to wreak his revenge on the likes of Hank, or maybe Jesse, but what if its the callow, quiet Todd, a character who, like no other, embodies the banality of evil? With Jesse a zombie and in police custody, Hank on the warpath, and Skyler under pressure, it's impossible to predict exactly how this will play out. Jesse's aimless spinning on the roundabout highlights his lack of direction, his metaphysical turning, turning - might Hank be the one to give him a purpose and bring him out of that spin?


As Skyler dabs Walt's brow as he lies unconscious in the bathroom, we remember that, at the heart of it, she still loves him, and looking at Walt, wrinkled and sunburned, admit to having screwed up, we may recall that, once upon a time, this was a character we could root for. When Skyler urges caution, that Hank can't prove anything, we can almost believe that, chastened as he is, Walt might just listen. Still, with so many wheels set in motions, there's no way for Walt to truly delay his downfall. The show continues to gather momentum, heading into the final stretch, as things that are long since buried - Walt's cancer and, perhaps, some small degree of humility; the lies he's told - begin to rise, breaking free of his control. Terminal velocity has been reached, the final destination approaches just six episodes hence; wherever Walter and his loved ones are headed, it's nowhere good.

As Breaking Bad ticks over into the next week, we know, as sure as gravity, Walt's sins will find him out. The next episode is tellingly (excuse the pun) called "Confessions". Till the episode airs and the exact nature of those confessions are revealed, we'll just have to contend with the promo:


Friday, 16 August 2013

KICK-ASS 2

 

Here's my review of Kick-Ass 2: http://ap2hyc.com/?p=7354

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

ONLY GOD FORGIVES

 

It'd be easy to dismiss Only God Forgives as Drive in Bangkok: as in his previous collaboration with director Nicholas Winding Refn, Ryan Gosling stars as a laconic, almost too-cool protagonist amidst neon lights and bursts of shocking violence. That's not the reason you should dismiss Only God Forgives, however; the reason is that it's simply not very good.

Substituting an eerie red glow for Drive's softer palette, the film takes place more or less unambiguously in hell or at very least some form of purgatory. It's a purgatory where Gosling's now too-silent, supposedly tormented Julian stalks corridors perpetrating acts of sudden, matter-of-fact brutality for no ostensible reason. His child murdering rapist brother is dead and his callous, entitled mother, Crystal - Kristin Scott Thomas in peroxide hair and leopard print - makes an appearance to demand revenge. Vithaya Pansringarm's Chang governs the lawless streets as a karaoke-singing, katana-wielding Angel of Death. Blood glistens and sprays, and still Only God Forgives feels strangely anemic.


Freudian subtext abounds, covert - Crystal coiled around Julian's waist - and not so - Julian, we are told, fled the states after murdering his father. She smokes on balconies calling for reprisals like Lady Macbeth, he watches skin shows and stares angst-ridden at his hands; only Chang acts, bloodily extracting justice amidst Orientalist fantasia: there are no complex, empathisable characters, only archetypes. Only God Forgives is all about the symbolism, but in replacing the moral ambiguity of Drive with a simple binary of good and evil, it feels shallow, almost parodic. Though cinematographer Larry Smith experiments alluringly with lumination - it's 20 minutes before we see natural light - it feels sedate, lacking in internal life. Even Cliff Martinez's electronic score, such a crucial part of the earlier film, feels overdone, like it's imitating itself.

Refn's ability to frame a shot is magnificent - the film is nothing if not beautiful - but, despite the clear influence of auteurs like David Lynch and Gaspar Noe, Only God Forgives is a definite case of diminishing returns. Inscrutable and elliptical in equal measure, full of dream sequences and a sense of dislocation, Refn's self-professed investigation into the mystic comes across as simply mystifying; worst of all, it's difficult to care. While the film may not elicit the boos it received at Cannes, when all is said and done, it slips away like an insubstantial dream. 

Only God Forgives is Drive lite: 3/10.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

BREAKING BAD

  Looks like I'm going to need a new title for the site.

S05E09: BLOOD MONEY

AN IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS

To compare Breaking Bad to a chemical reaction, as seems appropriate given the protagonist's forte and the changes he undergoes, it would have to be a gas explosion. It can seen that there's not much going on - Walt and Skyler work the car wash, Jesse zones out with his druggie mates - even as the show subtly builds tension - with glances, inferences, words unsaid - till it reaches saturation point. All it takes then is a single spark to unleash a reservoir of destruction. Like a gas explosion, too, you might know its coming but you can never predict the moment of its arrival or what might set it off.

Picking up on the cold open that started the season - a scrawny Walter White with a full head of hair purchases an M60 machinegun in the bathroom of a diner while under the alias of Lambert, Skyler's maiden name - we now see that journey take him to 308 Negro Arroyo Lane, the White family home. Except it no longer is. From the skaters shredding in the dried-out swimming pool - the image of which kicks the episode off - to the single word 'HEISENBERG' graffiti'd across the kitchen wall, its clear that something terrible has happened. 


Walt recovers the vial of Chekhov's ricin hidden in a plug socket in the master bedroom, concocted midway through Season 4 to vanquish the now long-dead Gus, only adding, it seems, to his already formidable arsenal. Might the poison be for him after he's accomplished this one final deed? In any case, given the dilapidated house and the terrified reaction of his neighbor Carol to his presence on the driveway, it seems Walt has achieved the fame or notoriety he secretly longed for. 

Which is strange when you consider the opening act of 'Blood Money' goes out of its way to establish Walt's effort to live a (semi-)normal life, micromanaging the car wash and suggesting to Skylar that they consider buying another: modest ambitions for a man who recently declared he was in the empire business. Still, though he appears content to fade into the background in wishing his customer's "an A1 day!", Mike's alter-ego coldly reasserts itself, refusing to help the hapless Lydia with her now-failing meth exportation business.

Though she implores him, offering him money and a return to the kingpin lifestyle, Walt, it seems, has no interest in returning to the drug trade. He has made his decision, and, as always, presents himself as a man in control of his own destiny. The tragedy of Walt, however, as we all know, is that he isn't, he never has been: we've watched over five seasons as a desperate scheme to cook up illicit substances to provide for his family in the wake of his it-seemed-then inevitable death has spiraled into murder and megalomania all because of Walt's ego, his sense of thwarted ambition.

On the other side of the toilet door, Hank finds himself confronted in hardback form by the likelihood of his brother-in-law's crimes. There's an extended track-in on said door and before it opens Hank has become a changed man. He can't stomach dinner with the family, making hurried excuses as to illness, let alone look Walter in the eye. His disorientation spins off into a full-blown panic attack while driving, which Dean Norris, one of the cast's less-praised members, sells completely. We buy his determined sense of industry as he sorts through the Heisenberg case file. 
Instead of Breaking Bad's usual time-lapse style of montage, this sequence - set to Jim White's Wordmule - takes place in "real time", capturing every moment of Hank's reinvestigation as inspects documents and photographs through wiser, more focused eyes. A blurry CCTV capture of Walt and Jesse stealing the barrel of methylamine all the way back in the finale of Season 1 coheres so that we can almost imagine that Hank could almost recognize his ski-masked brother-in-law. As if a handwriting analysis with Gale's notebook hadn't already confirmed Walt's connection to Gale's "other favorite" W.W. Hank is through the looking-glass now and cannot choose to look away.

After so much of a slow burn - five seasons, fifty-four episodes to uncover the truth - that Walt precipitates the conflict is a testament to his that same tragic flaw, but also to the tremendous ability of the whole writing team, in this case Peter Gould, that it could seem so shocking and yet so inevitable. 

Before 'Blood Money' gets to that point, however, there remains the small matter of Jesse Pinkman. For Walt, self-awareness remains ever elusive - or indeed, illusive: in the bedroom mirror of his trashed family home, his reflection is refracted, as though, after everything, he still can't quite see himself for who he really is. For Jesse, however, his understanding of and sense of accountability for the sins he has committed is all-too real. 

As such, we find Jesse in a similar place physically as many times before, hanging out with Skinny Pete and Badger in his pad. Though Jesse may be "present" for Badger's telling of a hilariously cheesy and unexpectedly gory piece of Star Trek fan fiction, as well as Skinny Pete's technically accurate explanation of the transport system - "It's science, bitch!" - safe to say that Jesse is not all there. That is till Walt makes an unexpected appearance.

Summoned by Jesse's attempt to offload his meth riches to worthy causes, including the family of the murdered kid from "Dead Freight", via Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk on cheerfully immoral form, though lamenting the death of a lawyer in Walt's murder spree in the mid-season finale), Walt confronts him with supposed understanding. Through transparent lies about Mike's well-being and generally unwanted logic, Pinkman can do nothing but sit in disgust and self-loathing and play along. 

 
Walt's hollow plea for trust shows how lost his former protege is to him: after all, as Walt himself once said in a fit of pique, the meth money is blood money and with it comes guilt over all those who shed that blood. Jesse's ridding himself off that money, tossing it in bundles from a moving vehicle, shows his desperate need to be free of it all. As the saying goes, Jesse is in blood stepp'd in so far, that should he wade no more... In short, he's trapped, haunted and unraveling. 

In Jesse's puffy, bleary-eyed face, however, I thought I saw a glimpse of the same weary contempt that Mike once embodied. For the distinct threat to Walt's security that Hank's become, the possibility of danger from the direction of Lydia and her dissatisfied clients, could Walt's downfall lie in his student who paid for his education with his piece of mind and perhaps his very soul?


The whole episode builds to a head when Walt casually approaches Hank with the tracking device Walt found attached to his car, which he recognizes as Hank's from their joint stake out of Gus Fring. Having paid a friendly visit to the ostensibly ill Hank - the DEA agent could hardly reveal the real reason for his car accident - Walt's pride will not let him let it lie. 

Walt's need to impress with his own canniness, his intractability could be mistaken for a panicked gambit - after all, he has reason to believe Hank has discovered that incriminating copy of Leaves of Grass, so arrogantly left as bathroom reading - but Bryan Cranston's calculated performance makes his motives perfectly clear. He’s halfway out the garage door and you can see the wheels turning in his head when he turns and asks the question. After all he's been through, perhaps more so since his abrupt exit from the empire business, Walt has to be seen as the cleverest man in the room.

Then the long-awaited yet strangely unexpected explosion arrives: Hank hits him, hits Walt, the man he once so fondly referred to as a brainiac, a geek. Always a fragile, impossible state of affairs, it's a miracle Walt's deception lasted as long as it did, but Hank has paid for it. "Heisenberg? Heisenberg. You lying, two-faced sack of shit", he practically snarls at Walt, gripping him by the collar. Walt delicately fends him off, playing the conciliator, warning him about the harm he could cause with "wild accusations". 




Even having shown his true colors, Walt remains unpredictable, moving briskly from eliciting sympathy - his cancer's back, he's on chemo, he's fighting like hell - to bald rationalizations - even if Hank could convince anyone, Walt'll be dead before he can be jailed. Recriminatory yet strangely resigned, Hank makes a gesture - "Have Skyler bring the kids here then we'll talk" - at which point Walt reveals that other face: the cold, almost serpentine gaze of Heisenberg. "That's not going to happen."

Hank's "I don't even know who you are" is heartbreaking, the realization that this man whom he has cared for and supported is a monster - a monster who drove into oncoming traffic to keep them away from Gus' lab; Walt's response, that perhaps Hank should "tread lightly" says it all. Walt has gone from a man intimidated by Hank's firearm to one willing, albeit implicitly, to threaten his brother-in-law's life. Would Walt kill Hank? We don't know - anything is terrifyingly possible with the almost outright villain Walt's become.

As such, the return of Walt’s cancer feels inevitable, less divine punishment than an almost Nietzschean feeling of “this is how life goes”. Ironic, perhaps, that the thing that consumed him, physically and psychologically, in the first season, that provided the impetus for the whole show, has now almost been pinched out of the plot: a spate of vomiting may have uncovered the loss of Gale's gift, but - given his hair has returned by the time of the cold open - we cannot honestly believe that it's cancer that will ultimately bring Walt's machinations to an end. 

Still, even as Walt tries to weasel out of paying his dues, we finds ourselves strangely back where we began: Jesse, the self-loathing addict (ultimately, to what is Jesse addicted if not guilt?"; Skyler, the self-possessed matriarch of the White household; and though Walt may have millions at his disposal, how can he lavish himself while laundering his money at $14.95 a pop? He may have spoken in self-preservation, but Walt's words rings true: for now he is just a dying man running a car wash. Nothing has changed yet, of course, everything has: Walt's cancer diagnosis may, we suppose, have curtailed his dream of running an empire, but the desire remains untouched. The nebbish has become a supervillain and there's no going back. 

There are no moral forces at play here, just chemistry: the change has occurred and cannot be undone. All of the incidents we've seen so far - Gus' removal, the deaths of twelve would-be informants, the skirmish with Hank - are all just gas pockets en route to the final cataclysm: these are all just small parts of what Breaking Bad is truly about. Mr. Chips may not have become Scarface as showrunner Vince Gilligan promised - not quite yet at least - but Walt has a bloody big gun and the world that once, however briefly was his, is coming for him. 

One thing's for certain: his name will be remembered.

Seven episodes to go. Here's the promo for the next: