Perhaps I shouldn’t complain about the prevalence of coincidences on Breaking Bad. After all Lost, one of my favorite shows of all time, served them up one after another to an increasingly incredulous audience. But Season 2 ends with a big whopper, the kind that flirts with viewer outrage. Perhaps too much of a splashy ending?
I’ve been happily working my way through Breaking Bad — I’m close to the end of the second season, and I’m not even halfway through, which is a good thing — and I just saw perhaps the best-written episode of the season so far. “Phoenix,” written by John Shiban (a familiar name to you X-Files fans, but Shiban’s been all over the place), is exceptionally, tightly written — less about the criminal aspects of Breaking Bad, and more a thematic exploration of fatherhood, of fathers and sons, of fathers and daughters. The episode is a good, solid reminder that at its core, the television series is about family.
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One thing about John Sayles: calling his films didactic or preachy seems like stating the obvious at this point, because that’s just kind of the way Sayles’ films are. From Matewan (1987) — a great film, but see it if only for the young Will Oldham — to Casa de Los Babys (2003), Sayles’ films may be complex and cross-sectional, but the big lessons at their cores are not. I realize I’m being willfully reductionist if I reduce a film’s moral to “We’re all connected” or “The world isn’t as black and white as you think,” but viewers of Lone Star (1996) or Eight Men Out (1988) — two very fine films — may agree with my assessment.
I think that’s just how Sayles rolls, and that’s fine with me; best get that out of the way. Amigo may be Sayles’ least commercial film in quite a while, probably as much as my favorite film of his, Men with Guns (1997), and I take that fact (along with the clearly shoestring budget) as proof of Amigo being a labor of love. (Do a Google search for “Sayles” and “uncompromising” and you’ll see what I mean.)
No one blows shit up quite like Michael Bay. Roland Emmerich may flatten entire cities with tsunamis, and turn the earth’s crust into strips of taffy, but only Michael Bay has the gleeful abandon of a boy crashing his Matchboxes together.
For a movie about robots who transform into different objects, each moving part inseparable from the whole, Bay loves blasting things apart in an orgy of destruction, the separate components rendered in exquisite CGI detail: steel girders twisted, wood splintered, oil spilled, scaffolding, plaster, wheels, metal, glass, concrete, the building blocks of capital since the Industrial Revolution.
In the very first fight sequence in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man (2008), the titular hero (played perfectly by Donnie Yen) faces off against a rival. Making the most minimal of gestures, the Wing Chun master Ip Man stands perfectly straight, his spine stiff and unbending, even during the spectacular drubbing he gives his opponent.
In the Ip Man series, Donnie Yen embodies (dare I say it?) Oriental discipline, and I use that term with all the East Asian cultural baggage it implies. He’s the very picture of studied equanimity, and with his hair cropped closely to his skull, and his somber black robes, he’s actually far more reminiscent of a monk — not a Shaolin monk, but you know, the other kind.
So my self-imposed challenge of the month of September was to write one blog entry a day – short little squibs, at the very least, then stretched if the movie, good or bad, warranted the extra space. So far, so good; except for a couple days here and there, I was able to muster the writing discipline to crank something out every day.
However, I can’t think of a better illustration of the garbage-in-garbage-out principle than what I’ve done in the last thirty days, but the truth is that I was stuck in a bit of a writing bind. The more depth there potentially was to a film, the more difficult it would be to meet my daily deadline, since I wouldn’t be content with writing only 150 words on, say, Mesrine. So soldier on I did, gamely watching the summer movie franchises and telling myself I’d be popping them into the DVD player anyway at some point, and stepping up to the daily routine of writing. A mostly rewarding experience, as you can imagine.
Ti West’s formal exercise in the babysitter-in-distress genre is, alas, little more than that, but it’s fascinatingly watchable in a kind of academic way. All the elements are in place: an oblivious college student (played by Levi’s model Jocelin Donahue), a one-time babysitting gig, a creaky mansion in the middle of nowhere, the house’s creepy residents (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov – what a cast! — performing mannered line readings), and an unprecedented lunar eclipse – well, the kind that Satanists of all stripes apparently find irresistible, anyway.
Grace seems, at times, to be a cruel little film, but it’s probably one of the best horror movies I’ve seen in quite some time, its abysmal 4.5 rating on IMDB notwithstanding. The blurb (from USA Today, certainly more trustworthy than myself) compares Paul Solet’s film to “a Stephen King tale,” in contrast to a “splatter-fest horror flick,” but that’s accurate only to the extent that King has long flirted with, and succumbed to, the idea of placing children in mortal danger. In Grace, the aforementioned peril also involves the child’s pregnant mother, Madeline Matheson (played by a good Jordan Ladd), who is determined to deliver her baby through natural childbirth. I don’t really want to reveal too many details about the movie, except to write that things go very wrong, and the grieving mother makes what seems like an indefensible decision, but the screenplay is finely engineered enough so that her choice, and a subsequent miraculous plot twist, are, by horror-movie logic, utterly believable. Yes, you more or less see where the film is going after the first half hour is over, but that’s the joy of it. There’s nothing like anticipation to make you squirm.