REVIEW: BREAKING BAD – THE FINAL SEASON

STARRING

Bryan Cranston (Power Rangers)
Anna Gunn (Sully)
Aaron Paul (Central Intelligence)
Dean Norris (The Big Bang Theory)
Betsy Brandt (Magic Mike)
RJ Mitte (Final Recall)
Bob Odenkirk (Operation: Endgame)
Giancarlo Esposito (Money Monster)
Jonathan Banks (The Lizzie Borden Chronicles)
Laura Fraser (In The Cloud)
Jesse Plemons (The Post)

Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris in Breaking Bad (2008)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST STARS

Matt L. Jones (Mom)
Charles Baker (Abysm)
Lavell Crawford (American Ultra)
Michael Bowen (Lost)
Bill Burr (Date Night)
Emily Rios (Snowfall)
Adam Godley (Powers)
Jessica Hecht (Dan In Real Life)
Carmen Serano (Next Friday)
Robert Forster (Jackie Brown)
Louis Ferreira (Stargate Universe)

Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (2008)Since the beginning of Breaking Bad, there was always the question of if and when Walter White (Bryan Cranston) would be caught. His brother in law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) was a DEA agent, so there were so many ways for his work as a meth cooker/drug kingpin to go south. And as the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad began, Hank had finally caught on to his brother in law. It was the start of the end, and it couldn’t end well, at least for the characters. For the audience, it ended spectacularly. Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (2008)First off “The Final Season” is what the packaging says, but that would surely include the episodes from the first half of the fifth season, but season five was divided into two eight episode chunks, even though they were shot and aired nearly a year apart. It must be some sort of contractual thing. The second half kicks off seconds after the last episode with Hank finding a book of poetry that the late Gale Boeticher gave to Walter. Hank puts it all together, and goes home to do research, struggling with a panic attack as his world comes crushing down. But the great thing about the show is that this tension of Hank knowing could have dragged on for episodes. By the end of the first, he and Walter confront each other. Meanwhile Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) has five million dollars and all he wants to do is give it to the family of the boy whose child was murdered by Todd (Jesse Plemons). He’s too emotionally distraught to make any rational decisions and is eventually arrested for throwing his money away.Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad (2008)Skyler White (Anna Gunn) is confronted by Hank shortly thereafter, and though both love her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), Skyler doesn’t know what to do, and doesn’t want to incriminate herself so she stays mute. Walter raises the stakes on Hank – who knows his career is ruined the minute he tells his coworkers that his brother is a meth kingpin – to keep him at bay, but Hank is not the sort of officer who backs down because of threats. Meanwhile Todd and his crew are now making meth, and their work doesn’t make Lydia (Laura Fraser) all that happy because their purity levels are far below Walter’s and their meth isn’t even blue. Walter gets Jesse to Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk), and the plan is to take him to the long spoke of Disappearer, but though Jesse goes along with this, it’s at this time he realizes that Walter was the one who stole the ricin cigarette for him, and he wants revenge. Eventually, he teams up with Hank.Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad (2008)When it all goes down, it goes down in interesting ways that might not be predicted, but feel right for just about everyone. That’s led to problems because it’s a pretty neat package in the end. But that won’t stop Breaking Bad for being revered as one of the greatest accomplishments in television history, up there with (though not on the same level as) The Wire.Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt in Breaking Bad (2008)If it’s not as good as The Wire, it’s only because at some point Breaking Bad stopped being about the exterior world, and became focused on the human drama. In that way the series peaked in Season 2, when it showed the real world collateral damage of Walter’s pursuit of wealth and power. But the show always had pulp fiction roots, and in comparison to The Shield or The Sopranos, what’s most impressive is how tight the whole thing is – there are no seasons, no episodes, and only a few plot strands that didn’t pay off or add up, and that’s pretty amazing. Much of that had to do with the first season. Had they not had a shortened order for the first year, they might have pushed Walter too far along in his journey into crime, but the way it plays out now, there are 62 episodes and about forty eight hours of a near-seamless narrative that is mostly broken up into acts. And, as series creator Vince Gilligan said from the outset, this was about turning Mr. Chips into Scarface and so each season saw Walter fall further from sympathy, and further from his initial goals of simply taking care of his family. As the character says in the finale, only then can he finally admit he did it for himself.Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (2008)What the final eight episodes do is unravel everything, with “Ozymandius” the standout episode, as directed by Rian Johnson. To that point, the tension has been raised, and things have to explode, and so explode they do, with no one left uninjured. It’s one of the most harrowing and brilliant episodes of television ever filmed, and it’s amazing how well it pays off so much of what’s been building over the years. But the nice thing about television is that the show had two more episodes to unravel everything else, and gave Walter White a glimpse of Hell, and a moment to make things maybe a little less bad.Dean Norris and Steven Michael Quezada in Breaking Bad (2008)At this point, everyone on the show knew what they were doing, and so there are no bum performances, and everyone is doing career-best work, with a deep bench of great supporting players. Kevin Rankin and Michael Bowen play two of the head Neo Nazis, and though both had played toughs before, this isn’t just guest of the week stuff, these characters have lives and feel lived in. It’s weird how great Bowen is, many might know him from Valley Girl, or Jackie Brown (or a small part in Kill Bill), but he transforms himself into another person, and that’s just one of the minor characters in the season. Bryan Cranston is amazing in these episodes as he reveals the worst of the character and then tries to show empathy while doing the worst possible things. That people still like Walt, that people misguidedly champion him has everything to do with how good Cranston plays it. And it’s no surprise that Aaron Paul is moving on to a big screen career, because he and the creators took a nothing part and transformed the character (who was supposed to get killed off in the first season) into the heart and soul of the series.Michael Bowen, Bryan Cranston, and Dean Norris in Breaking Bad (2008)But then there’s also Anna Gunn, who many fans grew to hate, but who brilliantly played a conflicted woman who was in a relationship she couldn’t get out of, and would occasionally vacillate into accepting the evil around her. And RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr., the one person who fully believes in his father until he finally sees the monster within. And then there’s someone like Bob Odenkirk, who is mostly comic relief, but manages to bring a reality and empathy to his shyster lawyer, and that’s not to mention Jesse Plemmons great work as Todd, whose baby face is a perfect counterbalance to his sociopathic nature.Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (2008)It’s also worth noting that the show was shot on 35mm, and that mixed with the directors means this is one of the most cinematic shows on television. The camera moves in ways that advance the story, and where most TV shows can be enjoyed without watching the picture the whole time, here there is so much going on in terms of visual storytelling. If you watch “Ozymandius” a second time, during the flashback opening, a key prop is placed prominently in the frame, as if to set up its role later in the episode. You don’t get that from most TV shows.Ultimately, Breaking Bad is a great work, a great story, and it’s easy to see why people champion it as being as good as the best of cinema. Though that’s apples and oranges –it’s pointless to compare the greatness of Jaws to the greatness of Moby Dick, or Hamlet to The Beatles. That said, one wishes there were more than a handful of shows on this level. Hopefully Breaking Bad will spawn them.

REVIEW: BREAKING BAD – SEASON 5

STARRING

Bryan Cranston (Power Rangers)
Anna Gunn (Sully)
Aaron Paul (Central Intelligence)
Dean Norris (The Big Bang Theory)
Betsy Brandt (Magic Mike)
RJ Mitte (Final Recall)
Bob Odenkirk (Operation: Endgame)
Giancarlo Esposito (Money Monster)
Jonathan Banks (The Lizzie Borden Chronicles)
Laura Fraser (In The Cloud)
Jesse Plemons (The Post)

Jonathan Banks, Bryan Cranston, and Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad (2008)

RECURRING / NOTABLE GUEST STARS

Jim Beaver (Deadwood)
Christopher Cousins (The Grudge 2)
Steven Michael Quezada (Girlfriend’s Day)
Matt L. Jones (Mom)
Emily Rios (Snowfall)
Charles Baker (Abysm)
Bill Burr (Date Night)
Louis Ferreira (Stargate Universe)
Michael Bowen (Lost)
Larry Hankin (Barry)
Michael Shamus Wiles (Lost Highways)

Jonathan Banks in Breaking Bad (2008)This is it – the beginning of the end. After four fantastic seasons that progressively made the series grow stronger and stronger, we’re just about there. I can’t say that I agree with the decision that AMC and Sony made to split the 16-episode fifth and final season into two parts, but I’m really excited for where it’s going. While this Blu-ray release labels itself as “The Fifth Season,” it’s really only the first half of season season five. I imagine that when the second half makes its way to Blu-ray, it will be labeled as “The Final Season.” The eight episodes contained in this set don’t quite function as a stand-alone season – there isn’t a complete arc – but it definitely sets itself up for what should be an intense finale. And with the show’s track record, it’s fair to assume that ‘Breaking Bad’ is going to end with a very loud bang.Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (2008)Season four ended with Mr. Walter White (three-time Emmy-winner Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, who also has two Emmys of his own) obtaining complete liberation from their smart, intimidating, and oppressive distributor – Gus Fring. Without a single obstacle in their way and with the best “cook” in the world, the sky is the limit for our anti-hero duo. There are so many juicy moments in the contained eight episodes, moments sure to make every fan of the series giggle with excitement, that I’m going to try my very best to keep the details vague for those of you who have not yet watched it.Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad (2008)There are three major results of Gus no longer being part of the picture: the DEA – including Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) – are pushing hard to find every known member of Gus’ international operation; without a lab and distribution, Walt and Jesse must now find new methods of cooking and distributing their 99-percent pure crystal meth; and Walt’s ego is out of control. If you just took down biggest meth operation in North America, wouldn’t you have an inflated head as well?The Blu-ray cover art contains the text “All Hail the King” emboldened on the front. This isn’t a praise that we, the audience, give to Mr. White. No, it’s a praise that he gives to himself. Having defeated the one man that very well may have been smarter than himself, Walt is out of control. As we see, it’s his way or the highway. There isn’t a trace of Mr. White in Walt anymore – it’s all Heisenberg from here on out. It’s always been obvious that this series is all about the erosion of good man. At this point, the once-good man no longer exists and, in comparison, Jesse begins to look like a saint. Walter White may no longer have cancer, but he is a cancer. He brings death, ruining lives and families wherever he goes. His intentions were good in the start, but that’s no longer the case. The character that I once rooted for is becoming so evil that I cannot wait to see him meet his demise – assuming that’s where showrunner, creator, and writer Vince Gilligan is taking the series.Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (2008)But just because Gus is gone, it doesn’t mean that other problems aren’t going to arise. As we saw in her last scene from season four, Walt’s wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) no longer views her husband the same way. She will continue to launder his dirty money through their car wash, but she’s no longer happily cooperating and she’s going to fight Walt’s will until his – or her – dying breath. Aside from past issues with competing cartels, Gus’ operation was functioning flawlessly until Walt and Jesse came around. His team was silent and tight, their loyalty and trust never in question – but now that the DEA is applying heat and Gus is out of the picture, how quiet do you think his pressured henchmen will be now. And as if Gus’ 10 major employees weren’t posing enough of a threat, how do you think Gus’ right-hand man Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) is going to take the news of the season four’s final events?Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad (2008)Season five doesn’t feel like a complete season (which I why I’m assuming the cover art doesn’t follow suit with the previous season releases by titling it ‘The Complete Fifth Season’), but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t filled with greatness. There are plenty of extremely memorable moments – for the good or bad of the characters – and it’s completely entertaining through and through. Starting with the season’s opening tease, there are plenty of puzzling twists and ominous foreshadowing. The episodes found on this Blu-ray set might have been strengthened by running fluidly with the final eight, but at least this set allows you to catch up and get refreshed prior to the final 8.

REVIEW: VANILLA SKY

CAST

Tom Cruise (Knight and Day)
Penelope Cruz (Grimsby)
Cameron Diaz (Bad TEacher)
Kurt Russell (Big Trouble In Little China)
Jason Lee (My Name Is Earl)
Noah Taylor (Game of Thrones)
Timothy Spall (Rock Star)
Tilda Swinton (Constantine)
Michael Shannon (Man of Steel)
Ivana Milicevic (Casino Rtoyale)
Johnny Galecki (The Big Bang Theory)
W. Earl Brown (Bates Motel)
Alicia Witt (Two Weeks Notice)
Ken Leung (Lost)
Mark Bramhall (Alias)
Brent Sexton (God Friended Me)
Laura Fraser (Breaking Bad)

MV5BMTU5NTUxOTkxNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODk0MzY2MjE@._V1_Vanilla Sky didn’t really have it easy in the year of its release. On top of being a Hollywood remake of the critically-acclaimed Spanish film, it also had to contend with the debut of Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and the wider distribution of Nolan’s Memento — both of which generated buzz by accomplishing similar things in superior ways — earlier that year. Therefore, the field was crowded in the psycho-puzzle subgenre, and the twisted story of David Aames’ conflict of romantic pursuits and amnesiac murder mystery wasn’t, in a literal sense, anything new.MV5BMTU3NDE1ODA3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDk4NTA4MTE@._V1_SX1777_CR0,0,1777,999_AL_Crowe tweaks the narrative, though, by emphasizing the protagonist’s legacy as the heir to a publishing empire, accentuating his recklessness with the business end of things and a general self-awareness of the tools at his disposal: charisma, wealth, and appearance. That makes it all the more intriguing to watch his casual tryst with clingy actress Julie Gianni (Cameron Diaz) evolve beyond his control, and to see it all deconstructed by a beautiful but comparatively commonplace dancer, Sofia (Penelope Cruz), who immediately steals his heart.MV5BMjAwMjc2MTg4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDM5MDM2MDI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1528,1000_AL_Cruise admirably embraces the understated commentary on his persona through his character’s carefree place of power and his thorny relationship with his father, with his easy charm and building anxiety driven by writer/director Crowe’s good-natured style of human interaction. An immediate spark ignites between his character and Sofia within, unsurprisingly, a cluttered celebration of the greatness of David on his birthday, and it stays credible throughout the film due to how Penelope Cruz’s down-to-earth wit and allure drags him out of the clouds, shaping into a poignant love story. The standout performance, however, emerges in Cameron Diaz with arguably the best turn of her career, encapsulating obsession and one-way affection in a beautiful shell that’s both sympathetic and unsettling, the cloud over David’s happiness.MV5BMTc4MjU0MDY4NF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzg1MTUyNA@@._V1_SX1522_CR0,0,1522,999_AL_Infusing ethereal tracks by composer (and wife) Nancy Wilson and Icelandic band Sigur Ros with classic and contemporary melancholy pop songs, director Crowe again uses his musical awareness to heighten the visual and dramatic tempo in Vanilla Sky. Instead of directly enveloping scenes in the feel of a time period or the clear emotional state of a character, however, his musical selection here transports the audience through the complicated space of David Aames’ mind, guiding the film in both similar and differing tonal directions to that of Amenabar’s original intents. Crowe’s attunement to sound mixes intriguingly with the growingly abstract nature of David’s telling of the events, embracing an attitude that’s somewhere between the earnest warmth of the director’s previous pictures and the disappearing grip on reality within David’s psychosis. Overt sentimentality does get in the way of establishing a consistent suspenseful mood, but that duality also becomes one of the film’s distinguishing attributes as the tone shifts between those margins.MV5BZDRkOGQwNWItZjQ1ZC00MjU0LWJiZTUtZWIwMjZkMTdhNWM5XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_Along the way, Cameron Crowe never lets the viewer forget that this is a narrative being spun by an imprisoned man in a latex mask, divulged to an inquisitive psychiatrist as he builds a case for David’s mental state surrounding a murder accusation. Paired with the evocative perspective of Braveheart and Almost Famous cinematographer John Toll, surreal cues emerge through the film’s visual language that suggest there’s more to everything than what we’re shown, where little details scattered about — photographs, drawings, even the mole on someone’s body — begin to play with the perspectives of both David and the audience’s trust level in him. It’s at this point where Vanilla Sky pulls the curtain back on what it’s really about, descending into the pandemonium of nightmares and unreliable narration through warped science-fiction that recalibrates just about everything that’s transpired thus far. Crowe doesn’t get carried away with it all, either, keeping a firm grip on what’s safe to be deduced and not as the film shapeshifts into a psychological thriller.MV5BZmQ0YmE1MTMtYWQ2ZS00ZDNhLWIzOTctNjk4YTQ1YmQzZDZhXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMTI3MDk3MzQ@._V1_Vanilla Sky tumbles down that rabbit hole in a wild, slyly unsettling climax to the tragic mysteries of David’s life, both revealing the truth of what’s going on and inviting different interpretations to what it all means through layered clues, more flashes of images and whispers in the distance. It’s unsurprising that heavy emotion speaks louder than thematic lucidity in Crowe’s ending, the most divergent part of the film from the original; however, the bittersweet nature in how it feeds into the choice between moving on with one’s life or perpetuating an illusion says enough. Despite tiptoeing around some rather dark elements, it leaves the audience with a degree of cathartic optimism hanging in the air alongside swelling atmospheric music and painterly surroundings, yet there’s also the lingering sensation that everything hasn’t been, and won’t be, fully answered. Whether repeat viewings will bring that more into focus depends on the viewer, but thankfully experiencing the sweet and sour of David’s life is compelling enough to continue doing so anyway.