Thursday, May 31, 2012

Reading Rainbow: Independence Day by Richard Ford

Despite the fact that nearly three months passed between when I began and completed reading this book, Independence Day was every bit the masterwork that the first in the Frank Bascombe series, The Sportswriter, was. As I have surely stated before, there may not be a writer out there whose prose is as consistently awe-inspiring as Richard Ford's. The release of his newest novel, Canada (less than $19.00 brand new in hardcover), this week has me brimming with excitement because there is more Richard Ford--new Richard Ford--out there for me to read.

Returning to Independence Day, Ford's Pulitzer Prize and PEN/Faulkner Award winning fifth novel, Ford drops in on protagonist Frank Bascombe on another holiday weekend, this time on the titular weekend in 1988. Just over four years (if my memory of when The Sportswriter takes place is correct; I believe it was in 1984, but it could have been 1982) have passed since the reader last got a glimpse into the life of Frank Bascombe. The death of his son and the near completeness at which his old life had been torn from him have left Frank to live in his self-termed Existence Period, marked by ambivalence and characterized by his goal to simply be. Decisiveness, at least as it relates to life-altering choices, is not a trait that Frank is displaying at this juncture in his life. As the weekend progresses, the people in his life, both in the short- and long-term act with widely varying degrees of respect as pertains to Frank, and it all just happens to him with little [re]action from our hero.

What makes Frank Bascombe so compelling his his voice. Imbued with the natural predisposition of a philosopher, it is often how he reads a situation--sometimes in completely divergent ways within the span of mere seconds--that sets this book and Ford's protagonist apart from others. The first-person narrative construct allows for Frank to quizzically look upon the situations that present themselves, his voice ringing out with equal parts poetry and clarity. Ford's deftness at which he captures the essence of the Everyman beset by indecision while blessed with an innate critical eye that allows him to observe without acting leaves the reader with a book that is breathtaking even with the simplicity that lies at the surface. Independence Day is a much richer novel than one could ever expect given the events that occur and is absolutely deserving of the mountains of praise heaped upon it.

But don't take my word for it...

Prick Tunes: Josh Ritter "The Curse"

All I should have to say is: Josh Ritter and creepy puppets.
The video was the work of Liam Hurley, a member of his supporting band The Royal City band. The song is from the album So Runs the World Away, its title coming from a line in Hamlet. I really love the lilting waltz going on here. The puppetry puts it over the top.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Prick Tunes: The Bangles "Hazy Shade of Winter"

I really like Simon and Garfunkel, but I refuse to feel bad about liking this version of their classic. Mostly because it's awesome. GFY.

Wordy Old Men on Downton Abbey: Series Two, Episode One

You know the drill. We're doing the versions that aired in the U.K. DVD's available here, and Blu-rays available here.

Series (that's British for "season") Two kicks off with Matthew in the trenches. It is November of 1916. Over two years have passed since last we saw the Crawleys and their staff. Matthew (and later we find out Thomas is also there) is in The Somme, where 58,000 British troops were lost. Bates is away in London, attending his mother's funeral. Edith is learning to drive / being a bitch at every turn. Sybil, affected by the death of a peer, decides that she must do something more. With the help of Isobel, she takes up a nursing course in York. When she is dropped off at the nursing school, Branson professes his love for her, which she ultimately dismisses but promises she won't tell anyone what he's done. Matthew returns to Downton from the front with a fiancee in tow, much to everyone's (especially Mary's) surprise. Dipshits who will never have to fight seem to have a lot to say about the men who aren't on the front. Lord Grantham misinterprets a letter from the military as a call to service and gets excited, only to find that they simply wanted him to parade around in his uniform. Bates returns from London with news that he believes his wife will now grant him divorce meaning he and Anna can marry. William feels the pull to take up arms but continues to pay heed to his father's wishes to not fight. Mary and Matthew put the awkwardness behind them and move on as friends. Bates's wife, Vera, shows up at Downton Abbey, is horrifyingly evil, steals every last shred of happiness from Bates, demands that he leave his post lest she ruin both Anna and the Crawley family with the information she divined from conversations with Mrs. O'Brien, the unwitting gossip. Bates leaves Downton, Anna, doing the honorable thing as always, putting is own happiness last. Thomas, having seen the horrors of trench warfare first-hand, intentionally takes a bullet in the hand to get away from the front. 

WG: World War I as a bracing intro to Season Two. I'll lean on you or TSLF for the history lesson, but I assume the advent of the first great war was the fulcrum on which the culture in England began to tip from Lords and Ladies to something more democratic?

OMD: My knowledge of European history is somewhat limited, but this is my understanding of the situation. Apparently the massive amount of debt that the United Kingdom took on in wartime led to post-war inflation which saw the Pound's worth decrease by 61.2%. Unemployment skyrocketed. The rich wanted to continue on as if nothing had changed, which fomented discontent and the according rise of the labour-liberalist movement and socialism. I'm sure I butchered that, so any British historians feel free to jump in here.

I really loved when the Dowager Countess dropped that line in reference to Mary and Matthew not running into each other on the train: "Oh, that's a relief. I hate Greek drama, you know, when everything happens off stage." I suppose that statement holds true to Fellowes and how he treats the audience. You'll get to see everything important. It may not be spelled out for you, but you best believe that shit will not slip by off-screen.

WG: Did the Grantham's change the paintings around in the dining room or library to something more suitable for war time? How quaint. A nice theme throughout the first episode was the juxtaposition of the horrors of the real war in the trenches, and the disconnect from that hellish reality among the wealthy class. Lord Grantham seems like such a decent character; it was painful watching him ponce about in a military uniform. Might as well have been wearing a set of Groucho Marx nose-moustache-glasses.

Since Hogarth is no longer en vogue at Downton
OMD: Honestly, I have no idea if they changed the paintings, as I have no idea what they were in the first place. I'm assuming the dining room had been adorned by the works of William Hogarth and J.M.W. Turner and the switch was made to something more contemporary--maybe some Walter Sickert or Wyndham Lewis. As far as the contrast of what is going on on the front versus the happenings at Downton, the most glaring example of the disconnect is in form of that country singer Lady Edith. Where Mary had typically been the callous one, it looks as though the tables have been turned, and Edith is full-on bitch now. Her brash admonishment of any man not serving the war cause is clearly emblematic of someone who has never had one iota of responsibility. As far as Robert in uniform is concerned, it was definitely rough to watch a once-proud man have his legs taken out from under him. Coming on the heels of losing his heir, it seems as though Lord Grantham is getting emasculated bit by bit by Fellowes and Company, and really just Fellowes, as he is the sole credited screenwriter for the whole second series.

WG: Watching this episode on Memorial Day, for some reason the false service of the wealthy made me think of a galling sub-genre of our contemporary culture: the fake war veteran. Do you recall former Blue Jay manager Tim Johnson? Fired up his team with stories about his exploits in the marines? None of which were true. Google "embellished military record," and you'll get hundreds of hits ranging from President Bush and several candidates for the House and Senate, all the way down to skeevy rubes in small towns across the country. How one performs in war is a powerful cultural measuring stick of character, virtue, and for lack of a better term, manhood. It seems fitting that Fellowes would play with this theme, perception versus reality, what is real versus what is not, what has value versus what is a social facade, et cetera... At one point the Dowager says something along the lines of "War has away of distinguishing between things that matter and things that don't." Examining the line between what matters and what doesn't is at the heart of the series. Can you be sympathetic to Grantham in his red military dining wear, sitting around the table enjoying brandy and cigar's while guys like Matthew are humping it in the trenches?

OMD: I have no recollection of Tim Johnson. I think this happened in the roughly four years in which I paid no attention whatsoever to baseball. Sometimes I regret coming back (about 90% of the time that I watch the Royals play "baseball"). So given that service is a means by which we measure the masculine ideal, why do I have no problem with what Molesley essentially ducking the draft? This episode is definitely centrally concerned with getting down to what matters and what doesn't, and it's not just on the war front. It happens with Bates, too. As far as Sympathy for Lord Grantham is concerned, it seems as though the circumstances are a little different. The way I see it at least is that Lord Grantham wants to go to battle. Maybe I've misinterpreted what his tour of duty consisted of in the Second Boer War, but I see his situation as more of a metaphor for his virility. All of the women in his life assume that he is not going to war, but he still hopes upon hope that they'll call upon him so that he can go forth once more into the fray. His misreading of the situation at dinner is the moment at which, for all intents and purposes, his manhood is taken away from him, leaving him metaphorically impotent. He wants to go to the trenches (although he surely knows nothing of the brutal brand of warfare for which The Great War is known) but is told he's not wanted but that people will love to see him in his uniform. I can't blame him for buying into being patronized before becoming hip to the game.

Oh, and screw those white feather broads. Accusing William of being anything other than awesome is horseshit. I really loved Branson's response as they were leaving. "I am in a uniform." Shit-eating grin from ear to ear. Priceless. Branson cannot be fazed. (I liked Branson's declaration of love to Lady Sybil. Why not go for broke? He loves her, consequences be damned.)

WG: So Matthew has found another. Lavinia Swire? Has to be an anagram for something? (Save Lira I Win)

OMD: Anal View Iris. Given the show's affinity for F2FA, one has to figure this is the key to breaking the code. Anal. View Iris.

WG: I liked how Mary hit her knees to pray, not to God above, but to Matthew it seems. Perhaps all is not ended on that score as well?

OMD: At the very least, it seems as though the time that has passed has led the eldest Crawley daughter grow enough to start being able to put others before herself. Even in the interruption of the prayer, it's clear that Edith is the countriest of country singers.

WG: So much for O'Brien being taken down a peg by sabotaging Cora's pregnancy. She's back to her old shenanigans by mercilessly pranking the new help. She's like Ashton Kutcher with a better sense of humor. And Thomas, still conniving. Taking a bullet to the hand as a one-way ticket off the front. That kind of stuff had to be fairly common. About the only thing I recall from history class is that WWI was unspeakably brutal, with astronomical death tolls and ghastly warfare.

OMD: Fucking O'Brien... I will grant her the fact that I was actually taking pleasure in her hazing of that shitbird, Ethel. Someone does need to take that filthy ginger down a peg or two. Given that Ethel is essentially replacing Gwen--more than two years have passed since the last episode of the first series--do you find it at all odd that Fellowes has gone back to the ginger farm and found himself another redhead housemaid? Is there a quotient that must be strictly adhered to in British period drama that I am not aware of? As for Thomas, that shit had no idea what he was getting into when he snaked his way into the medical corps. Losing a chunk of hand doesn't seem like punishment enough for him, does it? After having seen my fellow medic take won in the dome, I can't say that I wouldn't have also been shitting bricks to be totally fair to Thomas. That said, I'd still like to see him mushroom stamped to death.

WG: I don't think its a stretch to assume that Thomas has fantasies of slipping the mortal coil via a merciless mushrooms stamping. And no, it's not nearly punishment enough. Nice to see Thomas engage in activities other than scheming, plotting, and generally being the shits. I found myself enjoying his fear. Enjoyed it too much maybe. Ethel, Gwen, tomatoe, tamato. Perhaps you are correct. The minimum ginger quotient could be a normal part of the entertainment production process in the British Isles. Affirmative action of a sort. Why isn't Carson killing this game?

OMD: As for Sybil, who'd have thunk that Isobel and the Dowager Countess would have come together over Sybil taking up nursing? They sure as hell didn't. It's funny that they just bulldozed right over Cora there.

WG: Bates. Poor fucking Bates. How did a sweetheart like him end up with a woman like Vera? What a monster. Quite a contrast betwixt Vera and Anna. I suspect Vera is quite comfortable shitting in the woods and hunting and killing her own food. Bates can handle the abuse. Anna is the one who gets shanked. I thought Bates was little too cavalier about up and leaving, especially the brusque brush off with Anna. But I suspect, in his infinite wisdom, Bates realizes a clean, cold and firm break heals the most. I'm hoping the Carson/Lordship convo at the end of the episode leaves the door open for a Bates return.

OMD: Vera would eat her own young just for fucking kicks. Man, Fellowes doesn't let Bates enjoy anything. Ever. Talk about the most honor-bound and sympathetic character getting his fucking heart ripped out at every turn. Whenever it seems like Bates is going to get to enjoy something just a little bit, a joy-seeking missile comes out of the clear blue sky and obliterates any shred of glee. It's hell on the viewer, too. You're all teary-eyed and happy for Bates and Anna, and then that banshee rolls in off the moors and takes away our happiness derived from our hero finding bliss. As for Anna, she says he's doing something galant, but it's not just to save her. I think he knows exactly how fucking evil Vera is. Don't forget, she promises to take down the entire Crawley household with the information she gleaned from an unwitting O'Brien in London if Bates doesn't go with her. Bates clearly loves Anna with a pure heart, which is why he must let her go, and the only way to do so is to leave her with no hope of it working out so that she can hopefully move on. He would much rather be the one suffering alone and allow Anna to be happy with someone else.

WG: The scenes at the train depot struck a discordant note for me. I completely expected Thomas the Tank engine to come tooting up to the platform, or for Alec Baldwin to step out of the station. Sir Topham Hat was shooting buddies with Lord Grantham. Have you ever seen the Thomas and the Magic Railroad movie? Trippy. Could use an editor. But if you've read the stories, you know there isn't much to work with. But Jesus, you've got some star power there. Alec Baldwin. Peter Fonda. Russel Means. What could have been.

OMD: The weird thing to me is that it seems as though between the first and second series they switched from film or a lower stock of digital video to a digital format that is way too clear. On my TV, the clarity is jarring. Am I alone on this front? Wordy? Readers? I've never seen Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Can't imagine this will ever make its way into my player, either.

WG: I noticed the same thing. Perhaps it is leftover stock from Thomas and the Magic Railroad. Because we live in an unpredictable world, and you might see this movie, let us laugh together now over on of the better lines from the movie: "My shell phone is not working properly."

OMD: The war scenes actually looked pretty damn good, especially for British television. Obviously production values aren't what they are with US series like The Pacific or Band of Brothers, but Downton Abbey doesn't exactly have Spielberg money backing it. I guess the trick is to keep it dark and muddled.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Prick Tunes: Sigur Rós "Ekki múkk"

This is the second film to hit the net from the the Valtari mystery film experiment. The film is entitled Moving Art. This is the second song on the forthcoming--and by forthcoming, I mean it comes out tomorrow--Sigur Rós album Valtari, the first proper Sigur Rós album in roughly four years. Color me excited.

The Queue Continuum: Days of Heaven

It had been somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 years since I last saw Terrence Malick's second film, Days of Heaven. My memory of the film was a bit faulty as I had remembered it being much longer than its relatively brief 90 minutes. My visual recollection of Days of Heaven, however, was spot on; it was stunning. Filmed on the Albertan plains serving as a surrogate for the Texas panhandle, it is positively breathtaking. Shot using almost entirely natural lighting, largely during the magic hour, it is one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.
Sure, its having been cobbled together in the editing room is very clear at times and having to hear Linda Manz's grating voice giving the narration can be trying at times. This also happens to be the first true Richard Gere vehicle, as its filming was completed before Looking for Mr. Goodbar began production. This means not only are we subjected to one of the early attempts of Richard Gere to sell himself as something of a rebel. Unfortunately, insofar as my possible enjoyment of Days of Heaven is concerned, I am not a Gerehead. This particular form of actor-branding does not work for me. These are all minor quibbles and are small prices to pay for getting to see something as aesthetically unique and significant as Days of Heaven is.

Honestly, I can't imagine many ways to better spend 90 minutes of your times than to open your eyes to the beauty that is Days of Heaven, even if there is little understanding for why anyone would ever not immediately ditch the zero (Gere) and get with the hero (Sam Shepard).

Friday, May 25, 2012

Prick Tunes: Yann Tiersen's NPR Music Tiny Desk Concert

Get your relaxation in now because you're about to be dealing with fool-ass tourists running around like assholes for the next three days.

Breaking Down: Season Two of Breaking Bad - Part One

For those following along with the series the first time through, we’ve decided that we will break down Breaking Bad at the rate of a half season per week, and then shift to episode-by-episode for the last episodes of Season Four in prep for Season Five which is set for a Sunday, July 15 start. That’s about seven-eight episodes a week. I once watched eight episodes of Season Two in a hotel room bed without moving. I got up for the restroom a time or two, but I tell you, I did wish I had a catheter. So this time around will be the first eight episodes of Season Two. Enjoy.

Recap: Season Two starts with Walter and Jesse being held captive by Tuco in a Mexican border shack. Somehow, Hank stumbles out to the property and catches Tuco with a couple of 9s to the chest as Walt and Jesse make a miraculous escape into the desolate desert background. As they have been missing for days, their plan to avoi d detection involves Walt feigning a psychological lapse as he streaks through a grocery store. Meanwhile, Jesse plays dumb with the DEA. With funds running low, Jesse assembles a street team to peddle the blue meth. Several problems arise, including a run in with the nastiest meth couple imaginable, and eventually Badger is arrested, at which time the services of the incomparable Saul Goodman are sought.

Stan Earnest: The very first episode of Season Two starts with a mangled pink bear in a swimming pool sans explanation and ends with Tuco kidnapping Walt in his own driveway. This was the first time in the series where I was sure that the writers had mopped themselves into a corner. Boy was I wrong.

Halloween (we hope)
Craig Scholes:  The first episode is more setup than anything, not much really happens. I do like how Walt came to a seemingly random number in $737K to support his family. I also like how in the first episode of Season Two you really start to get the sense of how good Hank is at his job. The second episode on the other hand, that episode is great. Old Man Salamanca is one of my favorite characters in the whole run.

Eventually we were going to have to break out these pictures. Apparently each year the Breaking Bad cast and crew has a Halloween party. I think they speak for themselves.

SE: Yes, those pictures are awesome. Cranston as the ole bell ringer is brilliant, and how much does Aaron Paul look like his television girlfriend, Krysten Ritter?

The dinging of that damn bell is one of the more genius moves of the show. That episode is pure tension. I also like how the show sets up the kidnapping as Tuco trying to off the Walt/Pinkman tandem, but through viewer deduction we find out that Tuco merely wants them to cook meth for a larger operation in Mexico. The show has this blend of straight-up storytelling that gets mixed with scenes that the viewer doesn't directly know how they fit into the larger picture that I believe sets it apart from a lot of other shows. Season Two gets a little out of hand with the foreshadowing of the pink bear, but one thing I had forgotten is how those scenes are set in the backdrop of each episode. The titles of each episode can sometimes seem a cheap ploy, but when I rewatch the black and white scenes with emergency sirens blazing in the background it gives that extra sense of terror that is about to be rained down upon Walt. I remember getting so sidetracked by the episodes plot lines and forgetting about the pink bear, specifically how in the hell Walt and Jesse were going to make it out of Tuco's reign without their cover getting blown.

To boot, the show adds the extra nuance of the Walt vs. Skyler scenes, including the failed kitchen sex scene. The first time I saw that I think I thought it was funny, especially when Walt Jr. sees the guacamole face splatter on the fridge and cocks his head sideways (like Hank stumbling around a crime scene), but when I stop to think about all the bullshit Walt put himself through it's no wonder he wants to take it out on his wife, and she isn't privy to Walt's motives either. For all those Anna Gunn haters out there, she really shines when ripping into Hank's ass for asking her to support her spoiled sister. The failed Hank hug of Skyler will forever remind me of freshmen high schoolers doing the awkward shuffle at the homecoming dance. Hank really gets a roller coaster ride in Season Two, from the utter humility of paying for his neighbor's toy car to his hunch leading to Tuco's demise. Not only do we get to see what moves Walter, but we get to see what exists in Hank's world that drives him to what he becomes. 

CS: Something tells me Tuco's hamburger fajitas weren't exactly sanitary, since he used the same knife to take bumps of meth and cut peppers. I love how Walt is the classic pick-on-the-smaller guy.  The only person that Walt can take his anger out on is Jesse, and he does it quite frequently. How about Hank with his super skills of badassery, but what are the chances that P.O.S. Monte Carlo actually had Lo-Jack?

I actually had no idea there was any Anna Gunn hatred. She plays her role fantastically. In many aspects she is just as smart--if not smarter--than Walt. Hell, she might actually have more street smarts than all the other characters combined, which makes it baffling that Walt continues to think he can keep pulling the wool over her eyes.

SE: Veering off the beaten path here: between the first two seasons of Breaking Bad there was a big break because of the writers' strike, so AMC ran some minisodes, five of them in three - five minute snippets, to appease the fanatics. Have you seen them? The best one by far is the last one (see video below) where Walt attempts a B & E with everyone's favorite dope, Badger. Hijinks and hilarity ensue. When the series wants to hit the zany button, it stamps that puppy with precision. 

CS: I've mentioned a family member that reminds me of Pinkman. Well, said family member has a friend that reminds me of Badger. Really nice guy, but dumb as a sack of door knobs, but don't we all know a guy like that? Good find though, I had seen a couple minisodes, but I didn't enjoy any of them as much as that one. The Breaking Bad guys seem to have quite the sense of humor when they aren't trying to weave a story as epic as Breaking Bad.

SE: Years ago, I was called out to come pick up a friend, a Jesse Pinkman type, on a gravel road. Seemed the local law enforcement had pulled him over and he had admitted to drinking, but passed all the sobriety tests. This particular officer didn’t have a breathalyzer at the time, and, since said friend was only 16, decided give the kid a break and have someone pick him up. He had his friend, a Badger type we all called Booger, with him. When I got there, Booger was passed out in the passenger’s seat of the old junk Mustang. Who falls asleep as law enforcement is threatening punishment for violation of the law? Badger would. By the way, RIP Booger, aneurysm. Everybody liked that goofball.

What do you make of the style of showing a clip from the end of the episode in the beginning of said episode? During Season Two, I thought it worked well to ratchet up some of the drama; when the slow burn sizzles, no need to worry because the goods are in the pipeline. I do find it interesting how the show manages to encompass a wide range of styles--from hard-boiled drama to avant-garde edits of drug making sequences to the music choices to the differences in the younger characters and the older characters--and still gels the overall style of the show together. I think it has something to do with the pacing of the show and that, unlike other shows, Breaking Bad doesn't throw any obvious info in your face; you have to figure out what the characters are plotting on your own. Skyler looks at a picture of her with some unknown man, and the viewer has to decide what she is thinking. Pinkman shows up with a killer RV, and we get to guess where it came from. Then we have Walt guarding his window with a kitchen knife. Come on Walt, were you really gonna take on Tuco with a butcher knife? 

CS: I like the preview scenes. Mainly because I've never once been able to guess what was going to happen based on those scenes. And I agree about how well Breaking Bad mixes is it up. The show has some downright hilarious moments too, and in Season Two you really start to see the layers of complexity in the characters. You clearly are paying closer attention to detail than I am; first I missed the guacamole smear on the fridge, and now I've missed Skyler looking at the picture of an unnamed man (though I can guess who it is). For such a smart guy, Walt sure does some stupid shit. There is no way he could defend himself against Tuco with just a knife; hell, if he had a lightsaber, he'd probably just cut his own arm off.

SE: And the evolution of Walt continues. When you break bad, you can't half-ass it, you have to break full-on badass. In Season Two, Walt falls right into Tuco's lap, fails to poison Tuco with castor beans, and needs every scrap of luck to stay alive. Season Two is also about--as you’ve touched on--sympathizing with the characters. Walt's poor family puts up signs for his disappearance and then deals with the humility of his public nudity. Hank develops some PTSD. Jesse falls in the RV's blue lagoon. I've been told that blue stuff is made to melt a turd; surely Jesse has chemical burns. You learn anything about that in chemistry class?

CS: Chemistry wasn't my strong point. If I had failed Chemistry in college, I was going to change my major, so if it was mentioned I don't remember it. Even though Pinkman is a borderline fuck-up, he has had tremendous amounts of bad luck and just can't catch a break. I mean, I guess life is what you make of it; but, beyond bad decision making, his motorcycle getting ganked sucks. I wonder if there was a cut scene of him buying it. What about Walt's horrible music choices? He has got to be the only person who has said that Boz Skaggs is unmatched in musical talent. I would have pegged Walt to be more of a Blue Öyster Cult guy, something with a little more edge to fuel the inner badass. Clearly Walt is the only character--real or fictional--to have ever even considered breaking into a chemical warehouse that also enjoys the band Steely Dan.

SE: Those middle-aged chops sure helped him weasel his way around the psychologist that evaluates his fugue state. That was a scene straight out of Ordinary People. If you haven't seen it, there is a great scene between Donald Sutherland and Judd Hirsch. There are many interesting moments in life where you meet someone in their professional field, whether it’s a policeman, a professor, or a psychologist, or maybe you're the professional, and one side needs something that requires the professional to act in a more humane way and not the bureaucratic way. I've always wondered how insane you have to have to be to try to bribe a professional when you're caught. Walt seems to bypass the psychiatric review with precision. And how about Walt and Jesse's plan to evade detection after escaping the Salamanca desert shack? Their plan actually worked for once, but desperate measures had to be taken, as trusting a meth hooker isn’t ever the first option.

CS: The first time through I thought Walt was just going to tell the psychologist the whole truth, drop the mic, and walk out like a boss. In reality though, the only reason that plan worked is because every sketchy person involved had an unwillingness to cooperate with the law. I wonder what Skyler’s educational background is... [SPOILER ALERT] You eventually find out that she was some sort of accountant, but does she have an MBA? Is she just great with numbers? Also, is it just me, or does Flynn seem to be a little bit of a moron outside of his occasional quick wit?

SE: I hate comparing Flynn to a Pontiac Aztec, but the choice of his character is another cold calculation by the writers: giving Walt a son with a disability that doesn't share his academic passions, but remains a witty smart ass. Walt can't even reprimand his kid when he constantly feels sorrow for him. And what kind of a dick move is refusing to be called by your father's name- let alone not even a middle name- in favor of a self-chosen name? It's the perfect slight that only Flynn, a son, can pull off. He knows his dad is up to something, too, which makes the interaction with Jesse--his other child--much more loaded with subtext. Is that how Walt really wants to treat his family? His interactions with Jesse come unfiltered in Season Two. I know I felt Walt really wanting Jesse to be his own son at times.

CS: I actually never understood the desire for a father to name a child after himself, logistically it just sounds like a pain in the ass. Do you think Walt would still want Jesse as his son if he had heard the music stylings of Twaughthammer? I don't so much think that Walt wants Jesse as his own son, but more that he is a teacher at heart, constantly wanting to teach and guide. Walt’s also somewhat of a control freak. Why do you think it is that Walt is so unreceptive to Jesse anytime Jesse tries to contact him? I get that Walt is trying to keep the Walt and Heisenberg stuff separate, but it’s a pretty flawed business model for a partner to never listen to the other guy.

On a side note, how twisted is it that Hank nabbed Tuco's grill? And how in the hell would he be allowed to do that, since a Platinum grill has got to run on the pricey end.

SE: I think you hit the vein on the first try. Walt wants control. He wants the business run the right way, Walt’s way. Later on in the season, we see the Walt/Jesse dynamic morph into a whole other beast, but I don’t think Walt saw Jesse as anything other than a pawn at that point. I may be more influenced by later episodes and got crossed-up; the relationship in the early part of Season Two involves Jesse wanting a father figure to impress.

Let’s take a dive into darkness. How demeaning was the Spooge episode? That poor hungry kid was dealt a pretty appalling hand, with methed-out parents in that creeped-out house. Jesse couldn't finish the deed, and yay for him for being the softy. I'd say Spooge deserved the ATM dropkick. I'll be honest with you, I didn't rewatch that episode. I didn't want to. That tells you something about the grim reality of the meth underworld.

CS: I just watched that episode, and man is it brutal. That poor kid. And how in the hell do you steal an ATM?  Can you imagine the police report for that 911 call? There is no way that kid has a name, or any sort of records, or has ever had any immunizations, probably has worms too. I loved Jesse flipping out at the parents for not feeding the kid a decent meal and not having cable. Leave it to Jesse to have the priorities in life straight. Of course, the thing that was the saddest part about that episode, was Hank's brew going berserk. I loved Hank going into SWAT mode though, scoping the "gunshots."

SE: PTSD is a mofo.

The midpoint of Season Two brings two of my favorite things Breaking Bad has done: the mariachi Heisenberg song and Bob effing Odenkirk. Better call Saul, bro.
CS: Oh Christ, I hate Mariachi music--everything about it. Corny and cheesy. But Bob Odenkirk is MONEY! He has perfected the role of the sketchy lawyer. Breaking Bad has done a great job bringing in fairly big names for relatively small parts. Several comedians that I love (and a couple others that I’m not a fan of as well) have had roles. I would imagine that has to do with just how solid the show is. Running with that theme, the midpoint has my least favorite part of the whole run. How in the hell do you have Danny Trejo and only give him like 8 lines of dialog? Granted, his demise was quite epic.

SE: Mariachi criticism aside, I thought that prelude was the perfect depiction of the heap of madness Walt has fallen into. All of Mexico knows that Heisenberg is a dead man, if only Walt knew what kind of danger he has put his family in. Walt better retrace his steps, or his head is going to end up on a turtle shell canvassing the desert a la Danny Trejo. At this point, Walt still thinks he is on borrowed time with the cancer lurking, getting his rocks off playing Heisenberg, but when you step on a cartel's rattlesnake boots, you're bound to get bit sooner or later. I like that Trejo only had one--well, two--scenes; it's the writers saying, "Look, this show isn't like other shows. We are here to tell a story, and we'll entertain the hell out of you while we do it, but we want to remain true to our vision. If that means we pay Danny Trejo and kill him off in one episode, so be it. That's how we roll. Hold on tight."

CS: It takes a pretty moronic DEA agent to just kick Trejo's head off that turtle, especially with the message written on the side of the turtle. What about Jimmy In and Out? What a fantastic and convenient, although really expensive service. Is there a shady entrepreneurship that Saul doesn't dabble in? Something tells me that there isn't anything that Saul couldn't acquire or just flat out weasel his way out of.

SE: Bob Odenkirk as Saul is one of those very few times where I can't imagine anyone else playing the character. I mean how often does that happen? I can come up with very few: Sam Jackson in Pulp Fiction, Chris Farley in everyone of his movies, Ian McShane as Swearengen, Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar, and maybe a handful of others. That wind-blown comb-over, the worried-but-I-got-this look, you're right, Saul could weasel his way out of anything. I like that Walt and Jesse try to get hardcore with him and his response is for each of them to put a dollar in his pocket for client-lawyer confidentiality.
One of my favorite scenes comes in the Better Call Saul episode with the aforementioned Jimmy In-and-Out. Walt and Jesse befuddling Hank before his very eyes with the Aztec saving the day! I love that Walt can dance like a past-his-prime Ali around Hank, and Hank just can't put the pieces together and for good reasons. Shout out to DJ Qualls for the Badger bust. Better Call Saul is definitely one of the more entertaining episodes.

CS:  So in summation, Season Two picks up pretty much exactly where season 1 leaves off. We see our anti-heroes witness a psychotic, methed-out drug kingpin murder a man for talking. He then kidnaps our anti-heroes and treats them to a surprise brunch with his uncle in a vacation home sitting near the border. We then see Hank use his super sleuth skills to track down Walt and Jesse out of jealous rage for not being invited to this fantastical brunch and shoots down Tuco in cold blood for his transgressions. Walt is so scarred by this that he is found naked in a grocery store. Because of Hanks transgressions he is then charged to police a turtle race in the desert where hilarity ensues. Jesse then takes it upon himself to track down a missing ATM and helps the family who found it by babysitting their child. Fearing that Walt and Jesse are losing their minds local Samaritan Saul Goodman takes it upon himself to be the guiding light to right the wrongful ways of Walt and Jesse...

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Man on Film: Battleship

To hear people talk about Battleship, one would assume it is as bad as Transformers. It seems like the bulk of the reviewing masses want to shoe-horn that film into their reviews. As someone who was never able to make it past the 30-minute mark of Transformers, I can safely say Battleship is nowhere near that bad. For starters, the action sequences aren't chopped up so much as to render the events unintelligible. Is it a great film? No, but I'd hardly say that was the intent.

The very picture of the masculine ideal
Without delving into the larger issue as to whether Hollywood has, in fact, run out of ideas when Hasbro has launched a film division, Battleship as a stand-alone film is perfectly suitable. It is an event film; as such, it seems as though one is predestined to sit through a film with a handful of non-actors. In this case, the audience is subjected to Rihanna's first foray into the world of "acting" and the continued attempt to sell Brooklyn Decker to the masses as this generation's Kathy Ireland. These are regrettable casting choices, but neither are total hindrances to being able to enjoy the film at face value. There is also an unusual number of supporting cast members that are actually veterans. On an obvious level, this is an admirable decision on director Peter Berg's part, but--especially in the leaden and interminable physical therapy scenes with Brooklyn Decker--this can make for some rough scenes.

Luckily, the film has the charisma bomb Taylor Kitsch in it. Maybe I'm so much in his camp that I'm beyond impartiality, but this is two huge Kitsch vehicles this year that have, ummmm, not done especially well. While Oliver Stone's Savages still gives one hope for a future of three Taylor Kitsch flicks a year, it hasn't been the best of years for the prospects of a Taylor Kitsch-owned Hollywood. Kitsch delivers here again. The sometimes clunking behemoth of Battleship keeps chugging along thanks in large part to Kitsch. Sure, Berg hits the not-so-subtle notes that would make Roland Emmerich proud and pulls the right strings at the right beats, but it is that combination of impish charm and rugged masculinity in the package that is Taylor Kitsch that makes the film palatable. I say this all as a straight male--a claim that becomes harder and harder to believe each time I review a Taylor Kitsch film.

Really, what it all comes down to is that Battleship isn't so dumb as to have deserved the heaping helpings of scorn it's received. It's far from a great film. There are absolutely better ways for the innocuous entity we'll call "Hollywood" to have spent its money. Those ways likely do not include making films inspired by board games--I'm looking at you, Candyland. Sometimes turning your brain off and enjoying a ride isn't the worst thing in the world.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Prick Tunes: Gastr del Sol "Seasons Reverse"

A mid-1990s band that was primarily the collaboration of David Grubbs (of Squirrel Bait and Bastro) and Jim O'Rourke, Gastr del Sol was wrapping up business in 1998 with their release Camofleur. Recorded in part at occasional band member John McEntire's Soma Electronic Music Studios, Camofleur was actually released just after O'Rourke left the band. Back when Pitchfork actually evaluated records on a 10.0 scale (not this horseshit everything-gets-between-a-6.8-and-8.6 scale that they've used since they got too big to be objective), they actually gave Camofleur a 9.6. "Seasons Reverse" is the first track off the record, and it speaks for itself.  

Wordy Old Men on Downton Abbey: Series One, Episode Seven

At this point, you should know the drill. We're using the UK versions. They are readily available online. Series One is available on Netflix Instant, Blu-ray, and DVD (I have no fucking idea how to get rid of that goddamn white box). 

This week's installment finds the fabled "Season" having just come to an end. The Family Crawley, sans Lady Mary, has returned from London and the balls of high society. It is July of 1914. Franz Ferdinand has just been assassinated. Those with a cursory knowledge of world history knows what that means. Matthew's proposal hangs in the air, while Mary hangs back in London with her idiot aunt, Rosamund. Via Evelyn Napier, Mary discovers the source of the scurrilous (though true) rumors was in fact her awful sister, Edith. Cora finds out that she is with child, much to Robert's surprise. O'Brien gets news of the exact nature of the crimes of which Bates had been convicted--the theft of regimental silver--and she and supreme shitbird Thomas set upon scheming to take down Bates, a common theme. Anna and Mrs. Patmore go to London to have Patmore's cataracts removed on Lord Grantham's dime. Molesley sees Thomas rooting around in Mr. Carson's wallet. Carson and Lord Grantham decide that Thomas must be shit-canned as soon as the upcoming garden party is over. Mary, upon finding out that Matthew may not inherit the title of Lord Grantham, sees the footing upon which a fruitful union can be built losing stability and begins to hem and haw. Matthew takes her hesitation as a sign that she does not love him, eventually deciding he needs to leave Downton for his own good. Anna finds out the true nature of Bates's crime, marrying poorly; it was his wife who nicked the sterling. O'Brien, sensing a sacking on the way, resents what she perceives as a slight from Cora and leaves a half-bar of wet soap at the foot of the bath. She has second thoughts but is not fast enough. Cora slips, falls, and miscarries in the bathroom. It was a boy. Lord Grantham weeps for his unborn son but finds solace in the fact that Bates need not go anywhere. A garden party is had. In the most Downton way possible, Bates declares his love for Anna to Molesley. War is declared.

Wordy Ginters: Another great episode. I like the rollicking pace, plot pay-offs coming as hard and fast as the historical markers in the back drop.

Josh "Old Man" Duggan: The pace was fucking breakneck here. It's almost hard to catch your breath. This episode was about fifteen minutes longer than the rest of the episodes of the season, yet the action seemed to unfurl itself with such ferocity that it made the episode seem shorter than the rest.

WG: What know you of the "season" phenomena? The swells gather to marry off children and mingle? Lick the silver spoon, drink from the golden cup, and smoke the finest weed? Shout out to my man Everlast, a big Downton Abbey fan who lurks here often.

OMD: According to TSLF, all the aristocratic families from the countryside flock to the city (London) and attend balls. It's basically the debutante scene. Families throw galas. Daughters "come out." Usually a family would just introduce one daughter a season, meaning that the Bennett daughters all coming out at the same time in Pride and Prejudice was gauche. This was obviously Lady Sybil's first season. It being Mary's fourth season while remaining unattached is the subject of much consternation on her parents' part, especially since Mary seems to be her own worst enemy.

WG: I was digging the gear his lord and lady were sporting when they opened the episode rolling into Downton via car. I don't know about you, when I go on a road trip, I'm rocking the casual gear. A matching velour top and bottom track suit, slip on shoes. Maybe I shouldn't bring up footwear. Evidently back in the day, you had to dress up like the Wright brothers to drive.

OMD: You best believe that I'm sporting my driving gloves, (No glove? No love.) and I've always made sure to get my riding scarf in position snugly 'round my neck. You'll not see me wearing driving goggles, however, as I'm already bespectacled. Otherwise, just my standard attire of boxers, blazer, and baseball cleats. Nothing more. Nothing less. To be fair, were I alive in 1914, I'd surely have dressed like the Wright brothers, but not just for driving in the country.

WG: Lady Grantham is pregnant! Hard to imagine a sex life for those two. Don't get me wrong, I've always found Cora to be attractive. It just seems that his lordship would find the act of humping as too undignified. I think it speaks well of their relationship that they still knock it out every now and again.

OMD: His Lordship seems to be most concerned by doing what's best for the masses. That includes but is not limited to getting his hump on, dignity be damned. That they sleep together--rather unusual for the time--speaks volumes to his affinity for keeping warm at night via the good old-fashioned means of body heat. Perhaps Cora was raised by eskimos, who taught her both how to keep warm at night and how to properly catch whales, the latter being the means by which she amassed her fortune.

Lord Grantham's desire to hear nothing of womanly matters from Dr. Clarkson was hilarious. Your earlier mention of boot-knocking being too lacking in dignity for his Lordship certainly applies here. I also really loved the scene where Robert is about to head into the library when Sybil jumps in and tells him that he cannot go in there because Gwen is getting interviewed for the secretary position with the phone company. His reaction at having been overruled by one of his daughters reminded me of how often Coach Taylor, a stately chap blessed with an innate sense of command and responsibility in his own right, was summarily put into his place by his wife or daughter on Friday Night Lights.

WG: Alas, I have not cracked the Friday Night Lights serial. Buzz Bissinger and Peter Berg together again? I've heard good things. What never goes out of style is men acting like paternal stick up the arses. Good for Sybil. No one else gets over on his Lordship like Lady Sybil.

OMD: Berg brought it to the small screen, but handed the reigns over to show-runner Jason Katims almost immediately. Cousin Bissinger is actually not involved with the show at all. The show, as I've mentioned many, many times in this forum is awesome. The best programming that network television has had to offer in ages, if not ever. As for Sybil, the youngest certainly owns his Lordship. I think he wilts at her determination. Brava, Sybil. Brava.

WG: Did you catch the quote Mary had when Napier dropped a dime on Edith? I believe she directly mentioned "face to face" in her conversation, which is a fairly obvious endorsement of the F2FA theory as the cause of Pamuk's ultimate demise.

OMD: With as coy as Fellowes & Co. get with their cheeky dialogue, one cannot help but assume that they are getting to the heart of the matter: F2FA. It never leaves Mary's mind. Forbidden Turkish fruit has its way of doing that to a fancy lass.

WG: As we've mentioned before, the show challenges viewers to follow some unspoken plot advancement and twists, which is refreshing. The cinematography is sometimes brilliant as well. The scene including his Lordship and Matthew discussing Mary's ruminatin' on the marriage vows was stunning.

OMD: Refreshing indeed. As for the photography, it is beautiful. Tasteful, restrained British opulence or the verdant grounds of Downton in every frame. First, it looks as though they're on a stroll at Augusta, then they've got the beautiful Jacobethan styling of Highclere Castle as the backdrop in the next frame.

WG: For the first time, Bates' body language looked defeated. When Carson came in to share the contents of the "gotcha" note that had been procured by O'Brien, he looked frail and small. First time I'd noticed that in the series.

OMD: I am still not quite sure why this note should have been so damning coming so hot on the heels of Bates's confession to the very misdeeds cited in the note. Bates, while wearing defeat like a leaden cloak, is ultimately a scrapper. Somehow it seems as though no matter what shit gets thrown at him, he's going to end up persevering--a modern-day telling of the Job story, I hope.

WG: Liked the Bates line, "astonished at your kindness" in response to Carson's on-going deliberations throughout the episode. I know you linked the Nick Cave tune last week, since I've been going thru a Cave phase lately, it reminded me of mebbe my fave Cave song: "Stranger Than Kindness" from Your Funeral... My Trial. First proper Cave album I owned. I think I found him via a sampler, Neil Young covers--a benefit album/fund raiser for some org called "The Bridge." He covered "Helpless." Loved it, went to the local record store and scored YFMT. Loved it. Still do. Might be my fave Cave album.

OMD: Great line for sure. The first Nick Cave album I had was Let Love In. If memory serves me correctly, my introduction to the band was through The X-Files--that Songs in the Key of X pseudo soundtrack. I wish I was cool enough to say that I was into The Birthday Party and followed Cave over. I suppose I'd have been a really cool kindergartener if I'd been able to say that I'd been into The Birthday Party since I was born and that I was still unsure as to how I'd feel about Cave with his Bad Seeds. Personally, I go to Murder Ballads first, and then jump up to The Lyre of Orpheus / Abattoir Blues double LP.

WG: Both excellent choices. No More Shall We Part is a fave around these parts. Have you dug backwards beyond that stuff? I LOVE the Birthday Party stuff, it appeals to an angry noise aesthetic that I've got a soft spot for. I found it late as well, only after immersing myself in Cave. Your Funeral... My TrialKicking Against the PricksHenry's Dream, and The Good Son are all great records. Repeated listening is richly rewarded.

OMD: On the Cave front, I have everything but From Her to EternityKicking Against the Pricks, and Tender Prey. Don't ask me why I don't have them. There's no rationale. Simply a lack of time. I'm definitely keener on their later sound. As for The Birthday Party, it's definitely noisier than I'm typically into, which is why I've never really gone whole-hog on them.

WG: O'Brien. An excellent antagonist. Loathsome. She hits all the wrong notes in this episode. Fellowes rounds the corners a bit by having O'Brien stare into the mirror and attempt to convince herself that the conniving double-dealing harpy isn't who she really is. It's easy to hate O'Brien, but you have to feel a little pull there. I'm wondering if she's going to go The Godfather route and split her wrists in a warm tub so she doesn't embarrass her old school brother from Sicily.

OMD: It's a great scene. One word comes to mine. That word is phonetically contained within the words "country singer." A fate that you describe would be letting her off too easily. I want pain. I want blood. I want a torturous demise. I love the twist of the knife that comes later when she discovers that the advertised position was to replace the Dowager Countess's maid. I hope this eats away at her and eventually drives her over the cliff into a state of madness from which she cannot come back.

How great was Bates telling Molesley in only the way that Fellowes would have it done that he loves Anna? In the third person: "He's very keen. Very keen indeed."

WG: That was maybe the highlight of the episode filled with highlights. I loved it. Also, was that Bates in make up playing his own mother? The resemblance was striking. Too lazy to look at the DVD materials, but I'm wondering if it was a blood relative.

OMD You'll love this. It was actually Jane Wenham who played Bates's mum. Jane Wenham was in a bunch of British shit I've never heard of. She was also married to Albert Finney, having popped out a son, Simon, who works as a camera operator.

A single from The Prodigy succintly describes what should happen to her
OMD: I'd love to smack the hell out of Lady Rosamund right about now...

WG: If I were the Dowager, I would say something half corny, half biting, but I ain't got it in me. Oh, wait... The apple doesn't fall far from the tree.

OMD: How great was William pounding on Thomas? Thomas has always been a shit, and despite the fact that the hammer is moments away from being brought down on the snaky footman, it's nice to see mild-mannered William give Thomas a once-over. William should make Thomas fluff his pillow (non-sexually) every night until Thomas is out of the house.

WG: The pay-off wasn't as brutal as I was hoping for. I thought Bates might come in to bat clean up. It was cleansing to see someone finally put a fist in Thomas's smart mouth. His unraveling throughout the show was a pleasure to watch. That he appears to be a step ahead regardless is a little galling, but at least he got mussed up a bit. Dude wears some sweet vests. He's got the Gordon Gekko horizontal herringbone thing going on. I like it. I wish they had those sweet vests at Target, I'd be wearing one to the pool this summer.

OMD We should start up a vest shoppe. We'll call it The Vestibule. Vests for all shapes and sizes. It'll catch on like wildfire.

OMD: I loved Cora's response to Lady Edith's sad plea for maternal approval after Cora congratulates Sybil on a season well done. "Don't I? You're very helpful, dear." If Edith weren't such a--what was the word I alluded to earlier?--country singer, you could almost start feel bad for her. That "slut" line draws any last opening for sympathy emphatically shut. Now we get to sit back and take perverse pleasure in every slight that comes her way.

WG: Mary may be named after the Mother of Christ, but she can bring the revenge like a little devil. Revenge is a dish best served cold. At a garden party. With iced cakes and war declarations.

OMD: The father/daughter dynamic between Carson and Lady Mary was here in full-force again. First with Carson's assumption that Lady Mary would never turn Matthew's proffered engagement down, assuming the best in his daughter by proxy. Mrs. Hughes's response--"Mr. Carson, Lady Mary Crawley does not deserve you"--was priceless. I love how differently the two heads of house see everything as pertains to Mary. Later, of course, he, not Lord Grantham, is there to console his near-daughter as she is beside herself at the prospect of having to live without Matthew around, having squandered her best chance at happiness in marriage.

WG: I'm man enough to admit that the dynamic between Carson and Mary is sweet. Like two fluffy kittens struggling to escape a wicker laundry basket. It makes me feel warm inside.

OMD: Speaking of Carson, how great was his phone practicing? I'd love to watch that for an hour.

WG: I'm right there with you. The sense of dignity and duty he brings to the most mundane tasks is inspirational. I would imagine his bowel movements involve a certain decorum and order that would seem otherworldly in today's bathroom culture. Which is in rapid decline. I'm working on a position paper entitled "The Shame of Public Shitting," which attacks both the shoddy and generally unclean state of public restrooms in the City of Lincoln Nebraska, and also the complex psychological issues that crop up in a restroom.

OMD: A friend of mine wanted to write a book detailing the best bathrooms in the land. My personal favorite is the bathroom in the Marfa Bookstore. Not overly glamorous, but classy. Simple. It's bi-fold focus lies equally on utility and cleanliness.

As for this episode, it was such a great close to the first series. It brings a semblance of closure to the necessary arcs while setting the pieces in place for a [spoiler alert] great second series. War is upon us. Batten down the goddamn hatches.

And so ends Series One. We pick right up again next week with Series Two (here on Blu-ray and DVD and also stream-able on Netflix Instant). 

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Tube Steak: Cheerio, House

While it's certainly true that I was a little late to the game, having not gotten sucked in until part way through its fifth season, I stuck with House until the end. Some lost interest as the last few seasons stopped appealing to them, but I was on board, willing to go wherever David Shore and Company were going to take Gregory House, James Wilson, and House's team.

House first began to sink its teeth in through repeats on USA on Fridays. Fridays were a night that I would avoid going out like the plague, and while waiting to have to go pick up TSLF from work when she was still on nights, I would watch House. At first, it was just something that I would watch while trying to kill time. As time and episodes moved on, I began to become more and more interested in the characters' backgrounds. An episode would grant me new insight, give a new wrinkle to Gregory House or one of the members of his diagnostics team, and before I knew what was happening I was watching the series from the beginning renting each disc from the local video store*.

*Remember those?

House was unpredictable. For a show whose episodic structure is as well-defined as House's that may seem like a weird thing to say. After all, the medical mystery of the week was going to hit its beats at every act break, the old song and dance would place itself out, House (95% of the time) would be talking to someone not on his team about something other than the case and would subconsciously lead himself to the solution of the case, having his eureka moment and saving the day for the patient. This is obvious. Anyone who has seen an episode could tell you how that part plays out. 

What was unpredictable was where Shore, Katie Jacobs, Bryan Singer, and Paul Attanasio were going to take the characters. Thanks in large part to House's misanthropic ways and detachment from emotion, the power that he did wield would exact itself in interesting ways. His self-destructive reactions to being hurt would take the character--and accordingly the show--in directions that always left you on edge. With a lesser lead and inferior writing, this would have made for an almost unpalatable show. Laurie himself assumed that the show was going to center around Wilson after his initial audition, largely because he couldn't imagine his character being the focus of the show.

But modeling the show loosely on Sherlock Holmes and making Gregory House a miserly bastard proved to be the recipe for the show's success. House rightfully turned Hugh Laurie into an international star. It brought  the talents of Robert Sean Leonard back to the fore, emerging from the shadows of the theatre and independent cinema to play the modern embodiment of Watson. The rest of the supporting cast was highlighted by the likes of Jesse Spence, Jennifer Morrison, Omar Epps, Peter Jacobson, Odette Annable, Kal Penn, Charlene Yi, and most importantly Olivia Wilde. Their scampering to come up with diagnoses thus possibly winning just a shred of their brilliant mentor's approval--something that rarely came--seemed to be just enough impetus to stick around. House's churlish interactions with his superiors, most notably Dr. Lisa Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein), gave the show a playful yet insubordinate sexual tension that it thrived on for much of its run.

When it came down to it, though, it was Laurie's show. His impish charm, his boundless confidence, his fearless commitment to being an asshole--these were the things that made the show. He hit each note with pitch-perfection. House was the journey of a wounded, stunted genius. It had moments of brilliance. Its departures from its own prescribed formula were some of the most inventive hours that network television has had to offer. Perhaps most importantly and certainly most pertinent today, its finale--"Everybody Dies"--does the show justice. It gets to the core of the show. Gregory House is on the precipice, faced with the prospect of going on without Wilson and concurrently with the choice between continuing to act in only his self-interest or to put someone before his need to solve puzzles. It plays with perspective, as its best hours always have. With the bulk of the episode's action happening within his subconscious, House is visited by ghosts (their dead-ness either literal or figurative as pertains to House) from his past as he pieces together the nuggets of pertinent information from his last case while staring down the prospect of death. It honors the tradition it built while allowing for closure and its characters to forth into the great wide open.

I, for one, will miss House. Au revoir, old, self-involved, prickish friend.

Prick Tunes: Billy Ocean "Loverboy"

I'm working on a piece about a show that just ended that I hoping to have up in the afternoon about a show I've written about here in the past. For once, I've also got a dearth of other things on the back burner. Only time is getting in the way. But until then what better way to kill some time than to watch the truly bizarre video for "Loverboy," a totally righteous song by the pint-sized, Trinidad-born, Scotland-raised, UK R&B god Billy Ocean?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Prick Tunes: Ben Folds Five "Do It Anyway"

There was a time where I waited with baited breath for anything Ben Folds was primed to release. As his working relationship with the Five got further in the rearview, his solo endeavors grew less and less appealing to me. Maybe it was just me. I know a lot of other Ben Folds fans who are huge fans of his solo material. I would venture to guess that it was probably just a growing in different directions between myself and the man whose music I dearly loved, especially given the fact that I did really like Fear of Pop Volume One. 

With the news coming out early this year that Ben Folds Five were going to reunite and record another album, hope for rekindling that flame became stronger. Here is the first song (in unfinished form, apparently) that has been given to the public to sample. Ben Folds, Darren Jessee, and Robert Sledge, friends.

Breaking Down: Season One of Breaking Bad

As this is the first proper piece in the series, we'll be kicking things off with a quick recap of what's transpired in the episodes being discussed as a refresher to some of you who've seen these episodes but for whom it's been a while.

Recap of Season 1: Meet Walter White, a once award-caliber chemist turned prudent high school chemistry teacher stressed to provide for his pregnant wife and teenage son with a disability. In the very first episode we get a hardcore glimpse into how far south Walter has gone in less than a week, driving a methed-out RV, rummaging the desert half-naked, and putting a gun to his own head. It is understood later that the catalyst of Walter’s actions stem from his inoperable lung cancer diagnosis. In two years Walt must make enough money to support his family before he dies.

Along the way we meet his overbearing wife, Skyler, and his brother-in-law, Hank, a brash DEA agent. On a ride-along meth bust with Hank, Walter discovers an ex-student, Jesse Pinkman, and corners him into a methamphetamine partnership, making the purest form of the drug while struggling to peddle it for the money Walter needs. The first three episodes chronicle a botched drug deal with an undercover informant and the subsequent actions Walter and Jesse must take to cleanse their hands of the dead bodies. The remaining episodes follow Walter’s interactions with his family and Pinkman as he undergoes cancer treatments while running a meth lab on the side. In order to find a distributor, the series introduces Tuco, a crazed cartel kingpin, that beats Pinkman nearly to death. Walter returns to Tuco’s lair in Episode 6, blowing it to smithereens with a homemade concoction, thus securing a deal to distribute methamphetamine; this is how Tuco operates. The season ends with Team Walter/Pinkman intact, entrenched to the neck in Tuco’s violent, drug-addled world, unbeknownst to Walter’s family and undetected by DEA agent Hank Schrader. 
Walter White grilling/jogging au natural

Stan Earnest: Rummaging back through Season One, I am rather shocked at how much happens in the Pilot. I began watching the show based on the high praise from Alan Sepinwall on a random Bill Simmons B.S. Report. Sepinwall was adamant that, to fully indulge oneself in the dramatic enterprise that is Breaking Bad, any queasy viewers had to shove past the first three episodes. The weird part is that most of the basis for the first season is packed Mike-Tyson-uppercut style into the first episode. 

Craig Scholes: I can't remember the exact reason I started watching the show, but it very well could have been the same episode of the B.S. Report, and at this point I'm such an AMC fan that I'll pretty much watch anything they air (at least at first). There is actually quite a bit of television viewing that I've watched because of Bill Simmons, but, yeah, that show jumps right into it. Just looking at my notes I can hardly believe how much was crammed into that episode. The first episode really is a microcosm of the entire show, you even get the first glimpse of "Heisenberg" when Walt takes down the idiotic jocks making fun of his kid's condition.

SE: I like that the first thing we see is Walt on a rampage through the New Mexico desert in a Cousin-Eddie-Johnson RV. As a family man struggling to provide the best life for my children, I can't remember a scene quite as disturbing as that opening monologue and subsequent failed suicide attempt. What could have driven a man to that point? Thus begins the endless kudos to Bryan Cranston, and I didn't even realize he was the Malcolm in the Middle guy until the third episode.                                      

CS: The first time I watched the show I actually stopped five minutes in to make sure that I was actually watching the first episode. Then I thought I had a corrupt copy because I just could not believe that they would start a show that way. It's funny, on second viewing I find myself nitpicking some of the most stupid stuff. I've never been a teacher, but there is no way a high school chemistry teacher would have time to moonlight at a car wash. Also, did that drug bust seem a little bush league to you? I live in a very small SE Kansas town, and even they use a helicopter for drug busts.

SWAT vehicle purchased from Satan
SE:  I totally believe Walt moonlighting, because I have a friend that is a vice-principal and teacher at a middle school by day and a bartender by night, true story. And the drug bust was a little shady, but I figure it was Hank leading, just having some fun on a small-time bust. My hometown has an old ambulance painted black with custom flames that is the "SWAT" drug-bust vehicle (sans helicopter).  In a quiet Missouri town of only 10,000 that is a tad over-the-top, so I just figure the DEA of New Mexico is a little less careful and a little more forceful than most units, dealing with cartels and what not. The point you've made is the questioning of the show's reality, which might be the number one selling point of Breaking Bad.

I know, solely based on what I've seen in my life, the show has a pretty realistic flare to it as you've mentioned. The scene I thought was remarkably sublime at driving that point home, yet some might not envision it that way, was the one in which Walt is told he has lung cancer. I've unfortunately borne witness to this scene too many times in real life, and the doctors will iterate and reiterate each diagnosis and each treatment. They do this specifically for life-threatening illnesses as the trauma of the event interferes with attentiveness, so I found it ingenious that the edit included muffled speech from the doctor and a small reveal of Walt's anal retentiveness.  Hey Craig, you have some mustard on your shirt.

CS: Actually that's queso (true story). Well the only other thing I've found to be asinine was Skyler using the phone book to find Jesse Pinkman’s ghetto website, but I'm splitting hairs now. I've been pretty lucky on the disease front, but my life has intersected the sketchy meth world more times than I care to count. I've never dabbled in the wonder that is meth, but I have family members that have talked about the accuracy of that world. Heck, one unnamed relative swears that the show mirrors his life in some ways, which really just makes me want to change the subject.

On a lighter note, how about that glorious bathtub scene? I'm dead serious when I say that is one of my favorite scenes in a TV show ever. Yeah, after the first episode I was totally into the show, but that bathtub scene sealed it for me. Episode two, "Cat's in the Bag..." is really where Walt begins to realize he might be in over his head. For what it's worth, having an Engineering degree and having taken several plastics classes, I’m always looking at the bottom of plastic containers to see what they are made of, and now I know when I want to decompose a body with acid stick with low-density polyethylene.

SE:  That's fantastic. I was a big fan of the bathtub scene for the sheer purpose of how clearly it represents the ugliness Jesse and Walt fear they have gotten into. Want to sell meth? Clean up some gnarled acidic flesh and reassess. As far as scenes I had forgotten, Skyler charging up to Pinkman's house as a dead body remained strewn on the ground was the perfect concoction of darkness and absurdity, the bathtub was icing on that disaster cake.

CS: How fitting is it that Walt drives a Pontiac Aztec? Considering the overall attention to detail the show has, that had to be a well-thought-out choice. It is one of the ugliest cars ever manufactured, but hey it came with a tent. It seems like the perfect car for Walt though, it’s about as utilitarian as it gets as well as one of the most panned cars ever produced, but Walt doesn't care about that. It’s even missing a hubcap. Compare that to the complete piece of shit Monte Carlo that Pinkman drives; those cars really sum up the characters at a glance.

SE:  Amazing breakdown of the Aztec. I always thought the same, but couldn't put it to words. I will say that I love all the little choices the writers make to explain Walt, from drinking Canada Dry to the pastel button-ups. This isn't an ordinary guy. He was on the cusp of full academic and monetary actualization at one time, choosing family life and high school education. Somewhere along the line a thousand-pound chunk of pride got buried inside. Let's talk about Episode Six: "Crazy Handful of Nothin'." That episode has it all, the harrowing chemo scenes, the bleak irony of the group therapy session, and, ah yes, the full-throttle birth of Heisenberg.

CS:  Ah yes, the Waltervention, such a great scene. Clearly the downfall of Walt has been Walt, just too much pride.

Blowin' up lairs with rock candy: This is how we do it.
Before I get into "Crazy Handful of Nothin'," I believe the birth of Heisenberg was the fourth episode ("Cancer Man," surely a nod to The X-Files, Gilligan's first big gig) when Walt blew up the BWM. He just didn't have a name yet. Aside from that, it’s crazy how fast the first season goes. And I love the character Tuco, pretty much the definition of wild card, pretty much the antithesis of Walt. Can you imagine if Walt finally goes off the deep end and starts rocking a platinum grill? I once bought some rock candy at Silver Dollar City that looked pretty similar to what Walt used to blow up the Tuco lair. I doubt it was the same thing.

SE:  I don't know, some of that rock candy is pretty explosive. I know I had a buddy that told me he dared a kid to drink some cinnamon oil once, and a trip to the ER was the result. Too bad Tuco didn't take a bump, Walt could have taken all the loot. If there is one thing that I have found unbelievable, it was the explosion that blew out all of Tuco's windows, yet didn't severely injure any of the thugs, but the camera shot of Walt launching the mercury fulminate was rad enough that I suspended belief. One thing I have noticed the second time through is that the first season isn't exactly "fun" to watch at times.  With a show like Justified, or even The Walking Dead, there are some distinct rooting character interests, where Breaking Bad you have to be careful who you find yourself rooting for. I feel it's very The Wire-esque in that, other than the obvious reason, the viewer is left consistently wondering what the next move is (what is Walt going to do to get from point A to point B), with the added bonus of conflict of morality in that we see a guy making the moves that has never been part of the game, never grew up in the game, and so far removed that he thought it was a good idea to send Pinkman straight to the highest distributor he could find.  (By the way, The Wire stands alone for its social commentary alone. I just wanted to poke light at the impossibilities of a prim high school teacher in the seedy underbelly of America.)

CS: I’m not sure it’s a good idea to send Pinkman to do anything to be honest, aside from actually slinging rock that is.

SE: Yet Pinkman is the one with the most common sense in a lot of different situations. What a sublime paradox. A lot of folks I have talked to really enjoy Pinkman's character, including the older generations. What's your take on that?

CS: I waffle on Pinkman. At times I really like the guy; at other times I really hate the guy. In many respects, he mirrors the unnamed family member I referenced earlier. Pinkman is the classic loser that had every opportunity and resource to succeed on top of actually being intelligent and talented, but just couldn't keep his shit together. Pinkman also is one of the neediest characters ever, which is probably why he is constantly trying to fill the voids with either drugs or just other shady people.

SE: There is definitely an A Clockwork Orange effect going on with Pinkman: you hate him, you like him, you hate him again, then you feel sorry for the chap, only for him to come back with his cheap catch-phrase, "Bitch." I feel like suburban America is littered with Pinkmans, kids that either find a path and eventually do something with themselves or get lost in their own needful absorption, sucking up college loans for drug use.

We haven't talked about Hank. He is a real crowd pleaser. It's fun to seem him constantly spew his special brand of chauvinism in contrast with Walt's demureness. Hank visiting Walt at the high school is a scene I haven't heard or seen discussed by many. Cranston looks like he actually took chemo for the role in that scene. And I didn't realize it on first viewing, but that scene sets the table for a lot of later Hank vs. Walt interactions, complete with a Hank joke about Walt stealing the meth-making equipment.

CS: I felt bad for the janitor, and so did Walt. Hank is such a dude, you know he is one bad career choice away from being the guy who mows the lawn at his high school Alma Mater’s football field whilst talking about the good ol' days 3/4 liquored-up on Natural Ice. Having said all that though, you know his heart is in the right place. I like Hank. Not a fan of his klepto wife though.

SE: I guess we're all criminals in one way or another. I like the tension Marie brings to certain scenes, although I would like a Craig-Scholes-Pontiac-Aztec breakdown on the decision of Marie's quirky character flaws. One subject that normally gets glazed over during most internet recaps is the issue of morality and the morality of crime, pitting petty morality issues like misdemeanor theft or something as minor as one of Hank's crude comments versus larger, more complex issues like cooking meth to support your family. I feel like Gilligan and Co. really weave the morality flaws of each character together nicely. Where do all the little white lies Skyler has been telling herself fall on the Walter White scale of immorality? And how long before Hank finds Walter Junior in that seedy hotel with an ounce of crank?

CS: Marie just bugs me. I guess her heart is in the right place, but the idea of getting a tiara for a baby shower just bugs me to my core. As for the morality, I dunno. To me the show paints more of a dog-eat-dog world, and that you gotta get yours. The thing that gets me is that Walt's pride is more important than his morality. Walt would much rather break every law to provide for him and his than to admit to even the slightest defeat and take any sort of handout. I’m more curious about when Walt Jr. starts trying to use his condition to his advantage; of course, it didn't work when he tried to score some beer. 

SE: It must be mentioned that Season One was shortened by the writers' strike, originally set for nine episodes.  The season ends with Heisenberg and Pinkman in a junk yard, appalled by Tuco's business practices.  Clearly there is more of the story to tell, but I actually like this end point for Season One.  The main characters have been introduced, and the overall plot theme has been established.  The viewer gets a glimpse into the absurd world of the Southwestern methamphetamine trade, along with a how and why someone would ever become involved.  Walt and Jesse are still taken aback by the gruesomeness of it, but the wheels are already set in motion. They are in whether they like it or not. 

CS: At least the writers' strike had one good positive outcome (I'm looking at you, Friday Night Lights!), but yeah, season one ends perfectly. Especially with the way the show is continuously capable of stepping it up with each episode. I can't really remember how Season Two starts, but I'm quite excited to rewatch it.

So in summation: The first season pretty much runs the gamut from the mildly insane to the full-on batshit crazy. From the half-naked Walt with a gun in his mouth to the curbless curb-stomping of a mouthy subordinate, with all the Aztec-driving, cancer-diagnosing, drug-raiding, drug-dealer-kidnapping, bath-tub-dissolving, coin-flipping, car-explosioning, Walterventioning, drug-lair-infiltrating, PTA-meeting-fingerbanging you could want in a show. And yet the sky is still the limit.
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