Monday, July 30, 2012

Breaking Bad: Hazard Play

So far this season, 'Breaking Bad's been all about dealing with the aftermath of last season's finale. After the caper of the first episode and last week's recruitment of Mike into Walt's team, this week we get an episode that seems to have finally established the new normal for the show. As a three-way-partnership Walt, Jesse and Mike strike a new balance of operations (Walt cooks, Mike does the business) and use the help of Saul Goodman to find a new place to cook. They settle with 'Vamonos Pest', a pest control company, and they use the fumigation tent to cook when nobody's at a client's house. 

Everything seems to be going back to normal and it seems like Walt couldn't be more satisfied with himself, except he really shouldn't. As I started watching the episode, I couldn't help but feel too that everything was falling into place as Walt found a new effective operation to run, but we then got three moments that made it very clear things aren't going nearly as well as Walt thinks they are. 

First we get to see Walt sit side by side with Brock on Jesse's couch acting as if he had nothing to do with Brock's poisoning. Jesse seems to be doing very well living with Andrea and Brock, but Walt uses Jesse's trust on him one more time to make him dump Andrea. Does he do it because he fears Brock will speak up or because Andrea will put Jesse in another situation where he is a hazard to the operation? We don't really know, but we know Jesse is still ignorant to Walt's manipulation. 

Then we have Skyler. Her scene at the car-wash with Marie is incredibly telling in which we realize how damages he's become since she decided to join Walt in his operation. Walt tells Marie it must be because of what happened with Ted Beneke since they had an affair. And based on the scene where he is watching 'Scarface' with Walter Jr. and his baby daughter, I think he does, to a large extent, think that is the reason for her sudden depression, no realizing how afraid Skyler is of him and how badly she regrets having joined forces with a husband that looks more and more like a murderer. 

And finally, there is the one person who isn't too afraid or oblivious to confront Walt: Mike tells Walt he will only participate if he gets to run the business side of the operation by himself. Walt then says to Saul about the deal: "He runs the operation, I run him". And when Mike starts making cuts on Walt and Jesse's share to give to his many employees, Walt tries to run him. The way he does it, it is clear Walt is more sure of himself than ever, but the way he treats Mike is not exactly an intelligent thing to do. Mike tells Walt: "Just because you killed Jesse James, it don't make you Jesse James." 

And he is right. Walt may be as careful as ever in the way he runs his cooking and money laundering, but he is too proud of his achievements to treat the people around him with the same level of care. His relationship with Jesse is hanging by a thin thread of ignorance and his relationship with Skyler is worst than ever. The thread of other Gus Fring is gone, but there is another thread as dangerous to Walt coming from within.

Also: It's great to see Skinny Pete and Badger at the music store. Especially Pete doing some kick-ass keyboard playing. 

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Disney Canon: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

I love animation and I love Disney films, So another of the projects for this Blog, is a re-watch of the animated Disney films starting with the very first and working our ways through the studio's filmography... I'll try to write a post weekly, but bare with me, they're a lot of films...

Having jusr watched it, I can say ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ might as well be the most dated film in the Walt Disney canon. This is understandable, since it was Walt Disney’s first feature-length film.

Let’s begin there. Technically, ‘Snow White’ wasn’t the first feature-length animated film of all-time, but it was the first one produced in America. That was a huge deal back in the day. In 1937 nobody thought an animated film longer than a few minutes could be successful, thinking it would make people sick (something that seems ridiculous in our days of talking donkeys and kung fu pandas). So Disney had a lot of trouble financing his movie. He even had to mortgage his house when the film ended up costing four times what Walt had estimated. Anyway, when the film opened, it was an enormous success. It became the most successful 'talkie' up to that point and slam-opened the door for new animated films to come.

The most dated part in ‘Snow White’ is the title character herself. Many feminist groups have expressed their feelings about the portrait of women in Disney’s classic princess movies, but let’s face it, the world looked at women very differently in the 1930s. So of course it is natural that Snow White is completely naive and her only wish is that her prince will come save her. It's also only logical that her first impulse when she arrives at the dwarfs’ house is to start cleaning. I think it can’t be that easy for a girl in this day and age to identify with Snow White, especially when you can get other more forward-looking princesses like Belle and Ariel in you DVD collection.

That being said, ‘Snow White’ still holds up pretty well despite its view on femininity. It is safe to say it pretty much invented the animated film as we know it and it is impressive to see how much of what would become the classic tent-poles for a Disney film is already there: The helpful little animals, the songs, the scary childhood-scarring sequences and, most importantly, the stash of funny supporting characters that would be a constant (and become the most popular part) in future films. You can see one of the longest cinematic traditions starting right here.

The plot is very thin and that is when all the archetypical tent-poles we mentioned kick in. He spends as much time in extended comedic sequences involving the dwarfs as he does advancing the plot itself. That's because he is, above all, presenting an entertainment. Specifically, a kids' entertainment. He knows children like comedic sequences that highly resemble what was done in animated shorts of the time. He knows they like catchy songs. He even has the witch talk directly to the audience as an actor in a children's play might do. Being filled with sequences that seem specially designed to play with audiences, it's no wonder the movie became a huge hit.

The spectacle is highly entertaining even this many years later, but the relationships between the characters are way too simple and still feel like it. There is, for example, absolutely no interaction between Snow White and the Evil Queen except for the fantastic apple scene (and in that scene, Snow doesn't even know she's interacting with her step-mother). The motivations are clearly defined, but not really explored. Something that is completely understandable and forgivable given the early nature of the film. Still, the quality of the animation is superb. The evil queen looks and feels like a live-action human and is one of the scariest, most memorable movie villains. 

Overall the film is more than well worth watching. It’s a movie that still holds up as entertainment even if it feels a little dated and I’m sure kids will still get a kick out of watching it. It is, after all, a cinematic milestone like few others. 'Snow White' is a hugely promising start to a new medium and a studio that was just entering the feature-length movie business. It remains one of Walt Disney's greatest achievements both historically and artistically.

Next Time: Disney gets ambitious after the success of Snow White with 'Pinocchio'. Now, let the seven dwarfs sing a little something for you.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Breaking Bad: Madrigal

We're continuing our weekly thoughts on 'Breaking Bad' as it airs the first half of its final season. Post come up evert Monday. 

It was bound to happen. After taking down Gus after an exhausting battle at the end of last season, it was obvious Walt was going to try and fill the place as the lord of meth in New Mexico. 

Jesse has gone through some serious shit these past seasons, and while in the premiere we saw him preoccupied with destroying Gus's laptop, we now see him at his most emotional crying for almost betraying his master when that's probably what he would've done if he knew the whole story. As we know, Walt did poison the kid and did somehow steal the poisonous cigarette from Jesse; but he has also staged such an elaborate lie to cover himself up that right now Jesse is devoting all his loyalty to him and jumps right back into cooking alongside Walt.

Mike (Jonathan Banks), however, is not as thrilled with the idea. This episode's main focus is on how a guy like Mike would go back to work with a guy like Walt. Someone who has rubbed him the wrong way since he's met him and someone, who in his own words, is a ticking time-bomb. 

With such an opinion of Walt, it's no surprise that what brings Mike into the operation doesn't have much to do with him. We established last season that he loves his granddaughter and now we see that it's his love for the little girl that makes him team up with someone who could (and most probably will) lead him to a tragic ending. 

Without Gus in the picture, it seems like we're going to be focusing more on Mike. As long as Jonathan Banks is as good as he is in this episode, I don't have complaints. We know Mike is a very cold guy who is professional over anything, but he seems to have a soft spot for little kids (and somewhat for Jesse). I'm interesting to see his role in Walt's journey this final season. 

Also: The name of the episode comes from the opening scene at the 'Madrigal' headquarters in Germany. "Why are germans in Breaking Bad?" asked my dad and I hope this builds up to something interesting.

Also: We close the episode with a very creepy scene of Walt trying to sex up Skyler while she's completely depressed over what happened with Ted Beneke. Walt's being creepier than ever.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Go Big or Go Home

How can you meet the expectations when following a movie as great as 'The Dark Knight'? Seems like an impossible task, but director Christopher Nolan is more than willing to undertake the challenge in order to bring you 'The Dark Knight Rises'.

Judging by the movie, if there was a person who could pull this off, Nolan was probably him. 'The Dark Knight Rises' brings Batman (Christian Bale) to an epic grand finale in which he faces arguably his greatest foe yet: Bane (Tom Hardy). Unlike an enemy like The Joker, whose mission was to spread chaos and anarchy; Bane is a man with a very meticulous agenda. He has an army of followers that resemble a twisted version of the Occupy movement and that he uses to violently rise into power like a revolutionary leader. He is pretty much the comic-book equivalent to a Joseph Stalin. 

Along for the fight against this evil, besides Batman, are old friends like loyal butler Alfred (Michael Caine), tech-guy Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman),  Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) and many new faces like idealistic police officer Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), millionaire investor Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) and mysterious cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway, who balances the fun and camp of her performance to fit this universe and become the stand-out in a film that isn't really centered around her). 

If 'The Dark Knight' was a crime movie, 'The Dark Knight Rises' is a war epic. Nolan goes beyond the previous films in scope, turning Gotham into a battleground where the ultimate battle for Gotham against Bane's army will be fought. Like he did for previous films, he finds inspiration in recent political events: 'The Dark Knight' took a look at the moral shades of the war on terror and 'The Dark Knight Rises' now takes a stand against the recent 1% problem, arguing how it could foster the growth of an evil as big as Bane's. 

Batman, in his battle against Bane, sinks into the lowest of low-points and must fight as hard as he can to rise and emerge triumphant. That struggle is the most effective part of a very entertaining film that takes the themes and the story of the previous installments and brings a satisfying conclusion to what feels like a cohesive trilogy. 

That being said, if there is a weak-point to the trilogy it's probably 'The Dark Knight Rises'. There are so many things Nolan wants to say and so many characters he has to follow, that even being 165 minutes long, the film can't find enough time all that must be said. As a result, the movie seems intensely rushed and rarely are we given enough time to linger on an effective emotional beat. Just as I was letting myself go to the intense feelings, the movie moved into something else. It is a pity, because as I said before, the best parts of the movie come when they focus on Bruce Wayne's internal struggle and his ultimate test of will towards the end of the film.

Where the lack of time really hurts the movie, is in its plotting. We never really get to grasp what Bane's big plan really is about. He talks about giving Gotham back to the people, but then he wants to kill everyone. He says Gotham must be destroyed, but we never really know why. Things are good now in Gotham, there's no crime left, then why does it have to be destroyed? The motivations of Rha's Al Gul and The Joker in the previous movies where far better expressed.

Also, the nature of Bane's plan and his stand-in as a dictatorial figure raise the stakes to such an immense height that as the movie goes along it becomes more impossible to resolve them in a perfect way. 'The Dark Knight' was an almost perfect movie in this regard, tightly edited and plotted as to resolve all the threads and bring round the themes of the movie. 'The Dark Knight Rises' aims so high that it can't quite close the circle as neatly and flawlessly as the previous movie did. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

2012 Emmy Award Nominations

We're taking a break from our Batman week to comment on the nominations for the 64th Primetime Emmy Awards, which have just been announced. Here are some thoughts and reactions regarding the british invasion.

Comedy Series
30 Rock (NBC)
The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)
Girls (HBO)
Modern Family (ABC)
Veep (HBO)

Who's missing: Parks and Recreation, Louie, Community, Glee
HBO did pretty well here with three nominations, however the three best comedy series on television (and Glee) weren't nominated including 'Parks and Recreation' which got in last year. Whatever, unless 'Girls' got nominated and I have something to root for when 'Modern Family' inevitably wins.

Drama Series
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Downton Abbey (PBS)
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Homeland (Showtime)
Mad Men (AMC)

Who's missing: The Good Wife, Justified, Dexter
I think this is the first time ever in which there isn't a broadcast network nominee among the contenders, which is both shocking and telling about the television age we're living in. 'Mad Men' has won four times and could win a fifth, but it seems like 'Downton Abbey' is coming strong and I think the brits make take this one.

Lead Actor in a Comedy
Alec Baldwin - 30 Rock (NBC)
Don Cheadle - House of Lies (Showtime)
Louis C.K. - Louie (FX)
Jon Cryer - Two and a Half Men (CBS)
Larry David - Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)
Jim Parsons - The Big Bang Theory (CBS)

Who's missing: Of the people that had a chance, Johnny Galecki.
This is pretty much what we could have expected of this category. It's not a very exciting list, but considering the shows the Academy likes it's pretty good. Let's hope Louie can somehow win.

Lead Actor in a Drama
Hugh Bonneville - Downton Abbey (PBS)
Steve Buscemi - Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Bryan Cranston - Breaking Bad (AMC)
Michael C. Hall - Dexter (Showtime)
Jon Hamm - Mad Men (AMC)
Damian Lewis - Homeland (Showtime)

Who's missing: Kelsey Grammer (Boss), Dustin Hoffman (Luck), Timothy Olyphant (Justified)
Here's when you start seeing the power of 'Downton', Hugh Bonneville gets in over Emmy-darling Kelsey Grammer and Awards-magnet Dustin Hoffman. This list is actually pretty good, although it's kind of sad that Timothy Olyphant doesn't return after being nominated last year in favor of yet another nomination for Michael C. Hall.

Lead Actress in a Comedy
Zooey Deschanel - New Girl (FOX)
Lena Dunham - Girls (HBO)
Edie Falco - Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Tina Fey - 30 Rock (NBC)
Julia Louis-Dreyfus - Veep (HBO)
Melissa McCarthy - Mike & Molly (CBS)
Amy Poehler - Parks and Recreation (NBC)

Who's missing: Laura Dern (Enlightened), Laura Linney (The Big C), Martha Plimpton (Raising Hope)
They expanded this to seven nominees and still some Golden Globe winner Laura Dern, and last year nominees Laura Linney and Martha Plimpton couldn't get nominated. This might be the most competitive category of the year, because I don't know who of these ladies would win.

Lead Actress in a Drama
Kathy Bates - Harry's Law (NBC)
Glenn Close - Damages (FX)
Claire Danes - Homeland (Showtime)
Michelle Dockery - Downton Abbey (PBS)
Julianna Margulies - The Good Wife (CBS)
Elisabeth Moss - Mad Men (AMC)

Who's missing: Mariska Hargitay (Law & Order: SVU), Kyra Sedgwick (The Closer), Mereille Enos (The Killing), Emmy Rossum (Shameless)
Claire Danes is so good in 'Homeland' and the show has so much buzz and she just won the Golden Globe so she has to win right? Just wait until Emmy night to see Kathy Bates win for freaking 'Harry's Law'...

Supporting Actor in a Comedy
Ty Burrell - Modern Family (ABC)
Jesse Tyler Ferguson - Modern Family (ABC)
Max Greenfield - New Girl (FOX)
Bill Hader - Saturday Night Live (NBC)
Ed O'Neill - Modern Family (ABC)
Eric Stonestreet - Modern Family (ABC)

Who's missing: Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), Chris Colfer (Glee), Neil Patrick Harris (How I Met Your Mother)
The 'Modern Family' category remains the 'Modern Family' category. And I am starting to get over the fact that Nick Offerman will never be nominated for his brilliant performance as Ron Swanson, because when you get snubbed and Bill Hader from SNL gets in? That has to be the most random nomination ever.

Supporting Actor in a Drama
Jim Carter - Downton Abbey (PBS)
Brendan Coyle - Downton Abbey (PBS)
Peter Dinklage - Game of Thrones (HBO)
Giancarlo Esposito - Breaking Bad (AMC)
Jared Harris - Mad Men (AMC)
Aaron Paul - Breaking Bad (AMC)

Who's missing: John Slattery (Mad Men), Alan Cumming (The Good Wife), Walton Goggins (Justified), Mandy Patinkin (Homeland)
Now, here's the kind of thing I was talking about when I said 'Downton Abbey' was coming strong. Glad to see Esposito and Harris get recognized for their amazing work in their (spoiler alert!) final season. One of them may well end up the winner considering they have the showy tapes, but then again so do past winners Dinklage and Paul.

Supporting Actress in a Comedy
Mayim Bialik - The Big Bang Theory (CBS)
Julie Bowen - Modern Family (ABC)
Kathryn Joosten - Desperate Housewives (ABC)
Sofia Vergara - Modern Family (ABC)
Merrit Weaver - Nurse Jackie (Showtime)
Kriten Wiig - Saturday Night Live (NBC)

Who's missing: Betty White (Hot in Cleveland), Cloris Leachman (Raising Hope), Jane Krakowski (30 Rock), Jane Lynch (Glee)
Wow, the Emmys not nominating Betty White and Cloris Leachman? Seems like the days of yore are gone and I don't complain. I mean, we get Mayim Bialik who is the best thing about 'Big Bang Theory', the lovely Merrit Weaver and the late Kathryn Joosten. But expect either one of the 'Modern Family' gals or Kristen Wiig in her farewell season to win.

Supporting Actress in a Drama
Christine Baranski - The Good Wife (CBS)
Joanne Foggatt - Downton Abbey (PBS)
Anna Gunn - Breaking Bad (AMC)
Christina Hendricks - Mad Men (AMC)
Archie Panjabi - The Good Wife (CBS)
Maggie Smith - Downton Abbey (PBS)

Who's missing: Kelly MacDonald (Boardwalk Empire), Angelica Huston (Smash), Rose Byrne (Damages)
Anna Gunn gets in for 'Breaking Bad' and I'm happy because she deserves it.

OK, now that you've seen the list if you are not thinking 'Downton Abbey' wins Drama Series then I think you are wrong. I am convinced now.

Some Other Nominations:

  • The three best comedies might not have been nominated for Series, but they pack the writing category were Louie, Girls, Community's 'Remedial Chaos Theory' and two episodes of 'Parks and Recreation' were nominated. How great is THAT category?
  • Just in case your were wondering, 'Downton Abbey' did get nominations for best direction and writing. So, yes, the win is inevitable. 
  • The hilarious and lovely Bob's Burgers gets a nomination for Best Animated Program and that's great.
  • 'Sherlock' finally breaks through with nominations for Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, directing, writing and Made for television Movie or Miniseries.
  • In guest acting news, Ben Feldman (Ginsberg on Mad Men) and Mark Margolis (Tio Salamanca in Breaking Bad) both get in! And Uma Thurman gets nominated for her guest role in 'Smash' because... I have no idea.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Movie Time-Machine: The Dark Knight (2008)

Our final step in our preparation for the arrival of 'The Dark Knight Rises' was obviously re-watching what many consider the best superhero movie ever made. 

And what can I say? It really is. I really love this movie, it might as well be one of my favorite movies so it is hard to find something to say about it without just listing the things that are awesome about it. 

Now, unlike 'Batman Begins', this movie doesn't spend that much time with Batman himself, but also with the other characters in Gotham City. Obviously there is Heath Ledger's Oscar-winning performance as The Joker (our main villain), but 'The Dark Knight' is not exactly the Heath Ledger show as many people say it is. Sure, The Joker may be the flashiest character and have some of the best scenes and lines, but we also spend a lot of time with other many interesting characters. Gary Oldman and Aaron Eckhart are at the center of the story and give great performances to boot. 

The thematic line of 'The Dark Knight' is that of order vs. chaos. Batman is saving Gotham, but he has  also inspired a bunch of vigilante imitators that are distorting his message and the harmony he wants to create in the city. He concludes that the way to achieve his goals is to present a hero with a face, one that plays by the laws and people can look up to: Harvey Dent. Of course, the tension here is what happens when the rightful man meets the greatest agent of chaos (just in case, that would be the joker). 

In a way Batman is in the middle of this fight, trying to trip the balance as much as he can to Dent's side, and of course, failing. At the end of the movie Dent falls, but Batman decides to make a hero out of him anyway. Batman becomes an outlaw, because that is what the city needs. 

Apart from being a kick-ass movie, 'The Dark Knight' is a pretty good allegory for the age of terrorism and al-Qaeda. It asks how do you fight an evil like the Joker's, one in which ideology surpasses any kind of reason. And how far are you willing to go to defeat it. 

'The Dark Knight' has a lot of characters sacrificing something or other in order to stop evil and ends with Batman sacrificing his status as the symbol he wanted to create in the first place. The trailers for 'The Dark Knight Rises' have been telling us Bruce Wayne hasn't yet made the ultimate sacrifice for Gotham and after seeing the important role of sacrifice in 'The Dark Knight' it makes sense that's were our hero is going in its final movie.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Movie Time-Machine: Batman Begins (2005)

We are celebrating what is shaping up to be 'Batman Week' here at 'Coco Hits NYC'. After watching some fantastic Batman: The Animated Series and writing about it, I couldn't resist taking another look at the two previous Nolan Batman movies before finally watching 'The Dark Knight Rises' this friday. 

Watching 'Batman Begins' was in some way more interesting to me than re-watching 'The Dark Knight', because I hadn't revisited it since I first saw it in theaters back in 2005. Back then I was thirteen years old, which is old enough to have thought the movie was way cooler than any other Batman movie I had seen (at least live-action movies) and deciding it was a good film. I always regarded 'Batman Begins' as a good film, but I never felt the desire to watch it again. Now, almost seven years later, I must say I had forgotten a lot about the plot and actually found the movie to be better than I remembered. 

Obviously, after the disaster that were Joel Schumacher's Batman movies back in the late nineties, Christopher Nolan had nowhere to go but up. But he really stepped up the game and gave us a hell of a reboot. A film that is as gritty and dark as it is entertaining. I think it's interesting to compare it to a recent reboot we've talked about in this blog... 

Both films tell the origin of the protagonist super-hero and both plant a focus on the father of the character, which hadn't been a part of the older movies. The main difference between 'Batman Begins' and 'The Amazing Spider-Man' is that 'Batman Begins' understands that the best way to establish a franchise isn't to set up stuff that will pay off in the sequel, but crafting an interesting movie with a beginning, a middle and an end. You can see the difference by how 'Batman Begins' will pay off every single thing it sets up. It actually gets a little kind of ridiculous. I mean, even the fact that we saw Bruce Wayne do push-ups pays off later in the film! 

If there is a problem with the film, it has to be the relationship between Bruce Wayne and Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes). There doesn't seem to be much to the character besides the fact that there had to be at least one woman in the cast. And Bruce's reveal of his secret identity to her later in the film doesn't really have kind of major impact in the story. 

The lack of emotion in that relationship, however, is payed up by the relationship between Alfred (Michael Caine) and Wayne. In a scene late in the movie, Wayne Manor is on fire and everything seems lost to Bruce when Alfred reminds him of his father's words: "Why do fall Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up". That scene really packed the emotional punch and made the whole movie work for me. 

'Batman Begins' is about overcoming our fears and the hard times. It is about Bruce Wayne finally overcoming the death of his parents in his noble crusade. About Bruce Wayne picking himself up from the worst moment in his life. And judging by the trailers (where I believe the quote above is uttered) it seems like 'The Dark Knight Rises' will bring this theme back to the foreground.

Also: How amazing is that final scene when Comissioner Gordon shows Batman the Joker's card. An incredibly effective way of setting up a sequel without compromising the film and one of the most awesome and deserved moments in film. 

And is it just me or does Tom Wilkinson have the weirdest accent ever as Gotham crime-boss Carmine Falcone?

TV Classics: Over the Edge

I am in Batman mode this week (You all know why). I just can't wait until Friday without a healthy dose of the caped crusader so I resorted to one of the best Batman interpretations. Now, I was never a big fan of the Tim Burton movies and the Nolan movies are amazing, but I think my favorite screen version of the hero was Batman: The Animated Series.

It was also the first one I ever watched since the show debuted in 1992, the year I was born. So when I was about four or five I was already watching. At the time I watched and thought Batman was cool, but the show had such a unique sensibility when compared to the other stuff I got to watch on television (the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons, for example. Not to mention Power Rangers) that my young self didn't quite what to make of the show. As I grew older I began to appreciate how amazing the show was. 

Like I said, the show felt and looked like no super-hero or kids show of the early 90s. Visually, it had the expressionist art-deco influence of the Tim Burton movies and the 1940s Fleischer Superman cartoons (Creator Paul Dini actually acknowledges the Fleischer cartoons as a major source of inspiration for the show). The show had an full orchestral score, the villains used real guns instead of the ray-guns that were used in 80s cartoons and the backgrounds were painted on black paper to give the series a darker look. It was like watching an old film noir movie.

 However unique Batman: The Animated Series was in its visual style, the big difference was in its substance. Thematically, the show was willing to touch on subjects and stories that were far more mature than what we got to see in other shows of the time (like the magnificent 'Heart of Ice' episode which is a masterpiece by the way). And unlike Burton's films, it was incredibly true to the essence of comic-book versions of the characters, a trait that has played a huge part in the comic-book-inspired movies that dominate our movie screens these days.

As a tie-in to 'The Dark Knight Rises' I chose to focus on an episode produced late in the Series' run called 'Over the Edge'. I chose 'Over the Edge' for three reasons: The first is that it features the character of Bane which is (as you probably already know) the main villain in 'The Dark Knight Rises'. The second is because it feels like 'TDKR' is capping off Nolan's Batman trilogy and 'Over the Edge' feels like the ultimate ending to the Batman story, one that actually focuses on the fall of our hero. The third is because it's one fine episode of television.

The episode starts with a bang with Batman and Robin being chased by Comissioner Gordon and other policemen in the Batcave. So we've been thrown into the action and in just a couple of seconds we've learned that Batman and Robin are not only in trouble, but that they're being chased by one of their greatest allies. After our heroes run away and get to a safe place thanks to their ally Nightwing, we see what triggered the action:

Now that is something that you don't see in your average kids' show. It's the on-screen death of Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Batgirl that triggers Commissioner's Gordon vendetta against Batman. Gordon goes ahead on a fearless hunt for the caped crusader, revealing his secret identity and making him a fugitive. It's heartbreaking to see Jim Gordon turn from Batman's greatest ally into his worst enemy, but his motivation makes it understandable.

However things turn even grimer as we see how far Gordon is willing to go to capture Batman. He resorts to one of Batman's deadliest villains and stages a trap during his daughter's funeral knowing Batman feels so guilty he will be present. A trap that will see the ultimate battle between Batman and Bane.

"What can I expect from a killer of children?" The moment is chilling. I can remember how angry I was as a child hearing those words being said about Batman and how surprised I am these many years later to think something like that was aloud to be said by a character in a children's cartoon (be it a villain or not). Oh, and obviously, you can only imagine how hard my jaw dropped when Batman and Gordon fell of that building.

At the end of the episode, it turns out it's all been Barbara's nightmare after being sprayed with the Scarecrow's fear-gas, which may be a little disappointing, but is an apt ending for the episode considering it's a children's show after all and it gives us a very sweet moment between Barbara and her dad in which she wants to confess her true identity to him. And even if some could be disappointed by the ending, it doesn't make what came before any less thrilling and any less of a great Batman story.

This episode, like some of the best stories about Batman take a look at the morality of being a hero. In this case not only Batgirl is putting herself in danger, but also the ones she loves. It also reminds us of the old superhero phrase 'with great power comes great responsibility' (even if it was first uttered in another hero's adventures, it belongs to the mythology of every superhero), asking on the morality of Batman putting Batgirl in danger and Gordon avenging the death of his daughter. Complex stuff, man. But that sort of storytelling is what set this cartoon apart.

If you want to watch more 'Batman: The Animated Series' I recommend: The already mentioned 'Heart of Ice', the two-parter 'Two-Face', and 'Mad Love' an adaptation of a graphic novel written by the shows' creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm and featuring the birth of the love between The Joker and Harley Quinn. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Breaking Bad: Live Free or Die

Breaking Bad is back for the first half of its final season Sunday nights at 10pm ET on AMC and I will be trying to do some kind of recap every Monday. 

Watching 'Live Free or Die', the premiere of 'Breaking Bad's final season with my dad made me realize what a long way this show has gone. Now, my dad watched the first two seasons of 'Breaking Bad' and was more than confused and uninterested while watching the premiere. This wasn't the show he watched a couple years ago and at the same time, it really was.

The central premise of 'Live Free or Die' is that Walt and Jesse have to make up a way to destroy the laptop that holds the evidence that would link them to deceased drug-lord Gus Fring. So they team up with Mike and come up with a convoluted plan that involves a giant magnet. This was the part of the episode that my dad was actually interested in, because it was something that didn't need that much knowledge of previous seasons to understand and something that was easy to recognize as the 'Breaking Bad' of early years.

After a very climatic and powerful season finale last year, we come back with the premise of Walt and Jesse get into a mess and have to get out of it at the center of the episode. A throwback to the early years that does and doesn't feel like them. The premise might be similar to their previous antics, but the characters around it -particularly Walt- are very different.

I think you can sum it up with Walt's attitude. Having defeated Gus Fring he feels more powerful than ever. Now, Walt was always a very narcissistic guy to begin with, but I think we have never seen him be as arrogant as when he's riding in the back of Mike's car. Mike asks how could they be sure the plan involving the magnet worked. Walt's response: "Because I say so." Add that to the scene in which he scares the shit out of Saul, the scene in which Skyler admits to being afraid of him and most of all the scene in which he "forgives" Skyler for her time with Ted and you have a very different Mr. White. One that I would dare to say has reached a peak in the megalomaniac department. 

It seems fitting that the final season of 'Breaking Bad' has Walt being more powerful than ever. The coast is clear for him to be the new Gus Fring and he won't let that chance go. We will just have to wait and see if this new almighty Walt can become king of the hill before has actions make things come crumbling down around him.

Also: We begin the season, like many before it, with a somewhat intriguing scene. It's in the future. Is Walt's 52nd birthday. He's pretending to be from New Hampshire. Is carrying a shotgun in his truck and sporting a head full of hair. Now that scene has me intrigued to see what will become of Walt, but my dad's 52nd birthday was a couple days ago, so it played sort of creepy when we watched it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

TV Classics: The Simpsons - "Bart the Daredevil"

Today I felt like watching some classic 'Simpsons'. The big question whenever I want to watch some classic 'Simpsons' is obviously, which episode. More than any other television series, 'The Simpsons' has so many classic episodes, it makes it incredibly hard to choose just one when you want to relax and have a good time watching the antics of Bart, Homer, Marge and Lisa. 

Regularly I pick something from between seasons 4 and 7 (which I think is the highpoint for the series). But today I thought of a special episode: Season 2's 'Bart the Daredevil'. The minute I thought of the episode I knew I had to watch it. First, because it had been a very long time since I last watched it. And second, because of what my high school drama teacher, Gerardo, had told me about it a couple of years ago. Now, I hope my memory serves me well enough as I try to talk about what he told me.

Gerardo, unlike me, is from a generation that was born before 'The Simpsons' ever aired on television and thus experienced its arrival into the culture first hand. When I was old enough to know what 'The Simpsons' was, the show was already a huge hit and had been on tv for almost ten years. Gerardo was already a preadolescent boy when 'The Simpsons' premiered and he got to watch the show become an institution. Gerardo is a huge fan of 'The Simpsons'. When asked if he has any religious affiliation he used to say 'The Simpsons' were his religion. That's the kind of fan he is. And when I asked him what the greatest episode of 'The Simpsons' was, he said 'Bart the Daredevil'.

He said it hold a special place in 'Simpsons' pantheon, and in his heart, because he remembers first seeing it with his family and thinking it was the most hilarious thing ever. Simply put, it may be the single episode that turned him into such a huge fan of the show.

After watching the episode, that this particular episode turned him, is understandable. First, because it is a fairly early episode in 'The Simpsons' run. Secondly, and most important, because it is one hell of an episode. The plot goes like this: The family rushes away from Lisa's recital to go to a monster-truck show featuring a giant robot called the Truckosaurus and a grand-finale-death-defying-stunt performed by daredevil Lance Murdock in which he has to jump across a tank full of sharks, piranhas, electric eels and a lion on his motorcycle. After Bart watches Murdock, he decides to become a daredevil himself and jump across the Springfield gorge on his skateboard. Oh, in case I didn't mention it, the episode starts with Bart and Homer watching a wrestling match.

Now that is one boatload of awesome. I can picture an eleven-year-old Gerardo thinking how awesome the Truckosaurus is. A premise like this in the hands of the 'Simpsons' writers turns into a celebration of awesomeness and rightfully so. 

Talking about the writers, the script by Jay Kogen and Wallace Wolodarsky is packed with some of the most bizarre 'Simpsons' gags (from putting a lion in a tank full of sharks to the hospital wing dedicated to children hurt by imitating the Three Stooges), but at the same time, at the core of the episode, there is a really strong focus on the relationship between Bart and Homer and how much the father cares for his son. A true and human story that puts 'The Simpsons' above shows like 'Family Guy'. The writers that worked on the early days of the show say that when pitching story ideas, they were always remembered that at the end of the day 'The Simpsons' were a family and they cared for each other.

Now that is television at its best, but that you could have gotten from other great early 'Simpsons' episodes like 'Lisa's Substitute' or 'Radio Bart'. What sets 'Bart the Daredevil' apart is its grand finale, when Homer ends up performing Bart's stunt. Now I couldn't do justice to the moment with my words, so here it is dubbed in spanish because it's the one video I found. (I suppose all of you have watched the episode before, but if you haven't you owe it to yourself to not be spoiled by watching the end of it).

Now, Gerardo talked to me about this very moment and how it became the funniest thing his family had ever seen when the ambulance crashes into the tree and Homer falls down the gorge once again. I think both Gerardo and me agree that this moment pretty much perfectly sums up 'The Simpsons' comic sensibility at its best. This is the moment of conversion.

As for myself, well, after watching this episode I watched 'Lisa's Substitute'. Then 'Marge vs. The Monorail'. Then 'Homer's Barbershop Quartet'. Then 'Last Exit to Springfield'. And then I decided it was too late in the afternoon to not have eaten yet. Simpsons magic, baby.

Monday, July 9, 2012

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' is the foolish movie that premiered the same weekend as 'The Avengers' back in May. Great idea, right? Well, it turns out if ever there was appropriate counter-programming to the biggest movie of the summer, it was dame Judi Dench.

The film has been a tremendous force at the box-office. Proportionally, obviously. Which is to say it hasn't become the third-highest grossing movie of all time in the US (that would be 'The Avengers'), but it has already grossed more than 100 million dollars internationally on a 10 million budget. So, yes, I guess older people still like to go to the movies.

The plot of the movie is the following: A group of retired English people (which includes Dame Judi, Tom Wilkinson, Bill Night and Dame Maggie Smith) decide for different reasons to move to India to the wonderful 'Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Elderly and Beautiful', which is a luxurious, top of the line resort. Only it isn't. It is a little hotel sloppily run by a young man (Dev Patel) who can barely make ends meet. The brits are initially disappointed by this, but soon the little hotel and the exotic country will win their hearts.

As you most probably have already thought to yourself after reading the above paragraph, the plot isn't particularly original. And it really isn't. On the comedy side, it concentrates mainly on how different things are in India (the traffic, the food, it's all so crowded!) and how shocked the british are by this. On the dramatic side, it also centers on what feels like a cultural differences checklist: arranged marriage, the cast system, etc. You can see a lot of the plot-lines' resolutions coming from miles away and it all works out a little too nicely at the end. 

But there is something special about the little film that just wins you over by the end. Yes, this is a predictable story and these are roles that this wonderful actors could play in their sleep. But it doesn't mean that watching them is any less fun. If ever there was an earnest movie, this was it. And these terrific actors (and director John Madden from 'Shakespeare In Love' fame) are willing to commit to the material, no matter how predictable it is. And at the end, I think this earnestness pays off really well. This doesn't feel like a cash-grab from the producers' part. This isn't another movie about a group of man-child friends who get drunk and refuse to grow up. 

This is a nice time at the movies and I'm glad this movie exists even if it is not that great. Not every movie in the world has to pander to young males and hopefully the success of the 'Marigold Hotel' can start to change this. 

Grade: B-

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Oh no, it has begun

Are we ready for the internet to explode? The first reports are coming in, and via, we are learning that 'The Dark Knight Rises' screened for a handfull of critics that received it with a standing ovation and... talk about it winning the Best Picture Oscar. 

Of course, the first part is great news for everyone who was worried the movie wouldn't live up to the ridiculous standards set out by 'The Dark Knight' (like me), so we can all relax and expect a good film. On the other hand, this is terrible news for anyone who ends up being underwhelmed by the movie. Quoting
And Oscar talk was even floating around in the ether. Critic Marco Gennuso, gushed, "If this does not break the mold and win Best Picture, no comic book movie ever will #TDKR." 

This sort of early talk about it not only being nominated, but winning Best Picture can only be a recipe for disaster. Expect either a terrorist attack on Oscar night or all the fanboys in the world typing so hard the internet implodes and creates a gigantic black hole that sucks us all in.

I hope even the most fervent fanboy remembers what happened to 'The Dark Knight' back when it was supposed to be nominated. And I know we all asume the change from five to ten nominees was a way to make up for that wrong, but there is just no way we could be sure 'TDKR' will be nominated. Hell, Nolan didn't even get a Best Director nom for 'Inception'!

So I would ask all the fanboys out there to relax and take it easy. I myself am one of you. Deep in my heart I want this to be the most awesomest movie ever, but lets not start bullying everyone who doesn't like it. At the end of the day, it could be any of us that ends up not liking the movie. 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man: It's the little differences

The question everyone's asking is why. And the answer, at least from a hollywood mogul perspective, is obvious. Sony couldn't make another of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man movies and had to put the web-slinger on the big screen ASAP to stay in the Peter Parker business, so they decided to reboot the whole thing just five years after the last Raimi film. The chosen director: Marc Webb (helmer of (500) Days of Summer).

What's it about? Well, quite frankly, if you have seen the original Sam Raimi 'Spider-Man' released in 2002, you have seen a lot of the material covered here. Yes, they decided to retell the origin of Spider-Man and most of it is still the same. Nerdy orphan Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) gets biten by a radioactive spider, his uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) is murdered partially because of him and, thus, he learns about responsibility and becomes (the Amazing) Spider-Man.

What's different? Well, instead of Mary-Jane Watson, Peter's love interest this time around is Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and the villain is Dr. Curt Connors aka The Lizard (Rhys Ifans). Also, unlike the Raimi films, this time around we spend some time with Peter's parents and it seems like his father has something to do with the radioactive spiders that would turn his son into a superhero. However, this little differences are just that, little differences in what feels a lot like Raimi's movie.

The one new aspect that does bring something interesting to the table is the introduction of Gwen Stacy as the female lead instead of Mary-Jane. The chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone is spot-on. The love story between the characters has some very sweet moments and is the most entertaining part of the film. Denis Leary, who plays Gwen Stacy's dad, is also very good.

The rest of the movie isn't nearly as good. Most of the other new stuff doesn't work. The story regarding Peter's parents never pays off in any way. There isn't nearly enough to time to make a compelling villain out of Rhys Ifans, whose Lizard ends up being way too similar to Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin.

The most frustrating part, like with many movies nowadays, is that it feels more like an obligatory introduction to the characters in order to make more movies. And the worst part is that it isn't a particularly fun introduction.

The movie would have been much better off not dealing with Peter's transformation into Spider-Man (or pointing at it in the opening credits, I mean, we all know the story) and, thus, it would have had much more time to craft a good film. Then, the movie would be way more focused in the "new" stuff and wouldn't be stuck repeating the beats of the origin storyline just because it had to. What we have now, is a movie in which Uncle Ben's death doesn't have any real emotional resonance.

Grade: C