Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Jessica Jones isn't a hero, and that's what makes her great

One of the best shows in recent memory, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, has the title character (by the way, major spoilers here) kill the bad guy, and save her friends and civilians, all while just kicking ass in general. Despite all of this, at the conclusion of its first season the show poses the following question; "Is Jessica a hero?" The simple answer is; "No." At least not yet. The Marvel Universe is overflowing with heroes, what it really needs was a main character who is conflicted that, while good, isn’t a hero in the traditional sense. And that’s exactly what Jessica Jones gave us.

Nowhere is this more clear than after Jessica has just saved the day by beating the big bad, Kilgrave,  now with her abilities revealed to the world. Jessica’s voicemail overflows with messages from people asking for her help, one seems to be woman in an abusive relationship, but Jessica deletes the calls one by one. She isn’t callous or dismissive, and is unhappy to ignore their pleas for help, but she ignores them nevertheless.

Jessica’s motivations skirt the line between justice, vengeance, and the greater good. These all come into play when dealing with Kilgrave, a sociopath with mind control powers, a very bad combination. After a brief stint of trying to be a superhero, Jessica is mind controlled by Kilgrave, and used to his evil bidding. Kilgrave took advantage of Jessica’s superhuman strength, using her for his selfish ends. He also forced Jessica into a relationship, mind controlling her to be with him, essentially raping her. Like many real people, Kilgrave denied that what he did was actually rape. The show’s first season chronicles Jessica’s fight against Kilgrave when he returns after having done the same thing to a young woman.

Jessica’s first instinct is to run, but is convinced by her old friend Trish Walker to take him down to assure that he can never hurt anyone else. Reluctantly, Jessica agrees and saves this woman, named Hope (real subtle there Marvel) but things go south quickly as Hope is mind controlled to kill her own parents, and is sent to jail. Much of the first half of the season revolves around Jessica’s attempts to capture Killgrave and prove that he has mind controlling abilities, thus proving Hope’s innocence.

This becomes an important conflict, and driving force throughout the season, as the question becomes whether to kill Killgrave, saving lives and stopping his evil ways, or capture him and right what he has wronged. It essentially boils down to a choice between heroic idealism or the greater good. This struggle is represented in two people, Trish, and a man originally brainwashed to kill her, an ex-military police officer named Simpson, who becomes Jess and Trish’s ally. Trish, the same person who originally convinced Jessica to try to be a hero, believes that they can capture Kilgrave and find a way to prove that he has these powers, therefore exonerating Hope and that it’s the right thing to do and will bring justice. Simpson on the other hand believes he needs to be taken out, stopping the bleeding, and that justice cannot be achieved, abandoning those he has already hurt but preventing future victims. Interestingly these two characters form a relationship. Jessica falls in the middle, part of her wanting Kilgrave dead, but not willing to kill him, not for a sense of justice, but because it’s the only way to save Hope.

The more the protagonists come up with convoluted plans to capture and secure proof of Kilgrave’s abilities, more and more people die. Deaths that could have been prevented if they had murdured Kilgrave. Simpson even points out to Jessica that she could have killed him a dozen times over. After four innocent people are nearly killed again because of Jessica’s plans Hope, realizing she is the only thing stopping Jessica from ending Kilgrave once and for all takes her own life to free Jessica. Now, without any heroic notions or people to exonerate Jessica decides to murder Kilgrave.

In the meantime Simpson, after his old friends are killed, decides that something needs to be done to finally stop Kilgrave and makes a dangerous decision, but one he sees as the only option. Since he believes that Jessica will never do what needs to be done to finish Killgrave he takes drugs that make him powerful, but also turn him into a utilitarian killing machine. He kills innocent people in his quest to take out Kilgrave, and hurts Trish.

This seems to paint Simpson as a villain, but this isn’t completely accurate either, as he is still trying to accomplish something for the greater good, unfortunately the pills he takes make him do terrible things to accomplish that end, and frankly turn into a real dick. However, he only took these pills and became a monster when he believed there was no other choice, something Trish also does later on in order to combat Simpson, and we see a brief glimpse of the darkness and need for power inside her. The blur between heroics, selfishness and villainy is one of the driving forces in the show.

However a third, and truly heroic option eventually and unexpectedly falls into Jessica’s lap. When Jessica convinces Kilgrave to save someone’s life she realizes she can truly make a difference for good. Kilgrave even seems to like being good, wondering how long it would take to save the amount of people to equal the death’s he’s cause, “Getting back to zero” as he puts it. But he needs Jessica to differentiate right from wrong and guide him, a nightmare for her, but a incredibly noble cause that could also save Hope and maybe even help rehabilitate the demented Kilgrave. Jessica becomes conflicted and talks with Trish, wondering what she would do, knowing Trish is heroic and self-sacrificing in a way none of the other characters are. Jessica knows she could never do what Trish would do without question and turns away from this noble but terrifying path. That is why Trish is the only real hero of the show.

Jessica Jones’ sister series, Daredevil has Daredevil asked similar questions about if he should kill his nemesis, Wilson Fisk, but for very different reasons. Daredevil wonders if he is running around at night fighting bad guys because he just wants to hurt people, but Jessica isn’t playing hero like Daredevil, she is trying to stop someone who hurt her from hurting others. Of course Jessica ultimately murders Killgrave, while Daredevil puts Fisk behind bars. In fact Jessica doesn’t want to be a superhero like Daredevil at all, her brief stint was only at the insistence of Trish, who sees Jess’ potential. Ultimately Trish wants to be the hero, out there saving people and protecting the city and if she had Jessica's strength she would be. It will be interesting to see if she gets a chance in season 2, and if she, a recovered addict, can find some more of Simpson’s pills, and where that takes her.

The show asks many important questions about morality, the greater good, and of course shows victims in new and truly thought-provoking ways. It gives us a strong female hero, even if it’s a side character, although I’d love to see Trish show up elsewhere, after all she was an Avenger in the comics at one point. Best of all it finally gives a Marvel character that isn’t a true hero, but is still brave and admirable, and one that will grow and develop, perhaps becoming a new kind of superhero altogether.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Proves that Sequels and Reboots can Still Kick Ass

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a sequel to a reboot of a classic movie (that already had a failed remake once before) which was itself based on a book. Given that, the film doesn't exactly sound promising because, as everybody knows, films based on an existing franchise are inherently bad, or at the very least uninspired. Conventional wisdom tells us that movies today are all unoriginal, which is why we have so many reboots and sequels, and why the film industry is going downhill fast. Unsurprisingly, convention wisdom could not be more wrong, and nothing proves that more than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which is arguably the best film of the year.

As always with this type of post, SPOILERS:

It’s understandable that there has been a lot of backlash against reboots/remakes and sequels. A lot of the time it’s a studio trying to make a quick buck by giving us a totally unnecessary sequel, like turning good movies like Hangover and Taken into a disappointing trilogies, or the Spider-man reboots, which I’ve made my hatred for known before. The thing is a few bad eggs don’t mean that every sequel or reboot is a hollow money grab. Unfortunately, because of these films, sequels and reboots tend to get a bad rap.

What many people fail to realize is that some of the best films of all time are reboots and sequels. Perhaps the best known “better sequel” is Empire Strikes Back, but history is littered with them including classics like; Dawn of the Dead, Terminator 2, and Bourne Supremacy. On the reboot side of things, look no further than Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which reinvigorated a franchise that had fallen almost into self-parody. Of course, this trend is nothing new, it goes all the way back to classic Hollywood. Some film buffs are aware that Ben-Hur, often hailed as one of the best films of all time, is a remake of a silent film, but few know that the classic film noir from 1941, The Maltese Falcon, is also a remake, and the list goes on. Restarting a franchise is nothing new for Hollywood.

As long as a film is crafted with care and precision, with an emotional core, regardless if it is an adaptation of a previous flick, it at least has a chance to be something great. This is the difference between Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake and Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Dawn's predecessor. One is obviously a shallow attempt to cash in on the title, while ignoring much of the social commentary of the originals, and the other is a complex and indicate tale with; subtle callbacks to the original, a setup for a potential sequel, but still managing to tell its own self-contained story.

Dawn took many of the best elements of Rise and improved upon them. It is one of the most powerful and poignant anti-war movies released in recent years. It gives us complex characters; the film foregoes traditional good guys and bad guys, and presents both sides as having both honorable and questionable individuals. It’s a film where we root for peace instead of one side over another. Despite it being thought provoking and beautiful, it still manages to be one of the most badass action films around, proving you can have the best of both worlds.

Apes isn’t the only film to dispel the notion that good huge budget films are a thing of the past; 2014 was absolutely chalked full of awesome intelligent movies, including Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, and The Lego Movie, just to name a few of the blockbusters. Sure there were a few crappy ones, like Transformers 4, but these days there are just more films released every year, which means both more good and bad movies are released every year. Of course, there is the illusion that the past had a smaller ratio of bad films simply because we remember the good films as time passes and forget the bad ones, since (generally speaking) only good films are memorable. Anyone who has seen an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 knows that the past is overflowing with terrible forgotten films. After all, who five years from now is going to remember Pompeii? It was a huge release early this year, but chances are that you’ve already forgotten about it. Films like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes on the other hand are here to stay.

In fact, an argument could be made (and I’m about to make it) that because of modern advances, films today have the opportunity to be better than they were in the past. Andy Serkins is once again getting some much deserved Oscar buzz for a motion capture performance as the ape Caesar, and it would not have been possible without today’s technology. Consider the original Planet of the Apes films, where actors wore rubber masks. Frankly it looked incredibly cheesy, and severely restricted the actors’ performances. Today we can turn an actor into an ape and preserve every subtle motion on his face, while allowing him to move freely and naturally in way that was never possible before.

There is a shot near the beginning of Dawn where Caesar jumps in the air, killing a bear with a spear. Something like this would never have been possible in the original Apes movies. This is not to say that simply having this technology in a film makes it inherently better, because when a film exists to prop up its effects (as I discuss in my review of Gravity) the film fails. However, when the effects are just one part of an entire formula, it can create a mesmerizing film.

All of these parts truly come together in Dawn. Serkins isn’t the only actor in the film to give an amazing performance, as both the motion captured apes, and the regular human characters are preformed beautifully. Everyone in the film manages to portray a character that has lost something, as their world is one rocked by tragedy. Some of the best moments in the film are the silent ones where a live action actor interacting with a motion capture one. One that particularly sticks out in my mind is the scene where teenage human Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and the orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) reading a comic book together. These kind of characters, which see beyond being ape or human, and come together, are film’s real heroes.

In contrast, the characters who simply see the world in black and white are the ones that cause the conflict in the film. While the Caesar and one of the human leaders, Malcolm (Jason Clarke) are able to relate to each other, Caesar’s lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) and the other human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) are only interested in their own group’s interests. Koba, while selfish and traitorous has a tragic backstory, once a laboratory ape, covered from head to toe in the scars from those days where humans constantly sliced him open. Along with his need for power, Koba’s hatred for humans is his defining character trait. Dreyfus on the other hand is a much more noble character. He also has a tragic backstory, with his wife, children and friends, all long dead. Dryfus only wants to protect humanity, even going as far as to sacrifice his own life to do so. Like Koba, who sees humans as all evil torturers, Dryfus sees all apes simply as wild, uncontrollable, unreasonable animals. Their refusal to listen to reason leads us to a climax where it seems that peace will be a thing of the past. Although Malcolm remains optimistic about peace after the dust has seemingly settled, Creaser knows that they have reached a point of no return, and he blames himself for putting his faith in Koba simply because he was an ape.

None of this would have been possible if it weren't for the foundation of the films on which Dawn is based. Instead of a blank slate this film had an remarkably strong point to build on.The audince isn't simply thrown into jump a post-apocalyptic world, we had the first film to set up the events of said apocalypse, as well as introducing characters, including Caesar and Koba. Dawn owes more than just it's basic idea from the original films, cherrypicking all kinds of themes and even Caesar's name from the movies. It also blazed it's own path though, incorporating new ideas with the old, touching on poinent themes in bold new directions, exceeding all of it's source material and becoming the best Planet of the Apes of all time.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Failure of The Miami Heat's "Big Three"

Two NBA championships and four finals appearances in four years hardly sounds like a failure, but that’s exactly what it was for the Miami Heat and the “Big Three,” who have now broken up for good. Under normal circumstances that would be a pretty ridiculous statement, but this was definitely not ordinary. For The Heat anything short of a dynasty marked failure, and two championships is no dynasty. So why did the Big Three experiment have such high expectations and end so abruptly? Well it was their own hubris that got them in trouble.
The Heat (mostly LeBron) brought those expectations upon themselves. LeBron James’ “Decision” left a bad taste in many basketball fans when he abandoned the place he had grown up, good ol’ “Midwestern Values” Northeast Ohio, to go win championships with his friends in flashy South Beach Miami. It didn’t help that he did this in pretty much the most obliviously self-centered ways possible, but more on that later. The first thing the Big Three did, before even playing together, was throw a huge celebration in their own honor, where James claimed they would win more than eight championships together. The bar was set high.


Flash forward four years, The Heat have just been beaten down in one of the most one sided final series in recent memory. They managed to eke out one narrow win, but lost the remaining four games by at least fifteen points each. This was arguably more embarrassing for James then when the same Spurs swept him in the finals the sole time he took the Cavaliers to a championship series. LeBron admitted that free agency wasn’t even on his mind at the end of the season, but after seeing how his team held up against the best of the Western Conference that changed quickly.
The Heat never were as good as they appeared, sure they dominated the East, but since the decline of the aging Celtics, and seemingly never-ending injury to Derrick Rose, the only team with even a slight chance to compete with them in the conference had been Indiana. It was a rude wakeup call when the Heat, who had met almost no resistance getting to the finals, were beaten like a drum by San Antonio. In all honesty five or six teams from the West would likely have beaten The Heat in a playoff series this past season.

Why were the Heat simply not good enough? It was because of the Big Three; with three superstars they lacked other talent. Dwayne Wade wasn’t the player he was when he won the finals MVP in 2006; in fact, he wasn’t even the player he was in 2010 when LeBron joined the Heat, age was beginning to get to him. Bosh was still a worthy sidekick but he played out of position as the Heat didn’t have a true center. That was all the help James had, the rest of the team was subpar, just like his 2007 Cavs team. Unlike Miami, Cleveland had actually greatly improved since 2010. Without LeBron the team struggled but were rewarded with draft picks, including two first overalls in four years including Kyrie Irving. The Cavs were brimming with young talent.

It now was obvious to James that the team had abandoned had a much brighter future than his current one. It was time to head back and look to the future. Eight championships in Miami was never going to happen, even if he snagged a few more, he was never going to surpass Jordan or Kobe or in number of championships. So James could either; keep making it to the finals in Miami as a villain and lose to the West, or return as a home town hero and have a chance to raise the Cavaliers to greatness one day after their young stars develop and win the first title in franchise history. The choice seems obvious to me.

Thus ended the failed experiment of the Big Three. Perhaps if he had won another, maybe back in 2010 things would have been different; after all, Shaq won three titles with the Lakers before losing one and fleeing the city, and that was considered a rousing success, but it was apparently not to be this time. James once again left a slew of loyal fans for greener pastures, but this time around he was smart about it and came off looking like a good guy, so he got a pass. In 2010 James had an hour long televised special to announce where he would be “Taking his talents” before letting his own team know he was leaving. This time he wrote a little humble letter, and instead of talking about how easy it would be to win multiple championships, he said it would be difficult and take time. He even got made fun of wearing an awful shirt that looked like a tablecloth so this time he used an old photo of himself in a classy suit. People said he matured, but honestly he just did the opposite of what got him in trouble last time around. Of course, he did bring up points about how Northern Ohio needs him more than Miami, which is true, as after his departure the area felt it economically, and while I may take his reasoning with a grain of salt, I’ll give him credit there.

In the wake of all this there were still two members of the Big Three in Miami after their leader’s departure. Everyone assumed that Wade, who has spent his career in Miami would stay, but it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that, without James, Bosh, the master of photobombing, would depart, most likely for the Rockets. Except that second part didn’t happen. Bosh didn’t ditch Miami the second he realized he was the best player left and there no longer a realistic chance to win a championship. He resigned with the team. The experiment failed, but Bosh didn’t jump ship, he stayed loyal to his fans and teammates, and will become a real leader on the team.

So where does this all leave us? Well first of all, the East is weaker than ever, It’ll probably be at least another five years before a team from the East can win a championship, depending on how long it takes for James to do it with Cleveland. With the downfall of the Heat, the East, with its abundance of bad teams, is just as open as the West, with its good teams. Right now it looks like The Pacers have the best chance of being the lucky team that will lose in the finals next year, but just lost Lance Stephenson, so who knows? Of course a big variable in all of this is former MVP Derrick Rose. His return to the Bulls, along with newly signed Pau Gasol makes the team a dangerous contender. Of course The Heat gutted as they are, can still probably at least secure home court advantage in a playoff series with Bosh and Wade sticking around, and with an abundance of cap space they can hopefully add some much needed depth.
Point is that the super team of 2010 just didn’t work. The chest pounding, boastful team came up short and James saw the failure and left, now trying a much more humble approach, intentionally setting the bar as low as possible. In all honesty I’m glad James went back to Cleveland, it needed him and perhaps he needed to go back, away from the bandwagoners, and repair the relationship with the real fans he once spurned. Bosh and Wade’s decisions to re-sign with the Heat also speak volumes about their character, the bandwagon fans may now have switched to Cleveland, but there are still plenty of real Heat fans in Florida.

The era of the Big Three is over, but a much more interesting time is about to begin. Hopefully with many more Chris Bosh photobombs.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Gravity is a Hollow Spectacle

Awards season is over, and I breathed a sigh of relief when Gravity failed to take home best picture at the Academy Awards. Still, I couldn't help but be a bit bothered when it grabbed an award it definitely did not deserve in the best director category, as well as being nominated for a ridiculous amount of others. Meanwhile other far better films like; Place Beyond the Pines, Elysium, and Rush were not even nominated for a single Oscar. Gravity follows in a recent tradition of films that put special effects above story, along with Life of Pie, and of course the one that started the craze, Avatar. All of these movies are visually stunning but lack compelling plot. However, none of the previous offenders have been so devoid of interesting story, characters and social commentary as Gravity.

Now I don’t want anyone to get the impression that I have something against modern special effects, far from it, I love them. They allow filmmakers to do some amazing things, things they would never have been able to do in the past. Many of my favorite films from the last few years, like Inception and Hugo, have been loaded with special effects. The problem arises when the plot exists to prop up the special effects, instead of the other way around. Gravity might look amazing, but when the audience can’t connect to the characters in a character based film, there is a big problem.

I remember the first time I saw a trailer for Gravity, which I believe consisted of about 90% Sandra Bullock’s annoying cries, I laughed in the middle of the theater because it looked so terrible. Instead of setting up the plot or introducing the characters the trailer was a single scene that told viewers all they would need to expect from the movie; Sandra Bullock is in space and things go wrong, oh and the movie looks amazing. Then I saw that Alfonso Cuaron was directing and I realized right then and there what kind of movie this would be. After seeing Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban I felt like I had a pretty good feel for the kind of movie he makes. Both Harry Potter 3 and Children of Men are some of the coolest looking movies around, but seem to sacrifice plot for stunning visuals. Even so, both are still pretty good movies (although not as good as they should have been) because they have an advantage Gravity does not, they are based on novels. The novels have complex plots, and even while those plots are partially removed or changed they still are the backbones of the movies. Without a strong starting point like that the plot of Gravity is paper thin and is made up entirely of Sandra Bullock’s character moving from one destination to the next.

The movie’s runtime is only about 90 minutes but somehow it manages to feel longer then the second Hobbit movie. The reason for that is simple, nothing happens. The second half is worse than the first because (spoilers) at least in the first there is some dialogue between characters, while in the second it’s just the ever aggravating Sandra Bullock talking to herself. Of course there is nothing wrong with a solitary character struggling conceptually speaking; it’s the execution in Gravity that is wrong. Cast Away, for example, is a brilliant movie because Tom Hank’s character, Chuck Nolan, is one that we as an audience cared about on a deeper level. In fact I actually care more about Wilson the volleyball than Sandra Bullock’s character, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way.

The reason we can connect more with a volleyball than Dr. Ryan Stone (Bullock’s character) is due to the fact that Chuck treats him like a real person, he has meaningful conversations with him and Wilson floating away is one of the saddest moments of the film because he has kept Chuck (relatively) sane for the past five years, and was his only friend. Once Wilson is gone Chuck has lost the only thing in the world he had left, we see him at his lowest, which makes his salvation more spectacular. At some point in the movie Dr. Stone reveals she had a son who died, which explains why she is such a sad mopey character. It also explains that she lost her only motivation in life, which makes her struggle to get back to Earth alive more symbolic and meaningful as she decides she has something to live for. Regrettably, her change from mopey astronaut who has given up on life to mopey astronaut who wants to live happens, not over the course of the movie, but in one scene where she hallucinates/dreams about George Clooney and has a brief interaction with someone she can't understand.

The rest of the movie is just Dr. Stone getting from one place from another while we are hit over the head with how visually stunning the film is. She travels from one space station to the next, each one is miraculously intact until the moment she needs to leave it, when the cloud of space debris return and destroys the station she is currently on, but luckily for her, not the next one she needs to get to, until of course she reaches it and the process starts again. Basically Dr. Stone travels at the speed of plot, but makes sure to take breaks to do things like pose for an overly long shot where she looks like a child in a womb, which Stanley Kubrick did better back in the 60’s.

So really, why am I so upset by the success of Gravity? It’s because despite the fact that it is a terrible movie, it still was received overwhelmingly positively by; critics, moviegoers, and the Academy. Its success is a bad thing because it means that the thing that really matters in a movie is not plot or character development, but special effects. The more that films like Gravity and Avatar succeed, the more they dominate the film landscape and other more original thought provoking films are passed over in favor of simplistic hollow films. Think I’m exaggerating? Well, Avatar 4 has already been announced despite Avatar 2 not even having entered pre-production. On the other hand Blade Runner, one of the best science fiction films ever made, actually lost money at the box office back in 1982 and Ridley Scott’s planned sequel still hasn’t arrived after 32 years.

Gravity’s message comes across sloppily; Cuaron attempts to make us connect to Stone by giving her a child who died pointlessly, and then having Clooney’s heroic sacrifice awaken her once again giving her life meaning. Clooney’s death scene is nearly identical to a scene from the much reviled Mission to Mars, and it’s just as unmoving. Even Michael Bay pulled off a better scene where a character sacrificed himself to save someone else in Armageddon. For the life of me I can’t understand why such a poorly acted, thinly plotted excuse for a movie has such universal renown other than this; it was a great experience. However, film isn’t about taking the viewer on a cool ride; it’s about telling a story, or at the very least making a connection to the audience.

There are all kinds of theories about the deeper meaning of the film, which isn’t surprising to me; when something is particularly shallow it can be interpreted any number of ways. The film certainly provides a sense of awe, but for all the wrong reasons. The only way Cuaron seems to be able to connect to audiences is through visuals, so instead of having a relatable character we can root for, or even like, the things that are meant to move us are include Stone crawling from the mud in some kind of weird visual metaphor for evolution. Gravity totally fails when compared to the films it emulates, (or rips-off if I'm being honest) movies like; Moon, Apollo 132001: A Space Odyssey, or even Wall-E. All of these films deal with many of the same issues that Gravity touches on like; isolation, hope, making a connection to your fellow humans and dealing with your own humanity, but these better films address these themes in a much deeper and more profound manner.

It’s honestly extremely saddening to me that the movies which often boast such incredible new special effects are so bland in terms of plot and character. It doesn’t have to be this way of course; Jurassic Park was groundbreaking in its use of CGI, but that wasn’t what made it great. It stands the test of time because we connect to the characters and relate to the movie on a deeper level than “Man, those dinosaurs look cool.” Gollum in The Two Towers is another great example. Modern technology brought to life a classic literary character and it let us see his tragic story in a way we never could before. Special effects are one of the greatest tools a director can use, but the danger comes when the film exists just to show off its own technical merit and simply look pretty.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Breaking Bad: Walt's ego was his fatal flaw

Beware of spoilers….

Simply put, Breaking Bad was a show about character development, with an emphasis on one character's development, Walter White. Unlike most protagonists Walter slowly turns from a mild-mannered dorky chemistry teacher to a ruthless murderous drug lord. While Walt’s cancer may have been the catalyst that began his transformation from good man to cold blooded killer there was something else that had been inside Walt for much longer that gave him the potential to become such a monster. Walt’s massive ego, which was a driving force behind everything Walt did from the start, fueled his pride and his greed.

Walt always maintained that he did the terrible things he did for his family. That was his excuse for letting a girl choke to death, poisoning a child and arranging for the deaths of dozens of people, killing many himself. It wasn’t until the final episode that he admitted to his wife that in reality he did all it for himself. Walt enjoyed being “Heisenberg” the cruel alter ego he created to deal with the criminals, but it wasn't really a persona, it was his ego finally coming through. Now he had an excuse to let that darkness within him out. Walt always had a choice, but he refused to swallow his pride, he decided to do the wrong things on his own rather than take help from anyone.

One recurring reminder of Walt’s pride manifested itself in the form of the Schwartzes. Way back in season one they offered to pay for Walt’s cancer treatment, however Walt turned them down. He had the chance to escape from the world of meth before he had fallen too deep in, but he would not accept help from those who he believed had wronged him. Gretchen Schwartz, who once upon a time was his girlfriend, betrayed him, stole his research, and ran off with Eliot Schwartz, then the two made billions off his ideas. At least that’s how Walt remembered it.

He told Jessie about how he “sold his children’s birthright” AKA his third of the company that he and the Schwartzes formed together. He thinks he had been cheated out of millions and wanted to get back what he should have had and build his own empire. Walt liked being the kingpin, he wanted everyone to recognize how talented he was and to know his (fake) name, even as it caused him and the ones he loves to be in more and more danger.

Early on, in the first episode of season two, Walt calculated the amount of money he needed to make before he could get out of the meth business. He came up with a rough estimate of $737,000 or eleven more drug deals. Walt implied that once he made this money he could escape from this awful life of making drugs, yet he didn't stop until he'd made roughly $80 million dollars. Walt continued cooking meth because of his greed,; it was never enough money. He had to be the king. The ad’s for the final season even referenced this showing him sitting in front of piles of money and the catchphrase “All hail the king.”

This isn’t the only time that Breaking Bad makes a reference to Walt being a king.  The third to final episode of the show was titled Ozymandias, a reference to a famous poem by Percy Bysshe Shelly. The poem tells the story of a worn statue in the sand of Egypt of a long dead pharaoh, who declared himself, “The king of kings.” Of course Ozymandias’ kingdom and his power faded away long ago, and that no matter how great, all kings must fall. Just as the egomaniacal king Ozymandias’ kingdom is merely ruins in the Egyptian desert, the egomaniacal Heisenburg’s empire crumbled too in the harsh New Mexican desert.  Here’s a promo featuring Bryan Cranston reading the poem:

The desert is where Walter White met his ultimate downfall; where his money was stolen, his true identity exposed to the world, and where the one line that he swore he would never cross was crossed for him. Because of Walt’s actions his brother in law was murdered by Nazis. His decision try and have Jessie, who was “like family,” killed caused Walt's fall from grace. Walt always wanted more; he schemed, murdered and manipulated to get his way. In the end it caught up with him.

Mike, perhaps the wisest character on the show, described Walter as a ticking time bomb and warned Jessie to get away from him. Mike saw Walt’s ego and the destruction it left better than anyone. Mike famously told Walt; “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch! We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork! You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed! It was perfect! But no! You just had to blow it up! You, and your pride and your ego!” Then Walt shot and killed him.

Of course Walt was not the only character on the show who’s ego got the better of him; plenty of characters displaed a lack of hubris. Some of these examples were obvious, Saul Goodman plastered his name and face on every bus bench and late night commercial he could, and his punishment was to disappear into anonymity. Skyler was a character who talked about morals but seemed to have none herself. She constantly did things of questionable ethics to keep her lifestyle intact. Even small egotistical transgressions had consequences. When Walt told Jessie how to dispose of a body Jessie took a few liberties thinking he knew how to handle it as well as Walt did, but because of his arrogance he destroyed his second floor bathroom, leaving a gaping hole in his ceiling and a mess of blood and guts on his floor.

Perhaps the longest and bloodiest feud in Breaking Bad was the rivalry between Hector Salamanca and Gustavo Fring, and it was a rivalry driven by both men’s egos. When Gustavo was young he and his partner, Max, arranged a meeting with the Mexican cartel. A young Hector didn’t trust him, and the cartel found them arrogant, so Hector murdered Max in front of Gus to show him his place. Hector and the cartel killed Max to show their superiority in the face of any perceived arrogance. This began a long revenge plot by Gus to destroy the cartel and Hector Salamanca’s along entire family, just as the man Gus considered a brother was killed. When Walt set a trap to kill Gus using Hector as a suicide bomber, Gus fell for the trap and died because of his pride. He could have sent any of his cronies to do it, but his ego drove him to do it himself. Their need to best each other, to get revenge and prove who was on top, caused their downfalls and they died together.

Of course people may not realize that even heroism can be egoistic, if done for the wrong reasons, and no one exemplified that more than Hank. Hank failed to see what was right in front of him, that his brother in law was a druglord. He knew how embarrassing it would be for him when the rest of the DEA discovered how completely he was fooled. Hank’s pride would not allow him to go to the DEA for help, instead Hank believed he could bring Walt to justice himself, wanting one last chance to redeem himself. He only told his faithful right hand man Gomez, and because of Hank’s need to be the hero they both ended up dead. The show’s final antagonist, Todd, summed up the greed of everyone on the show best when he said “Not matter how much you got how can you turn your back on more.”

No one, however, not Skyler or Gus or even Todd had the ego of Walter White. Walt managed to escape ever repercussion that came his way for four and a half seasons, but Walt got sloppy, and after his retirement his sins caught up with him. His DEA brother in law found a book he should have destroyed long ago, and prior to that he even tells Hank that Heisenberg may still be out there when Hank suspects that Gale was the true mastermind. His pride causes Hank to reopen the case he once thought solved. After everything went south Walt still kept trying to escape his fate and even Saul told him to turn himself in to protect his family, his supposed reason for doing it all along. Walt refused and tried to come up with a scheme to get revenge on the Nazis that stole his money. He attempted to intimidate Saul but sucumed to a coughing fit while Saul told him “It’s over.”

Only once Walt admited that he had his own selfish reasons did he gain some redemption. He almost died on his own terms, he left his family some money, and he got his revenge. Of course he could never be fully redeemed; he had done far too much to get a real happy ending, or what he really wanted. At least he got a heroic death, more or less, and the way he did so was to save Jessie Pinkman and free him, not only from the Nazis, but from Walt’s own control. Jessie was held down by Walt for five seasons, who had convinced himself that Jessie needed him, even when he did things like letting the woman Jessie loved die. In Walt’s mind it was all for Jessie’s best interest. Once he saved Jessie and admitted that he was asking Jessie to do something for Walt’s own benefit he could die somewhat nobly.

So the overall message of Breaking Bad is clear; do not let your ego get the best of you, no good can come of it. Of course if you should falter you can always make amends, and while it is not possible to completely undo you mistakes you must try to fix what you have broken. After all, while Walt had the biggest ego of anyone, he was the only one who attempted to right his wrongs, to admit his mistakes and take the punishment he deserved. The show ended much like this post, on a bittersweet, and (hopefully) satisfying note.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New Pokemon don't suck; Everyone's just Jaded

You know what I feakin’ love? Pokemon. I’ve been a huge fan since Red and Blue came out way back in the late 90’s, so a majority of my life. I’ve owned at least one game from every single generation, and I’ve loved them all. Every generation introduces a new batch of Pokemon, and I hear more and more about how every new generation is worse than the last, or how only the original 151 count, or some other nonsense. I’m certainly not the first person to point this out, but I still think it needs to be said here in this blog that like three people read. The new Pokemon aren’t any worse than the old ones, a combination of nostalgia and maturity has caused people to love the original Pokémon and dismiss the new ones.

Here’s a great picture I found that brilliantly illustrates my point:

The people who dismiss everything after the first or second generations even have a name, genwunners. They refuse to see logic and only let their own fond memories of the “good ol’ days”  influence their opinion, saying things like “Everything after gen 3 is crap.”

It’s impossible to not look at something from our past through a nostalgic lens. Of course most people will have an emotional connection to something they have found memories of as a child, which exist with the first couple of Pokemon generations, but we don’t have that kind of connection to new Pokemon. Everything seems cooler when you are a kid, even really stupid stuff. Think back to a dumb movie you really liked when you were young; for me I’ll use the example of Batman and Robin. I loved that movie when I was a kid, and it came out around the same time Red and Blue did. Batman and Robin is just an awful movie, I can barely sit though it today, but when I was a dumb kid I was easily impressed. For that same reason I was so much more impressed with the original Pokemon than recent ones.

In fact I think the first generation of Pokémon is probably the weakest and most boring batch of Pokemon. Now this may sound like sacrilege, but stay with me here. Since they were the first Pokemon, they were pretty basic; they were mostly just cooler versions of animals, the Pokemon creators really hadn’t gotten too creative with a majority of Pokemon. Take Kingler for example, is he really that great of a Pokemon? No, he is a pretty ordinary crab, he isn’t some cool version of a crab. Compare him to Crawdaunt, a crab Pokemon from the third gen that actually looks more like something cool that someone imagined and not an ordinary crab. What’s more is he is a water/dark type instead of just pure water, which brings me to my next point.

Since everything was new in the first gen the type combinations were really basic and boring. The only really interesting type combination was Jynx, a physic/ice type, one cool type combination out of 151. There was an abundance of the boring type combos, ice/water, grass/poison, rock/ground, and the like. Subsequent generations need fresh new ideas since the novelty of Pokemon just existing was wearing off, and as a result interesting new Pokemon with just about every imaginable type combo showed up.

The second generation (my favorite gen) even introduced two new types to add more variety that the originals lacked. The more Pokémon we get the more interesting type combo and new ideas for Pokémon showed up. Look at the Dragons or the Ghosts, for example, there was only one family of each type in the first gen because they are so rare. Both the Gengar and Dragonite families are pretty basic; “Here’s the ghost family and here’s the Dragon family.” Now we have much more unique and creative dragons and ghosts with varied type combos.

Now people love to point out awful Pokemon as the reason that new Pokémon suck. However, a few bad Pokemon don’t spoil the entire generation. My least favorite Pokemon of all time is Garbodor, a literal pile of trash and, yes it’s from the most recent generation of Pokemon. But I love so many more of the newest Pokémon that one really terrible one doesn’t ruin all the great ones. There are so many new Pokemon introduced every gen that a few are bound to be crap. Look at my favorite gen, gen 2, Dunsparce is from that gen. That Pokémon is so awful I legitimately forgot it existed for a few years, until it popped up in some game I was playing and I groaned in disgust as the memories of this little useless piece of crap came back to me. Generation 1 is no exception either. Remember Tangela? That terribly designed Pokémon is literally just eyes, vines and feet. It looks like one of those guys Ronald McDonald hung out with in the 80s.

Before you say that every new Pokemon is terrible because of one ice cream cone shaped Pokemon, take a second and look back at all the stupid Pokemon of the past, and realize how cool a bunch of the new ones actually are. And yeah, I'm pretty excited for the new guys we'll get in X and Y.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Top 20 Films of 2012

So you might be asking why I’m doing a top 20 instead of a top 10 like a normal person. Well, I’ll tell you; this year was so jam packed with great movies and I couldn’t just do 10 movies. I was gonna do a top 10, but 2012 was one of the best years for movies I’ve ever seen, so I just had to double it. That’s also why so many good movies are low on this list, every movie included is simply amazing. 

For the record I haven't seen; Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Master, or Amour 

20. John Carter: This may seem an auspicious way to begin my top 20, seeing as how John Carter is now infamous for losing a ton of money. However last year’s big box office loser was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World was pretty awesome too, and let’s face it John Carter’s budget was insane, few movies could hope to make that back. John Carter has all the makings of a cult classic, like other box office failures including Princess Bride, Fight Club and Blade Runner.

19. Prometheus: I’ll take a dark and gritty realistic weather worn alien world over a bright cartoon alien world any day. I honestly think people missed the point when they complained about the lack of answers. The movie’s message is about belief, and not fact, a very powerful message with interesting religious overtones in the film. It suggests that the search for answers may be more important than the answers themselves. It also works great as a thriller about both our creators and our creations wanting to kill us.

18. Dredd: The best reboot since J.J. Abram’s Star Trek. Karl Urban gives a great performance as the stoic Judge Dredd; unlike Sly Stallone he actually leaves his helmet on the entire time. It’s a simple yet great action flick, reminiscent of Die Hard, and great science fiction like The Matrix.

17. Cloud Atlas: Without a doubt one of the most ambitious movie ever made. It’s actually six separate stories, each in a different genre. They are each connected in varying ways. It’s a moving piece about the human experience, and although some critics hated it (Time named it the worst film of the year) its complexity and beauty really drove home the themes of everything and everyone being connected.

16. Haywire: At first glance Haywire seems like a movie that should be absolutely terrible. It’s plot is incredibly generic and it stars an athlete that’s never been in a movie before, Gino Carano. The first clue that it might not be so bad is the big name actors in supporting roles, including Ewan McGregor, Antonio Banderas and Michael Douglas. The cast is stellar and Carano’s physicality makes her perfect for the role. Under another director the movie may still have been awful, but Steven Soderburg’s realistic dialogue and unique visuals, reminiscent of his Ocean’s trilogy, make it an unforgettable film.

15. The Grey: The first time I saw the trailer for The Grey I actually laughed at how stupid it looked. I decided to give it a chance when I found out it was directed by Joe Canahan, who’s directed some of my favorite action films of the last few years. Little did I know that The Grey would be much more than some action film. It’s a tragic story about a man’s struggle with wanting to kill himself and then coming face to face with death.

14. The Dark Knight Rises: It manages to bring a satisfying close to the Batman saga, something exceedingly rare in superhero films. It’s plot connects to both previous Batman films, impressive considering that neither of them were that connected to each other plot wise. A truly epic conclusion to Christopher Nolan’s trilogy.

13. Wreck-it Ralph: Good video game movies are hard to come by, in fact the only other video game movies I’ve ever really enjoyed were also Disney films, remember Tron anybody? Seeing all the classic video game characters was pretty amazing, but this movie really had heart. It’s so good that internet speculation has claimed that Pixar actually made it while the regular Disney crew made Brave. There may be a nugget of truth in there since Disney’s animated films have improved in quality substantially since Pixar’s John Lasseter got the promotion to head of all Disney animation.

12. Chronicle: In a year where superhero movies ruled, my favorite was the low budget one about three kids in high school who strangely get superpowers. It didn’t feature a nuke threatening to blow up a major city; it was a much smaller character focused story about how power corrupts and the difficulties of adolescence.

11. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: It may not have been perfect, the pacing was off and there was a tad too much CG, but as long as you go in not holding it to the ridiculously high standards set by its predecessor you’ll really enjoy yourself. Middle Earth is just as magical as it always was and both new and old characters are great. It feels like a fun adventure more than a epic like Lord of the Rings, and that’s fine. It’s chalked full of exciting and memorable scenes, with the “Riddles in the Dark” being one of the best.

10. ParaNorman: More and more animated films are starting to look the same, but ParaNorman is beautifully unique. It’s beauty dosen’t come from perfection, it comes from imperfection, everything is crooked or off kilter, it somehow manages to look real and fantastic at the same time.  It’s more than just ascetics though, the characters are relateable, tragic, and this kid’s movie deals with deeper and more complex issues than most of the films all year.

9. Looper: One of the coolest time travel movies in years, and one that brilliantly addresses the loopholes and paradoxes present in almost all time travel movies by telling the audience not to overthink it. A great concept for a science fiction movie only goes so far, and this easily could have been a huge disappointment like In Time, but luckily it turned out to be one of the sleekest sci-fis in years.

8. Argo: Ben Affleck proves once again that he is one of the best directors in Hollywood in this incredible film. He also seems to give a much better performance under his own direction than anybody else’s. The story of Argo is moving and true, Affleck drew upon real images from the Iran hostage crisis to create this masterpiece. It certainly deserved the Golden Globe for best drama that it received and you won’t hear any complaints from me if it comes home with Oscar gold too.

7. Magic Mike: Yes, the movie about male strippers. Much like Haywire Steven Soderberg takes this shaky premise and turns it into a masterpiece. The film doesn’t even feel like a movie, people stumble over each other’s lines and stutter, and people basically act like real people, not movie characters. Mike, his mentor and his protégé all represent the same character arc at different points and Mike must choose whether or not to change his life in this dark morality tale.

6. Moonrise Kingdom: Pure movie magic. I felt like a little kid watching this movie, it feels like a film from a long gone era. It throws out the James Cameron school of thought of hyper-realistic special effects and goes with only practical effects, it dosen’t try to fool you that you are watching a movie, the effects embrace it, along with the film’s narrator. It’s a quirky movie about your first crush and it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by this absolutely beautiful film.

5. 21 Jump Street:  Probably the funniest movie of the year, it is hilarious on multiple levels. The film is a brilliant critice of today’s trends, action movies, buddy cop films, reboots and even the show it’s based on, which it references in the greatest way possible. It's absolutely crude and vile, intentionally stupid and crass, and yet even my own mother loved it

4. FlightRobert Zemekis, director of Cast Away and Back to the Future triumphantly returns to live action films after a twelve year absence. Flight is a gripping character story, Denzel Washington gives the performance of his career as one of the most likable assholes ever to grace the big screen. We see the life of one Mr. Whip Whitaker, played by Washington, and it’s almost like a Greek tragedy. He is a man who wants to change, but his own vices and selfishness prevent him from doing so.

3. Les MisearblesI’m not usually one for musicals, but I am rarely moved by a movie like I was by this one. I struggled to hold back tears at multiple points in the film. The performances are moving, the characters are incredible, and the decision to have the songs sung live makes them feel so much more real and heartfelt. Traditional good and evil is thrown out with the antagonist being an good principled individual. The story is one about redemption, love, hope and honor.

2. The Cabin in the WoodsAn amazing play on horror movie tropes and clichés. It’s deconstructs horror films in a way both brilliant and hilarious. It is an absolutely self-aware movie, without ever actually breaking the fourth wall. Like 21 Jump Street it is a meta masterpiece, and has one of the best endings I've ever seen.

1. The Hunger Games: The themes about crumbling society, authoritative government, reality T.V. and difficult moral choices all make this an incredible film. Adapting a book done in the first person can be very difficult, but the Hunger Games is not a shot for shot literal adaptation of the book. Instead the film tells the same story as the novel in a way perfectly suited to the medium of film, and the result is nothing short of extraordinary.