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.