Monday, June 22, 2009

Stalker Guilt Syndrome

I find it surprising that Marc Maron hasn't gotten more roles over the years. He was great in this little film that I first saw on the HBO Comedy channel some 8 years ago. The channel would fill time between movies or comedy specials with short films of various quality, Starker Guilt Syndrome was one of the best. I loved this short so much I managed to tape it on one of my beloved long-gone 8hr VHS mix tapes. Even though the first time I'd watched this I wasn't the every-day public transit commuter I am now, I had already run into the Stalker Guilt Syndrom scenario more than a couple times. It's an awkward situation that I'm sure 90% of the people who've lived in an urban environment have experienced at one time or another. I'm happy to see it preserved on the web...

Stalker Guilt Syndrome

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rolling Thunder (1977)

Dir. John Flynn

I'd never be one to advocate for the remake of a movie that holds up perfectly fine some 30 years later, but if timeliness were ever to be taken into consideration for such things, one might look to 1977's Rolling Thunder as a prime candidate for a relevant reinterpretation. In the film, two soldiers return home to Texas after years of being POWs in Hanoi. When one loses his wife and child, and one of his hands, to a group of thugs, he enlists some friends' help in tracking them down and exacting bloody revenge. Sounds like the stuff of a typical 70s-80s b-movie and maybe a vehicle for a Norris, Stallone or Bronson under the watchful eye of a Golan or a Globus. There were some highly entertaining movies made under those conditions, don't get me wrong, but Rolling Thunder comes to us with a different pedigree -- it's a Lawrence Gordon production (yep, the same Gordon behind the Watchmen rights fiasco) of a John Flynn film written by Paul Schrader and Heywood Gould, and starring William Devane and Tommy Lee Jones. I couldn't tell you much about Flynn, but even though it was released a year after Taxi Driver, and there are many differences, it feels like Paul Schrader, with the help of Gould, was taking an initial run through at that film here -- it's definietly a variation on a story and theme and one that feels perfectly suited to today's society where PTSD is far too commonplace. "We tell a soldier or veteran of war "welcome home" because the battle never leaves us..."

Rather than following our vet through a clausterphobic New York City, we're following Major Charles Rane (William Devane) around San Antonio as he tries to adjust to civilian life. We know things aren't going to be easy from the very first scene: As they are getting off the airplane, fellow POW Sergeant Johnny Vohden (Tommy Lee Jones) mentions that the aviator sunglasses will make it easier to look people in the face. While Devane is being celebrated around town and given a new cherry red Cadillac convertible and a box of over 2,500 silver dollars (one for every day he was imprisoned), he's discovering that his wife has begun a new relationship with a local police officer, one that she isn't too eager to put an end to now that he's back home. There's an interesting serenity to Devane's performance, especially in the first act s he absorbs all this. It would be easy to play the part with a clenched jaw and a certain desperation, but Devane plays the scenes with a Zen-like calm that makes them even more tense, especially when the violence erupts.

Devane's homecoming gifts catch the attention of some local thugs who suddenly show up at his house looking for those silver dollars. It's a particularlly tough scene to take in as we just got through watching Devane explain that the way to beat your torturer is to "learn to love the rope", and you can tell that once the punches start flying, Devane is back in his element and maybe even happy to be having these senses reawoken. That is, of course, until he loses his hand after this captor proves to be less patient with him than his previous ones. Worse than loosing his hand for refusal to give the location of the silver dollars is having his wife and child walk in on this and seeing them quickly taken away in a cold-blooded fashion.

These thugs, of course, unwisely leave him for dead on the kitchen floor and we're soon in revenge movie gear with Devane learning how to use his new hook-hand while laid-up in the hospital (sign of 1977: this involves him picking up loose Marlboros and putting them back in the pack). His visitors are Cliff, the cop his wife began seeing who is more than a little disapointed Devane can't (or won't) tell him anything about who these killers were; Jones who basically tells him to look him up when he's ready to go after these bastards; and Linda, his frequently bra-less "groupie" who wore a bracelett in his honor while we was away and was the one to present him with his car and money. Linda is very much in the manic-pixie-dream-girl mold, albeit a dark, 70s alcoholic version, but Schrader and Gould give her a proper backstory, explaining why she would be throwing herself at Devane, even if her character does get somewhat discarded in the end. But even before we find out her character's history, Linda is given a warm charm by Linda Haynes who unfortunately called it quits after only ten years as an actress. She's wonderful in the movie, practically the only beam of feminine sunshine in an otherwise permanently overcast, testosterone driven film. Her work here makes me want to revisit The Drowning Pool, Brubaker and Coffy again to see if she was always this good.

After Devane gets out of the hospital we're quickly stocking up on guns, sharpening our hook hand and hitting the road to Mexico with Linda. Things don't go so smooth once she realizes that she's more or less being used by Devane to help him greese informant's wheels with her looks rather than to help him sip margarita's on a beach. They have some good make-up sex and bond while taking target practice -- this is where we learn that Linda was a military brat and daddy's little girl. Linda practically steals the movie from the "macho son of a bitch" Devane during these scenes, giving us a dose of heart and soul before the Peckinpah-esque bloodletting that soon follows. It's great stuff. Actually, there's more than a little bit of Alfredo Garcia flavor in their two day trip bouncing through Mexican border towns in a Cadillac.

Once Devane finds the men he's after, holed up in a whore house in Juarez, he puts his uniform back on and picks up Jones who is far too eager to dive into his closet, suit up and arm himself to the teeth. At the brothel, Jone's interrupts a practitioner mid service when he pulls out his shotgun, "What the hell are you doing?" she asks. "I'm going to kill a bunch a people," he dryly says and enthusistically proceeds to do. Jones may look 30 years younger in the film, but his voice is beautifully the same.

The ass-kicker of an ending might make you forget the thoughtfulness that preceeded it and the fact that it's more about finding purpose in life than it is about finding revenge. When Jones pays Devane a visit in the hospital he confesses that he signed up for another 10 years with the Air Force and somehow it isn't all that confusing as to why. Devane's explination about "learning to love the rope" is just as much about learning to love the routine and embracing the discipline involved in enduring daily tourture. If there's one thing that the Hanoi Hilton and the military offer it's a tight routine schedule. Upon returning, Devane jumps into a punishing workout schedule, sleeping on a cot in the tool shed and sitting in the corner in the dark because of the comforts it provides because without it he's simply drifting along, rudderless. Finding his family's killers becomes a mission not unlike Operation Rolling Thunder, the name of the Air Force bombing campaign that landed them in captivity. It gives them a reason for being because family dinners and having people doting on you isn't a way of life.

Crafting genre films as a way to sugar coat your message isn't necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing pleasant about Rolling Thunder, it doesn't pull any punches or bury the lead but it's far more watchable than any number of films that have come out recently about returning home from war. And for all it's revenge movie trappings, it feels far more realistic than most -- but that's largely due to William Devane's understated performance. I'd suggest that if you want to draw attention to an important and relatively unspoken of issue like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you might want to make a movie that people might want to see. I'm not saying you should dumb your movie down or even give your story a happy ending, but give them a cinematic story not a heavy-handed one.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Breaking Bad

I think it is now safe to say that, after the rather stunning conclusion to its second season, Breaking Bad is one of the best television shows being made these days and on the short list for best ever. The only serious competition currently out there for the top spot, a show that equally blazes new trails in proving what can be done in one weekly hour of television, would be Mad Men (and Wipeout, of course). But it wasn't always that way. The first season, while good TV, was more predictable in its characterizations and no where near as heartbreaking for me to watch as this past season that just wrapped up last Sunday. In case you've been unaware of this brilliant show (it is on AMC after all), it's a one hour drama about a high school chemistry teacher (Walter White – played with heretofore unknown gravitas by Bryan Cranston) who's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and decides to make and sell crystal meth in order to pay for his hospital bills and ensure his wife and son will be financially secure after he's gone. I'll be picking at the final episode of this season here so if you've yet to watch it, you may wish to return some other time.

It's rare for a television show to be at the top of its game in its first season. Shows like Mad Men, Deadwood and The Wire managed to hit their stride after only a few episodes, just enough to establish their cast of characters, but should be considered the exceptions since we're talking about the best shows ever to be made for TV. More often then not a show will take a look at its first year, what worked and what didn't, and refine and improve. There's usually a grace period involved where the writers synchronize with the actors and their particular strengths -- it's rare that a show like Deadwood comes along where every character comes out the gate feeling well worn, lived in and fully realized. The second season of Breaking Bad is a perfect example of taking a character to the next level. Jesse was fun enough in the season one, but he and the actor Aaron Paul were a revelation in the second season -- practically stealing the show from Walt and Cranston.

Jesse started off as a fairly typical teenage tweeker character; inept comic relief for the most part and Walt's guide into the world of meth. But something happened this season and he became the soul of Breaking Bad. The show found a sweet spot and it resonated all season long as we watched Jesse realizing his limitations at the same time Walt discovers his limitless ambition. At the end of last season Walt stepped up and became something of a badass, but it turns out to be a slippery slope for him and it isn't long before Badass Walt becomes Ruthless Walt. People start dying but Walt keeps pushing until Jesse reaches his breaking point -- finding solace in heroin and his enabling would-be girlfriend, Jane. But Walt's tunnel vision can't see that his actions have consequences until they explode in the sky above him and come falling to his feet.

Ultimately it comes down to a choice Walt makes at the end of the penultimate episode. He finds Jesse and Jane once again passed out after shooting heroin and as he's trying to shake Jesse awake he accidentally bumps his girlfriend onto her back causing her to begin choking. He can either put her back on her side or allow her to choke to death. Now you're not exactly sure about Walt's motivations for being there in the first place. Has he really begun to look at Jesse as a second son or does he just want someone he can boss around with o questions asked? Does he want a confidant or a servant? Does he let Jane die for Jesse's own good or does he let her die to get rid of his competition for Jesse’s allegiance?

How you view the murder of Jesse's girlfriend will have a lot to do with how you respond to the big season finale. It turns out Jane's father is an air traffic control operator and on his first day back to work, after weeks off to grieve, during which time Walt recuperates from a successful surgery, he ends up causing two planes to collide in mid air. Just so happens that air is right above Walt's house. Now, leading up to this point we've been shown little flash-forward glimpses of body bags and rubble scattered around Walt's house and a burnt teddy bear floating in his pool. Many episodes have started off this way. (If it wasn't for these little flash-forwards I doubt there'd be any animosity towards the season ending at all.) They're effective little teasers and it made it easy to assume Walt’s house had exploded or some such disaster had befallen the White household. Therefore, it makes it easy to look at the final moments of the episode as the writers thumbing their noses and having a good laugh at pulling a fast one over on us. But another look at the disastrous event is that it is in fact a logical conclusion to this season. Walt’s been killing people all season. None directly, but every one of the deaths this season has been the end result of Walt’s actions. He hasn’t had to directly deal with the mess these deaths have caused, only Jesse’s reaction to it all. He’s been a wall that’s collected all the bad karma and upon Jane’s death, the wall has collapsed. The collision of two planes over Walt’s house is that karma raining down on Walt. A season’s worth of death and destruction has caught up with Walt, it accumulated like a brewing storm, and it has broken open. A year's worth of questionable, fuzzy morality, of selfish, myopic choices has been answered and it has been unavoidably dropped at the feet of Walt - he can't tell Jesse to deal with this problem and that makes it a perfect ending for this season.

Oh, and the addition of Bob Odenkirk as semi-regular Saul Goodman: Lawyer to the Criminals --pure brilliance.