Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Friday, January 25, 2013

Little Odessa

In Thomas Wolfe's novel, "You Can't Go Home Again, " he says "You can't go back home to your family, back home to your childhood ... back home to a young man's dreams of glory and of fame ... back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory." This is a sentiment relatable enough that the phrase "You can't go home again." has been adopted as a common saying pulled out when someone notices that things aren't what they used to be anymore. Many times this is as much as physical truth as an emotional one. I know that I've visited the house I grew up in, and it felt nothing like a homecoming. No one I know lived there anymore, it looked completely different as well, the landscape altered to suit its current owners. Neighborhoods hold a lot of our identities when we're growing up, and it's easy to believe that your hometown says something about who you were, and who you become.

"Little Odessa" is a neighborhood in Brooklyn more formally known as "Brighton Beach" The "Little Odessa"  nickname comes from the population of Jews who came over from Russia and settled there. It's also known as a place heavily under the influence of the Russian mafia. In the film "Little Odessa" we look at one family from that neighborhood, the Shapiras. The father, Arkady Shapira (Maximilian Schell) came over from Russia himself, and after many years he still has old world written all over him.  He's a father who has tried his best with the tools at hand to make a life for himself and his family, but unfortunately his tools may not be the best ones. He's a truly imposing figure of authority, quick to pull out his belt to discipline his sons without wondering how effective this method is. On another more hidden level, he's a thoughtful man, who  realizes that his sons haven't learned what he wanted them to know.

Irina Shapira (Vanessa Redgrave) is the wife and mother. Her role is a bit limited, as she's mostly incapacitated by an inoperable brain tumor  Whatever role she had in the family is submerged by the unbearable pain she endures most of the time, although it's clear that her sons both love her. As she lacks any tolerance for physical contact, Arkady takes up with another woman on the side.

Reuben Shapira (Edward Furlong) is the younger brother. He still lives at home, under his father's thumb. He helps his father run a newsstand, and rides his bicycle around town. Reuben looks up to his older brother, who has been away from the neighborhood for years.

Joshua Shapira (Tim Roth) is the older brother, and the central character. As we see, moments into the film, he's a cold blooded hit man, not hesitant to shoot someone in the middle of the street. After dispatching his first victim he calls his boss, who tells him to head to Brooklyn, for his next job. He reminds his employer that he can't go back there, but his employer insists, and Joshua doesn't argue it further, as if only putting the initial complaint in for the sake of his own self respect. He knows going home is a terrible idea, but another part of him really wants to visit and see how things are. It's an understandable impulse. The FBI would be glad to tell you, that it's very easy to disappear and start a new life, as long as you cut all your ties. That's how they catch fugitives, they just wait until the guy they want tries to get in touch with someone from his old life, whether from need or nostalgia. We just can't forget where we come from.

Joshua does a lousy job at arriving in town incognito and very soon, Reuben hears he's in town. He's very excited to see his older brother and seeks him out right away. When he finds him, Joshua initially tell him they can't spend any time together, but true to form relents in a matter of seconds. Joshua learns that his mother is dying  and Reuben takes him to see her. Walking into his old home, he startles his grandmother, who shrieks, thinking she's seen a ghost. Arkady is not quite that surprised, he simply calls Joshua a murderer, and slaps Reuben for letting his brother in the house. Joshua isn't pleased and beats up his father for that, a task he's clearly waited to accomplish for some time. He then accepts his fathers demand that he leave the house.

Joshua and Reuben start spending time together. Joshua also reconnects with Alla, (Moira Kelly,) a girl he used to know. For a little while it seems he's forgotten about his job, being focused on spending time at home. Both Joshua and Reuben become aware of their father's mistress. When he's recognized on the street by someone working for the local mobster, Boris Volkoff (Paul Guilfoyle,) he shoots the would be informant on the street as he's about to make a phone call. We realize that Joshua has quite a few reasons he can't go home.

We learn that Volkoff is an essential part of Little Odessa. When talking about the tough times he's had to his mistress, she suggests he go to Volkoff. who helped her before. He says "He helps everybody." and explains "You take something from him and you keep taking. You can never get away." She insists that you can, but he argues

"You can't. It's too easy. It's weak. The weak are the killers and they come quietly and that's how they kill. It's God punishing me. I have to believe that, because if I didn't, I couldn't believe in anything." SHe tells him that he has his sons, and he tells her a little about the family dynamic "I had two sons once. I always tried to teach them, always tried to do my best. I made them play music. I played Mozart for him when he was five months old. I bought him a piano. I practiced with him. I read bedtime stories every evening. I was stupid I guess, to read to a child of two years old. "Crime and Punishment," I think that's stupid."

He goes on to say, "You know there is a saying: When a child is six years old, it says, "the father can do everything". When he's twelve, he says, "the father can almost do everything". When he's sixteen, he says, "the father is an idiot". When he's twenty-four, he says, "the father wasn't maybe such an idiot", and then, when he's forty, he says, "if I could only ask my father". But I'm afraid my sons will never ask themselves that."

We know that Arkady is correct in his assumption. He's confronted by Joshua in the street and grudgingly agrees to let him see his mother, giving them a moment together. She tells him, that although he doesn't believe it, she knows he can change. He tells her he'll try to go to a party for his grandmother although we soon see that it's not likely he'll attend it as much of the neighborhood is there, including Volkoff, who confronts Arkady, asking if Joshua is in town, and threatening him with consequences if he withholds the information. Arkady insists he doesn't know anything about it, but it reinforces his need to keep Reuben away from Joshua.

Joshua has assembled a local crew for his job, and they carry it out, bringing the corpse to the dump in order to incinerate it. "No body, no crime." Joshua explains. He's not aware that Reuben is spying on the crew disposing of the victim. Once the killers leave, he picks up the loaded murder weapon and brings it home, fascinated with that aspect of his brother's life.

From there, this family heads to all of their necessary confrontations. Arkady hits Reuben with the belt when he refuses to talk to him. He demands again that he stay away from his brother. Reuben takes it all in and dismisses it, finally throwing his knowledge of his father's mistress in his face, a relationship he couldn't possibly accept or understand. This prompts another confrontation between Arkady and Joshua. Joshua humiliates his father, making a show of his powerlessness at gunpoint. This leads Arkady to try and wash his hands of his son, and he makes a phone call which accelerates a tragic final confrontation between Joshua and his past, which has consequences Arkady couldn't foresee.

"Little Odessa," director James Gray's debut feature, ends up being a bleak but powerful film.  Every actor is in top form, particularly Roth and Schell, whose performances give the story the range it needs to be a real tragedy. One remarkable feature about it is an amazing sense of place. This is a real neighborhood and it feels like one, down to the corner stores, and the places you drive by and never think to visit. You get the feeling that these people could really live here.

It's largely about the difficulty of keeping a family together, and of old ways relating to new ones. The best of intentions don't ensure a happy ending, or even that your son will become who you want him to be. Even the best of intentions, when administered with flawed methods, such as beatings, are likely to only produce resentment and anger.The central relationship here, is between Arkady and Joshua, although he're not told much about it directly. We can only assume that it was like that of Arkady and Reuben's, only worse since Joshua was much more headstrong than his brother. Despite Arkady's claims that Joshua is dead to him, we see that it isn't true at all, although it would be better for all if it were. Everyone has their own reasons for what they do, but we can't predict every way that our actions will affect those around us, especially those closest to us. We can avoid going home but you can't leave the things that shaped you behind, because they're part of your every action. The film considers where Joshua comes from, his father being a very large part of that. But to really understand the difficulty between father and son, we have to consider that Arkady came from somewhere completely different. He became who he was in order to survive, and those skills don't necessarily lend themselves to relating to his sons, who have always been provided for. His idea of "strength" was formed by his circumstances, but it isn't grasped by those who don't have the same need.

Joshua wants to go home, but he forgets what he carries with him. Although he's spent his life resenting his father, it's painfully clear that at least in one respect his father was right. His presence couldn't be a good thing for his impressionable brother. Joshua's occupation is walking up to people and shooting them, which is a very different thing than keeping those around you safe. Some things don't go away, no matter how long you stay away from home. Joshua knows that, and his first call is usually right, although his selfishness quickly brushes the right idea aside. His weak protest to his boss about going home, and to his brother, about spending time together, show us that he knows better, but in the end, he wants what he wants.  His reward is a homecoming that provides him a whole lot of closure, but leaves no one better for having it.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Breaking Bad

Henry David Thoreau once said that "most men lead lives of quiet desperation and go to the grave with the song still in them." Of course Thoreau himself had his detractors, who felt that his devotion to nature was a waste of his own potential. Certainly it's not an uncommon thing though, to give up on a passion in order to make a living. Ask any once aspiring musician who gave up playing gigs for more conventional employment. This happens all the time for any number of reasons, because what you love to do doesn't always pay. It's also true that being a talented musician doesn't make you a good business person. Perhaps we simply change goals as life goes on, having a comfortable family life can become more important, and certainly more achievable than breaking new ground in the arts. It becomes easier to make these adjustments, because we can tell ourselves we can always pick up what we love again, when the kids grow up, or the house is paid off. It's easy to imagine these things because we forget that we're going to die sometime. The knowledge that this will happen very soon, could cause a refocusing of your life. I've had conversations with friends about this subject, discussing outlandish schemes that would leave everyone I love provided for and without enemies. The idea being, if you're going to go out, why not make the most of your knowledge, and the sudden irrelevance of long term consequence if it helps those you leave behind. A death sentence in literature, and film is often used as a focusing agent. In the case of anthologized everywhere poet, Chidiock Tichborne, we were given an example of both. While waiting in London tower for his execution, he wrote this poem:

My prime of youth is but a frost of cares,
My feast of joy is but a dish of pain,
My crop of corn is but a field of tares,
And all my good is but vain hope of gain;
The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

My tale was heard and yet it was not told,
My fruit is fallen and yet my leaves are green,
My youth is spent and yet I am not old,
I saw the world and yet I was not seen;
My thread is cut and yet it is not spun,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

I sought my death and found it in my womb,
I looked for life and saw it was a shade,
I trod the earth and knew it was my tomb,
And now I die, and now I was but made:
My glass is full, and now my glass is run,
And now I live, and now my life is done.

-Chidiock Tichborne

Certainly Walter White is familiar with poetry. His fondness for Walt Whitman leads to some mojor developments, but Tichborne's elegy serves as a fine example of the thoughts one can have when facing the end, knowing that you haven't accomplished nearly what you thought you would. It's also worth noting that unlike Walter White, Tichborne "broke bad" before his sentence came along, being involved in a plot to murder the Queen. The series has run long enough however, that the impact of Walter's initial death sentence seems to have faded, so he could well end up in a spot more similar to Tichborne in time.

Series creator Vince Gilligan said, “Breaking Bad” is about a guy having the world’s worst midlife crisis; a guy who’s never littered or jaywalked, never broken the law in any serious way, suddenly finding himself doing something reprehensible and illegal. Why would he do such a thing? That's the experiment of 'Breaking Bad'  It's a show about change. Our main character, our hero, becomes our bad guy... And if we’re going to do this, we have to be courageous about it and we have to let the chips fall where they may."

The experiment was to take the sympathetic "good guy" and follow along as he turns into the "bad guy." Walter White doesn't spend very long as a clear cut good guy, but what he does hang onto for some time is some degree of sympathy. We meet him as a mild mannered chemistry teacher who cares about his family more than anything else. Walter's life is changed by a doctor's diagnosis of cancer. He has to cope with the fact that he's going to die and his family is not provided for. He's also reminded that his life so far has largely been wasted, even though he's a chemistry genius.

He knows that given the little time he has, there is no legal way to raise the funds he needs, or even to pay for his ridiculously expensive cancer treatments. We've all met people like Walter, an unambitious high school chemistry teacher. Whatever ambition he had has worn out of him and he's resigned himself to "quiet desperation." We learn as the series progresses, that Walter's ideas helped launch a company that's now worth billions, but he sold his interest for what seemed a respectable amount at the time, due to romantic entanglements that his ego demanded he distance himself from.

Teaching high school is the equivalent of sleep walking for a guy like Walter, but he tries not to dwell on resentment, instead concentrating on the best parts of life with his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn,) and son, Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte) They're also very close to Skyler's sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt) and her husband DEA Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris.) Walter's job keeps him in touch with chemistry, a field which he truly loves. He watches his students put in the minimum effort to pass the class, resigned to the fact that it doesn't appeal to them in the same way. One such student, Jessie Pinkman (Aaron Paul) defines the underachiever in Walter's mind. He turns to Jessie with an idea, which will allow him to show off his chemistry expertise, while taking care of his financial problems at the same time. Walter's idea is to start cooking Crystal Meth. Jessie agrees to help him learn the ropes and they're soon true partners, although Jessie's meth habit is both a cause for concern and a good source of contacts to get started. Given Walter's chemistry knowledge however, this won't be just any meth, but "perfect" Meth, which is colored blue as a trademark of it's quality.

Jessie soon realizes that rather than a little diversion, Walter has a major enterprise in mind. Very soon the pair find themselves at odds with dangerous elements of the drug underworld, as well as the New Mexico DEA office, with Walter's brother in law spearheading the search for the new meth source on the block. Once Walter's ego is unleashed, it becomes clear that no matter the danger there is no stopping him. He develops an alias, "Heisenberg" in order to keep "Walter White" out of it. Despite that effort, the meth business and the money to be made soon consume him, changing his relationship with his family drastically and it becomes clear that Walter is capable of just about any deed required to stay on top. His efforts to make the most money possible ensure that the danger is steadily increased, as the players change from small time dealers to major drug cartel connection Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) his employer and eventual adversary. To stay ahead, Walter steps over line after moral line, becoming a premeditated murderer, in addition to being a drug dealer. Jessie changes along the way as well, coming to terms with his addiction and becoming more capable. He ends up with blood on his hands as well, but unlike Walter he's bothered by the weight of what he's done.

Over four and a half seasons, Walter has made exactly the journey proposed by Vince Gilligan becoming a guy who barely resembles original Walter White, the resigned to his fate high school teacher.  He tells Skyler "I am not in danger. I am the danger." and we know that he's both right and wrong, as his biggest danger is his unrestrained ego which has become far more deadly than his cancer, and much more so to those around him.

Breaking Bad sets a new standard for quality American television. Using a number of writers and directors, the series maintains a remarkably consistent look and quality that never disappointing. The acting talent certainly contributes to that consistency. Bryan Cranston delivers especially well, which can't be an easy task as his Walter White has passed the point of no return for sympathy, and yet occasionally shows a glimpse of the decent guy he used to be, only to have it vanish as he does something worse than he's done before. Aaron Paul is excellent as well. His Jessie has undergone a journey as complete as Walter's, although in a different direction. His bumbling junkie persona has evolved into a more responsible person, no longer interested in the pay off and not crippled by the constant need to escape via his habit.

Anna Gunn's Skyler is another very challenging role, being the closest to Walter's transformation. She moves from being devastated at the prospect of her husband's cancer, to being terrified by the knowledge of what he's become. Betsy Brandt's Marie is a perpetual nuisance, although a fiercely loyal one. Weighed down with her own issues including a secret habit of petty theft, she nonetheless tries to helpful. Dean Norris' Hank Schrader is the closest thing to a good guy the show has although his powers of deduction are diluted by the impossibility of Heisenberg being his good pal and brother in law, the meek and not as manly as him, Walter White. R.J. Mitte's portrayal of Walter Jr., an awkward high school kid with cerebral palsy,  is commendable as he's the character most oblivious to the goings on. He likes to think the world of his father, although it becomes more difficult even though a great effort is made to keep him in the dark. He knows there's a lot he isn't being told and is tired of asking about it. There are many other standout performances, most notably; Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring, a drug lord with more than a passing similarity to Walter, Bob Odenkirk's Saul Goodman, the sleazy criminal lawyer extraordinaire  and Jonathan Banks, as Gus Fring's muscle and fixer, Mike.

While I wouldn't argue with someone calling the show depressing, I also find it mesmerizing and brave. The devotion to taking a character like Walter White full circle is something I haven't seen treated with this much intricacy and care. Rather than back away from the unsavory elements, the show gives us stylized cooking sequences, showing us how chemistry feels to Walter White. "Breaking Bad" pulls you into dangerous situations, only to have you questioning the the resolutions after they're resolved. It's clear that Walter lost track of his own motivations. He became Heisenberg to provide for his family but along the way he discovered he liked Heisenberg too much to give him up. We're left questioning how much his diagnosis made him truly worry for his family, and how much of that concern was just his pride's way of opening up a certain door. Faced with the ending of a life that didn't amount to nearly what he thought it would, the resentment he quietly nursed finds a way to be "top man." ignoring the fact that he was always complicit in his own shortcomings.

With half a season left, the possibilities for Walter are closing in. Certain showdowns now appear inevitable, due of course to Walter's careless ego. This is a man who kept the DEA from closing their investigation because he feared a lesser chemist would get the credit for being Heisenberg. It's very clear by now that this is not a story of redemption, but like many of the best tragedies, more a story about how difficult it is to let go when the end is staring at you. "How much is enough?" Skyler asks, surprising Walter just as he's succeeded in becoming the guy at the top simply by having the right conversation with the right person. He ponders this and he sees the logic in it but forgets that the people around him still remember the whole journey. While moral lines may mean nothing to Walter, others base their lives on them.

We end up back where we started, with Walter in an impossible situation. He made his choices based on the idea that he was going to die soon, but he's lived longer than he thought and seems to have forgotten again, as we all do, that he is still going to die. His motivation is no longer to be the top man, or to provide for his family, though it's likely to be a challenge to keep what he has.

Orson Welles once said, “If you want a happy ending, that depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” Based on what we know so far, that possibility has come and gone a long time ago. Walter could have decided to go out gracefully, but his ego was far too eager for a chance to break loose. It would be difficult to even say what a happy ending would be for these characters. Hopefully Walter will have time to question the wisdom of  adopting "Heisenberg" (known for his "uncertainty principle") as his alter ego.

Then again, he may just find it fitting in the end. Gilligan and crew have remained true to their mission showing the journey from white hat to black hat without faltering, and not discounting the fact that due to our amazing human powers of self justification, that even the worst criminal is the hero of his own story, for as long as it lasts.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sergio Leone and the Anti-hero Epic

Many directors manage to put out a brilliant film or two in their careers, but not many manage to raise the bar nearly every time out, even when faced with obstacles like minimal budgets and not speaking the same language as your actors. Sergio Leone was not your average director. He was fortunate enough to start his career, assisting on Vittoria DeSica's masterpiece "Bicycle Thieves" one of the most powerful films ever made. From there, he did a lot of writing and work around film sets, until he got the chance to direct his own films. He quickly ended up tackling a declining genre, the Western film, giving it a different spin than most were accustomed to seeing.

Many were tired of the preachy moralizing white hat and black hat messages that worked in simpler times. Leone's subversion struck a chord and before long many other low budget film makers saw the possibilities in his approach, spawning a large number of "Spaghetti Westerns" which showed a very different side of the old west and created a new and gritty mythology, populated by characters like "Django," "Trinity," and "Sartana." The public appetite for this new brand of anti hero seemed to mirror the popularity of gangster pictures years earlier, giving the public a character that seemed to fit the times by admitting that the illusion of the old morality in the Westerns didn't suit the growing cynicism they felt about the world. Leone's outlook was largely due to the fact that his outlook on the cowboys was that of an outsider, a European examining the American gunslinger. While a certain admiration comes through, so does a feeling of brutality, an astonishment at the level of violence, happening in a very recent (to Europeans) time.

Leone's "good guys" were not pure and virtuous. A quick look would not be enough to separate his"Man With No Name" from his adversaries. Leone's hero was a survivalist above all else, not working for truth, justice, or a greater cause, but his own independence, following a code which was only known to himself. While he typically ended up on the right side, that was only because the bad guys were disloyal, unnecessarily brutal and too greedy for their own good. Clint Eastwood was the perfect actor for these roles, his stoic squint, a promise that this cowboy wasn't from the John Wayne or Roy Rogers school of ethics. This character worked so well he was soon ingrained into public consciousness, becoming one of the most iconic film characters of all time.

Leone found himself a winning formula, inexpensive Spanish settings, Clint Eastwood, and the scores of Ennio Morricone. "A Fistful of Dollars" paved the way for "A Few Dollars More," and then "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" each doing better than the last. Each element was in it's place and they all worked beautifully together. Each film became a classic in it's own right and together they make up the best Western trilogy ever made and and a cornerstone in the evolution of the film anti hero. Eastwood himself hasn't shed that image yet, his later westerns, Dirty Harry, and even the Clint Eastwood of "Gran Torino" still recall the "Man With No Name."

While the Dollars trilogy would have been enough of a contribution to cinema for anyone's lifetime, Leone wasn't quite finished with the Western. Although he had his mind on making a different film (which would eventually be "Once Upon A Time in America") his success with the westerns made the studios eager to have him make another. Leone turned to Charles Bronson, one of the few actors who does stoic better than Eastwood, as his hero, and to Henry Fonda, playing shockingly against type, as his villain. Retaining Ennio Morricone, whose brilliant score helped keep the film in the same western universe, he made "Once Upon A Time In The West" a look at the conflict between progress and the old Western codes. Once Upon a Time In the West" became a kind of love letter to the Western genre, and referenced nearly every great American Western while telling it's own story. This was not just a movie, but an epic, impossibly large and full of breathtaking shots and scenes, including perhaps the best final showdown ever, consisting largely of Bronson and Fonda's staring at each other, making the final draw seem a relatively minor thing. It showed a side of the West that had been largely overlooked, except for the popular revisionist stories such as "The Alamo." "Harmonica" Bronson's character was a Mexican man in conflict with the all American Fonda, although their differences were entirely personal rather than cultural.

And again, if Leone had stopped there, his legacy would've been tough to match, but he still had years to go. Eventually he got to make the picture he'd been planning for years, even turning down a chance to direct "The Godfather" to do so. "Once Upon A Time in America" was a another epic, this time centered on the rise and fall of a group of Brooklyn gangsters. The story is told in three different time periods, the 20's, 30's and 60's and we see the times change in the life of "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert DeNiro) and his associates. While it's a very long film, it's also in a class of it's own, and as far as gangster films go, it doesn't get any better. Sadly, the epic was too much epic for the studios and they cut and shortened it until the story didn't resemble itself anymore. Luckily enough people noticed this, and the original has been available for some time now in all its intended glory. "Once Upon a Time In America" marks the change in American character since the old west, showing Leone's sentiment when he remarked, "In my childhood, America was like a religion. Then, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life, in jeeps, and upset all my dreams. I found them very energetic, but also very deceptive. They were no longer the Americans of the West. They were soldiers like any others; materialists, possessive, keen on pleasures and earthly goods." Noodles had little in common with Harmonica from Once Upon a Time In the West." or the Man With No Name, he was a ruined man, making a last effort to figure out why, and even that effort has to be viewed skeptically.

Leone wasn't done working of course, but he died in 1989 while planning another epic, this time a World War II epic about the siege of Leningrad. I think it's safe to say that cinema today would be a very different thing without Leone's contribution. He was quoted as saying “When I was young, I believed in three things: Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite. Now I just believe in dynamite.” a sentiment unsurprising from such a champion of the anti hero, although I'm sure that many film lovers would disagree with it, particularly when it comes to the impact of Leone's work. Judging by the abundance of anti heroes in our modern movies and top tier television, Leone's "Man With No Name"  is still needed. Happy Birthday Sergio. I'm glad you were here.