Empty spirit/ In a vacant space

Month: August, 2013

A letter to Wes about the Breaking Bad premiere

by gradus22

Dear Wes,

Rejoice, for Breaking Bad is back! When we last left our intrepid group of misfit heroes, Uncle Hank had excused himself to use the White family bathroom and accidentally discovered Walt’s inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass, the only piece of incriminating evidence that Walt had the poor judgment to leave around the house.  It was a Kobayashi moment cut directly from The Usual Suspects, and it was the perfect cliffhanger for the finale of Breaking Bad’s fifth season. Or the first half of the fifth season.  I’m not completely sure how these episodes will need to be indexed in the Library of Congress. But five seasons or six, it’s been away too long.

I’ve enjoyed the fifth season so far; I’ll take any excuse to watch more of the best show on television, especially when it features Bryan Cranston playing every part of his range for and against type in alternating fashion. But I have a hard to time determining what this final season could possibly add to the show as it stood at the end of the fourth season.  The situation was pretty dire for Walter White back then; he was still working for Gus Fring, just days away from being executed and replaced.  It seemed like he had even lost even poor gullible Jesse’s trust; when his girlfriend’s son was unexpectedly sent to the hospital, he suspected Walter first and foremost.In the chaotic series of events that followed, Walter managed to convince Jesse that hurting a small child was a line he would not cross, and they took out Gus Fring in a series of spellbinding and creative episodes. The question of who poisoned the boy hung in the back of our minds the entire time, until the final shot confirmed that it was Walter all along. It was masterful because we were duped right along with Jesse. We remembered Walter, even if distantly, as an affectionate father, a supportive teacher and most importantly, the guy who ran down those child-murdering drug dealers down in the family car.

And now? There is no bridge too far for Walter White. He’s told us himself that he’s in the empire business; no matter the substance, it’s just a matter of time before it falls. Most of the fifth season so far has been spent reviving the show’s themes.We’ve got another dead innocent, another heist, another young man set up for the student-teacher relationship that that we always wanted for Jesse Pinkman. Walter White has flipped between family and the drug business one time too many. The cast of characters is growing smaller and Gus Fring is not walking through that door. It’s still a lot of fun to watch Bryan Cranston use his good teacher voice to manipulate Jesse for his own ends, but the ambiguity is gone.  This is the smallest and most predictable of complaints regarding serialized television:  things have gone on a little too long. This isn’t even a flaw specific to television, but the serialization in general. If Charles Dickens was alive today, he’d probably be demanding more informative preview scenes from Mad Men in place of criticizing Elizabeth Gaskell’s cliffhangers.

But I’ll take what I can get and I’ll enjoy it. It’s still a pleasure to watch, even if it feels like I’ve seen it before. Hank emerges from the bathroom, Leaves of Grass in hand, looking eight to ten months older, and cycles through the Heisenberg obsession habits in short order: panic attack, data review, GPS tracker. Walt breaks out the good teacher voice. Jesse Pinkman is still hanging out with Badger and Skinny Pete, just short of redemption and with little motivation and even fewer viable options. It seems to be a classic Breaking Bad slow burner, with Walt just one step away from disaster, but the Walter-Hank confrontation comes early, in Hank’s garage, with the garage door opener. Walter plays friendly, then passive-aggressive, pleads, threatens, and when nothing else seems to work, he makes Hank the first family member to know that his cancer has returned. This may have been one of the lowest blows we’ve seen from Walter White in the last five season, and it pushes the show into interesting new territory. There will be no chase this time around. After five seasons, we’re still wondering if there’s something Walter White won’t do. Successive seasons require escalating shocks, and I’m worried that the worst has been saved for this season. I don’t know how that will play out, but I think it involves something that walks with crutches and gives attitude to his mother. I hope I’m wrong.


A letter to Wes about Taken

by gradus22

Dear Wes,


Have you seen either of the Taken movies? They’re a pair of lovely, whimsical films, about American tourists who get abducted by mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers. The Irish actor Liam Neeson pretends to be an American security expert trying to rescue his teenage daughter. The sequel is set in Istanbul and I’m pretty sure it features precisely zero Turkish characters, but I didn’t check the script or anything. At one point, Maggie Grace – as the daughter – runs along the rooftops, throwing hand grenades at random targets to give her father an idea of her location via the Doppler effect. I’ve never been to Istanbul, and come to think of it, I’ve never had to rescue my daughter from mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers either, but I imagine this is probably not completely representative of daily life in the Republic of Turkey. These movies are hyperactive nonsense, which is another way of saying that they’re also pretty enjoyable, solid, action-thrillers. The original is much, much better than the sequel, but that is the way of the world.

There’s a lot to talk about here. I don’t even know where to start. At the very least, the scripts don’t claim to be anything more than they are. Liam Neeson’s background is never discussed in detail, a good decision, since there are enough ex-Navy SEALs, CIA/FBI/DEA agents, and hardened big city cops in the movies already. At this point, I think most movie-goers would accept “Liam Neeson has magical powers that help him hunt down sex slavers” if it meant getting to the action ten minutes earlier. Strangely enough, Liam Neeson has never really needed the Sean Connery Memorial backstory – the exposition which tries to explain away the male lead’s foreign accent, but draws attention to it instead. Audiences just assume he’s whatever nationality he needs to be. He’s a pretty good choice for the lead, he’s aged his way into those leftover scripts from the 90s that called for a craggy Harrison Ford or Robert DeNiro. He’s convincing as both a sad-sack, overprotective father and your standard middle-aged action hero. If Taken is Not Without My Daughter for a male audience, then Liam Neeson is definitely Sally Field. His transformation into a killing machine after his daughter is abducted is .. well, I wouldn’t say realistic, but it’s at the point where the relatable movie characters and wish fulfillment meet.

But if I could only make one revision to these films, I would demand the scriptwriters put the the movie title somewhere in the script, exactly as written, no matter how awkward it gets. Here’s how I see it playing out for the first one:


INT. A high-class Parisian apartment. Day.

Liam Neeson’s daugher is hiding under the bed while mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers kidnap her best friend.

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: (on her cell phone) Dad, help! These mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers are kidnapping my best friend! What should I do?

CUT TO: Liam Neeson’s apartment.

LIAM NEESON: (on phone) I want you to listen very carefully. This is the hard part. You’re going to be … Taken.


See? That wasn’t so hard, now was it? If we could flash the title card of the movie here, or have it scroll across the screen, even better. Things do get more complicated for sequels, but it’s still doable:


INT. A dark basement in Istanbul. Day.

Liam Neeson is standing up, handcuffed to a drainage pipe. He’s been captured by a different set of mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers, but he’s cleverly hide a cell phone in his sock. (That part’s in the actual movie, Wes – that’s not just me being an asshole.)

LIAM NEESON: (on the cell phone he’s cleverly hidden in his sock) Are you all right?

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: Dad! Where are you? I’m so worried!

LIAM NEESON: I’ve been abducted by a different set of mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers. Now I need you to listen. This is the hard part. You need to get to the American embassy as soon as you can …

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: I’m not leaving without you, Dad! Tell me what I can do to help. I can do it.

LIAM NEESON: Well, I suppose, but only since you came away from your earlier abduction by mysterious, vaguely ethnic sex slavers with absolutely no scars, trust issues, or travel-related fears whatsoever. I need you to. ..

LIAM NEESON’S DAUGHTER: Wait, what about Mom? Is she with you?

LIAM NEESON: I’m sorry. She’s been … taken too.


You see? You can use the word “too” instead of the number two! Since they are homophones! English really is the language of kings.

 I should probably stop here, before questions of grammar, style, and factual accuracy catch up with me. In my last post, did I really imply that Tolstoy wrote in English? (Yes. Yes, I did. Mistakes were made.) Use plenty of sunscreen out there.