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Breaking Bad and The Spaghetti Western

11 Oct

Vince Gilligan creator of "Breaking Bad"

This season, Walt was particularly alienated. It isn’t as if Walt (Bryan Cranston) hasn’t been distanced from everyone else through the entire series, after all, the man started out with cancer and became a powerful meth cook who battled evil personalities he came up against one by one. With Walt and the individuals he encounters because of the line of his work (drugs) the punishment for transgression tends to be death. While yes, all of this is obvious, I realized this series was a prime example of noir on TV. Something you don’t actually get very often. While yes, you could say any of the detective shows are noir, I would argue, no they are not. Because the thing about noir is that it is usually a hybrid genre and there tends to be a mood of overwhelming doom. If you are not familiar with critical studies terms, that’s ok, I’ll explain it simply: a hybrid genre is a combination of one or more genres mixed together. What is a genre? A genre is a literary term or a way to categorize or classify a group of work (film, literature, music, even tv) that holds the same elements in the scope of the narrative. In plain talk that means: if you are watching a romantic comedy, there are certain things that you as a viewer expect to happen: you expect to laugh a lot at the fiobles of the two main characters, you expect that you will be introduced to your two main protagonists in a story and they are secretly perfect for each other, but their own stubborn personalities somehow keep them apart, they will come together but something will go wrong and they will have to go on some symbolic learning journey together to discover they are really soul mates and meant for each other. There will always be a comic relief best friend of one sex or the other, depending on the protagonist in the story (think of Sandy Lyle (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in Along Came Polly), and there will always be some sort of embarrassing, self-effacing moment the protagonist suffers (think of the many embarrassing things that happen to Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) in the beginning of Romancing the Stone).

In noir you get two genres that mix; they tends to be things like the crime drama and melodrama (Mildred Pierce or Shadow of a Doubt) or the gangster film and melodrama (The Big Heat, White Heat, Out of the Past).  Sometimes it can be a strange combination like Fritz Lang‘s musical noir, You and Me.  Finally, there is one combination that is sometimes neglected or forgotten:  the western noir.   Anthony Mann is a prime example of a director who made Hollywood studio western noirs with such classics as The Naked Spur and Winchester ’73.  But there are other western noirs as well including two of my favorites, Johnny Guitar and Rancho Notorious.    What is so important about the western and noir is that, according to Vince Gilligan, in an interview after the final episode of this season of Breaking Bad, he credits not only noir as his influence, but the western, specifically, the spaghetti western.  The spaghetti western was made famous by Clint Eastwood in the mid 1960s, with a group of films directed by Sergio Leone in Spain for low budgets (many other spaghetti westerns were shot in Italy).  The Eastwood character tended to be a lone hero, alienated by all and would stop at nothing to get what he needed to accomplish with little dialogue and a lot of riding around the desert.

Gilligan explains that he actually had the potential directors this season watch Once Upon A Time in the West which now makes all of the strange openings and extreme alienation of Walt something that makes even more sense.  In noir as in the western, your protagonist is always going to be an antihero, someone who usually did his best to play by the rules and work within the system but something happens, something dramatic (in Walt’s case, he got cancer and needed money for bills and to provide for his family) and our antihero decides to throw caution to the wind and make his own rules.  Hence, why Walt has evolved so much in the past 4 seasons.  It makes even more sense, this hybridity of the western and noir, to remember the locale Breaking Bad takes place in:  New Mexico.  The Old West.  Where laws are broken constantly and lawmen are scrambling to keep some sort of barrier between civility and lawlessness.  If the protagonist is a true anti-hero and cannot live within the system any longer and function as a human being, there are only two options for him, to live somewhere, usually alone or with other outlaws or to die.  In true noir, as well, our protagonist/anti-hero tends to die at the end of all great noir films, since their lives are doomed from the start.  I just don’t see a happy ending for Walt.  All I know is that so far it has been a great ride.

Cowboys & Aliens: A misplaced action hero in a mixed up genre

1 Aug

I liked the trailer for Cowboys & Aliens. Enough to make me go to the movie. The trailer was better than the film itself. I didn’t hate the movie. It was fine. But that’s the problem for me. It was just fine. And if Hollywood thinks they can pass one over on me by selling this as a mixed-genre action film that is new and exciting, they’re sorely mistaken.  There was Wild, Wild West which was a comedy in addition to the Science Fiction-Western hybrid but that movie felt a bit more – organic.  I never thought I’d say that but compared to Cowboys & Aliens, I’d watch it any day.

Jon Favreau (Iron Man) directs this misguided vehicle.  To be fair, I’m not convinced that anyone could tackle a Science Fiction-Western and come out shining.  Actually, I can’t believe I’m saying this because I have issues with him but Quentin Tarantino might pull it off.  Perhaps the issue with the movie that I find troubling is that Jake Lonergan (Daniel Craig) is technically a comic book action hero.  And while his role might have been consistent with the action hero genre, it feels like the rest of the cast was patched together for part alien/part western films to satisfy the plot devices.  In fact, it felt like they threw in the whole kitchen sink into the film.  It was simply too much.  Too many creepy aliens by the third act when the big showdown begins.  Too much western riding across the range, etc. and no science fiction action to equalize it.  Most importantly, I never felt that I had a grasp on why the aliens so desperately wanted to mine gold from earth.  It felt like a plot device because gold mining was a part of the old west.  And, if you are going to make such a big point about how important the gold is to the aliens, then seriously, explain it to all of us a bit better.  We deserve that much for contributing to your opening weekend with $11+ depending on where you are in the U.S. watching this film.

SPOILER ALERT FROM THIS POINT FORWARD.

While Jake Lonergan’s character was consistent for an action hero, that is, his character adhered to the rules of the genre for the most part, there were still issues that arose.  His character was one-dimensional.  This was the result of Lonergan having to react to his environment and the plot points rather than us being able to watch his character drive the story forward.  We must follow Jake on his journey to figure out who he is.  But I never truly believed he really cared who he was.  He seems to follow Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford) because he suddenly cares about the same community that just allowed him to be arrested and shackled to go to New Mexico to stand trial for a host of crimes he doesn’t remember committing.  Yes, he has his mysterious bracelet/shackle on and it is the only defense against the aliens that suddenly fly into town but the whole thing seems – disingenuous.  Why bother attacking the earthlings?  They’ve already had a giant sampling of what makes earthlings weak.  They’ve decided they can kill them at any time.  Are these attacks pleasure-seeking behavior for the aliens?  Or… are they attacking because they have located some sort of beacon/homing device on Jake’s wrist (the shackle/bracelet we discover he stole in a very late flashback)?  Or, was it because he pissed off an alien and escaped with the wrist bracelet/shackle?  I know I wasn’t clear on that.  The writers certainly weren’t clear on that.  And therein lies the problem once again, with this film.  Things just randomly happen to  move the plot forward.  And –  if while everything that happens technically is touched off by Jake’s heist and stealing of the gold from the train robbery we never see but hear about, then guess what?  This film becomes noir as well.  Because in noir, your anti-hero’s action from the past, if it is a crime, will come back to haunt him and he is somehow doomed from before the film began.  That fits into noir guidelines.  So, now we have a noir/action hero/science fiction western.  I hope you can see why I would argue this film just doesn’t quite fit the bill.

Jake’s foil, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Ford) is even more disappointing.  No, not because of Ford’s acting.  Because of the way it was written.  This is what happens when they have had 7 writers on a project (and those are just the writers that were credited after WGA arbitration).  Everyone associated with Ford’s storyline is such a cliche that I knew what would happen and how it would happen through the entire film.  When I am able to predict those things, I’m disappointed with the writing.  I want to be surprised.  I can think up a story myself, at home, for free.  In contrast, Jake’s love interest Ella (Olivia Wilde), was a small bright spot.  She gets killed by an alien in the second act but miraculously regenerates on a funeral pyre when the group is captured by Indians.  I didn’t see that coming.  Then we discover she’s an alien.  Now, a bold choice would have let her live happily ever after on the range with Lonergan.  But no, for once these writers don’t break the rules (which sometimes are meant to be broken) and Ella must leave (remember aliens have to leave), so she dies spectacularly, sacrificing herself to bring down the alien ship.  The moment she does this, she makes Lonergan a sissy.  Come on, this is the western, an action film and science fiction and we have just witnessed a woman doing ‘a man’s job.’ Now before anyone gets angry with me for asserting that, I’m simply saying that it would have been more interesting for him to die.  Or seemingly die.  Maybe with her.  Now that would have been a much more exciting ending.  Then, at the end, we are supposed to believe she revisits Lonergan as a hummingbird, or has the hummingbird let him know she’s ‘in a better place’ because at this point, I’m just not clear and hoping the movie will end.

Overall, for special effects, especially if you love to see things blown up and people killed (like a giant video game), then you’ll enjoy the third act of this film.  Because that was one of the longest drawn out battles between humans and aliens I’ve ever seen.  It did kind of feel like a B-movie where they were just recycling aliens at some points.  I started worry more about the horses falling over than the people on them.  By the time the humans (including the Indians who miraculously killed many aliens with their spears) defeat the aliens, it almost feels like an empty victory.

I’d like to recommend this movie.  I’d say, see it as a matinee or wait for Netflix.  Or cable.  Or, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch Starship Troopers or Galaxy Quest, two science fiction films that aren’t westerns or noirs but at least entertained me.  Better yet, go see Attack the Block.  A British film done for a fraction of the budget but a far superior film in every way (because I honestly don’t need special effects to make my film-going experience a good one).   I’ll be looking at Attack the Block next.

Watch my Vlog Review on YouTube.

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