Category Archives: TV, Film & Theatre Reviews

Breaking Bad: Is Walter White the greatest monster on TV?

 

According to Vince Gilligan, creator of Breaking Bad, Walter White is a man having the worst mid-life crisis. Ever.  He’s certainly having a bad hair day – after all those chemicals and bouts of radiation that he’s having pumped into his system. You know, those kill-or-cure treatments that his teacher’s health insurance policy won’t pay for…. If ever there was a poster boy for Obama Care, Walter White must be it. 

 

Breaking Bad is currently gripping viewers in the US but if you want to watch it in the UK, you have to either view it on Netflix, blinkbox or buy the series on DVD. I expect that many of you reading this will have seen way more of the series than I have.  At the time of writing I am still on Season Two.  But, given the dearth of decent TV on during the summer holidays, it won’t be long before I catch up.

 

Is Walter the greatest monster, currently on TV? I thought that, until a friend pointed out, that before Walter, the greatest anti-hero on TV was Tony Soprano, from The Sopranos, also broadcast on cable. Walt, in his alter ego as Heisenberg is as violent towards the people who cross him as Tony is. While Tony physically abuses women (a particularly disturbing aspect of his character); Walt’s abuse is psychological.  He treats his wife Skyler with contempt: manipulates her, and lies to her face, while telling her he loves her.  There is a turning point in Season Two when Skyler asks Walt about whether or not he has a second mobile phone. And what does he do? He looks at her tenderly and then proceeds to lie through his teeth.

 

Like Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Breaking Bad is a story for its time, broadcast during the longest recession of recent times. It mirrored the collective gloom and struck a chord with those supporting families and struggling to make ends meet.

 

Walt and Skylar’s economic fortunes were perilous at best, as their son, Walt Junior has cerebral palsy and he will no doubt need care and support for the rest of his life.  Walt is forced to take a particularly humiliating second job at a car wash, where his students bring their cars for him to clean. Then the family are hit by the double whammy of an unplanned baby and Walt’s lung cancer.

 

Walt’s transformation from mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher to Heisenberg, meth cook and then drug overlord evolves gradually. The term ‘breaking bad’  is a euphemism from the American South, when a person steps off the path of the straight and narrow and goes astray.  In Walter’s case he’s gone so far off the right path that there is no turning back.  Or is there?

 

The implied justification for Walt’s bad behaviour has been the need to pay his medical bills and provide for his wife and family after he’s dead.  Even Jesse, Walt’s co-cook, sidekick and partner-in-crime believes this. And Walt never corrects him, despite every opportunity to do so. Because if Jesse knew the truth, he might not be so keen to spend hours at a time, locked away in the middle of nowhere, with a monster.

 

Because if what Walt is doing is really about the money, he would have accepted the offer from his friends Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz to pay for his treatment. After all, this would have been what Walt was owed, anyway; as he co-founded their company, Gray Matter Technologies. When Walt he left the company he sold his share for a measly $5000, when Gretchen and Elliott subsequently went on to make a fortune.

 

Vince Gilligan said, in a recent interview on Channel 4 News, that Walt’s diagnosis is the real motivating factor, as, for the first time in his life Walt has freedom from fear.  The worst is going to happen – and soon. So why waste what time he has left by worrying what people think? And in Season Two, when Walt counsels his brother-in-law, suffering a bout of work related post-traumatic stress (indirectly caused by Heisenberg’s antics), Walt tells Hank that his own diagnosis has been incredibly liberating. Before he knew about his cancer, Walt would like awake at night, worrying about how he’d meet his mortgage payments or what people thought of him.  Oh, how deliciously ironic it is, when Walt tells Hank he should stop worrying about the responsibilities of being a DEA agent.

 

In a perverse kind of a way, Walt is an aspirational role model for men, in particular, going through their own mid-life crisis, during these tough economic times.  The aspiration is, about being able to do bad things, rather than wanting to emulate Walt’s life style. He’s not exactly able to enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten gains, is he? You don’t see Walt swanning by the pool in the Caribbean, sipping on a mojito.  I don’t imagine that the chance to cook up crystal meth in a RV in the middle of a sweltering New Mexico desert is on many bucket lists.  It certainly isn’t on mine.

 

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Top of the Lake – Episode 1

If You Go Down to the Lake Today You’re Sure of a Big Surprise

 

After the opening episode of Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, I wish it had been the insufferable GJ (Holly Hunter) who had ended up face down in freezing Lake Wakatipu. GJ is the guru who has led a group of vulnerable (and gullible) women running away from their lives and has set up “a half-way recovery camp for women in a lot of pain,” all of whom are hoping to find paradise in, well, instead, a place called Paradise. Their biggest pain, that I can see, is GJ herself, a controlling, humourless, self-important, guru-like figure who all the women revere. 

 

Top of the Lake deals with some unpleasant subject matter, when a pregnant twelve-year-old goes missing but this is not a thriller or even a crime drama.  It is a slow, (sometimes too slow) unravelling mystery that features as light relief the group of daft, flaky, misguided women who came to seek spiritual enlightenment in a place called Paradise and who promptly spoil Paradise by littering it with shipping containers.  My favourite so character so far has to be Anita, (played deadpan by Outrageous Fortune lead, Robyn Malcolm).  Anita has come to the camp because of “chimp issues.” I liked watching the reaction of the Kiwi blokes as Anita delivers a monologue about having to get the chimp castrated after it attacked a friend and then when it still didn’t behave itself, having to have it put down.  The young bloke looks at her, exasperatedly and asks, pointedly, “was he your boyfriend or your pet?” and by Anita’s lack of response, confirming that she and the chimp were indeed getting jiggy.

 

Top of the Lake is the latest example in the New Zealand gothic genre, or ‘cinema of unease,’ (a term used by the actor and film-maker Sam Neill) to describe the kind of film-making in a country that on the outside looks like a perfect paradise, but scratch the surface and you find child abuse, domestic violence, murder and suicide.  From the works of film-maker Vincent Ward to Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures, the New Zealand gothic is very much a force in New Zealand cinema (and now television).

 

The idea that There is Something Wrong in Paradise is a view of New Zealand that may come as a shock to eager visitors as it is, understandably at odds with the one peddled by the tourism industry. But for locals, it’s an accepted part of living in this little corner of the world.  If you hang around long enough to admire the view at many a tourist spot, stay there long enough and a friendly local may sidle over to you and then proceed tell you the story about the bloke who was pushed over the falls because he owed money to the local biker gang leader and when his body was finally washed up further down the river he was wearing a three piece suit and had an orange stuffed in his mouth.

 

I like the way that feminist Jane Campion has intentionally made members of the women’s camp funny (I certainly hope that was intentional and that I’m not the only one laughing here) but oh dear, I just wish, especially after the success of a book like Gone Girl, that she would, for once, be a little bit less predictable with the gender politics, and have a half-way decent, sympathetic bloke in there somewhere?

 

The woman you really have to feel sorry for though, is visiting detective Robin Griffin (Mad Men’s Elisabeth Moss). Not only does Robin have a difficult mother to deal with, she has to negotiate with GJ, Creepy Queen of the Sisterhood, deal with the missing girl’s wholly dysfunctional father Matt Mitcham (Peter Mullan) and a bunch of sexist colleagues.  Oh, and her boyfriend is putting pressure on her to finish up the case as soon as she can – presumably so that she can get home and cook him his dinner. 

 

If you’re heading off for a holiday in and around the Queenstown lakes, be wary of accepting offers of fishing trips from strangers. Because whichever direction that Top of the Lake takes in the next six episodes, you can be sure that the iconic Queenstown Lakes region will never look so sinister again.  

 

The Fall – the best thriller to come out of Belfast

The BBC have commissioned a second series of Belfast-set psychological thriller The Fall – which is currently screening on BBC2 as well as streaming on Netflix.  In case you haven’t caught up with the five part series yet, X Files star Gillian Anderson plays DSI Stella Gibson, a Metropolitan police officer brought in by the PSNI to solve what starts out initially as one murder but before you can say pretty brunette, turns into a series of slayings.

Jamie Doran plays the role of the serial killer, Paul Specter, who outwardly at least, leads a normal life – married father of two young children who works as a counsellor.  He just happens to have a nasty, sadistic side to him that is played out in his targeting of professional women in their thirties who all seem to wear their long, dark hair in a similar way.

Written and executive produced by Allan Cubitt, who wrote Prime Suspect 2, The Fall is perhaps the first drama to come out of Northern Ireland that doesn’t have politics and the Troubles as its main premise.  As well as the fine, restrained acting from Gillian Anderson and the outstanding performance by Doran as the sadistic, manipulative killer, the success of the series is down in no small part to the work of  Belgian director, Jakob Verbruggen.

Verbruggen turns present day Belfast into a dark and moody, almost menacing place.  A meeting that takes place between two senior police officers on a rare day when the sun is shining is set in the vast but empty looking Titanic quarter.

In contrast to the feeling of alienation and distance that Veerbruggen invokes in his location scenes, he takes the audience up close, too close at times, which is very unsettling, in the scenes with the killer as he watches and stalks his prey.  The camera work allows us to see every detail on Stella Gibson’s face as she reacts to the latest developments in the case.

There is a neat parallel between the way that Stella Gibson works off the stress of the case by swimming fast laps of a half empty pool and the way that Paul goes running at night through the deserted streets before he’s about to commit a new crime.

As the drama draws to a close, the question is, will Stella catch her man.  Find out on Monday, BBC2.

Arne Dahl – Swedish Crime Thriller

Take a group of disparate cops, many of whom take an instant dislike to each other, bring them together in Stockholm, persuade them to work together and create a unit called Team A.  And yes, the writers probably have heard of The A Team and chose the name deliberately, but Arne Dahl takes itself far more seriously than that light- hearted American comedy-caper cop series ever did.  I’ve read that in the opinion of some TV reviewers that the series doesn’t rate as highly compared with The Bridge and The Killing and that it has a curiously old-fashioned feel to it. This, from reviewers in a nation where until recently one of the highest rating cop series on television involved so many elderly ladies and vicars keeling over and dying amongst the rose bushes that the village of Midsomer has fast become the most dangerous place to live in Britain.

Where The Killing and The Bridge differ is that they have fewer characters solving crimes and in Arne Dahl there are half a dozen or so.  So don’t expect to get to grips with all of the characters after just on episode.  Arne Dahl is ensemble TV drama, exploring the lives of its characters in the way that Six Feet Under and E.R. did so superbly well. 

The plots and the situation might not be as finely tuned as its predecessors in the Nordic noir TV genre, but once you get past that, Arne Dahl does a fine job of exploring the sorrows and joys of the characters’ domestic lives.

There is Paul, the trigger-happy cop who was facing an investigation for shooting a kidnapper and was under pressure at home – from his partner and teenage son. Then there is the body builder Arto who has found solace from his troubled past by singing in a choir. Meanwhile the brains behind the unit, Arto is a permanently harassed father of four, who piles his kids into the back of his Volvo estate, and who absent-mindedly drove off one day and left a child behind on the pavement.

Despite their membership of an elite unit, in democratic Sweden, there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of pay and perks of the job:  they live in townhouses or apartments, eat at home rather than being able to afford to dine at smart restaurants and generally lead unremarkable lives. And when they want to escape the stresses of city life it is to borrowed log cabins in the countryside, rather than to fancy hotels.

BBC 4 is broadcasting four adaptations of Swedish crime novelist Jan Arnold’s books, the Arne Dahl of the title being an anagram of the author’s name.  The first two episodes, The Blinded Man were broadcast earlier in April and involved masons and Estonian mafia. Viggo, who lives a lonely life and is trying to find love on the internet decides to follow a lead all the way to Tallin, without telling any of his colleagues and nearly gets himself crucified in the process.

The boss of the unit, Jenny, confidently leads her team, without feeling the need to act hard-bitten in the way that Prime Suspect’s Jane Tennison did to prove herself to her male colleagues.

Arne Dahl is a welcome addition to BBC4’s Scandinavian crime drama output and will introduce author Jan Arnold’s work to a whole new audience.  If the translations are as good as the TV adaptations, then Stockholm better prepare itself once again for an influx of crime drama tourists, following in the footsteps of the Stieg Larsson fans, eager to cross the North Sea.

Engrenage/Spiral – Season 4 – State of Terror

I imagine that if you tried to market a TV series called “Cogs,” everyone would think it was the bicycle version of Top Gear.  Instead, the makers of the French cop drama, Engrenage, currently occupying the Scandi drama slot on BBC 4, have opted for the imperfect English translation, Spiral.

Now broadcasting Season 4, State of Terror, this series reveals a side of Paris that most tourists won’t even know exists and a million miles away from the absurdly sentimental world of Amelie and Woody Allen’s Midnight in ParisEngrenage pits battle-hardened cop, Captain Laure Berthaud (Caroline Proust) and her team against the likes of lawyers Joséphine Karlsson (Audrey Flouret) and Pierre Clément who are so hooked on money and success that they are drawn to defend high paying underworld criminals.

In Engrenage the cops are forced to pursue their suspects in the kind of car that Jeremy Clarkson wouldn’t be seen dead in.  It’s the detailed portrayal of the day to day working lives of police officers that makes this such an engaging series.  I don’t know any other cop drama that has got so close to the reality of the level of trust that team members have for their colleagues.  Laure and her colleague “Gilou” are always at each other and it must drive their colleague “Tintin” up the wall.  But you know that this is just a way of alleviating tension, a release after the stress of the day job. You know that if it came to it, Laure would lay down her life to save Gilou and that he would do the same for her.

Laure and especially Gilou live their professional lives on the edge: when Laure pulled the trigger on a sadistic killer a second too early, it is Gilou and Tintin who are prepared to lie and say that they witnessed the killer aiming his weapon at Laure.  It’s just a shame that Gilou, who has got himself in way too deep with the Sarahoui clan – (by providing them with an illegal weapon), can’t ‘fess up to Laure and tell her what’s going on.

Laure is tenacious and brave on the beat but has a tendency to fall apart back in the office.  Her bête noir is lawyer Joséphine Karlsson, who has tried on more than one occasion to go after Laure for police brutality.  It is Laure’s bad luck to question a suspect and then find out they are being defended by Karlsson.

Josephine reminds me of a female lawyer in Melbourne who made a very good living out of defending one particularly notorious family in the criminal underworld.

These women, with their designer wardrobes and killer heels, seem happy to have made a pact with the devil: they thrive on the power, notoriety and fame that their underworld clients bestow upon them.  Their lives are never dull: there’s the danger   and excitement that goes with defending the most indefensible of dangerous gangland bosses.  It doesn’t seem to occur to them that should they get the wrong result for their clients that their own lives might be in danger.  Joséphine, I suspect, probably does know this – and makes darn sure that she doesn’t lose a case.

But the character who is perhaps the most intriguing in Season 4 is Pierre Clément, who has gone into business with Joséphine, and gone from upstanding prosecutor to gun-for-hire defender of low-life.  But I suspect that like the title – these two are heading for a fall, spiralling their way down, out of control.  It’s compelling stuff.

Engrenage is currently screening on BBC 4 Saturday nights at 9.00pm in double episodes.

Zero Dark Thirty: she finds her man but at what cost?

Kathryn Bigelow’s film Zero Dark Thirty is challenging, as it lays out, in an unflinching way, the sort of personal characteristics you would have to have to carry out the CIA’s dirty business of torturing detainees.  And by telling the story for the ten year hunt for Osama Bin Laden through her female protagonist Maya, Bigelow challenges her audience to confront an unpleasant truth: that women are as capable of acts of torture as their male counterparts.

Mark Boal’s screenplay puts two female characters centre-stage of this action thriller. Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) is the older of the two, a veteran CIA analyst who although devoted to her job and despite her gung-ho choice of occupation, is depicted as the only one who doesn’t seem unduly damaged by her experiences.  That is one aspect of this challenging film that has so far been overlooked.  Jessica is able to do other things besides work. Although we don’t find out this until later, Jessica had three kids waiting for her at home.

And it is perhaps in the character of Jessica that we have to confront the realisation that even women who come across as warm and personable, with functioning relationships and home lives, were complicit in the torture of detainees.  Although the camera shows Maya, rather than Jessica taking part in the torture scenes, Jessica knows exactly what’s going on there in the backroom where the CIA carries out its dirty business.  The very act of being there means she is complicit.

There is one particularly telling point in the film when Barack Obama comes on television to boast that in his new regime, ‘America doesn’t do torture.’  As Jessica and Maya react, in an exchange of incredulous glances, body language challenging the hypocrisy of the Commander-in-Chief’s statement, they seem to be saying, ‘perhaps you’d better come out here and take a look yourself.’

Amongst the other criticism of  Zero Dark Thirty I have read recently, one came from fellow colleagues of the woman CIA officer whom Jennifer Ehle’s character is supposedly modelled upon.  Jennifer Matthews was CIA Station Chief at Chapman Base in Afghanistan and like Jessica, she had a family, but was killed by a suicide bomber at the base.  She was a serious-minded and formidable agent and her former colleagues, it has been widely reported in the press, found the portrayal of her as a lightweight in Zero Dark Thirty to be disrespectful.

However much a character may appear to be modelled upon a real person, a character in a dramatic screenplay can only ever be a composite.  Jessica and Maya, for dramatic reasons have to be polar opposites.  Jessica is old school, one of the guys, and even though she’s a CIA agent, she comes across as human – an older colleague trying to make a younger one feel at ease.  In contrast, Maya is withdrawn and monosyllabic.

In the office Jessica turns to her new colleague and asks in a benevolent way, “you got any friends at all?” You can almost see Maya’s thought processes, clicking and whirring, until she concedes that she is in fact, friendless. At a later point Maya joins Jessica for a meal in a hotel and, as Maya launches into a discussion about work, Jessica stops her in her tracks and asks if they can’t talk about something else. Jessica is curious to know whether or not her new protégé has a boyfriend and asks Maya whether she’s “hooked up” yet with any of her colleagues. “A little fooling around wouldn’t hurt you,” she says. Maya replies, “I’m not that girl…. it’s unbecoming”.

This is pared back characterisation and storytelling, and one that makes demands of its audience.  Mark Boal shows writers that contrary to the “rules”, you don’t have to show a character’s backstory.  We meet Maya in the present – we don’t know where she’s from.  She has no personal life, no family and is a free agent, able to travel for work at a moment’s notice.  Work is what drives her and what self-belief she has is framed through her determination to find the world’s most dangerous man.  Maya’s character is defined by what she does, not by who she is. All that we do know about Maya was recruited straight from high school into the CIA.

Mark Boal’s taut and fast-paced screenplay doesn’t patronise its audience: its up to you to fill in the gaps. You get the impression that Maya’s knowledge of world affairs is a one-sided, narrow one, based on working in a hermetically sealed bubble in Washington.  Maya, like George W. Bush, before he came to power, probably didn’t even have a passport, before she went to work at Langley.

When Jessica puts her trust in an unknown source and is killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan, Maya is even more determined to find Osama bin Laden.  We see Maya lead an ever more lonely existence: she sleeps in her office, she eats standing up in the kitchen eating white toast, licking food off a knife.  For Maya food is fuel, to be eaten on the run.  In what passes for downtime we see her slumped on her shabby sofa, eating junk food and drinking from a can while watching the TV news.  Hers is a joyless existence.

The most powerful scene comes at the end when Maya’s assignment is over and she has an enormous transport plane all to herself to take her home.  But just where is home? When the pilot asks her where she wants to go that we finally see that Maya is a human being, capable of empathy, after all. As the tears stream down her face we know that now the mission is over, that the only answer that Maya can give the pilot is: nowhere.  She knows no other life. And although she got her man, at what cost?

Borgen Season 2 Episode 5 Plant a Tree

Episode 5, Plant a Tree starts with a typical political publicity stunt beloved of many a politician:Birgitte is filmed planting a tree and talking up the government’s latest green policy.  The problem is though that it’s January and as the nurseryman who supplied the tree points out to Kasper Juul, Birgitte’s spin doctor, nobody plants a tree at that time of the year.  Kasper couldn’t care less: the only outdoors that the pasty-faced Kasper ever communes with is the pavement between the office and his apartment.

After the planting of the tree is faked so that Birgitte can deliver her piece-to-camera, the politicians and the spin doctor in their gas guzzlers drive out, leaving the gardener to dispose of the tree.  What is he supposed to do with the tree, he asks Kasper.  The spin doctor shrugs and tells him to throw it away. “Nobody plants a tree in January,” Kasper says, before casually taking a drag on his cigarette and leaping into the waiting car.

What I particularly liked about this episode is that it reveals the ruthlessness behind the political scenes.  No matter how personable Birgitte comes across, it was she who gave Kasper the go ahead to discredit the Climate and Energy Minister, Amir, by revealing to the press that he has a collection of vintage gas-guzzling Cadillacs. Birgitte badly needs the support of Amir, the coalition’s rising star and only minister from an ethnic minority.  But her plan to bring him back into line goes disastrously wrong as the press lays into Amir to such an extent that he is forced to resign.  And then Birgitte loses the support of the entire Green Party.

As each side refuses to budge over policy Birgitte has her work cut out for her, trying to appease both sides yet still retain cross-party support for her policies.  I found the hypocrisy involved over the green policies in this episode to be very true to life.  Once a political party is elected,  bit by bit all their idealistic policies they proposed to the electorate are either watered down or thrown out altogether.

One of the strengths of Borgen is that we see the chaotic domestic lives of all the major characters.  Katrine Fonsmark, the ambitious journalist is so driven by her work that at 31 she’s still living like a student in a tiny rented studio apartment.  Kasper Juul is a damaged commitment phobic who seems incapable of renting his own apartment.  Instead he boomerangs from one jilted girlfriend to another.

Birgitte’s domestic arrangements may look orderly, on the surface: she has an au pair who cooks and helps out at home.  But on closer inspection, Birgitte’s home life is just as chaotic.  Her marriage has collapsed yet we never really find out what really went wrong – apart from Philip being fed up with Birgitte putting work before family.

Birgitte does try to be a good mother but she lacks awareness of the agonies her daughter Laura is suffering.  Low self-esteem is bad enough for teenage girls. Imagine what it must feel like if you happen to be the daughter of the most powerful person in the country.  No pressure there, then!

Birgitte is less sure of herself when she finds herself in a tense meeting with her ex and his new girlfriend, who happens to be the paediatrician who first alerted her that Laure’s teenage angst was something more serious. Birgitte doesn’t want to let go of Philip and finds it particularly painful to be without him.  There is one particularly poignant moment when Birgitte is alone.  She holds her head in her hands, as if to say, how can I go on like this?

Borgen is currently screening in the UK on BBC 4.