23 August 2015

Crime and Punishment

Woody Allen's late career has been marked by incongruity. Not only in the quality of his films but within the films themselves. There are highs (Match Point, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and lows (Whatever Works), and the films themselves are airy and shot beautifully while thematically being quite dark and cynical. In his latest reimagining of a classic philosophical narrative, Irrational Man stars Joaquin Phoenix as Abe Lucas, a drunken philosophy professor whose aimless nihilism is confronted with a Dostoyevskian dilemma. Emma Stone plays Jill Pollard, a diaphanous and idealistic student who becomes dangerously enamoured with Lucas' fatalistic apathy, misinterpreting it for romantic suffering. 

Phoenix goes against tradition of other Allen's leading men by avoiding mimicry of Alvy Singer, the protagonist of Annie Hall. Instead, Phoenix's brooding grunts and naturally slurred speech reflect a character that has crumpled under the weight of life and its harsh realities. Suddenly, Lucas (Phoenix) sees a chance at redemption and more crucially, revitalization. Overhearing a sad, although unrealistic, tale of a single mother and cruel judge, the aimless, depressed philosophy professor channels his inner Raskolnikov and convinces himself he must murder the judge, saving the poor woman from a terrible fate.  

The film's initial lightheartedness disabuses the audience into thinking this is all just a fantasy, something naughty to awaken the curiosity of the disaffected and moribund professor. But quickly the tone turns very dark. What seemed like a trifle is made urgently real. Echoing his '80s Bergman influenced period, particularly his masterpiece Crimes and Misdemeanors, Allen again challenges the traditional notions of guilt and redemption, and how they are subverted.  

Irrational Man is not a masterpiece and probably not even one of his better later works, due mainly to problems with execution. It's quite clumsy in its climax and denouement, as if Allen thought after creating the characters and coming up with the initial conceit that the rest would work itself out on its own. But it does leave the viewer contemplating how our concepts of the "greater good" seem to conveniently align with our selfish motives.

19 April 2015

One Season and Better Call Saul Is Already Superior to Breaking Bad

How's that for a click-bait headline? But it's true.  I've made it no secret that I am not head-over-heels enamoured with Breaking Bad as everyone else seems to be.  But it's also true that after one season of the fascinating Better Call Saul my appreciation of Bad has increased, as without it Saul would not exist. 

I admit to what is probably an unfairly harsh bias towards Bad. But I maintain that Saul is the show that more deeply explores the human condition, shining a spotlight on the inherent moral quandaries and choices that face us all.

Jimmy McGill -- Saul Goodman's  predecessor self -- is a small-time hustler out of Chicago who inadvertently gets himself into some trouble with the law that only his powerful attorney older brother, Chuck (Michael McKean in a strong dramatic turn), can make go away.  In exchange, Jimmy swears to go straight and accepts a job as a mailboy in his brother's large law firm in Albuquerque. 

Jimmy may be a little crooked, but he also has a strong moral center, tenacious work ethic, and he indeed stays clean.  Bob Odenkirk plays him as the kind of guy you'd instantly like if you met him at a bar but of whom your wife would instantly disapprove when you invite him over to watch the game. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, the show's creators, deftly portray a man who straddles the unspoken morality line, sometimes leaning good, sometimes leaning bad.  It is this ambivalence that connects him to the audience.  When Jimmy is good, we applaud his, and ostensibly our own, moral righteousness.  When he does something bad or morally questionable, we're co-conspirators, sharing in Jimmy's post-scam high. In the worldview of Vince Gilligan, everyone is guilty of something. 

Beyond its darkly comedic take on moral relativism, Saul surprisingly delivers moments of profound tenderness.  The show smartly brought back Jonathan Banks' henchman extraordinaire, Mike Ehrmantraut. His backstory is both predictable and tragic; a riveting scene with his daughter-in-law about his son's -- and her husband -- death is powerfully affecting.  Another scene with Jimmy matter-of-factly explaining, "My brother thinks I'm a scumbag, and there's nothing I can do to change his mind," elicits tremendous sympathy and clearly plants the seed that leads to his metamorphosis into the unctuously corrupt Saul Goodman.

Where Bad brought horror and loathing, Saul brings subtlety and doubt.  And that probably, finally, explains why I prefer the latter so much.  I've never been much of a horror fan.