Thursday, October 20, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - The Ballad of John Henry (2009)

1. The Ballad of John Henry
2. Stop!
3. Last Kiss
4. Jockey Full of Bourbon
5. Story of a Quarryman
6. Lonesome Road Blues
7. Happier Times
8. Feelin' Good
9. Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter
10. The Great Flood
11. From The Valley
12. As The Crow Flies

Whether or not you call it his best (there is a lot more greatness to come!), I feel like this is the quintessential Joe Bonamassa album. Upon reflection, John Henry is a perfect choice to symbolize what Joe stands for. A true American legend, John Henry was the steel-driving man who raced a steam-powered engine, and won. And though the effort conquered him, in The Ballad of John Henry, Joe Bonamassa sings, "bring me the hammer that killed John Henry, 'cause it won't kill me." What a show of bravado and confidence! And yet, coming from Joe - the hardest working musician alive - it sounds completely genuine. It's the reason why I count Joe Bonamassa not just an amazing artist whose music I enjoy listening to, but a genuine role model that I look up to in my life - someone with a dream, guided by a true passion for what he does, who just keeps on chugging along like a railroad train no matter what obstacles lie in his path. In my case, it may be a bit of wishful thinking, but we all need something to live up to, to drive us forward.

The Ballad of John Henry is a mature album. I said that Joe's music started sounding "modern" as far back as Had To Cry Today, but this is Joe as a professional musician, and not just a guitar wunderkind (as if that wasn't enough!). And if Joe demonstrated newfound control over his raw, unbridled talent on You & Me, on this album he displays a remarkable level of command - not just as a guitarist and singer, but as a songwriter, too, as a full half of the tracklist consists of Bonamassa originals (not including his contribution to adapting the title track from a blues ballad by Mississippi John Hurt). The music here is polished, with less reliance on clichés, and songs that aren't so easy to categorize into preconceived roles (such as "the slow blues", or "the pretty ballad"). Apart from the title track, there are less peaks (songs that immediately jump out at you), but the background quality of the album as a whole is higher than ever before.

Take The Great Flood, for example. This is a song I didn't even really notice until I was blindsided by the live version from Joe's Tour de Force. Now it's one of my favorites. It's unassuming, but it constructs a very melancholy atmosphere, before laying out a subdued (albeit less so on the live version) yet very soulful guitar solo, accompanied by a distant, wailing saxophone. It doesn't reach out and say "look at me!"; it's the man in the corner nursing a bottle whom you'd just as soon overlook, but given a chance, would regale you with incredible stories of woe from his life. And then there's Happier Times, which sounds like it would be more upbeat than it actually is, until you realize that it's not called "Happy Times". A couple albums ago, Joe was boasting that he'd go down any road there is, but now he's singing like a man who's already been around the block a few times, and has seen some things. But don't despair, for in the very next song, Joe sings about how he's Feelin' Good. And why not? He's managed to carve out success for himself with his own bare hands.

We've already been introduced to the recurring railroad theme in a lot of Joe's songs, but this album takes a detour from the cotton fields of the Mississippi delta, and the electric blues clubs up north in Chicago, to head out west, molding those influences with a reverence for the American frontier (which we'll hear more of on Dust Bowl). To wit, Jockey Full of Bourbon (a truly inspired Tom Waits cover) sounds like something straight out of a wild west saloon (if, you know, they had electric guitars back then). On that note, and perhaps inspired by the success of Sloe Gin, there are some less obvious choices for covers on this album, such as Ike & Tina Turner's humorously titled Funkier Than A Mosquito's Tweeter. For better and worse, Joe has evolved beyond the stage where his albums are defined by big name classic rock covers. (And though I've always enjoyed those covers, I love the new direction he's gone in - and it's better for his career and reputation in the long run).

The Sam Brown cover Stop! is an infectious hit (I tell you, Joe is introducing me to some eclectic music), and the Bonamassa original Last Kiss is another one that tends to stick in you ear ("tell me how long supposed to keep a good man down, 'fore he packs his suitcase and gets the hell out of town?"). Story of a Quarryman rocks pretty hard, with a nice, chunky riff, while Lonesome Road Blues is the best rock filler track Joe's recorded yet - but hold out for live versions if you want to hear some even more frenetic solos. The album finishes with a sparse and airy gospel-flavored acoustic instrumental titled From The Valley, which sounds very much like something from Michael Bloomfield's collaboration with Woody Harris, followed by an electric cover of Tony Joe White's As The Crow Flies (which I remember hearing on Rory Gallagher's Irish Tour album from 1974). It's a mature album from a mature artist, and a great record to spin. What's next for Joe? Headlining one of the most prestigious concert halls in the world (a far cry from "nowhere in particular"!), and inviting one of his lifelong idols up onto the stage to play with him!

Rating: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Starry Eyes (2014)

"That's what I want to capture in this film: the ugliness of the human spirit."

From the very first scene, you can tell that there's something wrong with this movie. And, being that this is a horror movie, I unfortunately don't mean that in a good way. I can't believe it's gotten so many good reviews! The lead (Alexandra Essoe) - playing an aspiring Hollywood actress - is excessively prone to neuroticism. It's distracting. As much as I appreciate the Poe school of thought on constructing atmosphere (i.e., every word in the story must contribute to the desired mood), you need to start with a sympathetic character (which is not the same thing as a "good person", if Breaking Bad has taught us anything), and an intriguing story. I don't doubt that picking up and moving to Los Angeles and pinning all your hopes on the remote chance that you're really as talented as your parents and boyfriends have always told you is scary, but it's not literally a waking nightmare, with hallucinations and everything. At least, not unless you have a serious mental disorder - but this girl, prone to hyperventilating, and pulling her hair out over auditions that she really did well at, is not so much fascinating to watch (as was the case in They Look Like People) as simply annoying. I'd mention, too, that the movie seems to play too nicely into the hands of those who love to overemphasize the perils of the modeling industry, but perhaps that's more of a personal gripe.

At any rate, the theme of this story is a cross-pollination of The Neon Demon and Rosemary's Baby, that develops not unlike The House of the Devil (minus its subtlety and restraint). The idea is that the Hollywood elite are populated by devil-worshipers, and it's an exploration of what a person can be willing to do for fame. It's not a completely original idea, but it's an interesting one, which is why it's such a shame that this movie lacks a feeling of "truthiness", and that it spends so much time focused on gore that you lose interest in whatever it might be trying to say. Like, that maybe sucking a bigwig producer's cock (apparently, blowjobs are a viable method for demonic impregnation - I'm not sure if this is a neat idea, or just lazy plotting) for a gateway part might actually be worth it if you really want to be a star - and that when your non-famous "friends" protest in the name of moral outrage (while hypocritically popping pills they can't even identify), they're just proving the point. Maybe "body horror" isn't really my thing after all (although some of my favorite movies of all time are body horrors - Alien, John Carpenter's The Thing), but the story should have been the cult, not using it as an excuse for (spoiler) the film to devolve into a typical slasher. Could there potentially be a delicious steak sitting here on the platter in front of me? Maybe, but I can't taste it for all the blood and vomit poured over top of it. Save yourself a stomachache - make a list of all the much better movies this one is being compared to, and then watch those instead.

Friday, October 7, 2016

They Look Like People (2015)

They Look Like People is a moody, psychological thriller that riffs on a familiar premise - the idea that people are being replaced by some kind of alien or demonic body snatchers, and that a war for the human race is being waged in secret, that only a few chosen warriors are aware of. But don't expect an invasion epic - this is a very personal, claustrophobic film about people, not monsters, that explores the possibility of the more plausible cause of such a phenomenon - namely, insanity. It's a small, character-driven film, with few sets, and fewer characters, that begins when an anxiety-prone neurotic shows up and crashes at the apartment of an old, career-minded friend. What follows is a test of the man's sanity, in a slow and unsettling production, with a few genuinely terrifying sequences, that ultimately demonstrates how severe mental illness could, conceivably, cause an otherwise good person to be capable of committing atrocious acts. It's a wonder to me that this film has gotten some negative reviews, but it goes to show how much people's tastes vary. This is not a "boo!" scary, comfort-your-girlfriend kind of horror flick, but the sort that takes the time to subtly explore one man's waking nightmare, and in the process crawl up and nestle underneath your skin. In other words, a true horror film.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Final Girl (2015)

Probably due in part to the film's marketing strategy (for better or worse - I was pleasantly surprised, but I imagine that other moviegoers with less sophisticated palates could have been disappointed), I was fearing that this movie would be another cheap slasher with a well-intended but ultimately ineffective attempt to circumvent the usual clichés - as was the case with All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. On the contrary, this movie turned out to be more of an artsy, atmospheric thriller. It's a clever take on the genre, more akin to stories you see about orphaned little girls turned deadly assassins - such as the anime classic Kite, or the more recent Violet & Daisy, Hanna, or even Hit Girl. On that note, Abigail Breslin (who's grown quite a bit since she was Little Miss Sunshine) is enchanting, but then so is everything in this movie. It was also a pleasure to see Wes Bentley again, whom I recognize from recent seasons of American Horror Story. The plot of this moody film - final girl gets revenge against a group of well-dressed, smooth talking lady killers - plays out pretty much how you expect it to, but what makes it so fascinating to watch is its stylistic ambiance (like a modern day Suspiria), and exploration of its characters' fears. At times it's almost like watching a dream. I recommend it highly.

"Most people's biggest fears are on the surface - waiting to pop out."

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Joe Bonamassa - Live From Nowhere in Particular (2008)

1-1. Bridge To Better Days
1-2. Walk In My Shadows
1-3. So Many Roads
1-4. India/Mountain Time
1-5. Another Kinda Love
1-6. Sloe Gin
1-7. One Of These Days
2-1. Ball Peen Hammer
2-2. If Heartaches Were Nickels
2-3. Woke Up Dreaming
2-4. Django/Just Got Paid
2-5. High Water Everywhere
2-6. Asking Around For You
2-7. A New Day Yesterday/
      Starship Trooper/Wurm

This is an album that kind of snuck up on me. It was before the era when Joe would begin to pump out live albums almost as prolifically as he's done with studio albums. As far as I know, in 2008, there was only the live counterpart to Joe's debut album (which is, nevertheless, fantastic), and the much-forgotten (but not un-memorable) Live At Rockpalast concert video. As the title implies, this was not a "destination" live gig, like a lot of Joe's subsequent live albums (which read like a who's who of prestigious concert venues - Royal Albert Hall, Beacon Theatre, Vienna Opera House, Red Rocks, Radio City Music Hall, Greek Theatre, etc.), but sounds more like a hodgepodge of recordings gathered throughout a tour (which, sometimes, is the way you get the best live recordings, rather than staking everything on a single night - although Joe is a very consistent performer).

The second time I saw Joe Bonamassa live in concert (in 2007), he was still a small and relatively unknown act, playing an outdoor arts festival. But, already a huge fan by this time, I brought my dad and my brother out to hear him play. When he launched into the extended instrumental section of ZZ Top's Just Got Paid, and started jamming out on a solo lifted from Led Zeppelin's Dazed and Confused, I was blown away. I felt like I was listening to Led Zeppelin in concert during the '70s! I thought for sure this was going to be a limited concert special, as Joe had seemed to largely avoid the "obvious" choices for classic rock covers, whether to solidify his reputation as a "true" fan of the music (who doesn't just play the popular tracks), a "serious" artist, or otherwise. But I thought to myself, I hope he puts out a live album from this tour, because I want a recording of this song to listen to over and over again.

Little did I know, Just Got Paid (complete with its extended jam solo) would become one of Joe's enduring live staples (never recorded in the studio - not that there'd be anything to gain if it was), along with Sloe Gin, heard for the first time live here (as I heard it for the first time ever - even before the album came out - at that show I attended, and instantly pegged it as one of Joe's best songs), and one we won't hear until Joe's next studio album. Regardless, that's where Live From Nowhere in Particular came in, which also contains recorded evidence of the soaring, ten minute epic that Mountain Time had grown into, since its humble beginnings as a sweet but mostly forgettable track on So, It's Like That. And those are just the highlights of this incredible live album.

Even the acoustic set is capable of holding my attention, with an unplugged version of one of my favorite of Joe's electric blues, If Heartaches Were Nickels, and the much anticipated live version of Woke Up Dreaming (eight minutes long!), that I've been hyping up since Blues Deluxe. Meanwhile, the last two albums' opening tracks have been converted into full-on acoustic numbers (it's no wonder I have trouble remembering which of these songs are acoustic and which are electric sometimes). Ball Peen Hammer is a little too "jangly" for my tastes, but the stripped-back arrangement (not trying to be an electric song half the time) draws more attention to its lyrical merits. I still prefer High Water Everywhere, though, which makes for a pretty rollicking acoustic song, featuring some of that fancy fretwork that must have been left over from Woke Up Dreaming.

Hailing from You & Me, this album also features the first live version of Bridge To Better Days, which sounds great as a set opener, with its chunky riff and extended solo. Walk In My Shadows dips back into Joe's early catalog, proving that he's lost none of his fire in his recent attempt to branch out and reach wider audiences - even placed alongside a typically searing live version of the slow blues So Many Roads. Another Kinda Love fulfills its function as a satisfying filler song, and a funkier take on One Of These Days manages to improve upon its studio counterpart. The show's encore features an especially dynamic version of the pretty piano ballad Asking Around For You, which places keyboard player Rick Melick in the spotlight. (Joe's band at this time also includes Carmine Rojas on bass, and Bogie Bowles on drums).

Finally, we get to hear how Joe's first big hit - A New Day Yesterday - has evolved over the years, shortly before he would retire it from his live shows. It still sounds heavy, but it's not as pure and undiluted as it was before - almost as if Joe had gotten bored of playing it the same way so many times. Now he wanders off onto a musical tangent - albeit an interesting one, incorporating the instrumental portion from Yes' Starship Trooper/Wurm. It's an apt demonstration of the simultaneous principles of homeostasis and transistasis that Joe - ever the evolving musician - paradoxically embodies in his career. Every time you hear him, he's the same Joe you know and love, but he's always got something new and exciting to play for you.

Rating: 💿💿💿 Frequent Spin

Sunday, September 25, 2016

The Blair Witch (2016)

Spoiler Warning: This review may contain spoilers [mostly vague - nothing too specific] from both the new Blair Witch and classic Blair Witch Project movies.

It is the first week of Autumn, and October looms on the horizon. What better way to kick off the extended Halloween season than with a sequel/remake of one of the landmark films in found footage canon? The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999, several years before I developed a taste for horror (the impetus for that was the release of 28 Days Later in 2002, although I can trace isolated, formulative incidents throughout my childhood), but I do remember watching it at some point and having the impression that it was a uniquely terrifying movie. So how does this new take on the legend of the Blair Witch stack up? I'm sad to say that I didn't find it to be of the same high caliber. It has its moments, but suffers in a lot of places, preventing it from earning the timeless recommendation that I would give the original movie. In fact, I felt inspired to go and re-watch the original after I got home, so I would have fresh insight into comparing the two.

And let me tell you, going back and re-watching the original Blair Witch Project - even knowing that you never really get to see anything, I still felt that it constructed a genuinely terrifying atmosphere. "I'm scared to close my eyes. I'm scared to open them." Sadly, we've come to a point in this genre where you can tell the difference between good actors acting like real people (in a brilliant move, I heard the original actors were cast for their ability to improvise), and not-so-great actors acting like characters in a cheap horror flick. The Blair Witch Project genuinely felt like a home video. But nowadays, found footage may be shot in an amateur style, but it still feels like a constructed fantasy. It's like every found footage film that comes out tries to ape the found footage that came before it, so that the genre moves progressively further from reality (like a VHS tape that degrades with each copy). My advice to prospective found footage filmmakers would be not to watch other found footage films, but random home videos on Youtube, and try to imitate their feel.

But I fear that found footage is just one of those rare concepts that actually benefits from being new and untested. Ironically, the more we polish and perfect the format, the more we lose the "realism" that makes it so effective. Case in point, I was both amused and impressed when the new movie opened with a note alleging that the following footage was indeed found (and not produced in a studio). Amused, because by this point, nobody actually falls for that conceit anymore. But impressed, because it showed that the film was dedicated to its format, and honoring what came before it. It's hard to believe, but though now it feels like just an homage, there was actually a time when the idea of found footage was not so familiar to the public consciousness, that a claim to reality could be taken to be at least possible to a large segment of a film's audience. (Going back to the first found footage horror movie from 1980, the creators of Cannibal Holocaust were actually put on trial for murder until they produced the actors who had allegedly been the victims of their little "snuff film")!

"We faked it because it's real."

One of the things that made the original Blair Witch Project so effective - apart from its believable characters (who may or may not have been likable, but felt real) - was its subtle approach. You could criticize the movie for not delivering its payload (and this is so often a criticism of found footage that the genre has begun to regularly include special effects into its budget now), but the way that it plays on the viewer's psychological fears - exploiting their imagination - is what makes it work.

It's worth mentioning that there is not a single jump scare in the original movie. Jump scares are easy. They're cheap. And though found footage is often cheap, it doesn't have to be sleazy. The new Blair Witch movie, on the other hand, is loaded with jump scares. It also utilizes a recent found footage trend that I am not especially fond of, which is the usage of "technical glitches" - abrupt cuts, loud static, and other audio/visual hiccups - to produce what is essentially a jump scare personalized to the found footage format. Easy, unsatisfying scares like these are a sign of laziness. They're a burger at a fast food joint instead of taking the time and making the effort to prepare a hot meal at home.

Clichés and character stereotypes are also a sign of laziness. In the original Blair Witch Project, there was conflict between the characters that developed organically as a result of the stress of getting lost in the woods. It was believable. In the new Blair Witch, you have manufactured drama such as the tension between one character who is black, and another who decorates his home with a Confederate flag (who otherwise shows no signs of racism, and doesn't really fit the "hillbilly" stereotype that's drawn for him). It's a shortcut when what's needed is some quality time in the writer's room.

And even though this movie is all about people freaking out in the woods, I felt like there was too much emphasis on the characters' reactions, and not enough attention paid to what was actually scaring these people. Like, give us some time to actually listen to the creaking twigs, strange animal noises, and other such bumps in the night - get us scared first, instead of just showing us how scared we're supposed to be, by having the actors demonstrate (some might say, over-exaggerate) for us.

Now, I'm not one of those people who is against gore in movies as a matter of principle - I thought the lawnmower scene in Peter Jackson's Braindead (a.k.a. Dead Alive), for example, was brilliant - but while the special effects in a movie like John Carpenter's The Thing are a sight to behold, this movie caters to the puerile mentality of an adolescent boy who delights in getting a good look at a festering sore. Gross-out has its place in horror, but that's not what I consider entertainment. I was actually compelled to look away from the screen in a few scenes - not because I was afraid of what I might see (which is largely the fun of a found footage film), but because I knew exactly what I was going to see, and I just didn't want to see it.

As far as the scares go, this movie throws all kinds of random shit at you. But I feel like I would better enjoy a movie with some consistent internal logic - more of an exploration behind the legend of the witch, and an explanation of her powers, perhaps - than a confusing hodgepodge of phenomena thrown in just to scare the audience. I mean, you could argue that that's what the original movie did, too, but then there was nothing so over the top that it didn't make some kind of vague notion of sense in the back of your mind. In this new movie, I swear, at one point it sounds like there's a T rex stalking our campers from the shadows!

Now, give me some context for a witch who can transform into an infernal beast to scare her prey (and some rational reason for her to do so), and I'm game. But throwing it in just because somebody thought, "wouldn't that be freaky?", disconnects me from the story. I want depth, not surface scares. Those lights that resemble UFO activity suggest an intriguing hypothesis, but the movie goes absolutely nowhere with it. And the witch appears to be able to manipulate the fabric of spacetime (like we saw in Grave Encounters, albeit less effectively), but why? The lore in H.P. Lovecraft's Dreams in the Witch House is hardly common knowledge.

But if there's one thing this new Blair Witch movie has going for it, it's that it makes up for the lackluster ending to the original Blair Witch Project. Although some may question if that's an improvement at all. I'll admit that I thought the ending to the original movie was anticlimactic the first time I saw it. But watching it again, I think I'd agree with the fans who feel that it was perfect, and that anything "more" would have ruined what made the movie so effective. Still, for better or worse, the extended encounter in the house at the end of the new movie is nothing short of harrowing.

But I won't spoil it for you, even though I'm not entirely convinced that it's worth sitting through this movie to experience. In conclusion, I wouldn't rate this movie mandatory viewing for anyone but dedicated found footage afficionados. The original Blair Witch Project, however, remains horror history, and I recommend it to anyone as one of the sterling examples of what the much maligned subgenre of found footage is capable of in its finest moments.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 5 (Part 2)

I hadn't realized when I watched this season that it was actually split in half (although now I regret not seeing it when it aired, and being part of the cultural excitement about catching the last episodes and finding out in real time what happens next), but in hindsight that makes a lot of sense. And since it's a longer season (16 episodes instead of 13) - and being the last season, there's lots to talk about - it made sense to split this review in half, too. Here's the final part!

Spoiler Warning: This post is going to discuss - and therefore contain major spoilers from - the second half of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad. The ending to the series will be covered. You have been warned!

S5:E9 "Blood Money"

I couldn't help noticing Bryan Cranston with the director's credit for this episode. Very cool. The X-Files used to do this in its later years, giving its lead actors an opportunity to get some directing experience.

What a haunting opening scene. Presumably taking place after the season opening flash-forward. Walt returns to his house, now all boarded up, to retrieve the poison he hid there. Such suspense. What all went down to get him to this point? Where is his family? How did he escape fate? Where is he headed now, and what is he going to do with that poison, and all those guns? (Also, it's amazing how the swimming pool has become a sort of character in and of itself, framing a lot of the intense, emotional moments of this series).

This is it. Finally. All this time, Hank never [seriously] considered the possibility of his own brother-in-law being a crime lord. But there were moments. The stolen chemistry equipment. The initials in Gale's lab notes. Hank had this image of Walt that precluded the possibility of seeing him in this way. That's why he could so easily brush off the tiny details here and there. But now, with the Walt Whitman book, and the damning connection it makes between Walt and Gale, whether he believes it yet or not, or wants to believe it, it's going to force him to consider Walt in a new light. And I think that the more he thinks about it, the more the pieces are going to fall into place. This will finally be the ultimate end for Heisenberg, as it always should have been. But how will it go down?

Oh, shit. Walt confronts Hank about the tracker on his car. Now Walt knows Hank knows, and Hank knows Walt knows he knows. He doesn't know how to respond, but you can see the heartbreak in Hank's face. I didn't think it would happen this fast. I thought they'd play it out for a while before the confrontation. But this is great. No pussyfootin' around. Now it's a battle of wills, not wits.

The whole scene is tense, but understated. We're not talking, like, explosions and things. I mean, yeah, Hank punched Walt, but they're barely speaking over a whisper. Yet the emotions...I feel buzzed just watching it. All the anticipation has been leading to this. I want to know what happens next. I don't want this episode to end - I want to watch the next one! This show hasn't been so exciting since I'd gotten into the habit of expecting its usual high quality. I feel like I'm watching the first season again.

"I don't know who you are. I don't even know who I'm talking to."
"If that's true - if you don't know who I am - then
maybe your best course...would be to tread lightly."

Spoken like a true Heisenberg. You think he's going to spin another lie to save face - the way he used to do to Skyler before she figured everything out. But no. No games here. Just pure ego.

Shit, I'm watching the scene again. Right now.


I have to say, for a scene I've been anticipating this whole series, it completely delivered. I wouldn't have predicted it'd go down quite like this. I wasn't even expecting it to happen so fast - and surely this is just the calm before the storm. But this is it - the confrontation between Hank and Walt when Hank knows that Walt is Heisenberg. And it is fantastic. Kudos also to Dean Norris for bringing it in this scene. As Hank Schrader, he's been a fun character, but kind of in the background. Here he goes head to head with the great Bryan Cranston, and possibly even comes out on top! I can't wait to find out what happens next.

S5:E10 "Burned"

Aftermath! Hank confronts Skyler, thinking she'll help him out (ha!). But she's concerned for herself (and rightly so). Things are spiraling out of control for Hank. He has no idea how deep this thing goes.

That's rich - Walt getting offended at Saul's suggestion to off Hank. Like he has any moral standing left...

Marie confronts Skyler. Emotions are running high. I'm totally digging this atmosphere. Hank's been hunting Heisenberg all this time, but there's no joy in finally finding him, because he's lost family in the process, and that's just devastating. All that's left is the cold desire - the need - to catch this monster. Somehow.

Pinkman! Oh man, I want to see what happens when Hank questions Jesse. I'm riding the wave now!

S5:E11 "Confessions"

Hank: "...make this all go away."

Ha. You can't make this all go away. I was hoping for a somewhat happy ending for Jesse, being that he's the one with the conscience and all. But with everything that's happened, I don't know that he could ever be happy again. Even if he manages to escape legal trouble, he'll still have that stain on his soul - in his memories, his psyche.

"He really did a number on you, didn't he?"

I'll say. With friends like Walter White, who needs enemies?

A confession! How far we've come since the first episode, which was the last time Walt attempted to record a video confession...

You know, I didn't think Hank would be able to crack Walt's defenses, but putting confessing in terms of "stepping up" and "being a man" - how will Mr. Ego respond to that?

Lol, oh man. By trying to frame Hank - that's how. A criminal mastermind to the end.

To the last, I tell you. Walt sounds like he's actually concerned for Jesse's mental state. But I know he just needs to make Jesse disappear, so as not to compromise his plans. It's probably just his sentimental feelings from working with Jesse that prevents him from simply offing him like everybody else.

And, yep - Jesse saw right through it. I'm glad he's finally calling Walt out on his bullshit. Then again, this is beginning to feel like the last we'll see of Jesse...

{expletives deleted} Jesse found out about the cigarette! Will Jesse be the one to finally kill Walt? Dammit, why am I going away for the weekend? I want to watch the next episode now!

It's funny how vague the episode synopses are becoming on Netflix, in order to avoid spoilers. "An unusual strategy starts to bear fruit, while plans are set in motion that could change everything." That sounds like something you might get in a fortune cookie, lol.

You know, I'd been thinking in these flash forwards that it looks like Walt is gearing up for war - but against whom? My first thought was, of course, the DEA. But could it actually be Jesse? All this time, I'd been waiting for the confrontation between Walt and Hank, but what I didn't see coming was the confrontation brewing between Walt and Jesse. Well played, Gilligan.

S5:E12 "Rabid Dog"

Walt with the gasoline - it's like he's spinning another one of his lies from two or three seasons ago. I'm sure Skyler knows he's lying, but at this point she knows better than to ask him for the truth. (Well, at least not in front of Junior). But why didn't Jesse burn the house down, like he was going to?

This is interesting. Everybody just assumes that Walt will eliminate the Jesse threat, but for once, he means to solve the problem without terminal violence. Even I could be accused of thinking Walt would off Jesse earlier in the season. But now we're dealing with a person close enough to Walt that his "moral judgment" (ha!) is kicking into gear. It's not that he'll kill anyone, it's just that there are few people who matter enough to him to warrant foregoing the "final solution". It's like, he's got a moral compass like everyone else, it's just tuned all the way down to "sociopath". It remains to be seen, however, how easily Jesse will flip into the "not sacred" camp as he continues to threaten Walt and his family. Or, if Walt can't make that jump, will that be the ultimate end of him? Is Jesse even capable of that? (Why did he change his mind about the house? Or did someone change it for him?).

"Walt's a bastard. Secret's out. We'll talk about it."

Oh my god! An alliance between Hank and Jesse? A match made in Hell! (Or, since this is an antihero story, and Walt's the protagonist, a match actually made in Heaven?).

It seems poignant that the camera focused on Hank buckling himself and Jesse in before driving away. Something about following the rules and doing the right thing, logic prevailing over emotion. Something like that.

Marie in therapy:

"There is no problem - no matter how difficult, or painful, or seemingly unsolvable - that violence won't make worse."
"I know. I...don't worry, I wouldn't hurt anybody. I just... It just feels good to think about it."

And that's why we're all watching this show, right? But I guess that's where we draw the line between good and evil.

One thing that's ironic is that early on in this show, Hank and Marie were the unlikable people, compared to Walt and Skyler. But they're the good ones - they're coming out on top in the end. Just goes to show, there's more important things than a person's charisma. Then again, the way that we're drawn to charisma...again, that's why we're watching this show, right?

Walt sits by the swimming pool, even at the hotel (nice hotel by the way). Did I mention how the swimming pool is almost it's own character in this show? I don't know if there's some symbolism to it, but even if not, I think that's a great detail that really fleshes out Walt's humanity (what little of it he has). I can totally relate to meditating near water. It has a calming influence.

"You think I came all this way just to let something as silly as lung cancer take me down? Not a chance."

Even though that's what I thought this show was all about at the start, I kinda feel like Walt has a point now. Can anything take him down?

As Jesse sits down to be interviewed on camera by Hank (and Gomez - I'm glad Hank's brought him into this, as I didn't like seeing him cut out, and Hank with no allies at the DEA), I want to believe that this will be good for him - that he'll work out some kind of deal or whatever.  But then I remember those Youtube videos I've seen about how it's NEVER in your personal interest to talk to a cop - even when you're innocent. And given how guilty Jesse is, and how crafty and slippery Walt is, Jesse's basically signing his own arrest warrant here if things don't work out the way Hank wants them to, or if Hank has a sudden change of heart about Jesse after learning about his involvement in Walt's misdeeds. (Although if ever his possession of a conscience could save his soul, this would be the time for it - I think that's something Hank could respond to, much as he's already predisposed to hating Jesse).

Once again, great investigative instinct, Hank. He's figured out that Jesse is Walt's weak spot. And not just because of the dirt Jesse has on him. This truly is the making of a great "the taking down of Walter White" story, provided things don't go the way Walt would like to see them go.

What is Jesse's plan? Oh shit, did Walt just put a hit out on Jesse? Well, that took almost a whole episode...

S5:E13 "To'hajiilee"

Hank and Gomez trick Huell to try and track down Walt's only remaining weakness - his money - leading to an epic showdown in the desert.

A living example of "moral relativity" is an ex-con hitman describing other people as "savages".

Walt puts out a hit on Jesse with Todd's uncle Jack, in exchange for agreeing to cook once more, in order to teach Todd to bring up the purity. He can't kill Jesse himself because he's too close to him. But I can totally see him taking out Todd's whole family if necessary. Maybe Todd, too - I don't know.

Oh god, Walt is using Brock to flush Jesse out. He's a madman!

In the desert - Walt realizes he's fucked, and finds out Jesse's working with Hank. What is he going to do now?

Surrender! Is this it?

No! You can NOT end the episode there, right in the middle of a shootout! It's terrible - I even said to myself, Jack's crew are gonna come anyway, and spring Walt, but then I got so lost in the moment - Hank finally arresting Walt - that when they showed up, it was just like, oh shit. Also, Hank's phone call with Marie had a strange poignancy to it that I couldn't quite place. I figured it must have been because Hank just closed the case that's been driving him mad for years, indicating that everything's going to be better in their relationship moving forward. But as soon as those trucks came around, I got this sinking feeling - Hank's not making it out of there alive. Damn.

S5:E14 "Ozymandias"

An eerie flashback to the first day, that emphasizes how much has changed since then.

To think that Walt would offer his entire fortune to Jack to let Hank live. I know he's "family", but Walt never even liked Hank that much. And this is his money we're talking about - the reason he did it all. I wonder if he's got something up his sleeve (he always does). Like, sure, let Jack take the money. As long as he gets out of this, he'll figure out a way to waste Jack and get the money back. Maybe he doesn't even have a plan yet, but is counting on his wits to figure it out later (he'd have good reason to).

"My name is ASAC Schrader, and you can go fuck yourself."

Oh my god, this episode is just filled with bad feelings. It's not even cathartic. Just sad. Ugly. Yet I still love it.

Caged and tortured - this is not the ending I had in mind for Jesse... Although being shot execution style wasn't it either.

> Call for help.
> Take matters into your own hands.

Junior calls the cops on his dad. Walt rushes out with the baby. Skyler runs out into the street after them, helpless. This is the most haunting suburban scene I've watched since Halloween. My terse comments do not do it justice. "We're a family!"

And he's off, with a new identity. All that's left is the denouement - tying up loose ends, seeing the rest of these characters' ends.

I guess this season has been all about not just how Walt will be taken down - but how far he'll go before the end. (Which is what we've all been watching to see).

Surely, Walt's loose ends are going to be killing Jesse - but does he know for sure that Jack's gang kept him alive? He was willing to give himself up when Hank caught him, but now, even when he's lost everything - most of his money, and above all, his family (including his kids) - he's still in it for himself, apparently.

S5:E15 "Granite State"

Lol, I was just thinking, "I wonder if we'll see any more of Saul Goodman." And, sure enough, here he is. This should be interesting, seeing Walt as he is now, interacting with Saul, both of them on the lam.

"No matter how much you got, how can you turn your back on more?" - Todd's laconic wit.

Todd threatens Skyler (and the baby) to keep quiet about Lydia. I love how this show does scenes like this. It's like, we've seen what crime is like from the perspective of a million dramas and documentaries, and it's always these bad people we don't understand, framed in a certain way that we can separate ourselves from the danger. Here, it's like, this is just another part of the daily life of these people. It's fascinating.

I was really rooting for Jesse to escape that compound, but I guess at this stage - ever since the showdown in the desert - this show is done with feel good developments. It's all about soul-crushing devastation now, and Todd's encounter with Andrea (animals!) accomplishes that like a knife to the gut.

Walt holes up in a cabin in remote (and snowy) New Hampshire. (Why am I thinking of the Smoking Man, lol)? All he's worked for has turned to dust. A perfect representation of the previous episode's allusion to Ozymandias (which I also remember being referenced in The Watchmen) - the king of kings brought low. He can't even get the little (relatively speaking) money he has left to his family. It was all for naught. I guess, in the end, crime doesn't pay, after all. What will be his final move? And what will become of Jesse? What will happen in the final episode? I'm betting it'll hinge on a confrontation between Walt and Jesse.

I think one of the most fascinating things about this series is how it manages to make a villain sympathetic. Walter White is a human being. A despicable human being sometimes - for sure. But a human being nonetheless. Like, I was rooting for Hank to catch Walt (sooner or later), and Flynn had every right to react the way he did when Walt called him after going on the lam (great scene, by the way). But still, I sympathize with Walt because I understand why he did the things he did.

He still deserves to rot in hell - make no mistake about that. Understanding is not the same thing as condoning. That's something that I think a lot of people have trouble with (in the real world). It's like they have some superstition that if they "understand" the reasons why a person does horrible things, it's the same thing as excusing those things. I never understood how or why that conclusion should follow. I mean, shouldn't we try to understand why people do horrible things? Isn't that a better way to prevent and handle those bad things than willful blindness?

I strive to separate emotion from logic in these cases. People who do horrible things can still have something to contribute to society. Like, if a murderer donates to a puppy shelter, the fact that he donated to the puppy shelter doesn't mean that he shouldn't suffer the consequences of committing murder, and at the same time, the fact that he's a murderer doesn't mean that his charity toward puppies is "poisoned" in some way. (In the case of money, I completely understand not wanting to spend so-called "ill-gotten gains", but the point is conceptual - if a bad person does something good, that doesn't mean that the good thing isn't really good, especially when other, not bad people do it).

S5:E16 "Felina"

"If we're gonna go that way, you'll need a bigger knife."

Walt's plan to get the last of his money to his family via a veiled (and coerced) donation by the Schwartzes (of Gray Matter) is (characteristically) brilliant. And Walt's visit to their home is another one of this series' subtly haunting scenes, with Walt just kinda walking into the place (not even breaking in - just walking in) and acting like he owns it (as well as the lives of its inhabitants). Awesome bluff with the "snipers" - it totally had me going. Also, nice surprise seeing Badger and Skinny Pete one last time before the series ends.

Great job shooting Walt in the coffee shop that Lydia frequents. I swear, he was sitting right there, and I didn't notice him until he stood up! Well done.

Well, now we know who the poison was intended for. Walt's tying up loose ends, alright. And working on something big, too. He'll need it to take down Jack's group. I hope this blowout is going to be one last example of Walt's wizardry - like the trick with the fulminated mercury all the way back in the first season.

Walt visits Skyler first. I'm glad that the truth about Hank is being set straight once and for all. I really thought Walt had gone off the deep end when he made that call after running out with the baby, but Saul's explanation suggests that it was just a smart move to try and take some of the heat off of Skyler. As terrible a person as Walt may be, the family deserves to know that he genuinely didn't intend for Hank to be killed. Although some would say that the damage is done. It's certainly too late to turn back the clock.

And then Walt confesses: "I did it for me." This really is the end, isn't it? (Although, I suppose he has to say that, if he wants the family not to question the Schwartzes' gift when it comes, which is the only way he can get any of his money to them)...

And, the final showdown. Jesse strangles Todd (how things have changed since the first season). Todd was one of those odd characters, where I wanted to like him, but then he would do things that made me not like him. Kinda like Gus - except in the end, I guess the worst things Gus allegedly did, Gus didn't even really do. In Todd's case, I can't say I'm sad to see him go. He totally had it coming. As for Jack, I like how Jack's death mirrors Hank's death. Shot in mid-sentence. Then Walt gives Jesse one last mind fuck, but he prevails over Walt's psychological manipulations this time. Not that it warrants forgiveness, after everything that happened, but Walt did save Jesse's life, and gave him his freedom, in the end. Not saying Walt should run for saint or anything, just is what it is.

And then Walt dies surrounded by what he truly loves - in the bowels of a meth lab. And it wasn't the cancer, but a bullet that killed him! I think the one enduring idea that I've taken away from the ending to this series is how we've been taken on this wild ride, and the purpose was to demonstrate, from a more or less sympathetic perspective, how a bad man came to discover his calling in life - being a drug kingpin ("I liked it. I was good at it."). And the fascinating part is the extent to which he's been portrayed sympathetically. No, we haven't always agreed with him, but as I explained above, we've been asked to consider the motivations for his behavior, and they've been largely understandable from the perspective of human nature. Does it mean we should let meth lords do their thing? No, not necessarily. (I mean, you could make an argument, but...).

I guess I just really respond to the whole idea of sympathizing with somebody misunderstood. People are so quick to judge and condemn. Again, not saying I condone Walt's behaviors, but is it really so bad to take a moment and try to see where people are coming from? If you're so afraid that realizing that "he was protecting his family" will make you feel like his actions were justified (up to and including murder), to the point that you'd rather not consider it and just focus myopically on the bad thing he did, ignoring the reasons for it, then I fear for your own moral compass. I fear for the moral compass of humanity.

Then again, if there are people like Walter White out there in the world, who can come to justify these behaviors in their own lives... I guess I just like to see the world as it really is, in shades of grey. If things are not so clear cut, I don't want to reduce everything to blacks and whites. I want to experience the full dynamic range of life. And, philosophically speaking, if murder really is bad, then I want to discover the correct reason for that, and not rely on the demonstrably shaky foundations of something nebulous like the concept of "judeo/christian principles".

All this is to say that this is one fucking fantastic television series. But as incredible as this show is, and as crazy as anyone would be to say "I don't want to have more new episodes of Breaking Bad to watch", I really appreciate a story that's not afraid to end, and I'm glad that Vince Gilligan learned from the mess that the X-Files developed into, not to carry the show beyond its welcome. You can't do things like kill Hank and break up Walt's family (for real) until you're in the end game, and those are incredible storytelling events. Otherwise, if you try to keep the show going as long as it's profitable, you end up holding off on those developments indefinitely, and the show becomes something it never intended at the outset.

So, sad as I am not to have any more new episodes of Breaking Bad to watch, I'm really glad it ended when it did. After all, it's such a great series that it's worth watching again. In fact, I'd love to go back and watch it all again with somebody who hasn't seen it yet, just to savor their reactions. Hopefully you've gotten a little piece of that here with these reviews. It's been a hell of a time!