Sunday, July 9, 2017

Breaking Bad: First Among Equals



After all these years, much of the technical superiority of Breaking Bad does not look so unassailable. Breathtaking photography, emotion appropriate editing, use of topography-making the landscape a protagonist, using heartbreakingly normal situations to enact epic questions of humanity and great acting have become rather common and do not count for insurmountable strategic advantage. Great TV in Fargo, The Fall, Luther, True Detective, Orange is the New Black, lately, American Gods etc have amply demonstrated that these aspects, though making for a sustained advantage, are replicable with similar success. Then, what makes series like Breaking Bad a classic, first among equals and account for such high degree of sustained cult popularity coupled with mainstream acclaim?  

Answer to my mind is that none of the other contender have this dense collection of great characters. Each and every character of Breaking Bad is significant enough to have a personality and interesting background story worthy of an independent spin off series- Better Call Saul is one highly rewarding example.  Though Walt and Jesse get most of the screen time and their character ticks are most microscopically presented, but none of the significant characters are peripheral.  Mike, Gustav Frig, Skyler, Hank, Marie, Todd, Lydia or the kids (including the infant-Holly), and, off course, Saul Goodman have been invested with strong personalities. They are all people who make for great partners but never can be relegated to the status of a tool or paid employee. Bit characters like Uncle Jack of Todd or the Vacuum guy, Badger and Skinny Pate have a quality of permanence that carries them through for a very long series spanning over five seasons. Other series too have memorable characters and some of them are permanent fixture of  TV pantheon but Vince Gilligan has created an unprecedented constellation of great characters and placed them in a perfect story. Command over the progression of the story- often tricky in long series, is pitch perfect and creates a narrative which forces the viewers to stay invested in the fates of the characters.

A character grows on the audience in the alchemy of paradox. The character needs to be immediately clear also and it should have an element of surprise – joy of deciphering or unraveling. Gustav Frig is a character that has coiled neatness about him. We know he has more to him than meets the eye. We take delight in discovering his backstory, innate decency, capacity for violence or capacity for revenge. Mike too portrays his reliable solidity immediately but we take pleasure in discovering his languid approach, his softer aspects, his supreme efficiency in what he does. Hank comes as an amiable lout of a detective. His detective skills and uncorruptibility is immediately evident. We love his tenacity and fragilities. Ladies, Skyler, Marie and Lydia have fully developed character arch complete with flaws and undiluted capacity to give. Lydia’s greed, absolute self centeredness and paranoid ambition simply shine through in the limited number of scenes that she had. Todd’s type gets established in efficient strokes and a high functioning sociopath was established in few quick scenes. In short, strong characterization is the main strength of this much awarded show and a quality that can’t be copied very easily.

Other technical virtues, mentioned in the beginning may be easy to copy but their standard in Breaking Bad is nothing short of outstanding. Spare, sparse landscape of New Mexico complements the rugged mood of the topic and creates a neo western aura around the show which serves it well. Photography and editing are elegant and their cleverness contributes and doesn’t distract. Angle shots from inside safe, barrels table top etc add urgency. Close ups, play with depths, wipes are plenty but never come in the way of story telling and only add to the atmosphere.

The mixture of operatic ambition in technical aspects, epic aspirations in latent messages on the one hand and resolute everydayness of the settings worked well for the show. The family, household, neighborhood, office, car wash, dresses, bit characters at gas stations, department stores and look and feel was kept real. Sense of grandeur came from the sweep of story, photography and far reaching changes that the situations brought I the characters. This has a quality of a great literature- almost Shakespearean. 


Even for a binge watch, the show did not lose its story thread and one cannot but marvel at the impeccable continuity and controlled arch of the story. Breaking Bad is compelling television, the best of its kind. It will continue to attract lovers of quality TV for a long time.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

That sexy beast Jude Law is playing Pope- The Young Pope


Europe does it for me.  Italy or to be more precise, Rome surely does it for me.  Anything set in the locale simply ignites the mood for quirky bohemia. Any level of sophistication stops being snobbish. Art and highbrow conversation seem normal. Then there is Vatican. A mythical city-state erected on a tomb. A symbol that can really be leveraged to heighten any emotion, be it conspiracy, power play or simply eye-watering spiritualism laced miracle mongering.  Expectant, devoted, enchanted faces are simply part of the scenery. Awe is an easy state to reach in such situations. Woody Allen and Dan Brown (films on his books) have used both bohemian and awe elements with great felicity. But I digress.

That sexy beast Jude Law is playing Pope- a Young Pope. He is a nightmare for people trying to get out of their smoking habits. Surely, he uses the fag with great oomph.  His loose charms coiled but accessible, are ready to enliven any conceit that Oscar winning Director Paolo Sorrentino conjures to tell a story of intriguing but vacant idea. But I digress.

Jude is not  the only charisma melting the screen. There is Diane Keaton. She is so posh that even in habit she is unbearably stylish. Her nightshirt is a riot (I am a virgin…but that’s an old story), shoes with appealing heels and walk of sophisticated CEO. Verve, solidity and great acting make her a treat to watch. She is a star. But I digress

Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Angelo Voiello, Camerlengo and Cardinal Secretary of State is the fulcrum of the show. In some episode you get a feeling that he is getting more screen time than Jude Law. He is one stout bundle of contradictions. He brings easy comedy, always a tall order, and chutzpah to his role as solid servant of the church. However, his service aspects are deeply hidden as he is a scheming politician and admits to it. A solid and believable performance that is often infused with audacious naughtiness. Again, I digress. There is so much in the show that can make one digress from the beauty of the full package.



The Young Pope premiered on 21 October 2016 on Sky Atlantic in Italy. The series has come to limelight after coming to pay and streaming TV on 15 January this year. The Young Pope is simply great because it is lyrical filmmaking so typical of great Italian directors from Michelangelo Antonioni, Federico Fellini and others. Great performances are a given.  Here, Paolo Sorrentino is in good form. His films are funny and maintain a rhythm that traces not only the mood arch of the key protagonist in this case, Jude Law’s Pope, but also has capacity to go whimsy, surreal or plain fun at will. His greatest strength is to take a given moment and create something really enjoyable. Examples aplenty. Pope getting ready to vaguely blasphemous background music (I am sexy, I know it), Secretary of state contemplating Venus of Willendorf, again the Secretary of State following football match dressed in the team uniform, Pope’s dealings with uptight Vatican bureaucracy. Every episode is full of memorable moments Sister Antonia in Africa was painted in very deft free strokes, Pope’s media officer, his two confidante are all not only viable but enjoyable too. Portrayal of innate mysterious powers of the Pope despite his obviously mundane power games are so fine tuned that sympathy remains with him despite his militant anachronistic views.

Storyline is mostly known by now. A 46 year old American Cardinal Lenny Belardo, has been elected as Pope and established powers are imagining a pliable puppet. Rest of the story is how this situation is tackled by the new Pope.  He takes an unorthodox approach to ensure his supremacy while advocating fundamentalist orthodoxy of Catholic Church. Another omnipresent overhang is his mommy issue. As a child he was abandoned by his Hippie parents. The Pope is obsessed with this issue. His detractors say that it is affecting his decision-making.

A word about Jude Law.  The actor in the tradition of Downey Jr (Sherlock to his Watson) and Johnny Depp, is a good tool of engaging flippancy and irreverence. His good looks don’t distract but enhance the contradictions of his situation in the show. He is in sure directorial hands and his timing is impeccable. He is amused, horrified, intrigued and evil with consummate ease. His whining for mommy is surprisingly not very irritating. His heartbreak, solitude and sorrow are sublime. When he cries after the death of his spiritual father and chief competitor (a superb James Cromwell), it is primal and tears our heart out. His star aura is a chief prop for a show that is so openly wedded to extrovert pointing to its own cleverness. 


The show is full of itself, in a good sort of way, exuberance and overt highbrow approach is sustained with unfailing direction quality and impeccable production values. Whenever opulence becomes obscenely lavish, it serves a story purpose. It has been said that the show likes its own voice too much, but then, there is lot to like there.  We do enjoy the beats of electro music that is deployed to perk up a moment. No doubt that the premise while being interesting and intriguing, is flimsy and it is difficult to sustain for 10 lengthy episodes. You can face only that many court intrigues, that many clever strategies to impose your will or keep impressing with arcane, splendid and mythical beauties of the world’s most famous religious seat. This is a great material for a feature length movie (Dan Brown films are examples) but a series is difficult proposition. Sorrentino has manfully handled this problem and his solution is to convey that the characters in the show, despite their exaggerated uniqueness, are not one-dimensional characters.  He takes his time to show the hidden aspects of these characters.

Jude Law while conveying impetuous distracted charm, starts showing real saintly characteristics. The Secretary of State, while being an opportunistic and scheming politician comes out with a much deeper multilayered personality that is deeply devoted to his church. The same is true for other notables. Investigation of the child abuse scandal brought thriller element and sustained the momentum of the show at a critical juncture. The length of the show provides an appropriate platform to fathom the depth and peeling off layers of these characters. In the hands of a director like Sorrentino, this becomes a joyful journey as he infuses it with panache and unpredictable twists. The show never loses its funny core. A memorable outing to the small screen by a proven master of celluloid.   


- Dhiraj Singh

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Minimally Grand: Eastwood Enigma



Minimal should be an unusual word to be used in Clint Eastwood’s context. He is a physically big man with a colossal screen presence and epoch defining cultural influence.  With all his towering impact, the word that defines him is Minimal. He is all about ‘giving central satisfaction’ and removing everything else. His minimalism accentuates the force of his personality. He has a lean telegraphic style of delivery that is hallmark of his screen presence and also his directorial output. He goes for core and is ready to drop everything else, not because it will distract (of course it will) but mostly due to the fact that it is none of his business. He stands stark and abundantly clear. Despite bohemian airs of his youth, he is a shrewd and intelligent person. This intelligence is reflected the management of his estate, politics, finances, marriages, family cohesion (anyone else would have been hit much harder with all that philandering) but most importantly, he showed his intelligence in managing his own brand and his own career. 


Even before working with Sergio Leone and Don Siegel for spaghetti westerns and Dirty Harry series, Eastwood knew limitations of his acting. He is not as versatile an actor as say Sean Connery or Denzel Washington or Morgan Freeman. His range is set and he is unique in that range. To quote Jonathan Heaf of British GQ, “Paul Newman was always too smooth, Marlon Brando too pretty; Steve McQueen too much of a hothead,……there is a stylish nonchalance about Eastwood; he drives home fervour and conviction without so much as flickering a smouldering  cheroot from one corner of his mouth to the other.” More than acting, he is a presence and his air of raw masculinity, menace and authority are the key ingredient of that presence. He has to leverage these factors for any role. Even light heartedness of some of his characters is light heartedness of a suave lumberjack. As a DJ, gasping aging FBI agent, journalist, boxing coach, reluctant western gunslinger he manages to bring full authority of his limited assets very effectively. Every character benefits from the ingredients of his star persona without degenerating into self-caricature. He is clearly a limited actor but he is very resourceful and efficient with his skill set. 

Even his on-screen personality clearly indicates a man with economy of gestures who is fairly unhurried about using the time and resources given to him but he is focused. Being unhurried does not mean that he is not fast. He is very quick because he is not wasting time on distractions and is engaging with the core in a very thorough manner. He is aware when and how to expose the core of a character, issue or a film with minimum movements. He is clean and efficient on screen and as a director, he is famous for wrapping his shots in first takes. Even his sprawling movies spend time on the crux with great discipline. For example Unforgiven was unscrambling futility of violence and the reluctance of the hero to indulge in violence. Invictus is taught in management schools- in chunks, to drive home lessons of leadership and reconciliation. American Sniper is meditative and ruminative about the isolation and moral quandary of a sniper but never meandering- Eastwood stays the course and never meanders. 




His evolution must have taught him about the value of staying on course of unraveling the core of the question at hand.  When everyone else saw a handsome young man with not much of histrionic angularity, Italian second unit director Sergio Leone took the basic underlying structure of Japanese samurai movies and American westerns and created Man With No Name. He made the underlying structure based on glares, gun slinging and tough men overt and dropped the melodrama and other distractions that had crept into the genre. Dialogues were brought down to minimum and establishment of force of the personality was achieved in minimum possible moves. Eastwood with his ‘apprising taciturnity’ and imposing personality fitted the bill. He was learning what worked for him. What worked for him was – if you have good ingredients, don’t mess with them too much.
He was a star after the Italian stint. But it was Dirty Harry series that made him an icon. Don Siegal directed him in Coogan’s Bluff where Eastwood played a Western sheriff from Arizona pursuing a criminal in New York. This brought the man with no name some identity and urban setting. Moral clarity in the face of scums of the earth appealed to Nixen era sensibilities. Stage was set for Dirty Harry – man with strong moral core and was willing to discard tentativeness that liberal sensitivities bring in as check against misuse. However, Callahan (Dirty Harry’s name) was focused on removing bad people and was exquisitely violent. His line “You’ve got to ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?” became a signature line. Influential critics squirmed at the glorification of violence. But Eastwood as a vehicle of righteous violence was lapped up by the audience. David Denby of New Yorker has described the matter with masterful clarity “That moment—an insolent piece of pop cruelty—put Eastwood, at the not so young age of forty-one, over the top. An actor may work for years without becoming a star, as John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart did throughout the nineteen-thirties. Then, suddenly, looks, temperament, and role all come together—as they did for Wayne, in “Stagecoach” (1939), and for Bogart, in “The Maltese Falcon” (1941)—and the public sees the actor, sees what it desires. He becomes not only a star but a myth, as Garry Wills defined it in his 1997 book “John Wayne’s America”—something that was true for the people who needed it to be true. What the public needed from Eastwood by the time of “Dirty Harry” was both physical and, in a convoluted way, moral.”  We have seen this in India also around the same time a lanky actor was trying his luck with all sorts of roles but in Zanjeer he found the mould where everything- the mood, the look and the temperament clicked and people wanted the angry young man to be real. But I digress, so back to Eastwood. 


Physically and from the point of view of style, Eastwood is a worthy vessel of a collective expectations of the entire nation. He stands tall at six feet 3-4 inches with rugged good looks and has maintained his fitness over the years and is considered one of the most agile and sharp octogenarian of our times (he was born in 1930). “He had an animal grace, a big-cat tension as he moved” qualities that have survived. Efficient resource manager that Eastwood is, he puts these attribute to stamp his authority on screen. His authority is tempered with weary worldliness and after Italian sojourn, had a visible and strong moral center. He personified American manhood ideal and a symbol of its individualism for most of the last century. This isolation may be bitter but never as painful as we see in tortured souls of say a Van Gough or a Wallander- the Swedish detective. He goes back to splendid isolation of a monk not of an outcast.  He might be spare in his movement but grace and style never leaves him. His conventional good looks were given makeover of style that became him by Sergio Leone. He rose in the movies that were self-referential- aware of their artifice and partial to magnificent visual backdrop. Lack of style is not his definition of lean, spare telegraphic film making. His focus on the core can be pretty detailed and beautiful. His grimness is not dependent on documentary like realism. 


In this backdrop of a limited but extremely effective props for acting and branding, Eastwood took charge of career and have been doing this for last many decades through his production company to make what Tom Junod of Esquire magazine calls ‘Clint movies’. Unhurried meditation on the subject with which the actor/ director has become comfortable with. He takes his time and jumps into the film making which is fast, efficient and without frills. Many of his films are reputed to have finished before schedule and well within budget. It has been documented that he filmed a shot of A Perfect World with double of Kevin Costner as Costner was taking his own sweet time for coming out for shooting. He exerts an authority on screen as well as sets. 

He was very closely identified with screen  violence. He is a regular fixture in the essays that tackle problematic glorification of violence. However, in later ventures he has dealt with the futility of violence. Much has been written about Unforgiven for its emphasis on messiness and pointlessness of violence. He realized that gory aspects of violence are not good business as they can be copied and lead to gratuitous one-upmanship. He developed a more nuanced understanding of violence and his depiction became more successful in making violence a gruesome reality which never helps anyone and it went more realistic than stylized. Gran Torino and Unforgiven are case in point. 

He has a political stand that is conservative and Republican. He was elected Mayor of Carmel, California. Often politics of his films are criticized. Dirty Harry was panned for its fascistic overtones. His Speech at 2013 Republican Convention where he talked to an empty chair has been termed rambling to classic by the analysts. Fact remains that he has taken stand on political issues and has shown his displeasure with excessive culture of political correctness. Richard Brody of New Yorker is  bang on target when he writes  ‘With  films ripped from the headlines (recent or past), such as “J. Edgar,” “Heartbreak Ridge,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Invictus,” and, “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood has long been a conspicuously political filmmaker—the crucial American political filmmaker after John Ford (and before Spike Lee). But what makes a filmmaker political isn’t the choice of political subjects but, rather, the fullness of political thought, which extends to subjects that, at first glance, don’t seem political at all’. He has recently supported the racist remarks from Donald Trump and called current generation ‘pussy generation’ for what he perceives to be over emphasis on political correctness. Similarly, role of women in his films (rather their insignificance) have been a sore point. However in the 90s he realized this and in the Line of Fire has been acknowledged as an equal and absurdity of gender archetypes were openly mocked at by Clint’s character by caricaturing them. His Gran Torino and Million Dollar Baby are sensitive studies in gender and racial relations. It seems he hates to be bogged down by too nuanced interpretation and wants to retain bit of less prickly old days when he was a boy in 30’s, 40’s and even 50’s. He has evolved but he is from old times. 

He has been perhaps the greatest Actor Director, only Woody Allen comes close and Mel Gibson too has a distinguished career as director. However, no one comes close to the length and depth of his career. He has been directing since Play Misty for Me and his latest Sully is getting rave reviews. He has given music score for most of his movies. His company has produced most of them. By any standard he has been one of the most successful single cinematic personality since Charlie Chaplin. His post Unforgiven movies have won awards and critics alike. His directorial output with a body of work like Unforgiven, Invictus, Gran Torino, Herafter, Mystic River, Changling, American Sniper, Letter from Iwo Jima and Sully puts him in the higher reaches of cinematic pantheon.  His assured touch has created works of enduring value. He crafted and succeeded in inventing and reinventing himself. He didn’t allow Eastwood mystique to be a liability but used his strengths to further explore his star persona in the service of his medium. He gave depth to westerns, he created space for righteous stylized violence and later he explored futility of violence (Unforgiven) and revenge (Invictus). Tackled racial relations (Gran Torino) and dealt with strong female roles in Changlings and Million Dollar Baby. He lent his star power to experimentation. All his films, specially later ones take the story of cinema forward but they remain quintessentially ‘Clint Movies’. Lean, minimal and spare thing of unbounded beauty. 

- Dhiraj Singh