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