• "Breaking Bad" ends on a high note

    SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses the series finale of "Breaking Bad."

    It’s tough to immediately discuss any series finale without letting hyperbole seep into your opinion, so take my thoughts on tonight’s roundly satisfying “Breaking Bad” finale with a grain of salt. Better make that an extra-large grain of salt, because in the immediate afterglow of “Felina,” I’m fairly confident “Breaking Bad” has produced one of the very best finales of any television show, a conclusion that brought the series full circle narratively and stylistically.

    There was only ever one way “Breaking Bad” could really end: with Walter White finally fulfilling the death sentence he was handed in the first episode of the series. This final season made it especially clear that things were going to end badly for Walt, and the fallout from his ascent to drug kingpin has been devastating to watch. As repulsive as Walt became, though, the series never forgot whose journey it was following, and the last two episodes have been an exercise in convincing us to root for our protagonist one last time. Last week saw Walt at his absolute lowest, wasting away in a remote cabin, and the finale found Walt trying to make some measure of penance for his mistakes.

    Even as Walt sought redemption, “Felina” didn’t hesitate to show us the ugly aftermath of the chaos our hero has wrought. Skyler has landed in a cramped shell of a home, her family in ruins. Walt Jr. has cast off his father’s name for good, going by Flynn. And in the most quietly devastating detail of all, Marie’s home has lost its trademark purple decor, her countertops and curtains colored a mournful black after her husband’s death in pursuit of Heisenberg.

    Walt’s final scene with Skyler was equal parts apology and goodbye, and it was satisfying to see him finally coming to terms with the lies he’d been telling himself all series long. Newly crowned King of Acting Bryan Cranston has always been beyond reproach, but he brought a resignation to Walt’s realization about his true motives for entering the meth game that showed exactly how deep the little soul Walt has left runs.

    But it was the reintroduction of the Schwartz family that truly completed Walt’s arc. The only way for Walt to safely secure his family’s future was to put his trust in the very first people who wronged him, who instilled in him the festering bitterness that would someday spawn Heisenberg, and by forcing Walt to find his own measure of reconciliation, the series brilliantly brought its hero full circle.

    No one has suffered more at Walt’s hands than poor Jesse Pinkman, and Aaron Paul has brought endless supplies of shattering gravitas to the final season. Jesse’s salvation at Walt’s hands feels almost like a happy accident, but there was no moment in the finale more simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking than Jesse’s escape. Once he’s finally freed himself from Walt’s shackles, Jesse speeds away from his own personal prison, his howls of glee morphing into anguish (or vice-versa) in another indicator of the messy, uncertain emotional terrain “Breaking Bad” proudly occupies.

    Though Walt spends the finale apologizing his way into his grave, “Breaking Bad” still found a way to reward us for our investment with a grandly theatrical triumph that the season had been (intentionally) lacking. Though a mounted machine gun and a brutal blood splatter on the camera is far from the series’ most unexpected or creative moments, it was hugely satisfying to see Walt etch out one final victory, and director Vince Gilligan milked maximum tension out of Walt’s attempt to put his plan into motion.

    As Walt dies on the floor of a meth lab, the camera lifts away from him. It’s a shot that’s highly reminiscent of one of the series’ finest hours, “Crawl Space,” which ended with Walt having a maniacal, cackling breakdown in a dirty hole beneath his house as the camera practically vibrated away from him in disgust. But where that shot was a terrifying harbinger of the chaos to come, this finds a Walt who’s finally secured his family’s future and made things right – or at least, as right as they’ll ever be. It’s the closest “Breaking Bad” could come to a happy ending, leaving us with a Walter White that’s finally at peace.

    How do you write the final word on “Breaking Bad”? It’s impossible to bottle everything that made the show truly great into a single paragraph (or article), and it’s a fool’s errand to try. With Walter White, Gilligan and Cranston created an antihero who will comfortably fit in the all-time pantheon, equally informed by the characters that came before him and influential on those that will follow. Around him, they built an audaciously plotted, visually and thematically rich narrative, and like a perfect chemical reaction, it all came together to form one of the very best shows to ever grace television.

    But like I said, don't forget about the grains of salt.

  • Vampires and Gangsters Among Best at Fantastic Fest

    One of my favorite things about Fantastic Fest is seeing a film that I just can’t wait to share with my friends, and the festival always provides enough fodder for many an offbeat movie night. This year’s programming was absolutely exceptional, and two of its best films, “Afflicted” and “Why Don’t You Play in Hell,” have already been picked up for distribution, which means that I’ll be able to unleash them on a room of unsuspecting film buffs sooner rather than later.

    The two films occupy separate ends of the same filmmaking spectrum, with “Afflicted” taking a emotionally viable found-footage approach to a familiar supernatural story and “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” tossing together a mish-mash of genres, influences and dismembered limbs in a gleefully absurd film about filmmaking.

    “Afflicted” stars writer-director team Derek Lee and Clif Prowse as themselves, and the first act straddles a thin line between documentary and narrative. After Derek is diagnosed with a brain disease that could kill him at any moment, he throws himself into a yearlong trip around the world, working down a list of things he wants to do before he dies. Clif, his best friend and a documentarian, comes along, filming every moment for their friends back home.

    One of the biggest struggles with every found footage film is making the characters’ desire to film everything plausible. “Afflicted” manages to not only do that, but instill its premise with an immediate, relatable emotional weight, which makes it all the more upsetting once things start to go wrong. One night, Derek is attacked by a woman and starts to experience dreadfully familiar side effects, ranging from an extreme sensitivity to the sun to an unquenchable desire for blood.

    Once it becomes clear what kind of film “Afflicted” is becoming, it slips into a groove, charting Derek’s decline with equal parts awe and terror. The film has drawn a lot of comparisons to “Chronicle,” but as Derek slips deeper and deeper into his new identity, the film takes some heavy turns that put the comparison to shame. It’s a testament to the originality of Lee and Prowse’s script that they manage to take two tired genres, the vampire and found-footage film, and make them fresh again by combining them. They parcel out their big moments carefully, and Lee’s increasingly bewildered performance sells every new development.

    Eventually, “Afflicted” starts to explore the rules of its vampirism through a few dynamic action sequences, but the film ends just as it appears to be ramping up, leaving the audience eager for more. Then a stunning mid-credits sequence blindsides us, and it becomes clear that Lee and Prowse are very savvy filmmakers, designing their feature debut to simultaneously establish them as smart storytellers and instantly build interest in whatever they do next. “Afflicted” will be getting a release from CBS Films in the near future, and I can’t wait to check it out again.

    “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” opts out of  “Afflicted”’s emotional engagement, instead aiming straight for the absurdist funnybone in director Shion Sono’s ode to filmmaking and CGI blood. Sono deftly establishes a handful of dueling factions in an extended prologue, setting up two warring yakuza clans, the aspiring actress daughter of one of the yakuza bosses, and a gang of renegade filmmakers that call themselves the Fuck Bombers, and then attempts to tie them all together.

    With a tall narrative order to fill, the film barrels through plot so fast that you barely have time to ask questions. It’s probably better that way, since “Why Don’t You Play in Hell”’s distinct pleasures are found not in the story’s coherency, but in the frantic punctuation of each scene, the enthusiastic embrace of the pulpiest possible moments, and the same infatuation with filmmaking that many members of the rowdy Fantastic Fest crowd shares.

    “Why Don’t You Play in Hell?” definitely suffers from being overlong, clocking in at an exhausting 126 minutes, but the film’s peculiar editing style builds up a sweeping narrative momentum. By the time every character has converged on a yakuza compound for the film’s finale, a shower of meta jokes, crime film tropes, and bloody dismemberment, things have taken on a downright joyous feeling. The film lets its characters fulfill their greatest dreams before brutally dispatching them, and its finale is satisfying as a cathartic end to its characters’ journeys and the most gleefully insane melee fight this side of “Kill Bill.” It’s hard to do the inspired, maniacal “Why Don’t You Play in Hell” justice, since its best moments come from the visceral aesthetic rush that it manages to milk out of every major beat. 

    Both films cleaned up at this year's Fantastic Fest Awards, with Afflicted winning for best Horror Feature, Directing, and Screenplay, and "Why Don't You Play in Hell?" claiming awards for Best Comedy Feature and Director. It's great to see films this innovative, distinct, and roundly excellent being honored. Suffice to say, when Drafthouse Films releases Sono’s latest in theaters next year, it will instantly register as an essential theatrical experience. CBS Films will hopefully be throwing all their weight behind the excellent "Afflicted." Check them out as soon as you get the chance.