Saturday, September 23, 2017

Before I Die #613*: A Storm over Asia (1928)

*It's that time again. The fine people at the "1,001...Before You Die" headquarters have issued a new edition of their list, including 12 new movies from the last year or so. I'd already seen five of them, but this all requires an adjustment to my overall numbers. Hence the jump from film #607 to #613. With that out of the way...

This is the 613th movie that I've now seen out of the 1,199 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.

Original Russian Title: Potomok Chingis-Khana

Director: Vsevolod Pudovkin

Bair, the Mongol fur trader, offers his wares for sale. The
insulting price given sets into motion an ever-expanding chain
of events that lead to an massive outright revolt.
A curious old silent movie that, while overly long by today's standards, offered some social and political commentary that was novel for its day.

The movie mostly follows Bair, a Mongol fur trader who runs afoul of a chiseling, white supremacist English trader. After a scuffle during which an Englishman is killed, Bair goes on the run and joins a group of Russian partisans for a time, as they fight against English forces in the region. He is eventually captured and sentenced to death by the British; however, it is discovered that he is likely the only living descendant of Genghis Khan, the powerful ruler from centuries past whose legend still has a firm grip on the Mongolian people. Knowing this, the British enact plan to raise Bair to the status of ruler of the Mongols, hoping to use him as a puppet ruler through whom they can control the Mongolian people. Unfortunately for the scheming British, Bair ultimately erupts into fury at his and his people's being used and manipulated, and he rallies his fellow Mongols to war against the British.

The version I watched of this is apparently the "full" two-hour-and-change version, as opposed to the 74-minute version that is referred to on several database websites. Well, I could really feel those extra 45 minutes at times. The movie features more than a few slow-moving segments during which I presume the audience was meant to simply take in the scenery, as opposed to seeing the plot move along. This is especially true during the first half hour or so, when little happens beyond Bair bringing a rare, high-quality fur into town for sale. Things do get more engaging once he goes on the run from the infuriated British, but often the pace slows while scenes linger on repetitive sequences or mundane activities such as men smiling at each other. It also doesn't help that there are absolutely no well-rounded or fully explored characters in the picture. This is not completely uncommon for stories which tackle large socio-political and military themes, but it can be rather dull when all but one character acts in completely predictable ways.

There is one fascinating (if overly long) sequence where we
get some documentary-style footage of authentic Buddhist
ceremonies being performed. The precision and pageantry
of these ceremonies is curiously juxtaposed with English
military leaders donning their garb. Such commentary was
relatively sophisticated, based on other silent films I've seen.
All that said, A Storm over Asia does stand out from most other silent films that I've seen, including its contemporaries. It's the earliest film I've seen that offers a fairly straightforward tale of social manipulation, whereby one group - the British in this case - seeks to use religious belief and historical capital to create a shadow regime over a region. This shows a deeper and darker vision of international politics than what one would see in the films of D.W. Griffiths or a movies like Battleship Potemkin and October, two Russian revolution films which had a very obvious bias. This movie does the same, but expands its scope to outside of Russia's borders.

The end of the tale is quite unusual as well. Whereas many directors would have built an entire third (and even perhaps a second) act around a Mongol horde erupting with fury against their oppressors, it is this outburst of anger that serves as a foreboding exclamation point at the end of A Storm over Asia. It certainly has a very particular effect of leaving one with a sense that one overly arrogant group has just grabbed the tiger by the tail, and we viewers are left with the image of the snarling tiger just turning around and starting to take its first vicious swipe at its aggressor. I can appreciate how the story is much more about the causes behind a revolution rather than the actual fighting which eventually break out.

Overall and interesting film for its day, and one that does show why it is still considered important, nearly a century after its release.

That's 613 films down. Only 586 to go before I can die. 

Thursday, September 21, 2017

New Release! Logan Lucky (2017)

Some vague spoilers ahead. Fair warning.

The Logan siblings - they comprise half of the sextet that
attempts a heist of rather massive proportions.
Director: Steven Soderbergh

A fun heist movie, with a unique flavor and an attempt at something just a tad more complex than Soderbergh's "Ocean's" films, even if it doesn't quite succeed at everything it attempts.

The tale is mostly that of Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a proud West Virginian who gets laid off from his construction job on account of his having a chronic knee problem. Jimmy needs money to help support his daughter, so he convinces his brother Clyde (Adam Driver), sister Mellie (Riley Keough) and a few others of dubious character to pull off a robbery at the nearby NASCAR racetrack during a competition.

As a heist movie, Logan Lucky hits the necessary marks. The setup is nothing new, and it doesn't hold up terribly well under scrutiny, but it serves well enough as an excuse to see if a band of  misfits can actually pull off a challenging robbery. More important is that the movie, much like the "Ocean's" movies, offers clever and entertaining forms of problem solving. There's a cunning jailbreak (both out and back in), stealth, disguises, and meticulous planning all along the way. This is what any good movie of this type needs, and Logan Lucky delivers.

Much like Soderberg's "Ocean's" series, this one also has a very breezy, fun tone. This is especially evident with the characters. While there is a cursory human interest story at work between Jimmy and his cute little daughter, the proceedings never come close to getting grim or overly intense. Jimmy, his siblings, and their partners are all comic characters of one degree or another, with the most purely humorous being the demolitions expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig) and his uber redneck brothers. I must admit that, were I from West Virginia or the deep south, I might take exception to how people from those regions are depicted, seeing as how nearly every main character seems to be intellectually challenged in one way or another. As it was, though, there are plenty of good laughs to be had.

On the topic of mental capabilities, however, is one bone I have to pick with the movie. At nearly every step of the picture, we are shown how everyone involved in the heist, from the two goofy, younger Bang brothers up to the "mastermind" Jimmy Logan, seems to be rather slow or inept in certain ways. And yet, the entire crew does actually manage to plan and execute a rather sophisticated robbery to near-perfection. This would have been easier to accept had we been given some slight suggestion as to Jimmy's mental acuity, but this never really happens. I very much appreciate seeing a heist movie that uses a different character type, setting everything in the South, but I still need to believe that the characters actually have the skills required.

And the Bang family makes up the other half. While Daniel
Craig's West Virginian drawl slips every so often, he makes up
for it with a fun turn as the quirky demolitionist, Joe Bang.
Another odd little blemish came from an extremely unexpected source - Oscar winner Hilary Swank. Swank plays F.B.I. Agent Sarah Grayson, who shows up in the last parts of the movie to try and piece together the facts of the robbery. For some strange reason, Swank's performance stood out as completely unnatural and overdone, coming off as a poor imitation of Sandra Bullock's comedically stern Agent Ashburn in The Heat. This stands out all the more when everyone else in the picture, very much including pretty boy Channing Tatum, does an excellent job. Swank is a great actress, but for whatever reason, she missed the mark on this one. It happens to the best of them, I suppose.

So this was an entertaining flick, being exactly what I had expected. It's not going to change the genre or anything quite so historic, but it is a well-made, entertaining tale that can offer some truly PG-13 fun for a couple of hours. 

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Before I Die #607: Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928)

This is the 607th movie I've seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.

Directors: Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton

A solid Keaton flick, with some of his more memorable set piece stunts, though it doesn't top my two other favorite Keaton movies.

The setup and story are not wildly innovative for silent era comedies: the only son of a crusty old steamboat captain, William Canfield, Jr. (Keaton) returns home from college to see his father for the first time in many, many years. Much to his burly, working-class father's chagrin, Junior is a diminutive dandy, looking wildly different from his old man in both his tiny frame and his foppish style. Senior attempts to teach junior his trade, with little success. This creates bigger problems since their family business - their steamboat - is about to be put out of business by a brand new, larger, and more luxurious steam liner that has just moved into their river town. The rivalry with this other company is put on hold, though, when a massive storm blows through the town, endangering everyone in it. Junior, despite his many goofs up to this point, manages to save his father and several other prominent people in the town.

"Old Stoneface" Keaton's remarkable skills as a
physical comedian are on display throughout the
film, but perhaps never moreso than as he
fumbles his way around the steamships.
As with any Keaton flick, the story is hardly what matters here. It's all about the visual stunts and gags, and this film has plenty of them. The most notable is the grande finale windstorm, when entire buildings are literally crumbling around Keaton's character, as he dodges the debris coming at him from all directions. Although there were some impressive stunts in this very long sequence, I was actually more amused by a few of the simpler physical gags. What's always impressed me about Keaton were his uncanny agility and grace, and the massive eyes on his hilariously deadpan face. In this movie, there is more than one moment where he'll take a spill that could seriously cripple him, somehow catch himself, and never once change his facial expression. It dawned on me that he truly is the original Jackie Chan, in terms of putting his safety at risk for the sake of a movie. Only I find his impassive non-reactions far funnier than Chan's highly expressive face.

I've now seen about a half dozen of Keaton's movies, and my two favorites are still Our Hospitality and The General. Steamboat Bill, Jr. may have the more memorable final act in the eyes of historians, and it may have inspired the very first Mickey Mouse cartoon, but it wasn't quite as entertaining as those earlier movies of his.

That's 607 movies down. Only 580 to go before I can die. 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Retro Duo: Drive (2011); The Heat (2013)

Drive (2011)

Director: Nicolas Winding Refn

One of my favorite movies from the last decade. I just watched it for the fourth or fifth time, and I still marvel at it.

The basic story elements are straight out of the mythical Western movies of Sergio Leone: a quiet man with no name and a particular skill set is not bothered by committing acts outside of the law. However, he does have a certain code of honor to which he holds himself. When he sees the forces of darkness closing in, he decides to use his skills to fight back. In the case of director Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, instead of a gunfighter, we have "Driver" (Ryan Gosling), who is a movie stunt driver moonlighting as a getaway "wheel man" for robbers. When Driver (his real name is never given) falls in love with his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan), he starts to show a tenderness unseen to us before. This nearly all vanishes, however, when Irene's husband is first paroled out of prison but then forced into committing a robbery that goes horribly wrong. Driver then finds himself in a race to track down the gangsters responsible, while keeping Irene and her little boy safe.

While Drive is not telling a story that is particularly fresh, it updates the "quiet, lone hero" tale wonderfully and tells it with such cinematic excellence that it shames other movies that have tried the same thing since Leone first mastered it in the mid-1960s. Admittedly, it helps if one has a certain affinity for this type of protagonist. I've long been a fan of Leone and Clint Eastwood's (we can technically throw Charles Bronson in there, too) Man With No Name character. I'm far from the only boy in the history of humanity who's been fascinated by the fantasy of the ever-cool and unflappable hero who is so skilled that he can take down any adversary, often without breaking much of a sweat. Ryan Gosling's Driver is cut from that same cloth, though he's traded in Eastwood's dusty serape for a slick, silver driving jacket with a badass scorpion on the back.

I know, I know. If you haven't seen the movie, you're thinking, "Come on. A silent, badass loner wearing a scorpion jacket? This is a joke, right?" No. It's not. By a lesser filmmaker, it would be laughable, to be sure. But this screenplay and direction are so tight that it's brilliant. The narrative is a case-study in cinematic efficiency, with nary a wasted scene or throwaway line to be found in the entire film. And while there is certainly plenty of intense action and violence in the latter parts of the movie, much of the earlier segments feature delicate and subtle visual cues to tell the story. These subtleties are what make the action sequences in the third act of the movie so much more impactful.

I've spoken to a few friends who have watched the movie and simply found it too slow, quiet, and brooding for their liking. I understand this. If one prefers their action to be highly kinetic and offer strings of one-liners to bridge the action scenes, a la the Fast and the Furious franchise, then Drive is not the movie for you. In place of those styles of storytelling, Drive offers stunningly framed and lit scenes, expert editing, a meditative tone, and pitch-perfect acting (the supporting cast is amazing) to tell a story that is both classic and unique. There aren't many non-popcorn movies that I watch every year or two, but this quickly became one of them. After this most recent viewing, this is not at all likely to change.

This great throwback poster gives some
idea of the tone of the movie. Think of
it as a more comedic, profane version of
Lethal Weapon.
The Heat (2013)

Director: Paul Feig

A bit of a forerunner for the even-better, modern comedy classic Spy, The Heat is a hilarious early team-up of comedy director Paul Feig and brilliant comedienne Melissa McCarthy.

The movie pairs stuffy, arrogant F.B.I. Agent Ashburn (Sandra Bullock) with local hardass Boston police officer Mullins (McCarthy) as they try to track down a high-volume drug dealer responsible for several grizzly deaths in recent months. Ashburn is a well-educated and capable but highly abrasive, career-driven woman who has alienated virtually every coworker in the Bureau. Mullins, on quite the other hand, is Ashburn's polar opposite in nearly every way. While she is equally effective at tracking and capturing criminals, her approach is far less surgical and much more that of a wrecking ball, speaking to her background as the eldest sister in her Irish, working class family. Mullins is supremely crass and on a hair trigger at all times. She and Ashburn eventually bridge the tremendous gap between their styles of law enforcement and work together to solve the case.

Anyone who has seen and enjoyed either Bridesmaids or Spy would do well to check out The Heat. Director Paul Feig has found his modern comedy movie niche with the formula evidenced in these movies (though Spy was impressively less formulaic than the other two): use a known story blueprint, hire several supremely hilarious actors, and let them run with their lines and characters. That is truly where the strength of these movies lie. When you give someone like McCarthy a few decent lines or a dynamic character to work with, along with R-rated freedom, she'll either deliver the written line with perfect timing and tone, or she'll punch it up into something even better. And not to slight Sandra Bullock here, who does a great job as the straight woman, but it's McCarthy's attitude and comic chops that set the tone here. It also helps to have some other veteran comic actors like Bill Burr and Michael Rappaport as supporting characters, just so no single voice or pair of voices dominate for too long.

Like nearly every Paul Feig movie I've seen, The Heat is probably about 10 to 15 minutes too long, due to overly generous editing. It's fairly clear that much of Feig's approach is to grant his actors a ton of freedom to ad-lib as much as they desire. This is as it should be, as it clearly leads to plenty of hilarious moments of spontaneous dialogue and reactions. However, every film of his contains at least a few scenes that feel a tad too long or simply superfluous, bogging down the narrative pace just a bit. Fortunately, they've never been a complete drag on his movies, and The Heat is the same.

I was glad to learn that shortly after I watched this movie, a sequel was announced. The trio of Feig, McCarthy, and Bullock was obviously a strong one, and there are plenty more tales of Ashburn and Mullins that would be fun to tell. I'll look forward to it. 

Friday, September 15, 2017

Before I Die #606: An Andalusian Dog (1928)

This is the 606th movie I've watched from the "Before You Die" list which I'm working my way through.

Probably the most (in)famous scene from the film. Yes, that
is a straight razor in his hand, and yes, he's about to do what
you are afraid he's going to do with it.
Director: Luis Bunuel

If you know a little something about painting and/or film history, then the names "Salvador Dali" and "Luis Bunuel" ought to evoke notions of oddity, irreverance and surreality. And once you know that, you get some idea of what you're in for with An Andalusian Dog, a 20-minute short film conceived and written by Dali and Bunuel, and directed by the latter.

How does one describe the story, such as it is? Frankly, it's virtually impossible. I could give a detailed synopsis of what happens, but it would probably take no fewer than 5,000 words and far too much of your time. In very broad strokes, this 20-minute film short connects seemingly incongruous images, such as a woman having her eye cut open with a razor blade, (perhaps?) the same woman assisting a man semi-dressed as a clown who has had a bicycle accident outside of her apartment, a man with ants literally crawling out of his palm, and plenty of other strange and unsettling visuals. While it takes great imagination to even attempt to piece any of this together into any cohesive narrative, the one connecting factor may be that nearly all of the images are likely to unsettle a viewer in one way or another.

Need a mental workout? Just watch some images like a couple
of dead mules on tops of pianos and try to make heads or
tails of them. That's what this film has to offer.
My viewing experience was such that I was only glad that the film wasn't longer than 20 minutes. I simply don't know if my brain could have handled it. I don't mind strange and bizarre. I've watched, found merit in, and even enjoyed films by directors such as David Lynch and Lars Von Trier, two filmmakers unafraid to challenge audiences for a full 90 to 120 minutes. But An Andalusian Dog? It truly is the stuff of the human unconscious. It is no secret that Salvador Dali drew much inspiration for his surrealist painting and sculptures from his own dreams and hallucinations. This film is the movie picture version of just such visions. The movie has that typically dream-like quality where the connection between one moment, scene or sequence to the next is nearly impossible to predict. It might be a visual similarity, a random thought or impulse, or a loose word association. One could probably watch the movie a thousand times and come up with completely different interpretations every time, given the elemental nature of many of the images. However one does it, it is likely to tax your mind as it works to find some sort of meaning in it all. For such a strange work, more than 20 minutes would likely have been asking too much of most viewers, including myself.

I understand that this was probably one of the first well-respected surrealist films, and one that inspired many later filmmakers to break certain rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling. That stated, I can hardly say that I "enjoyed" this little film. I can appreciate its artistry and just how wildly imaginative it is, but I can't see myself going back to it unless it comes with a manual.

So that's now 606 movies down. Only 582 to go before I can die. 

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Before I Die #605: The Docks of New York (1928)

This is the 605th movie I've seen out of the 1,187 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm working my way through.

Director: Josef von Sternberg

A tidy little tale that illustrates several evolutions in film storytelling just at the dawn of the sound age in cinema.

The movie tracks the brisk meeting and bonding between Bill Roberts (George Bancroft) and Mae (Betty Compson). Roberts is a cynical, steely-eyed, hard-as-nails stoker, one who shovels coal into a ship's furnaces for fuel. While he and his fellow stokers are on dry land for an evening of R and R, he comes across a young woman, Mae, who tries to commit suicide by throwing herself into the river. Roberts saves her and soon falls in love, even marrying her in a hasty ceremony that very night, right at the bar where he had just earlier been getting drunk and brawling with other revelers. While initially getting married as a sort of lark and planning to hop a new ship the next morning, Roberts soon realizes that he loves the morose Mae more than he realizes. He jumps off of his new ship just as it is leaving port and rushes to find Mae at the local courthouse, where she is being charged for shoplifting. Roberts takes the rap for her, though, allowing himself to be sentenced to 60 days in prison. For him and Mae, though, this is a sort of blessing, as he will at least be on dry land and closer to her, rather than out at sea.

When compared to the other "great" movies that I've now seen from this era, The Docks of New York stands out in a few ways. Firstly is that it is a drama focusing on a segment of society very rarely featured in such films. Nearly the entire tale takes place in a beaten down dock area of New York City, a depressed section of the city where blue-collar workers struggled mightily to survive. The movie depicts the epitome of the "work hard, play hard" approach to life, where nights brought excessive drinking, fighting, and sex to anyone looking for them. This is a far cry from the loftier or more epic tales told in most other films of the day. There is a highly seedy element to the proceedings, but the movie isn't judging them. Rather, it uses Bill and Mae to evoke a certain amount of sympathy for such people. This is especially true for Mae, who has obviously been used and abused far too much in her young life. At this point in film history, not many quality films had offered such portrayals of the "lower class," with The Last Laugh and The Crowd being two of the few notable exceptions.

Something else I noticed in this movie is how we continued to see ever more subtlety in the star actors' techniques. Lead man Bancroft and lady Compson have clearly learned that they needn't mug or posture for a camera that can offer us telling close-ups of their faces and capture all of their smallest movements. And there is a notable ease with which Bancroft struts around the wild saloon where he and his fellow salt-of-the-earth types get into various scuffles. Such actors always unintentionally make their second-rate supporting cast look a little worse, though it can be a bit tougher to spot before the true boom of sound and dialogue. All the same, the leading actors do nice work evoking some feeling for their characters.

Bill and Mae, just outside of Bill's rundown room. This film
showed early mastery of dark and light that later movies
would turn into virtually an entire genre.
Perhaps even more than the characters, story, or actors, the visuals are quite impressive. Using methods that foreshadowed what we would see in the great noir films of the forthcoming decades, this movie used lighting and shadows to amazing effect. This creates a sense of lingering doom over certain scenes, especially those just outside of the bar and shanty apartments, where one can assume that nothing good is happening in the many nooks, crannies, and corners shrouded in darkness. This all sets a rather unique setting and tone for the movie, making it even more imperative that Bill and Mae find some sort of solace with each other.

Being a silent film, The Docks of New York is still trapped in several of that era's popular movie conventions, including silly slapstick gags here and there, and an oversimplified plot. Still, it is a decent movie for its time, and I was engaged for its very modest running time of 76 minutes. Those who enjoy silent era films would likely appreciate more than a few things about this one, even if it isn't the silent film likely to win over viewers not terribly interested in pre-sound pictures. 

Monday, September 11, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Breaking Bad full rewatch (2008-2013)

I was relatively late to the Breaking Bad phenomenon. Of course I had heard about it's popularity and critical accolades during its initial rise to prominence back around 2010. But it wasn't until the series was nearly wrapped up in 2013 that I started playing catch up by working through the entire series. As most people, I found it thoroughly engaging, entertaining, and highly original. I enjoyed it enough to know that, at some point in the future, I would likely rewatch the entire series again.

Well, after three excellent seasons of the spinoff prequel Better Call Saul and recently channel surfing my way into one of the more memorable scenes from Breaking Bad earlier this year, the time came. Thanks to the marvel of modern streaming, the entire five-season, 62-episode series is sitting right there in Netflix just begging to be binged. So binge I did, not being completely sure of just how much I would enjoy the entire (roughly 46-and-a-half hour) ride on a second time.

In short, the show was even better the second time.

It speaks highly of a story, whether in literature or other media, when it is still compelling after you know the key plot points and the ultimate outcomes for the characters. Breaking Bad is a prime example of this. The first time I watched the series, it took about two seasons before I realized that Walter White was not some sort of sympathetic anti-hero who would eventually see the light. Rather, he was a warped, angry, vicious monster buried deep within the exterior of an impotent suburban schlub. Over the course of the series, he makes one decision after another which peels back another layer of the sad sack exterior to reveal a person dying to be "the man," but almost never wanting to admit his selfish urges to others or even himself. Though White commits some rather heinous acts in the first season, one could somewhat justify them as acting out of desperation. However, as the story progresses and White thrusts himself deeper into the world of mass production and distribution of the lethally addictive drug crystal meth, it becomes clearer that it is all just the means through which he hopes to upstage everyone whom he feels has slighted or underestimated him over the course of his adult life. These gradual revelations are compelling to watch, even as unsavory as they are.

One consistently compelling aspect of the show was its constant focus on problem solving - a theme as old as human storytelling itself. And Breaking Bad was masterful at it. Still, this was only window dressing compared to the deeper narrative at work. The tale of Walter White himself can be seen as rollicking, eerily dark and violent American tragedy. In classic Greek tragedy fashion, White is a man possessed of true genius-level talent - in science and chemistry, to be precise. It is quite clear that he could have been, and in fact at one time nearly was, a force for exceptional good in the world. And yet, for reasons we can infer related to White's own pride, he turned his back on a chance to have a career filled with tremendous rewards, both intellectual and financial. When the show essentially picks up nearly two decades later, we eventually gets hints and clues as to how much of Walter's humanity still exists, in contrast with the bitter, vengeful, selfish, and extremely dangerous creature we see revealed. While there are plenty of moments during the course of the show when it is easy to see Walter as a thoroughly corrupted force of pure evil, there are also just enough moments when the little that is left of his compassion show through. These moments keep Walter from ever becoming a one-dimensional villain, and the story is that much stronger for it.

Jesse and Hank, two of the best-formed and best-acted
characters you're likely to find in any TV show. Actors Aaron
Paul and Dean Norris brought every bit of intensity, tragedy,
and comedy to life through these dynamic forces in the show.
While the focus on the protagonist carries much of the show's powerful story, any successful 60-plus episode drama needs compelling secondary and tertiary characters, and Breaking Bad has them in spades. On this second viewing of the series, I had a much greater appreciation for Jesse Pinkman's story arc, along with Aaron Paul's ability to bring it to life. While Pinkman is, along with virtually every other character, a damaged person, he is arguably the most well-rounded and sympathetic of a varyingly bad lot. His journey from being a burned-out, slacker druggy into and through the world of deadly-serious, top-level illegal drug manufacturing is as carefully told as Walter White's. It is eminently fascinating to see Jesse try to navigate just who he is, who he wants to be, and how he deals with some of the despicable acts he performs at the behest of the vastly more capable and domineering figures around him. In an odd way, he emerges as the closest thing to a real soul that the series has, and it is through Jesse that disturbed protagonist Walter White's story meets its complex and poetic conclusion. Almost on par with Jesse is Walter's brother-in-law Hank, whose character and story arc I appreciated even more this time through the series. Beyond Pinkman and Hank, the show boasts a treasure trove of other brilliant, if terrifying and warped, characters. Whether it was ice-cold drug kingpin Gustavo Fring, dead-eyed security expert Mike Ehrmentrout, sleazebag lawyer Saul Goodman, or any of the many other colorful players, by its third season the show is teeming with people whom you are dying to see again.

As if a great narrative and characters aren't enough to make for a great show, Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan clearly put a premium on using the medium of film to great visual effect. As we've also seen with this show's prequel series Better Call Saul, every episode features at least one segment of purely visual storytelling. These are often done with some of the most consistently excellent opening scenes in TV show history, with nearly every one coming at you from a different visual and narrative angle and asking you to figure out just what the initially bizarre or cryptic images are telling you about the greater story. It is easy to find shows that overuse dialogue and exposition to tell their stories these days, but it is far more difficult to find shows that have the patience and respect for their viewers to use the moving picture to engage the audience in the ways that Breaking Bad did from the very start, with a tidy-whitey-clad Walter White barreling along a deserted desert road in a shoddy RV, wearing a gas mask. That's the kind of imagery that begs one to keep watching to see just what the hell is happening, and the show maintained that approach to storytelling for its entire run. Nearly every episode starts with a trippy, puzzling sequence of imagery, sans dialogue, that begs you to sort it out and pulls you into that chapter like any great opening line of a well-written story.

Just one of the many vibrant and initially enigmatic images
seen in an episode's opening sequence. Such intros became
a hallmark of the show, and acted almost as primers to get
us viewers' brains warmed up.
These days, if you ask people who watch TV what the best shows of the 21st century are, chances are that Breaking Bad will be, along with The Sopranos and The Wire, among their top five. After working my way through the entire series again, I can certainly see why. While someone could nitpick here and there, the show was the work of meticulous story craft and visual tale-telling. Although it is a serious commitment to watch nearly 50 hours of an entire series, I won't be surprised if, some years down the line, I fire it all up again for a third go-round. I simply cannot come up with higher praise than that.

On a more general side note, I'm thrilled to be in a time when certain networks in the U.S., most notably HBO, AMC, and FX, have finally figured out that the greatest shows do not need to run in indefinite perpetuity, until the profits start to sag. When one looks at what most people consider the very best TV shows of this "Golden Age of Television," one notices how they had a relatively short lifespan: roughly fifty to sixty episodes. That's all. And now we're even seeing shows like Fargo, which is constructed into mostly stand-alone seasons comprised of a tight, expertly crafted ten episodes. We TV viewers are in a great spot if more networks continue to follow the example set out by shows like Breaking Bad and its brethren.