Movie Review: “Amour” (Michael Haneke, France/Germany/Austria 2012)

Amour won the National Society of Film Critics Best Picture award and seemingly every foreign-language film award there was for 2012. While Michael Haneke’s last film, Das weiße Band – Eine deutsche Kindergeschichte (Germany/Austria/France/Italy 2009) was a pretentious, lackluster effort, his Cache (France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA 2005) was a truly excellent film. As a result, I went into Amour expecting the best film of the year. Sure, 2012 was not a phenomenal year—I still see Looper (Rian Johnson, USA/China 2012), an excellent film that would not rank in the top 20 of the last decade, as the clear best film of the year—but it still had a number of strong films, and I was expecting that Amour could be the masterpiece that the year was sorely missing.

I think Haneke came up a bit short, but he did provide quite a good film that was simply missing some special piece of originality to put it over the top.

Amour is about the inherent selfishness of love, a point which it makes through the tale of an elderly married couple dealing with the wife’s strokes and subsequent illness by retreating into a wretched, disgusting existence that they hide from the outside world until eventually the husband commits an ultimate act of both love and selfishness. It’s a powerful, evocative plot and well-constructed as a narrative, and it makes the point quite clearly. Haneke is a bit too interested in telling his story and allows some meanderings away from his point, but he stays focused well enough that it’s not a major problem.

We watch Anne deteriorate and Georges respond by trying to take care of her but as a result retreating from the rest of the world, as much because of his own desires as because of hers. She becomes physically and psychologically destroyed, left bedridden and delirious and with no will to live. George is willing to accede to her wishes that she not go to the hospital and play the music she wants, but he cannot accept her desire to die and selfishly keeps her alive until he cannot stand it any longer and then smothers her as she fights against him what little she can. It’s a painful story, and Haneke does not hide just how horrendous her deterioration is or how much Georges is affected by it, highlighted by a painful scene as Georges uses his wife’s unwillingness to return to the hospital to try to force her to eat when she is refusing in order to hasten her own demise. It’s a tragic and pained love story, the type of love story Hollywood is generally not interested in telling.

Visually, Haneke and cinematographer Darius Khondji provide a film that is rather basic in its style but still effective in what it seeks to do. The couple’s apartment is a bare space with simple dark woods, white walls, and clean, high-key lighting. They don’t play around with any high contrasts or particularly interesting color choices, keeping the backdrop antiseptic in a way that accentuates the emotional power of what is going on between the couple but also does not draw attention to itself. It’s not the most interesting or even the most effective of techniques, but it works well enough that the film can hold up. The problem is that Haneke and Khondji just don’t do anything that makes the film stand out visually, through movement, color, or anything else. It’s oddly dull in that way even though the basic techniques enhance the emotional tone of the film.

As far as the acting, we have a tale of two leads. Emmanuelle Riva is truly riveting as Anne, the wife of our lead couple. As she declines, she loses her ability to express herself clearly, and yet Riva’s performance makes her feelings and situation clear at all times. It’s a triumphant performance, the type that should get far more attention than it did. Meanwhile, the real lead of the film, Jean-Louis Trintignant, is not effective at all as her husband. He’s flat and wooden with no real emotion appearing on his face from start to finish, and it seems all the worse for Riva’s presence. The only supporting role with any kind of substance is Isabelle Huppert’s turn as the couple’s musician daughter. She doesn’t have a ton of screen time or much complexity to play, but she does what she’s given as well as anyone could. Her pained, almost disgusted reaction at Georges locking Anne away during the day adds real pathos to a moment that could easily have been laughably over the top, and she is similarly believable in a restrained fashion in every moment on screen. Not being a lead performance limits what she’s allowed to do a bit but she wrings everything out of what she gets.

All told, this is a very well-made film that has two significant problems: a lack of anything terribly interesting visually and simply being a tough watch. It’s not as much that it’s depressing as that it’s physically and psychologically painful. It’s definitely worth a watch, but it’s not the masterpiece that I was hoping for and it’s a bit of a difficult journey to go through. Looper remains the king of 2012.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Confessions” (05.11, 2013)

Written by Gennifer Hutchison (Previous Episodes: “I See You,” “Cornered,” “Salud,” and “Buyout”)

Directed by Michael Slovis (Previous Episodes: “Kafkaesque,” “Cornered,” and “Live Free or Die”)

 Breaking Bad has typically been a show that has burned slowly, building up tension before explosive bursts of activity. This half-season has been positively teeming with activity compared to the show’s typical beginnings. Yet, this episode was still an explosion along the lines of “Half Measures” back in season three.

We’ve been watching Hank, who is clearly not Heisenberg’s final enemy, build up his case against Walter White and Walt/Heisenberg try to squirrel out of it and Jesse completely self-destruct under the weight of the guilt he feels about everything that’s happened. For the first two hours, that is essentially all that has been happening. We’re waiting for Hank to reveal his discoveries to his superiors, only to have Heisenberg turn the tables with a “confession” where he explains his criminal activities but claims that they were all at Hank’s behest. Then, the self-destructing Jesse still doesn’t flip on Heisenberg but realizes that Heisenberg poisoned Brock last season and heads to the White home seeking revenge. It may have been surprising to see the show have a Walt-Hank confrontation so quickly, but that is nothing compared to the surprise of seeing this much activity at once.

Also for the first time this season, I was completely caught by surprise by one plot turn. We all knew the Hank-Walt confrontation was coming—it was only the timing that was a surprise. We all knew that Lydia was going to do something about Declan’s operation and its falling standards and that somehow Todd was involved. However, Heisenberg’s “confession” was a shock. Equally shocking was how easily the pieces fit together from the outside: The DEA would have no reason to think that Heisenberg’s revelation was false and indeed would see plenty of evidence that it was honest and truthful, including Hank’s behavior in this episode as he pulls the detail off of Jesse rather than explain to Steve why he wants it there in the first place. The book that revealed everything to Hank being in his possession with no chain of evidence would be evidence of an illicit relationship between them just as easily as it is evidence of such a relationship between Walt and Gale. The meth money used to pay for Hank’s rehab is, as Hank says, the final nail in the coffin, but the coffin is pretty well nailed shut even without that bit of evidence. It’s an impressive plan on Heisenberg’s part, because it works so well.

But in spite of all of that and how it seems to put Hank on hold for now (His taking the detail off of Jesse seems to be a signal that, for now, he is backing off.), there are two more important bits of business for the show long-term. The first is, obviously, Jesse’s discovery that Walt poisoned Brock. The second is the less obvious continued development of Todd’s weirdness and ascension in the meth business.

Saul ends up calling the disappearer, as I’ve been expecting, but it’s for Jesse, not Heisenberg. Jesse then discovers that Hule, the seeming klutz bodyguard in Saul’s office, has adeptly lifted his marijuana from his pocket and so has the realization that Hule could have done the same with the mysteriously missing ricin cigarette a season ago. He understandably reacts with some real anger, stealing Saul’s car and heading to the White home with a can of gasoline, throwing it around the house and screaming.

I re-watched the flash-forward from “Blood Money” to see whether the house showed signs of burning, and I’m not sure whether it does or not. The scene is shot with such low-key lighting and so much grey coloring that I just can’t tell whether the living room is burned out or not. Clearly, the house is still standing and parts of it where burns would be more easily visible do not show any such evidence, but it is ambiguous enough that I cannot be sure that something is going to stop Jesse from lighting that gasoline. He may yet be stopped, but it’s possible, with only one can of gasoline and Heisenberg likely on the way to the house, that he is going to get it started and just not succeed in burning down the house.

The more important question from this scene now is what is going to happen to Jesse. It seems likely, the way this season has gone at such a breakneck pace and just essentially disposed of one antagonist, that we could get a Heisenberg-Jesse confrontation already, and it may well be that Jesse Pinkman does not survive the next episode. For years, I had said that the show would progress to Heisenberg v. Gus, then Heisenberg v. Hank, then end with Heisenberg v. Jesse. I’ve decided that his final battle will not be with Jesse, because the Lydia/Todd group is clearly being built up on more of a slow burn. But that means Jesse is going to have to be out of the way soon, and I think this scene may have made it clear that he’s gone next episode, or maybe two episodes if they really want to draw it out. That of course also means that my prediction for the ending is completely shot, but that doesn’t bother me!

Meanwhile, in the continued adventures of Todd, Weird Boy . . .

Todd goes to a diner with a couple of his and Lydia’s hit men from last episode, one of whom I now notice (I’m not sure if it was visible last time.) has a swastika tattoo that reveals he is probably part of the neo-Nazi group Heisenberg used to get rid of Mike’s guys. He tells them the story of the train robbery, sounding like an excited movie fan more than a participant in a traumatic event that included a ridiculous amount of danger and ended with him killing a child (a part of the story that he does not even mention to his comrades). Then, while the two men ogle a pretty waitress (in a really obvious and somewhat laughable way), he not only does not join in but looks clearly uncomfortable at them doing it. We get another reminder about how cold and unfeeling these men are in a sequence that seems like it belongs in A History of Violence (David Cronenberg, USA/Germany 2005), and yet Todd still seems less human than they are. Just not joining in the ogling wouldn’t say much—he could be gay or asexual or maybe the waitress just wasn’t his type—but his clear discomfort made it appear that there is something else there, something deeper and more troubling.

It was clear from his first moment on screen that there was a long-term plan for Todd and he was not as he appeared—Saul introduced the rest of the pest control team easily but had to check on Todd’s name, and of course he is played by a recognizable TV actor in Jesse Plemons. Is he actually the reason Walter White will return to Albuquerque, needing a machine gun in the trunk?

Visually, this episode was a typically excellent Breaking Bad episode, which is good because Michael Slovis’s previous turns as a director have been a bit weak, not so much because of his direction as because the show misses him as cinematographer. The shot of Walt getting the gun from under the Coke machine and the beautiful low-angle shot of Jesse’s entrance to the White home are enough by themselves to establish this episode as ranking at Breaking Bad’s usual high level, and there’s nothing that really takes away from it.

Overall, this episode was the strongest yet in a brilliant opening to the best television show in history’s swan song, and it threw everything that it seemed like we knew from the first two episodes into doubt. I have a feeling we’re about to get another flash forward to confuse us even further before we see the results of Jesse’s attack on the home, but then things are most definitely happening.

Notes

  • I still wonder if somehow there is a Nazi component to what’s going to happen at the end. We have this neo-Nazi group now involved heavily in the business. Gus was from South America, where many Nazis fled after the Third Reich fell, and Don Eladio said, “I know who you are,” something that still has not been completely cleared up. Madrigal is a German company. That’s a lot of potential Nazi connections.
  • I feel sorry for Hank, paralyzed as he is by Heisenberg. He’s a good man—perhaps the only really good man we’ve seen on this show—and he’s good at his job, and his goodness has completely trapped him.
  • This episode is Aaron Paul’s Emmy submission, right? He’s always great, but that was as good as acting gets.
  • This is the first time Saul has ever gotten roughed up. He had been amazingly able to keep himself out of things physically.
  • So who is more dangerous, Lydia or Todd? Who is more mysterious? Do they have time to give us any definition of either character?
  • Is every meal scene on this show unbelievably tense? I don’t think this one was as bad as the Heisenberg-Jesse-Skyler scene we had before (or even the old Walt-Gretchen meal scene), but it definitely had more than its share of tension. And the overly enthusiastic waiter’s repeated arrivals were hilarious.
  • This show is always great, but seriously this episode was a wow episode—best we’ve seen since “Box Cutter?”

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Buried” (05.10, 2013)

Written by Thomas Schnauz (Previous Episodes: “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Shotgun,” “Bug,” “End Times,” and “Say My Name”)

Directed by Michelle McLaren (Previous Episodes: “4 Days Out,” “I.F.T.,” “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Shotgun,” “Salud,” “Madrigal,” and “Gliding over All”)

 One of the elements of Breaking Bad that has always been unusual (perhaps even unique) is its preoccupation with its own future. The show has often been structured as teasing a surprising future and then slowly building up to it from a present that seems to have little in common with it. It gives the show a remarkable amount of tension when we are actually locked into the present tense, as we are usually concerned with connecting present events to the future that we know is coming than as much as we are with following the present. Season five has been even more extreme than usual in this sense, since it began with that teaser in the diner and began its second half (last week’s episode) with another teaser set seemingly just after the diner scene.

This episode, while it certainly still plays under the spectre of those teasers, is far more focused on the present than we have seen lately. It’s exploring the aftermath of the Walt/Hank confrontation and Jesse’s continued depression.

We begin with a beautifully-shot sequence as a man comes out of his lower-class home to discover a number of bundles of money—clearly the money Jesse was throwing out his window—and then wanders into a park where a strange light hits a children’s bar dome and it really looks like the dome is an alien spaceship that has landed. I don’t know if that was just me or if that was an intentional homage to Vince Gilligan’s previous show, The X-Files, but it added to the mysterious, foreboding feeling of the entire sequence. When it turns out that Jesse crashed his car into a swing set (or parked it in front of it, but it appeared to me to be touching the set) in the park and is currently on a merry-go-round, absent-mindedly spinning himself in circles. It’s a great image that makes the sequence tolerable and perhaps tells us that the show knows that it’s currently spinning its wheels with Jesse’s plot and also reminds us that Michelle McLaren is perhaps the most talented regular director the show has.

Then, we watch as Hank and Walt race to Skyler to find evidence. Hank knows he doesn’t have enough to make an arrest and Walt, with an assist from Saul, knows that his money is the only tangible evidence Skyler has. So, Skyler unwittingly keeps Hank busy as Saul and Walt dispose of his money, with Walt burying it quietly in the desert.  The sequence is interesting as the wife-turned-accomplice Skyler unwittingly becomes Walt’s accomplice in another way and also gets trapped in a bizarre situation where Hank presents her with a way out of the situation but she is unsure whether it’s a plausible way out and has no idea what she should do. Just a few months ago, she was waiting for Walt’s cancer to come back to kill him and get her out of this, and now she’s unwilling to this way out.

The scene between Hank and Skyler is also just a beautiful scene, watching as Hank attempts to manipulate Skyler into making a statement, the angry cop in him having taken over for the brother-in-law and Skyler’s mental wheels just start spinning so quickly and crazily that she cannot answer. She’s tough enough and smart enough to stand up to Hank’s manipulations and see them for what they are, and Hank is shocked to discover that. However, he also does want to help her out, and the cop manipulation has ruined any possibility of doing that. She leaves the meeting responding to him as though he is just any other officer, not her brother in law, asking repeatedly, “Am I under arrest?”

However, perhaps the most important part of that scene is the revelation that Skyler had not heard about Walt’s cancer. He passes out in the bathroom in front of her later and tells her that it’s true that the cancer is back, asking her, “Does that make you happy?” She responds negatively, and there is just a hint of a smirk on Walt’s face as his prediction back when she wished for the return of his cancer that Skyler would change her mind about him has come true. At this point, Skyler seems to be in Walt’s corner, which of course brings to mind the question of why Walt and Skyler seem to be apart again in the future.

However, other things are in motion on this show. Lydia meets with Declan, the dealer who took over Heisenberg’s operation on his retirement, to try to fix the declining quality, and we finally see a bit of why Mike warned the other guys about Lydia: when Declan refuses to re-hire Todd, whom he fired for apparently no reason after he provided a couple of decent-but-far-short-of-Heisenberg cooks, she has a rival gang bring Todd in and kill him. Lydia is a strange mix of coldheartedness and unwillingness to get her hands dirty, and that’s never been more perfectly depicted than her walking across the desert in high heels surrounded by dead bodies whose murder she ordered with her eyes closed so that she doesn’t see them. I’m increasingly confused by Lydia’s character, and I’m really not sure that she’s anything more than a plot point. Her personality may be whatever the show needs for its plot rather than something cohesive, which would be a shame for a show that has always stayed character focused as well as this show has. I’m willing to give Gilligan & Co. the benefit of the doubt about pretty much anything at this point, but we really need to get more development of her by the end for her to make any sense.

There isn’t much to say about Michelle McLaren—she’s incredible and this is one of the best-looking episodes of television you can ever seen. The opening sequence is something a film could be proud of, let alone a tv show, and everywhere throughout the lighting, camera movement, and use of color is just perfect.

At this point, I feel good about the direction the show is headed—it looks like we’re really building to a false climax with Hank but the wheels are already in motion for Walt’s disappearance and the final confrontation. The first two episodes of this final mini-season are excellent.

It feels like we’re still headed toward the same ending as it felt like last week, though now we have some complicating factors that should make the trip a bit spicier: Jesse being in custody, Todd being brought back into the operation when he had been thrown out as untrustworthy, etc.

Notes

  • Laura Fraser’s accent has gotten much better as time has gone on. In her early appearances, it was sometimes distracting, but either I’ve just gotten used to it or it has improved.
  • Marie slapping Skyler and trying to take the baby was actually a surprise to me.
  • Skyler has essentially taken Walt’s side against Hank now. Will that turn the tide of the virulent anti-Skyler crowd online? I actually have lost some respect for her throughout season five, as she has joined in with Walt far too easily, and that continues to this point.
  • Anna Gunn and Dean Norris, probably the two actors who’ve receive the least attention in the show’s amazing cast, were amazing in this episode. The diner scene (This show has a lot of those!) was just a beautiful piece of acting that almost reminded me of the argument between Orson Welles and George Coulouris in Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, USA 1941)—a scene that will always be a gold-standard scene for confrontational acting for me.
  • There’s still a weird cloud around Todd as a character. He seems to be a psychopath (I mean that in the clinical sense.), but is that why everyone treats him differently? It doesn’t exactly seem to be a characteristic too terribly out of the norm in Breaking Bad’s meth world.
  • Lydia is clearly going to be the final villain at the end, so there should be plenty of opportunity to establish her character further. I just hope they don’t get so wrapped up in plot that they forget to do it.