Breaking Bad: Too Good

November 30, 2011 in Best Of, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Reviews, Shows by pacejmiller

The unfortunate thing about American cable television is that certain shows, certain utterly brilliant shows, can get lost in the mix in foreign countries, relegated to expensive local cable channels (only 6.8% of Aussies have cable), late night slots nobody knows about, or obscure digital stations with little to no advertising and about two seasons too late.  You could always browse the DVD store, but with so many shows out there, just how do you separate them without some serious research?

I recently watched all four seasons of Breaking Bad (the fifth and final season is due next year), undoubtedly one of the best dramas I have seen in years, if not ever.  Shockingly, I had never even heard of the multiple award-winning show until a friend of mine and I were discussing how important it was to have a ‘good concept’ when trying to write a script (we used to think witty dialogue was enough — damn you Tarentino!).  And as soon as he mentioned the story of Breaking Bad – an underachieving chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer and turns to making and selling crystal meth with a drop kick former student in order to provide for his family, with his DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) brother-in-law hot on his trail — I was hooked.

Bryan Cranston in season one

I’m not sure if Breaking Bad is the type of show I would have appreciated in my youth.  It is filled with tension and keeps you on the edge of your seat, but in a slow, insidious kind of way unlike the ‘pure adrenaline rush’ shows (such as say 24 and the first season of Prison Break).  It’s a drama but the unexpected black comedy keeps making me laugh out loud, while the grotesque violence and depravity keeps making me squirm.  It grabs you in with this compelling idea and pulls you deeper and deeper into the world of drug dealing and the horrific impact it has on the lives of everyone around it.  Creator Vince Gilligan said he wanted to follow a character as he gradually descends from a morally upstanding person into a total badass.  And after four seasons, Breaking Bad‘s protagonist Walt is well on his way.

Walt may have gone into meth making because of the purest of intentions — but because of the constant lies and deceit, the dark (and darker) moral decisions and judgments he is forced to make, combined with a massively suppressed ego that is finally released — he finds himself regularly pushing the boundaries and crossing lines you could never have imagined him crossing at the beginning of the show (or even a season ago).  And yet, despite who he is and who he has become, deep down you still find yourself rooting for Walt, which is really at the heart of what makes Breaking Bad so freaking good.

I love this poster of the 'breaking bad' Walter

The show is brilliantly constructed from top to bottom, inside out.  The quality scripts produced by American writers on such shows never cease to amaze me.  Sometimes hilarious, sometimes horrifying, always riveting.  The direction and the pacing are measured, allowing the story to unfold in a deliberate fashion.  The use of cinematography is probably the best I’ve seen in any TV show.

But of course, the show would not be where it is without the characters and the actors portraying them.   Bryan Cranston (prior to Breaking Bad, best known as the dad in Malcolm in the Middle, though I was stunned to discover that he was actually smug dentist Tim Whatley in Seinfled!) deservedly won three consecutive Emmys for his astonishing portrayal of protagonist Walter White (and it probably would have been four straight had the scheduling not precluded the show from this year’s Emmys).

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Cranston grabs the spotlight with his award-winning performance, which makes people forget how magnificent and equally irreplaceable Aaron Paul is as the insufferable yet lovable Jesse Pinkman.  I’m glad to see Paul, whose character was almost killed off in the first couple of episodes, be rewarded with an Emmy of his own in 2010.

This drug-making duo drives the show, but every key supporting character, from Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and disabled son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and sister-in-law Marie (Betsy Brandt), is multi-dimensionally crafted.  And what about sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk)?  Everybody has their own motives, weaknesses and demons.  Special mention has to go out to Walt’s boss and intellectual equal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who absolutely ignited the screen in season four.  It’s not often that all the core characters from a show are this interesting, dynamic and ever-evolving.

And now we wait for the final season, season five, which is reportedly going to be 16 episodes (season one had seven episodes, and seasons two through four each had 13).  I for one am eager to see where the show heads after the way season four ended.  Will Walt keep falling deeper and deeper or will he try to turn back around (if he can)?  What will happen to his explosive love-hate relationship with Pinkman?  Will Skyler become an official part of the family business?  And will Hank finally realise the man he’s after has been right beside him all along?

In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about an idea for a TV show.  It’s about a meth cooker who, after discovering that his cancer has been cured, decides to quit to become a high school chemistry teacher.  I think it’ll be a winner.

Arrested Development is coming back, baby!

October 3, 2011 in Entertainment, Misc by pacejmiller

I think I just blew my mind.  I just hope they haven’t made a big mistake.

In by far the best entertainment news I have heard this year (celeb photo scandals included), one of my favourite shows of all time, Arrested Development, is coming back to the small and will eventually reach the big screen!  In a shock twist, series creator Mitch Hurwitz announced (at the 2011 New Yorker Festival) after years of speculation that the show (which was cancelled in 2006 after three critically successful but commercially unsuccessful seasons) will not only have the big screen send-off foreshadowed by executive producer/narrator Ron Howard in the series finale, but it will also have a 10 episode run in the lead-up to the film to bring everyone up to speed.  It might even be an episode per character.

Yes!  Ten full episodes and a full length feature film!  Every member of the original Bluth family will be back!

The goal is now apparently to start shooting them all together next US summer for an early 2013 release.  Let the new speculations begin.  Will it finally happen as planned?  What will the film and the episodes be about?  Which recurring characters will be returning?  And most of all, will the magic remain alive?

Like many AD fans, I arrived late to the party, having only discovered this utterly brilliant show after its short-lived three-season run.  To me, it’s the most genius comedy series since Seinfeld, and it was a criminal shame that it never really found widespread acceptance until it was too late.  This new series and film will hopefully reward old fans and new fans alike.

My own personal wishlist?  At least one Gob (Will Arnett) ‘Final Countdown’ sequence.  An ‘Analrapist’ reference or two.  Steve Holt!  Franklin ‘It ain’t easy being white!’ Bluth.  And of course, Barry Zuckerkorn, Lucille 2 and my own personal favourite, Bob Loblaw (‘You don’t need double talk!’).  Annyong, Ann ‘Her?’ Veal, Kitty ‘Spring Break’ Sanchez, Carl Weathers — the list goes on and on.

I am super excited but also slightly wary.  The three seasons of AD was something truly special, and the lack of attention it received certainly played to its advantage.  Will this return stuff things up, or will it add to it?  Either way, I can’t wait to see.

PS: Interestingly, fans were blaming Michael Cera (who plays George Michael Bluth and was present at the announcement) for the delays in the film getting made, but as Hurwitz explained, it was actually an inside joke that got out of hand and that Cera had always been in it from the start.

The Award-Winning Book and the Ghost Writer

July 27, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, On Writing, Social/Political Commentary by pacejmiller

[Update: 12 November 2011 -- Anh Do's new book, 'The Littlest Refugee' is coming out and this ghostwriting controversy is still around.  According to Do, the book's publisher Allen & Unwin hired a proofreader to compare the manuscript Do wrote against the one written by Visontay, and found that less than 10% of Visontay's sentences were used.  This was used to support the notion that Do rewrote the book from scratch.  The question is, of the remaining 90%, how much contains revised or reworked sentences?  But in any case, does that really mean anything?  I'm sure any writer in Do's position would feel they put in enough time and effort to have the right to consider the book their own.  Ghostwriter assistance or not.]

Ghost-written celebrity memoirs and autobiographies are like farts in a wind storm — nobody really cares and nobody gets hurt.  It’s more of a surprise to discover that a celebrity has put in some actual effort into a book that bears their name.

Anyway, I was reading the paper this morning and saw that The Happiest Refugee, a best-selling memoir about comedian Anh Do’s life, picked up three awards at the Australian Book Industry Awards, including the 2011 Book of the Year (and also Newcomer of the Year and Biography of the Year).  Note that the awards are not based on literary merit but rather on sales and impact on the industry.

Interestingly, the article wasn’t a celebration of Do’s achievements — it was really about how the original manuscript was penned by a ghost writer, Michael Visontay, who worked as a senior editor with a couple of major national newspapers.

My initial reaction was one of shock, wondering how someone could accept three book awards, including the biggest one, when someone else had written it.  My guess is that this was the exact reaction sought by the article, which then went on to clarify that, according to the publisher Allen & Unwin, the actual book that won the awards was written by Do and bore no resemblance to the original manuscript handed to them by Visontay.  In any case, the CEO of the Australian Publishers Association (APA) stated that ghost-written books are allowed to win at the Awards (which I don’t agree with, or at least the ghost-writer ought to share the award).

Fair enough.  But there was more to the article that made me curious.  First of all, Allen & Unwin claimed that a ghost writer was initially employed because Do said he simply didn’t have the time to write the book.  However, after he saw Visontay’s manuscript, he suddenly ‘found’ time to rewrite the whole thing because he wanted it to be in his own voice.

Nonetheless, Visontay will still receive royalties from the book ‘as a gesture of good faith’.  Ghost writers usually charge a flat fee or a percentage of royalties or a combination of both — but all this would be stipulated in the contract from the outset.  It seems a little strange to me that Visontay is getting royalties, not because he is contractually entitled to them, but because the publisher felt generous, when allegedly very little of his manuscript made it into the book.

Secondly, Do’s remarks in an interview and what he wrote in the acknowledgements section in the book seemed to contradict each other.  In explaining the ghost writer situation, Do said:

‘Basically, this guy interviewed me and transcribed the interviews and it just really, really helped me.  They sent … all these interviews transcribed and it was lots of me talking and I have used that, and then wrote the book from that.  The book, the finished product, is nothing like the manuscript, the transcription given to me.’

Is Do saying that Visontay’s manuscript was no more than a transcription of a series of interviews with him?  I’m sure he did more than just that as a ghost writer, but let’s for argument’s sake assume he didn’t do a whole lot more than that.

But then, in the acknowledgements section of the book, Do wrote: ‘To my friend Michael Visontay, who taught me how to write a book and and helped me with structure and form.’

So what the heck did Visontay do on this book?  Did he interview Do and transcribe the interviews?  As the ghost writer, it would make no sense if he didn’t.  Did Do write the book from the transcriptions or Visontay’s manuscript or are they one and the same?  How much did Visontay help out on this book?  Was the acknowledgement a reference to Visontay’s manuscript or was it suggesting that Visontary physically helped him in the writing process?  And is he just ‘some guy’ or a ‘friend’?  Does it really matter?

To make this mystery even more compelling, Visontay said he did not wish to comment on the matter.

Mmm…smells fishy to me.

I guess the attribution of authorship is always a tricky area.  Just how much work does one need to put in before they go from ‘contributor’ to ‘author’?

Famous short story writer Raymond Carver’s works were brought under the spotlight in the late 90s, when it was revealed that his editor Gordon Lish had made significant changes to Carver’s works, including slashing up to half the word count, changing titles, characters, adding sentences, changing endings, tone and style — the style which Carver is well-known for.  That doesn’t make Carver a fraud, but it does raise some interesting questions.

When I read Andre Agassi’s riveting autobiography Open, I was amazed by how well it was written, only to discover that the grunt work was done by a Pulitzer-winning ghost writer, JR Moehringer, whom Agassi warmly acknowledged at the end of the book.  In that case, Moehringer interviewed Agassi, transcribed them, then created a narrative with them, which Agassi then worked on with him to shape into the finished product.  No one made much of a fuss over the fact that only Agassi’s name was on the cover, a decision Moehringer helped Agassi make.

Ultimately, it’s probably still a fart in a wind storm.  After all, Jessica Watson’s True Spirit, the book that was published supernaturally quick after the teen sailed solo around the world (I personally never understood all the hoopla, to be honest), won General Non-Fiction Book of the Year.  Hard to imagine she didn’t get a lot of help with getting that one into shape.

Big Sports Day: Klitschko beats Haye, Djoker beats Rafa, I exercise

July 4, 2011 in Boxing, Entertainment, Misc, Sport, Tennis by pacejmiller

Djokovic eats some grass after winning Wimbledon

Yesterday was a big sports day for me.  The biggest heavyweight boxing match in years, Wladimir Klitschko vs David Haye, took place in Germany, while the biggest tennis match of the year, the men’s Wimbledon final between Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, took place in England.  I even played some casual basketball (club game cancelled) and went for a walk.  Big sports day for all of us.

(click on ‘more’ for random thoughts)

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What the crap is going on?

June 30, 2011 in Blogging, Entertainment, Misc, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

So I get up this morning and, as I do on most days, check my email — and I’m shocked to see there are hundreds of unread emails that aren’t spam!  Turns out, my post on The 20 Most Rewatchable Movies of All-Time was ‘freshly pressed’ on WordPress (whatever that means).  All I know is that a lot of people have been reading it, liking it and commenting on it.

This is a humble little site that gets around 1000 hits a day, so I sincerely thank everyone for visiting and taking their time to comment, even if it’s just to say it’s the worst piece of crap they have ever come across.

I don’t have time to respond to each comment, so what I’ve done is reconsider my list based on the comments made and made an addition list of films that probably should have made the list (maybe not top 20, but on some list measuring rewatchability) but I missed for whatever reason.  Here’s another 30 super rewatchable films, in no particular order.

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