BREAKING BAD

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By R. david

There have been enough farewell pieces written on “Breaking Bad” over the last few weeks to fill an encyclopedic volume.  Vince Gilligan’s chemistry-teacher-with-cancer-turned-meth-dealer-and-drug-kingpin drama ends its six-year run tonight as such a beloved pop culture phenomenon that there is little I can say about the series that hasn’t been said a thousand times.  I could tell you how much I love the series, speculate on how the journey of Walter White will end, or sing the praises of the show’s extremely talented ensemble cast and brilliant team of writers and directors.  Indeed, even if you ignore all the breathlessly gripping drama the show has provided throughout its stellar run, looked at simply on a technical level, “Breaking Bad” has been a Master class in how to conceive a series.  Every plot point and every scene feels meticulously planned-out; every shot fussed over for maximum impact.  So, with nothing left to say that hasn’t already been said and that you don’t already know, I will simply write – share my (disorganized) thoughts on the show and bid it farewell – and see where I end up.

First and foremost I want to say that I have been watching “Breaking Bad” each week since its very first episode. I’m the kind of TV viewer who reads a bunch of reviews of a new show and typically sets my DVR based on which ones sound the most interesting and are getting the most critical kudos.  Watching a show from the very beginning is an important distinction for several reasons.  First, the wait between episodes – and between seasons – not only gives a viewer time to digest each plot development and the ramifications of the characters’ actions, but it also forces you to wait for closure from episode to episode and season to season, allowing suspense and excitement to build.

The anticipation of a favorite show’s season premiere is one of the best feelings in the world as far, as I’m concerned.

In this day and age of social media and binge-viewing though, audiences are increasingly coming into TV series several seasons into their runs, and mainly because enough of their friends have Tweeted about them or mentioned them in a Facebook status.  Then they gorge on the show, burning through every season in a matter of weeks, intent to catch up so they too can be part of the discussion.

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I’m not saying anyone who didn’t watch “Breaking Bad” (or any other series) live and from the get-go isn’t entitled to watch simply because they don’t pay attention to all the new shows coming down the pike each season, or that they can’t develop a sincere love and appreciation for a series simply because they discovered it late into its run.  But I believe it is impossible to fully grasp all the heavy themes and strategic nuances of a show like “Breaking Bad” when simply bouncing from one episode to the next.

Similarly it seems there is a large portion of this show’s fan base that is solely in it for the shocking surprises.  There are a lot of series out there that are hits and people confuse with quality drama simply because they have the ability to shock their audience.  But these shows – and their viewers – typically confuse melodrama and emotionally manipulative and exploitive theatrics with actual drama.  They lack any sort of subtlety or profundity.  These shows may feel profound because they are beating you over the head with their themes and manage to push your buttons on a visceral level – thus forcing you to take notice – but there is nothing beneath the surface of their shock tactics (“Sons of Anarchy”, I’m looking at you).

The beauty of a show like “Breaking Bad”, one which understands the true dynamics of drama and has the courage and determination to dole out its surprises sparingly so they are that much more impactful, is that it balances methodical character studies with shocking resolutions that often exceed the audiences expectations or suspected outcomes.  If you are simply staying tuned to the show for the next mind-blowing sight gag (like when half of Gus Fring’s face gets blown off), the next big shoot-out, daring escape, double cross, or waiting to see which major character will die next; you’re largely missing the point and robbing yourself of all the amazing narrative intricacies “Breaking Bad” has to offer.

On “Breaking Bad” the “big” moments are generally secondary to how the show and its characters arrived at them and the burning question of what will happen next.  Gilligan and has writers have been masters of confounding and exceeding expectations throughout the show’s run.  And not simply with gimmicky last-minute twists.  Full episodes and entire seasons have played out differently than anyone would have predicted based on where the previous episode left off.  The series has always been a game of chess writ large; and like chess, each episode has been composed of intricate moves and veiled motivations.

To put it more succinctly, you simply can not grasp the full, labyrinthine structure and symbolism of “Breaking Bad” if you’re blazing through the show one episode after another, or are only appreciating it as a surface-level, face-value drama.  That you certainly could still find plenty of entertainment value in the series on that basic, tenuous level is a testament to Gilligan’s genius; but (at the risk of sounding like some sort of hipster, elitist snob) you’d be missing – depriving yourself of – the big picture.

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I say all this to make the point that there are certain shows that deserve to be viewed – enjoyed – as the medium of television intended; with space between each episode to let the themes and ideas breath and resonate.  The true beauty of this series has been in the suspense generated by every decision its protagonists have made.  “Breaking Bad” recognizes there is a cause and effect for everything – every decision, every action.  The show isn’t afraid to take the time to explore this, never glossing over the ramifications of a character’s choices simply to get to the next big dramatic moment for impatient eyeballs.

The exploration of these characters’ decisions and the morality of those choices are what creates the drama, unlike many shows which create drama to give its characters motivation.

That may seem like a slight distinction, but it is what sets truly great drama – great character studies – apart from the pack.  Sure there are plenty of terrific and entertaining dramas that provide a lot of excitement and enjoyment without offering intricate or ambitious narrative structures; and they don’t have the lofty ambition to tell a contained, streamlined tale for exactly the number of episodes required to do and then ride off into the sunset victoriously.  For most series the goal is to run as long as possible and each season to find new and interesting ways to keep its characters coming back for more.  You can do that with a show like “24”, for instance.  Each season can convincingly and entertainingly offer a new threat for Jack Bauer – and for audiences, as long as their hero returns and continues to satisfyingly dole out justice and the terrorist plots continues to surprise and keep viewers on the edge of their seats, they will be happy.  The same can be said for procedurals like “Law & Order”.  They are not automatically devoid of great drama simply because they move from case to case, week to week, season to season.  But even though a show like “Law & Order” is capable of stirring emotions from time to time or creating suspense, these procedurals are by necessity less about their characters than they are about the story of the week.  You could go five seasons without a major change in the characters lives, save for the writers changing who a character is dating or giving one of them a cancer subplot or something (one of the things that made “NYPD Blue” so spectacular was that while it followed the procedural format to a degree, it was first and foremost about its characters – how their jobs effected their lives and how the choices they made in their lives effected their attitudes and decisions on the job).

But Gilligan’s goal was never to keep “Breaking Bad” on the air as long as possible, despite the fact that it became a huge success and no doubt a cash cow for all involved.  By focusing specifically on one chapter of these characters’ lives, Gilligan has been able to tell a contained tale which allows him to fully explore each character, their every motivation, their every decision and every consequence that results.  He does not have to keep a handful of them around in his back pocket in case the series runs for 10 or 15 years.  He does not have to render Walter White untouchable simply because he is the series’ star, or keep coming up with contrived ways to bring him and Jesse Pinkman back together because he knows their dynamic is a real crowd-pleaser.  By plotting out a clear and concise end game and setting a specific end date, Gilligan has afforded himself the opportunity to see his vision through the way he sees fit, developing all the angles Walter White’s choices have wrought, not skimping on symbolism or poetic parallels (see this seasons episode entitled “Ozymandias”) or even the occasional self-contained episode that serves as an window into a character’s true motivations or unraveling psyche (see “Fly”).  A more traditionally mounted or less assured drama would never make the time for these episodic journeys and details.

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All journeys must come to an end though.  But fans can go into “Breaking  Bad’s” finale confident that – however it ends – it will not only be on Gilligan’s terms, but will be satisfying in a way that no show with the goal of staying on the air as long as possible could ever hope to be.  “Breaking Bad” has not had to survive cast departures or changes in writers and creative team, thus forcing the show in different directions or away from its original vision.  Any changes or additions to this series have been purely by design. So the show exists with its initial vision intact.

Whatever fans’ opinions of tonight’s finale, they will be getting the ending the show has been steadily building to for five seasons, unmolested.  And on TV, that is a very rare and very exciting thing.

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(Images courtesy of AMC)

Random Thoughts:

– Since it is customary, I suppose, to take a crack at how a series will end in a farewell piece, I’ll offer my (rather vague) theory on how “Breaking Bad” will rap up –  but let me say I don’t have many specific thoughts on the matter, for one thing because I generally don’t like to think too much about such things and just let the episode(s) unfold; but in this case, Gilligan and his writers have constantly surprised me by going against conventions and expectations that it’s really anyone’s guess at this point how things will rap up for Walter White. Most of the theories/questions seem to center around whether or not Walt get his revenge against the latest cartel that has him under their thumb and/or his former business partners at Grey Matter, if he will get all that money to his family somehow, will he die, and if so, how?  If I had to guess, I’d say Walt (and we, the audience who has a routing interest in some sort of redemption or happy ending for him, despite knowing he deserves his comeuppance) will score a minor victory – or at least achieve some satisfaction – by taking revenge on either the cartel or his former partners or both.  But this will ultimately change nothing.  I think he will remain alienated from his family and be unable to get them the money he so desperately wanted for them – that he sold his soul for – in the beginning.  He will succumb to his cancer and die alone (or be seen limping off into exile) with tons of money but no way to spend it or to get it to his family.  Or maybe he’ll go out in a blaze of glory, or maybe Jesse will put him down.  Either way, Walter White will be dead and everyone caught up in his web will be worse off than they began when Walt received his cancer diagnosis, the complete opposite of his intentions going into all this.  And that’s the lesson.  I’m not even going to speculate on the fate of the other characters because I’m sure Gilligan will deal us a heavy blow where at least a few of them are concerned.

– Though its been said, I also just want to point out how terrific this series has been in terms of character development – overall (hell, look at Jesse Pinkman – somewhere in here is an uplifting drama about a screw-up becoming a better person and realizing his full potential; but that would be a much more traditional, predictable show) – but certainly in exploring the evolution of Walter White.  From where we first met him in season one, to his introduction to the drug trade, to his transformation into Heisenberg, to his attempts to go back to the man he was before all this, and somehow balance both sides of his personality and both his desire to hold his family together as well as succeed as a ruthless drug kingpin, Gilligan has done a miraculous job conceiving and developing this character, and of course Bryan Cranston has proven to be a revelation of dramatic intensity and fluidity in bringing the character to life.

– I will never not find it fascinating that FX passed on “Breaking Bad” because the network felt they “already had too many anti-heroes” with their series like “The Shield”, “Rescue Me”, and “Nip/Tuck”.  True enough, but they certainly had niche at the time, and what’s one more?  “The Shield” and “Rescue Me” are two of the best dramas of the last decade – perhaps of all time – “Breaking Bad would have fit snuggly in with them.

– There has been a lot of talk about whether or not “Breaking Bad” is the greatest show of all time.  This is a loaded and impossible question because not only does the answer come down to a matter of individual opinion, but there are simply too many great shows and too many variables to consider to determine such a thing.  For my money, “Breaking Bad” is certainly in the Top 10, but I don’t think it is the greatest show of all time.  Off the top of my head, “NYPD Blue”, “The Shield”, “Rescue Me”, “24” and “The Wire” give “Bad” a run for its money – all for different personal reasons.  I won’t get into them all here, because I’d be here forever, but f you’d like to hear or challenge them, take it up with me on Twitter @TheWireWriters.

PRISONERS

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By R. David

“Prisoners” is as dark, bleak, and moody a film as you’re likely to see this year.  The story of two young girls who are abducted on Thanksgiving in broad daylight and a father’s quest to find them, “Prisoners” takes its tonal inspirations from similarly harrowing dramas involving children like Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” and Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone”.  In his American feature film debut, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve even recalls David Fincher’s “Zodiac” in that “Prisoners” is as much of a slow-burning manhunt movie – even a quasi-horror film at times – as it is a missing-child drama.

“Prisoners” stars Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a small-town Pennsylvania carpenter with a survivalist streak (he tells his son that the best advice his father ever gave him was to always be prepared for impending doom, and he stockpiles food and energy rations in his basement accordingly).  On a rainy Thanksgiving, he and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), teenage son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and young daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), walk up the street the home of their friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch.  After dinner, Anna asks her parents if she and the Birch’s daughter can go outside and play together, a seemingly mundane request.  In fact, the biggest fear of any of the parents is that the girls make sure to wear a hat.  Time passes, the little girls don’t return home, and the parents begin to panic.  Ralph mentions seeing a creepy looking RV parked up the street that is no longer there.  Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki – a lone-wolf type who has never left a case unsolved – quickly finds the RV, but there is no sign of either girl inside.  The RV’s driver, Alex Jones (Paul Danno), appears to be the abductor – and is certainly strange and squirrely enough to cast vast suspicion upon himself – but Loki discovers he still lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo) and has the IQ of a 10 year-old, making his ability to commit and then cover up such a crime highly unlikely.  With no physical evidence to tie Jones to the missing girls or to hold him against, Loki sets him free and pursues other leads.  Keller Dover, however, is convinced of Jones’ guilt, and the question for much of the remainder of the film becomes how far Keller will go to find his daughter; and by extension, how far would the viewer go if placed in a similar situation.

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That is a bare-bones summary of “Prisoners”, which makes it sound like any average episode of “Criminal Minds” or “Law & Order: SVU”, but the film is far more layered than its procedural-of-the-week plotline suggests on the surface.  “Prisoners” not only tackles the more shopworn elements of its story from unique angles – providing narrative surprises and circumventing audience expectations at several turns – but like the aforementioned “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone”, “Prisoners” doesn’t simply exploit its terrifying (for any parent) premise for cheap thrills or heroics, but rather mines the subject matter for its full potential as a character study and moral exploration.

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Credit must first and foremost go to the terrific actors.  We’ve long been able to count on Hugh Jackman for giving a convincing performance, but he is a revelation here.  As Keller, Jackman is a ball of vengeful rage and desperation; it’s unlike anything he has done in his career to this point.   A face-off scene in Gyllenhaal’s car between the two men plays like an Oscar consideration reel – and I mean that in the best possible way – it’s an amazing scene; intense, evocative, effective and completely authentic.  Not to be outdone, Gyllenhaal may not have as a showy a role as Jackman, but he is no less compelling as the tightly-wound Loki; always carful to be professional but barely keeping a leash on his simmering mad-dog ferocity.  Paul Danno, with his disheveled look, creepy demeanor and blank-slate face is pretty much every parents’ clichéd, nightmare vision of a child abductor; and the actor is chillingly effective despite having little dialog and no big, flashy moments.

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Director Villeneuve is careful not to go overboard with the dramatics. It would have been easy to incorporate a bunch of melodramatic scenes with lots of speechifying, actors chewing scenery, and a swelling soundtrack.  But Villeneuve goes the minimalist route here; and like, say, Clint Eastwood, he realizes that less is usually so much more.  He doles out the big dramatic sequences intermittently so they actually resonate, rather than simply hammering the audience over the head with the usual beats of a child abduction thriller and lazily counting on all the emotionally manipulative feelings stirred up by the subject to carry the film.  His film sets out to be not just a surface-level drama, mystery, or tearjerker; but to actually challenge the viewer.  Villeneuve forces us to pick sides, and as a result come to terms with our own moral code.

Johan Johannsson’s sparse score – composed primarily eerie drones and slightly off-key strings – is far more evocative and chilling than the customary windy orchestral forshadowing that usually accompanies this type of drama.  Similarly, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is as chilly, grey and bleak as the subject matter.  On nearly every technical level – acting, directing, music, cinematography – “Prisoners” is a Master’s class.

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Where the film unfortunately stumbles is in some of its narrative choices.  The dialog and many of the scenarios, decisions and consequences of those decisions in “Prisoners” often rings uncomfortably true.  But Aaron Guzikowski’s script hits a wall in the film’s final stretch where he seems unsure how to conclude the mystery aspect of the story without drifting into half-baked horror flick territory.  Until this point, Guzikowski’s had been careful to mostly avoid all the pitfalls of the typical kidnapping drama and resist the urge to second guess the audience by providing easy answers or solutions and helpful exposition.  I can’t get into who does and says exactly what without spoilers, but let’s just say it’s a disappointment and rings false and hollow when the bad guy starts revealing their motivations and runs another character through the child-abduction gauntlet for no other reason than to provide the audience with answers; never mind that this all feels forced, unrealistic and tacked-on from a narrative standpoint.  A pat ending doesn’t help either.

And I have to mention this:  Even though I’m a fairly young parent and I was little nervous heading into this film given its subject matter, I must admit, “Prisoners” didn’t quite stir my emotions the way I expected it might.  I’m not sure if that’s my issue or a failing of the film – don’t get me wrong, the movie is powerful and the thought of being placed in this situation is utterly sickening – but as much as I felt for and sympathized with the characters on screen, the film never put me in their shoes.  I never felt what I was watching was anything more than fiction.  Clearly horrible things like this happen all the time and I should be undyingly thankful that it’s not a reality for me (knocks on wood); but the film is lacking that certain something that would make it actually transcendent – not just a story for the audience, but something tangible.  For the first quarter or so of “Prisoners” I didn’t necessarily feel this way – there was palpable sense of tightening dread hanging in the air.  But as the movie further developed as a mystery – an absorbing and extremely well done mystery, admittedly – I found myself less invested in the outcome of the film on a personal level and interested more so on a basic, innate level – as a moviegoer who cares about how the story ends, but not one who feels tethered to the outcome.  Maybe it’s because this film is trying to divide itself evenly as a who-done-it thriller and child-abduction drama, while also asking us to evaluate our own moral code.  That’s a tricky balance for any movie to sustain without lapsing in to the tedious or banal in at least one of its parts.  That “Prisoners” is mostly successful in all of these areas is perhaps a minor miracle.  But it’s possible that trying to be too many different films in one robbed “Prisoners” of some of its punch and contributed to Guzikowski thinking the audience needed that hand-holding finale.

Even considering these relative missteps though, “Prisoners” ranks among the better and more challenging films of the year.  The actors are universally outstanding (especially Jackman), the tone and feel of the film is spot-on, and the tension is never less than nerve-jangling.  Ultimately, “Prisoners” is the kind of movie that will stay with audiences and have them talking about its moral implications and ramifications long after they’ve left the theater.  And that is precisely what great movies should do.

3½ stars out of 4

(Images courtesy of Warner Bros.)

DEXTER

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By R. David

As the Miami sun finally sets on Showtime’s “Dexter” tonight after eight seasons, fans of the drama are being left not with the satisfaction of a beloved series’ culmination, but rather only to ponder how such a terrific series could collapse so entirely over the course of its last few seasons.  The current, final season of “Dexter” has been a true slap in the face to not only fan expectations, but also pesky things like storytelling logic and character development.

It wasn’t always this way though.  When “Dexter” premiered in 2006, it appeared on the television landscape at a time when people were quickly realizing that cable dramas were far superior to the congested slate of rote procedurals being offered by network TV.  Not that there weren’t exceptions – certainly the networks deserve kudos for giving us the likes of “24” and “Lost” – but to this day networks routinely cancel bold – but low-rated – experimental fare and shy away from disturbing adult dramas in favor of littering their line-ups with an endless barrage of cop, lawyer, and doctor procedurals each season.  Shows like “Dexter” became the go-to antidote for TV viewers fed-up with the safe banality and predictability of the average network drama.

“Dexter” didn’t exactly blaze a trail for adult cable dramas – HBO had already been offering decidedly adult dramas for nearly a decade with shows like “The Sopranos” and “Oz”, while basic cable nets like FX (with its flagship drama “The Shield”) began churning out controversial, unflinching dramas of their own in an effort to compete with both the networks and pay-cable outfits – but it jumped on a golden bandwagon at the right time, quickly earning internet buzz and a cult fan base.  The story of the Miami Police Department blood-splatter analyst by day, serial killer by night; “Dexter” ultimately became the series that announced Showtime as a major player in the pay-cable, serialized drama market; finally pulling out from behind HBO’s shadow.  Showtime had tried with varying degrees of success to gain traction for its original dramas in the past, but no series before it drove subscribers to Showtime like “Dexter”.

“Dexter’s” first four seasons were uniformly terrific.  The show wasn’t without its share of pitfalls – from some amateurish performances and occasionally corny dialog, to the plot holes and leaps of logic that often plague these high-concept potboilers.  But other than an irritating character or two and a required suspension of disbelief, if you bought into the world “Dexter” created, the rewards of following the title character’s journey far exceeded any of those criticisms.  Credit first and foremost must go to Michael C. Hall and his tortured portrayal of Dexter Morgan who, as a toddler, saw his mother butchered by a gang of drug dealers.  Taken in and ultimately adopted by Harry Morgan (James Remar, who appears to viewers as the physical embodiment of Dexter’s subconscious), the officer who discovered him with his mother’s body, Dexter grew up suppressing a gestating urge to kill.  To keep Dexter from hurting innocent people and ending up on death row, Harry decided all he could do to protect his son was to nurture his killer instincts by teaching him a code:  Never get caught, Never Kill an innocent person, Be absolutely sure of your victim’s guilt.  Thus, Dexter will satisfy the urges of his “Dark Passenger” as well as keep society safe by hunting down serial killers where the police fail.  Working as a splatter-analyst for the police department gives Dexter the perfect cover for his crimes, as well as access to all the information he needs to hunt down his victims.

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Even with “The Code”, the character of Dexter would come off as nothing more than a vigilante – and this one more questionable than most because he is not seeking revenge on a specific person who hurt him or his loved ones, but rather simply quenching a thirst to kill – were it not for Hall’s sympathetic portrayal of a deeply wounded and confused man, wrestling with the morality of what he is doing.  If Dexter were simply a murderous monster, there would be little to sustain an audience’s rooting interest him; but because he seems capable of redemption and tries to do the right thing and protect people as much as he can, we are willing to forgive him the occasional serial killer murder.  A big part of the show has always been the question of whether or not Dexter is any better than the people he kills.  Each season offered a villain that seemed to answer that question, both for Dexter and for viewers.  Each season also offered potential redemption for Dexter.  Through it all, Hall has convincingly sold the character as someone who is worth following – worth caring about – despite his murderous appetite.

“Dexter’s” early seasons also offered some ingeniously plotted games of cat and mouse between Dexter and the killer he was tracking, as well as between Dexter and his own police department, which also happens to include his adoptive sister and best friend, Debra Morgan (Jennifer Carpenter).  One of the true pleasures of this series has been its ability to ratchet-up the suspense as Dexter’s labyrinth of secrets nearly comes crumbling down on top of him.  To protect himself – and for the show to protect its title character – Dexter has made some rather shocking decisions.  This is one of those shows where no character has ever been safe.  But for at least four seasons, “Dexter” did a terrific job of – if not always logically, at least somewhat plausibly – coming up with new ways to keep Dexter one step ahead of those on his tail, and keep the show one step ahead of its audience.

But come crumbling down it all must.  The problem with a show like “Dexter” – a show built on season after season of lies and twists – is that more often than not the process becomes routine and some of the contrivances that were forgivable early on when the series was new, fresh and exciting, eventually become glaringly obvious, stale and insulting.  The once terrifically exciting “Dexter” began to grow tenuous and forced; an overall business-as-usual feel crept in.  But it’s not simply that the series was showing its age.  A lot of shows start to feel shopworn after several seasons, an inevitability for any long-running series.  Smart show-runners have a clear endgame in sight and are willing to pull the plug on a show after a specific number of seasons, even if the show remains incredibly popular, so as not to run it into the ground and taint its legacy (“Breaking Bad”, one show that has implemented this strategy to glorious effect, is running its final episodes on the same night as “Dexter”, making “Dexter’s” swan-song season look all the more pathetic by comparison).  Over the course of “Dexter’s” last few season there has been an overwhelming feeling that the writers have simply run out of steam – like they had said all they had to say and were now clutching at straws, just trying to continue a story they no longer had the passion to tell.  Laziness crept in – a significant lack of attention to even the most obvious details, a refusal to go back to the core of what made Dexter and the show tick initially, narrative meandering and obvious foreshadowing – and a near contempt for the audience who have followed this series for eight seasons.  “Dexter” fell into this trap a while ago and was never able to climb back out.  And it’s still in free fall as we speak.

I’m not sure what exactly went wrong, but there seemed to be a turning of the tide somewhere around “Dexter’s” fifth season.  Going into that season, “Dexter” was coming off what many consider the show’s apex: Season 4 featuring John Lithgow’s Trinity Killer and its shocking season finale.  Obviously, hopes were high for the follow-up season, which many fans regard as a relative disappointment.  While I agree Season 5 was something of a missed opportunity considering all the directions the show and character could have gone in given the fourth season’s ending, I am nonetheless among those who actually really liked the fifth season.  It wasn’t without its problems (then again, no season of “Dexter” has been perfect), but I liked the idea of paring Dexter with a damaged, would-be victim (Julia Styles), and I thought Dexter facing off against a murderous self-help guru (Johnny Lee Miller) made for a lot of palpable character drama.  Most of all though, the writing was still strong – there were still nooks and crannies of Dexter’s psyche that seemed yet untapped by the show and worth exploring; there was still suspense in what was unknown about the character, his motivations, and how far he might go to protect his identity – and the writers still seemed to have a firm grasp on where the show was going and how to pull ideas and plot threads through an entire season.

But I did notice during this season – more than any other before – a good deal of lulls starting to creep in.  I have had issues with some of the characters, story arcs, or momentum on “Dexter” in the past, but this was the first time the show started to feel tired; like it was in need of some new ideas, some new direction, and some shaking up. I think Season 5 ultimately survives these lulls, but it’s something that comes back to haunt the show immediately in Season 6 and only continues to fester into the fiber of the show until it completely eats away at it (Season 7) and picks its bones clean (This Season).

At a certain point, the writers seemed to have simply given up.  Some will point to the famously maligned “Nebraska” episode from Season 6 as the moment where “Dexter” reached the point of no return.  In the episode, Dexter leaves Miami to track a killer to Nebraska, never mind the fact that it leaves his entire plot completely exposed for Deb and anyone else who might be looking, but also, Dexter chooses to ignore his code here, the episode cheapens Dexter’s subconscious bond with his father, and it’s simply a plodding, silly episode that strains credibility and has Dexter making decisions and mistakes the character (and writers) never have made in earlier seasons.  “Nebraska” set the tone for many of the silly, contrived, meandering and illogical missteps that would become the show’s frustrating stock in trade throughout its final three seasons; each of which had a tendency to begin strong, but quickly fall apart, as if none of the writers have any idea what else to do with these characters.

When a show starts to show its age or its writers are unable to come up with grounded ways to keep the stories moving forward, typically the series turns to surprise gotcha! moments and new characters (Masuka’s daughter this season, anyone?) in hopes of shaking things up and keeping everyone interested, no matter if these revelations make a lick of sense.  (SEASON 6 SPOILER ALERT!) In Season 6 Deb revealed that she was in love with Dexter.  While this idea turned-off most fans, it was the kind of grab-you-by-the-collar reveal that makes audiences sit up and take notice.  In that very same season, Deb caught Dexter dispatching a victim for the first time.  Both of these would-be game-changing moments that should have moved the show in a new direction.  Instead, after a few episodes of Deb wrestling with her feelings, everything was back to business as usual.  (SEASON 7 SPOILER!) In Season 7, Deb catches Dexter about to kill their Lieutenant, so instead, she kills her.  Again, Deb wrestles with the guilt of this for a while, but a few therapy sessions later, brother and sister are back to helping each other out of convoluted scrapes (END SPOILERS).  So much of the writing throughout this final season of the show has been at this sort of bring-it-up-then-immediately-drop-it caliber.  Nothing feels organic or fully realized and no one displays anything resembling genuine character motivations.  It literally feels like we are watching actors being moved around by words on a page that have no context or bearing on anything.  As a result, it’s damn hard to feel invested in any of this.

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For his part, the character of Dexter has also changed dramatically over the years.  At the beginning of the series, Dexter doesn’t think he is capable of showing emotion and worries constantly that people will see through his façade of normalcy.  He has to work constantly to fit in.  He initially took up with Rita (Julie Benz) – who he eventually married and had a son, Harrison, with – because she was a victim of domestic abuse who was emotionally fragile and didn’t know how to interact romantically.  She was the ideal companion for Dexter, a man who couldn’t communicate or show emotion like normal people.  Dexter trying to navigate how to fit in to societal norms was one of the most interesting aspects of the character and the show in general in its early seasons.  But somewhere along the line Dexter transformed into something closer to The Friendly Neighborhood Serial Killer than a tormented man constantly working to suppress his homicidal rage.  Yes, much of the series has been about Dexter’s evolution and how he has grown as a person and where he has found love and faith and feelings of normalcy. But nowadays, he jokes around with people, shows up at parties, goes out on dates, and, for a lost soul, he has managed to find a kindred spirit of some sort each season.  The writers are still careful to make sure they include some mention of Dexter feeling conflicted, homicidal, and like an outsider in his voice-over narration, which used to provide the audience a conduit into Dexter’s psyche, but now feels like a crutch for the writers to simply explain anything that isn’t clear about the plot and remind us that Dexter still has his dark desires, because Lord knows you wouldn’t get any of that from the evidence supplied on screen.

Also to that end, in the beginning it was really exciting to see the various ways in which Dexter was smarter than all the cops and other analysts at a crime scene, and how he was able to keep them off his trail through complicated scientific methods and top notch police work.  Lately though, the writers haven’t even bothered to make Dexter look all that smart; rather, they just make all the cops look completely moronic.  Nobody asks the appropriate or most obvious questions of Dexter, and none of the cops question Dexter’s mounting connections to his victims or his sloppy alibis.  Watching Dexter weasel out from under the eye of suspicion was part of the fun of the early episodes, but there are only so many coincidences and last minute escapes a show can convincingly throw at its audience before it all starts to smell like slapdash contrivance.  The series never found Dexter another Miami PD opponent on the level of Sgt. Doakes (Erik King), who was always suspicious of Dexter and always asked questions.  The writers replaced him with Detective Douchebag – er, I mean – Quinn (Desmond Herrington) who made a half-hearted pass at suspecting Dexter was up to no good, but he was too busy pining for Deb to follow through.  Similarly, Deb started out steely and hard but as of late seems to be a caricature of her former self, now doing ridiculous things she never would have done just a few seasons back.

And all that, in a nutshell, is the real problem with “Dexter” as it limps to an end:  These are hardly the same characters we were introduced to back in 2006, especially Dexter himself who has devolved into a convoluted shell of his former personality.  I assume Dexter’s writers would argue he has grown and changed throughout the series, as have the other characters.  This would be fine if they grew in convincing and (most importantly) satisfying ways.  As it is, Dexter – the character and the show – has simply gone soft.  Nothing about the series or its characters feels as though it has any connection to the show that drew us in and captivated us for the first four or five years of its run.

As the show readies its final episode, Dexter is on the trail of his latest Big Bad, a serial killer called the Brain Surgeon who has a tenuous connection to Dexter. The hunt has been less than thrilling and the sense of closure being brought to all the relationships of the cast has been less than convincing or satisfying.  Dexter plans to run off to Argentina with his son and his fugitive love interest; who he helped put in prison last season, but has now realized is his soul mate and the one person (again) who understands him and can finally rid him of his “dark passenger” (again).  Deb and Quinn (easily the “Dexter’s” worst long-running character) seem to be getting back together, but the fact that they are even still doing this dance so late in the game shows just how disorganized and clumsy “Dexter” has become.  Why would the writer’s structure this show’s final season like any other; simply putting us through all the same paces of Dexter hunting down another killer and yet another who-gives-a-fuck will –they or won’t-they subplot between Deb and Quinn?  Not only would this be the time to bring the show back to its roots from a quality standpoint, but it is certainly the time to avoid rehashing the same stuff we’ve seen for three or more seasons now.

I saw a “leaked” version of the supposed script for “Dexter’s” final episode a few weeks ago.  Let me just say this; if that is indeed what tonight’s finale will look like, it is firmly in keeping with how far this show has fallen from grace.  It makes every wrongheaded mistake the series has been guilty of for years, and especially in this, it’s unfortunate final season.  What was on display in that script were just more silly contrivances followed by an ending (that the writers have said they have been working to for years – could have fooled me) that not only doesn’t rid the show of the one character who deserves to go, but promotes him to Dexter 2.0 status, seemingly out of nowhere.  The writers have not properly laid the ground work for any of this and the show does not earn this ending.  It’s a completely laughable and unsatisfying conclusion to a once-superb series.  Unfortunately, that would be in keeping with its track record as of late.

So, goodbye, “Dexter”.  Thank you for five great seasons. (No, that’s not a typo.)  Now it’s finally time to dismember your corpse, wrap it up in plastic, and pitch it into the ocean.  Consider it a mercy killing.  Sleep well, my former friend.

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(photos courtesy of Showtime)

THE WORLD’S END

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By R. David

Like Woody Allen, Edgar Wright is a director who has a large and fervent fan base despite that fact that none of his films have proven to be huge box office hits.  He garnered critical kudos and won a cult fan base for 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” and 2007’s “Hot Fuzz”.  2010’s “Scott Pilgrim VS the World” looked like it might skew more mainstream in its appeal,  but ultimately it hued too closely to the same cheeky, sarcastic and irreverent humor of his first two films.  Subtle and mocking humor always seems to be a tough sell to the masses, which typically prefer their comedies to be of the tried and true sitcom sort, or wacky and over-the-top variety.  The bad news for Wright is that I doubt “The World’s End” will reverse this trend; but the good news for his fans is that the film falls squarely in line with his past successes.

“The World’s End” once again stars the comedic duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who fronted both “Shaun” and “Fuzz”.  And like those two films, “World’s End” is not simply a two-man show.  While Pegg and Frost are undeniably the most charismatic performers here and have the sort of effortless chemistry that can only be achieved by collaborating with a long-time friend, the colorful supporting cast and blithe, but authentic writing (once again, by Wright and Pegg) move the film past being simply some enjoyable lark concocted by a bunch of a funny friends.  To be sure, many of the familiar faces and trademarks of the Wright-Pegg-Frost universe are present and accounted for here (as are some of their unfortunate trappings), but “World’s End” spins a tale, creates a world, and introduces characters that are well-removed from the troupe’s previous outings.

The most noticeable about-face from the trio’s previous collaborations in “The World’s End” is the role-reversal casting of Frost as the straight-man for a change and Pegg as the wild card.  Here Pegg is Gary King, the leader of the pack, party animal in high school; but now a 40-ish alcoholic who has watched as his friends found lucrative careers and started families while he still wants to party like its 1990 – pining for the carefree, bar-hopping days of their youth and a bygone era.  While his old pals have moved on with life and largely distanced themselves from him, Gary has never let go of the old gang’s inability to complete the “golden mile”, a 12-stop pub-crawl in their sleepy, dead-end London hometown (cue The Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”).  Gary gets it in his head that now is the time to put the band back together and finally complete ‘the mile’.  Gary’s former pals – Steven (Paddy Considine), Peter (Eddie Marsan), Oliver (Martin Freeman), and especially Andy (Frost), who Gary nearly killed in a car accident that ended their friendship – are hesitant to reconnect with him.  But Gary eventually wins them over with his manipulative charms (and in the case of Andy, flat-out lies) and they all reluctantly agree to accompany him back to their hometown and revisit their quest which would culminate at the 12th and final pub named The World’s End.

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For the first half of the film or so, “The World’s End” plays like a straight-forward examination of Gary’s arrested development; both mining humor from his exploits and his old friends’ reactions to his shenanigans, but also rather brilliantly analyzing what makes him tick.  It becomes clear that he is not simply some party animal who refuses to grow up, but rather a man who let life somehow slip by him and who has no idea how to reclaim it.  Completing the much-ballyhooed ‘mile’ becomes his white whale.  He sees the incomplete journey as the missing link to achieving happiness in life – the one regret, one thing that wasn’t perfect from those storied days, the one that got away.  No one can figure out why this idea is so important to him, especially 20 years later, but Gary seems to think it will not only reunite him with his old friends and amend the issues that tore them apart, but finally make him complete and able to move on with his life.  Of course, Gary doesn’t consciously realize any of this – and, of course, completing a pub crawl is not the answer to his problems – but nonetheless it becomes his obsession.

This would all generally be enough for any movie to spend its running time working out, but this being a Wright-Pegg-Frost joint, “The World’s End” eventually shows its full hand and at about the midpoint morphs into a genre homage.  “Shaun of the Dead” used the template of a zombie film to frame its character-based comedy, while “Hot Fuzz” spoofed the silly, over-the-top nature of buddy cop flicks, while milking that very aesthetic for its own dramatic and comedic purposes.  It’s unfortunate that the trailers and TV spots for “World’s End” have been spoiling the surprise, but if there’s a chance you aren’t aware of or have forgotten which genre they mine for their comedic and socially metaphorical purposes this time around, I won’t spoil it for you.  Suffice it to say, as they did with their previous collaborations, the director and stars create an effective mash-up here; with the usual attention to detail where paying homage to their inspirations is concerned, clever and unique special effects and action sequences, and using a genre well-suited to commentary on their premise of revisiting old haunts and the old adage that you can never truly go home again.  As with his previous films, Wright not only does an excellent job aping the classic moments of his genre inspirations, but he comes up with some clever ideas and great concepts and designs of his own.

Wright’s films have never been perfect though.  “The World’s End” end falls victim to some of the same issues that have frustratingly plagued his other collaborations with Pegg and Frost.  Their films all feel overlong, a problem punctuated by the fact that lengthy stretches of their films tend to sag either where the comedy or the plot exposition is concerned.  Some of the characters’ motivations seem silly or downright ridiculous here (despite offering some attempt at rationale, it becomes increasingly hard to buy that any of these guys would continue on this pub crawl through much of the chaos Gary creates, never mind once things really go bananas).  Also Wright and Pegg’s script makes the mistake of thinking the audience needs a lengthy, speechifying finale; lest they miss the point.  Wright is a terrific editor in a stylistic sense (he can score big laughs simply by smartly cutting a scene or switching to a new camera angle), but could use an editor in the traditional sense.

Those quibbles aside though, “The World’s End” follows in the proud tradition of Wright, Pegg and Frost’s previous films; giving audiences a unique and wining blend of bizarre hilarity and sublime humanity.  This is supposedly their final entry in what has been dubbed “The Cornetto Trilogy” (named after a flavor of British ice cream referenced in “Shaun”), but I hope that’s all nothing more than talk.  “The World’s End” has a fresh, invigorated energy that suggests these guys are just getting started.

3 stars out of 4

ELYSIUM

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By R. David

In 2154, the Earth had decayed into a dystopian (Hollywood’s favorite kind of ‘ian’) wasteland of pollution, poverty and disease.  The poor live in the decaying carcasses of our former major cities while the rich have moved to a man-made utopia called Elysium; a giant space station orbiting just outside of the Earth’s atmosphere (a design clearly inspired by the space station in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”).

"2001's" Space Station

“2001’s” Space Station

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Elysium

On Elysium, the air and water are clean, lawns are green, everyone lives in futuristic McMansions, and the sick can be cured of any disease or injury simply by spending a minute or two in a medical pod, which look something like a contemporary tanning bed.  Understandably, everyone on Earth wants a ticket to Elysium, but citizenship does not come cheap and only the truly elite, richest-of-the-rich are allowed entry (this movie is not shy about its political commentary, beginning here with an obvious one-percenter allegory).

As in any oppressed society, a resistance has risen against the absentee government that rules comfortably from Elysium, ignoring the needs of the people on Earth, treating them as a mere nuisance, and content to allow them to simply waste away.  Spider (Wagner Moura) is the head of a rebel army of sorts, determined to stage a coup that will overthrow this derelict governing body, fronted by Secretary of Defense Delacourt (Jodie Foster).  Spider’s outfit is what passes for high-tech in this near-nomadic wasteland – he can launch shuttles into space but his “command center” is outfitted with less technological advances than you’d find in the average teenager’s bedroom today – but he has one Hail Mary plan that involves kidnapping a high-ranking CEO (William Fichtner) and extracting the data he carries electronically implanted into his brain so he can blackmail Delacourt and the other powers-that-be into granting all the people of Earth Elysium healthcare and citizenship.

Spider’s one-time partner-in-crime, Max (Matt Damon), is on parole, trying to walk the straight and narrow, and hoping that if he works long and hard enough at his thankless factory job he’ll one day be able to afford the ticket to Elysium he has dreamed of since he was a child.  In one of the movie’s best scenes, Max reports to a parole officer who is nothing more than a mannequin and a drive-thru speaker that determines whether or not a parolee poses a threat based on its ability to sense a rise in heart rate and respiration (it even offers Max a pill to calm him down).  When Max absorbs a lethal amount of radiation in an accident at work and is told he only has five days to live (again, by an unsympathetic, pill-pushing robot), he begrudgingly agrees to help Spider carry out his far-fetched plan, if for no other reason than to gain access to a medipod and reverse his own impending doom.

In an ugly yet fascinating sequence, Spider surgically implants a data-reading computer into Max’s brain and outfits him with a hydraulic exoskeleton to face the military robot guards on Elysium.  But neither of them count on Delacourt’s henchman, Kruger (Sharlto Copley), a vicious rogue agent who takes perverse pleasure in the murderous tasks he is assigned and thwarts Max’s every attempt to carry out his mission.

Sharlto Copley

Sharlto Copley

“Elysium” was directed by Neil Blomkamp, the South African film maker whose 2009 feature film debut, “District 9″, became an instant classic.  Beloved by film buffs and critics alike, the film was a surprise box office hit and garnered a Best Picture Oscar nomination.  More than just a science fiction potboiler though, “District 9″ was an apartheid parable praised as much for its strong point of view and clever metaphors as it was for its SCI-FI set pieces (although, even simply from a film making standpoint, the movie is impressive; Blomkamp did so much with very little as far as the film’s budget was concerned).

Blomkamp’s politics remain at the forefront of “Elysium”, but this time he is raging against more than one machine and as a result his narrative becomes much more muddled.

Where “District 9″ had a clear focus and never let its underlying politics suffocate the story or pull the viewer out of the film, “Elysium” keeps trafficking in new targets, trying to shoehorn in as much commentary and criticism as the story can hold.  In “District 9″ apartheid was the framing device for the entire film, so the viewer didn’t need to constantly be reminded of the politics in question; they were the very thing moving the story forward.  That film wasn’t necessarily subtle in its metaphors and commentary, but its narrative focus and Blomkamp’s trust in the audience to absorb the point being made without needing a bunch of lazy platitudes spewed at them kept it all from lapsing into obvious soapboxing.  “Elysium”, by contrast, is both less subtle and less effective.  Blomkamp erratically tosses out whatever current policy he has an issue with like Molotov cocktails throughout the film – he wants to make sure you don’t miss the point, never mind if making these points often feels completely arbitrary to the construct of the film.  The health care and class divides are clearly the two biggest issues on Blomkamp’s mind, but his exploration of those themes trickles down into half-hearted commentary on everything from immigration to overpopulation to pollution to technology to globalization.  In Blomkamp’s defense, these issues are all generally part of the whole proverbial ball of wax, but he is rarely able find a way to present them here that feels organic to the story.  These scenes all might as well be accompanied by a big flashing neon sign that reads, “IMPORTANT POLITICAL COMMENTARY”. (And the waling soundtrack is truly unbearable.)

The best science fiction films always offer some sort of commentary on our current society.  I don’t fault Blomkamp’s intent here, nor do I necessarily disagree with his message, but his thesis is murky at best.  Even if his ideas here were better presented, Blomkamp offers no real solutions, and what he does suggest is laughably simplistic and shortsighted.  For instance, those medipods are pretty cool; and yeah, why not make them available to the rich and poor alike if all it takes is 30-second sit in one to cure any and all disease?  The obvious criticism here is that the poor are heartlessly denied access to quality health care.  Fair enough.  But as far as this acting as a metaphor for our current raging health care debate, quality health care today doesn’t boil down to a 30-second sit in a magic machine that will cure all of your physical ailments and costs essentially nothing to make available to everyone. The medipods completely remove pesky things like doctors, nurses, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, and shareholders from the equation.  If that were all somehow possible, sure; free medipod sessions for everyone!  I would like to think though that Blomkamp realizes the difference between what is being denied the people in his story and the complexities of our current health care debate; but the film’s final sequence seems to suggest he actually believes it’s just that easy (and by association, anyone who disagrees is some inhumane elitist).  Like so much of this film, Blomkamp paints his healthcare commentary in broad strokes.

There is also no backstory provided or discussion of the issues that led Earth into this dystopian nightmare in the first place. If indeed it was caused by overpopulation and a depletion of natural resources, how exactly would Blomkamp address the argument that everyone can’t simply move to Elysium or the same fate would be inevitable?  And what’s going on in the rest of the world?  “Elysium” only shows life in Los Angeles and the government on Elysium only seems concerned with monitoring the people of L.A. Does each country have their own Elysium? Each state? (No other wheels in the sky are visible in the outer space shots, so I’m guessing not.)

It also doesn’t help that Blomkamp lifts ideas from a myriad of classic SCI-FI flicks in order to execute his concept.  Beyond Elysium itself resembling the “2001” space station, the idea of carrying sensitive material as data imprinted into the brain is straight out of “Total Recall”, “Strange Days” and “Johnny Mnemonic”; the satire involving the robocops is lifted from, well, “RoboCop”; and the scorched-earth landscape, depleted resources, and modified modern-day cars recall “Mad Max”.  And to that end, apparently technology peaked in the early 2000s because even though “Elysium” takes place 140 years from now, the people on Earth never moved on from aughts-model laptops, flatscreens, and slightly decked-out Mustangs and GMC SUVs.  Not only does this lack imagination, but Blomkamp apparently never owned a modern car or piece of electronic equipment if he really thinks either can achieve that kind of shelf life.

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So “Elysium” is heavy-handed in its commentary, riddled with plot holes and cribs shamelessly from other SCI-FI classics. Normally all these issues would be enough to sink a film, but despite Blomkamp’s best efforts to sabotage his film from a narrative standpoint, he mostly succeeds at everything else. On a technical level, “Elysium” is a fitfully entertaining SCI-FI thriller.  Like the best science fiction epics, Blomkamp creates an immersive world of magnificently realized characters and locations.  Even though little time is spent on character introductions beyond Max, audiences get a fairly well-rounded idea of who all these characters are and what makes them tick.  And though some of the locale details have been borrowed from other films or feel a bit shopworn for the genre, Blomkamp offers a commitment to detail both visually and in his storytelling that keeps the world he has created from feeling like nothing more than a lazy rehash of his predecessors’ ideas.

The performances in “Elysium” are generally strong too, especially from Damon and Copley (in a nice bit of about-face casting after playing the nebbishy hero in “District 9″).  Not only is Copley a terrifically intimidating villain, but the mano a mano dynamic between him and Damon is palpable.  The exception here is Jodie Foster.  God knows what accent she was going for (some sort of French-South African-Irish hybrid is the closest thing I can figure), not that it much matters because she can’t seem to retain it from scene to scene anyway.  Also, Alice Braga does decent work as a childhood friend and long-time love of Max’s, but the subplot involving her daughter with leukemia is just another aspect of this movie that is simply too on-the-nose and manipulative from a narrative standpoint.

Jodie Foster

Jodie Foster

Overall, “Elysium” is a well-made, often exciting SCI-FI film with some good ideas and performances; but it’s frustratingly uneven, preachy and simple-minded in its politics.  Visually, Blomkamp is growing as a director, but as a writer, “Elysium” is a step back.  He clearly wants to make people think and ask questions – which is an admirable and important trait in any director – but the main thing viewers will be inspired to do walking out of this film will be to go re-watch “District 9″.

2 ½ stars out of 4