Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Thing (2011)

The Thing is a horrifying and intelligent creature with purpose.  Sadly, the same cannot be said of its new movie.  Much like the horrifying hybrids its eponymous alien becomes, Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.’s The Thing doesn’t know what it wants to be.  Officially, the film is a prequel to John Carpenter’s 1982 classic horror film of the same name.  However, by copying certain elements of the original’s plot* and pacing, the new film is torn between how much it should emulate and how much it should invent.

Carpenter’s film begins with a dog running towards an American science base in Antarctica.  A Norweigan helicopter is trying to gun the dog down, but it fails to do so, the dog makes it into the camp, and the Norweigans are killed before they have a chance to warn the Americans.  The new film shows us what happened at the Norweigan camp and tries to explain the horrors and gigantic spaceship MacReady (Kurt Russell) found at their base.  The Norweigans, with the help of paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), unearthed an alien they believed was dead but was actually in stasis and waiting for new hosts.  The alien’s M.O. is to infect its prey, imitate their host perfectly, and wait for the right moment to burst into a phantasmagorical nightmare and devour its next victim.  Once Lloyd discovers this pattern, it creates deep-seated paranoia among the survivors.

Heijningen and screenwriter Eric Heisserer’s greatest accomplishment is how desperately they don’t want to lift anything wholesale from the original.  Lloyd is the one who knows what’s going on, but she’s not MacCready with boobs.  There’s a repeat of the scene where every member of the camp is tested to see if they’re the creature, but Lloyd makes her evaluations based on science rather than intuition.  Winstead does a terrific job with the character and once again shows she has a knack for playing a bad-ass.

However, in trying to create a separate beast, the new Thing loses what makes the premise so intense.  The original movie has some horrific moments, but on repeat viewings, it’s really more of a mystery.  We’re tense not just because the monster could pop out and go “Boo!”, but because we have access to clues that help us decipher where the monster could be next.  Heijningen and Heisserer decide to play up the action sci-fi elements of the story, which drains the film of terror other than its jump scares.

More damning is the heavy reliance on CGI effects.  Perhaps Heijningen thought it wasn’t worth trying to outdo the incredible practical effects from Carpenter’s film (effects which still hold up today) and thought that using CG would help his pre-make stand apart.  But almost all of the transformations in the new movie could have been done and should have been done practically.  What makes the creature horrific is that it organically rips apart a human being.  It’s an organism and that biological aspect is removed when coated in the nice sheen of computer effects.  There’s no grit, no grime, and it’s a further reminder that this is a prequel that would rather not sit in the shadow of the original.

It’s an understandable decision, but Heijningen and Heisserer constantly miss the smart opportunities to call back to the original while still setting their movie apart.  Carpenter’s The Thing fills its cast with one-dimensional characters who probably never liked each other very much to begin with.  However, it allows us to project ourselves onto their situation and experience the terror vicariously.  There’s far more camaraderie at the Norwegian camp, but the new Thing doesn’t grow these relationships and seize the horror and despair of the subtext that nobody truly knows anyone.  This approach would also allow the filmmakers an opportunity to add new facets to the creature such as the limitations of imitating personality and memories.  Instead, we get too many characters, hardly any time to care about any of them, and we’re stuck with a lesser version of Carpenter’s movie.

And if Heijningen couldn’t escape Carpenter, he should have imitated him.  It would be a risky move, but the concept at work is that this is the first half of one long movie (which is why they have the same title).  Heijningen has no problem briefly using Ennio Morricone’s terrific score, but then he gets composer Marco Beltrami to devise something new and heavy-handed.  Additionally, shooting on digital rather than film removes the texture and more importantly, the organic feel, of the movie.  Once again, Heijningen and Heisserer seem more enchanted by the sci-fi angle of the story rather than the horror, and they come up short on both.

This time around the alien goes for a more direct and less interesting approach to its victims, the paranoia and cynical themes are exchanged for jump scares and action scenes, and the third act is devoid of tension as we’re taken to a place we could not care less about.  However, some smart ideas manage to sneak through.  Kate Lloyd is a solid protagonist, there’s room for a new but equally terrifying and cynical subtext, and the opportunity to make the story feel like half of a larger narrative rather than making ties to the original an afterthought (half of the explanations come during the credits).  Unfortunately, at every turn, The Thing makes the wrong decision, fails both as a prequel and as a remake, and the result is a pointless and poor imitation.

Friday, October 21, 2011

What's Your Number? (2011)

I had nothing to do with the making of What’s Your Number? and yet I feel compelled to apologize to women everywhere for its existence.  The movie is the shameful philosophy of women’s magazines slapped onto the big screen as a moral lesson that feels painfully outdated in the 21st century or really anytime after 1960s.  It is a cruel, thoughtless picture that wants women to feel ashamed if they’ve slept with more than arbitrary number of men while casting no blame on guys who have racked up countless notches on their bedposts.  I can’t fathom why talented comic actors like Anna Faris and Chris Evans would decide to lead such a despicable picture, and not only are they wasted in this movie, only a handful of jokes get through.  But nothing can make up for the film’s awful subtext.

Ally (Faris) is having trouble finding the right guy.  She’s been fired from her job, her younger sister Daisy (Ari Graynor) is getting married, and Ally’s feeling the pressure to get her life right.  Then Marie Claire comes to the rescue when Ally finds an article saying that the average woman sleeps with 10.5 guys in her lifetime (I’ll let you argue what the .5 means).  Ally, having slept with 19 guys, can’t believe this irrefutable statistic, but her fears are confirmed when her sister and her sister’s friends all throw in numbers lower than 10 except for the one slutty friend who has a dreaded number of 13.  Ally swears she won’t go over 20 and the next man she meets will be the man she marries.  Then she gets drunk, sleeps with her awful former boss (Joel McHale) and comes to the conclusion that she must have met the right guy but she passed him by.  With the help of her womanizing neighbor Colin (Evans), she starts tracking down her past lovers in the hopes of finding Mr. Right, but then her relationship with Colin begins to “deepen” (read: he likes her sculptures, they have a couple of nice conversations, and go on a fun date).

I don’t necessarily mind that Ally wants to find a husband (although in the movie she’s working harder at finding the right guy than finding a new job).  What I mind is that she agrees with the “conventional” wisdom which says she’ll be undesirable if she’s been with “too many” guys.  In one of the movie’s many sad attempts at raunchy humor, one of Daisy’s friends comments that no man wants to go where fourteen other penises have been.  Only in the past century or so we finally got past the point where a woman could be married even if she wasn’t a virgin.  Before that time, men felt that wives were property, and they didn’t want to buy used goods.  In 2011, What’s Your Number? generously tells women, “You’re allowed up to 10.5 guys for your entire life.  Use them wisely.”  It’s the same paternalistic, antiquated belief but dressed in modern clothing.

What’s Your Number? doesn’t want to criticize or satirize this misogynistic philosophy.  It wants to celebrate it.  Ally’s emotional journey isn’t to say, “Hey! Wait a minute!  I’m a responsible adult who uses condoms and I don’t see why I should have to limit the amount of sex I have when my neighbor across the hall can happily bang every woman in Boston.”  No, instead Ally proclaims, “I’m a whore!  And I’m okay with that!”  That’s not me paraphrasing.  That’s her big revelation line in the movie.

The movie not only wastes its opportunity to thoughtfully critique modern American social mores, it wastes its lead actors.  Anna Faris and Chris Evans have been hilarious and charming before and I’m sure they will be again, but What’s Your Number? made me despise them for a solid 105 minutes.  The movie has about five or six really good jokes and none of them come from the lead actors (the best gag in the movie involves Andy Samberg’s character and a puppet).  Instead, Faris and Evans subscribe to the Brad Pitt “Always Be Eating” school of acting and struggle to find anything redeeming in their characters, which is like trying to find something redeeming in a gigantic pile of garbage.  Ally is neurotic and insecure, Colin is cowardly and childish, and they’re perfect for each other because I can’t think of anyone who could love these people.

I went into What’s Your Number? willing to give the movie the benefit of the doubt even though all the trailers strongly indicated I would find the premise disgusting.  I have to applaud 20th Century Fox for the truth in their advertising, although the final product is somehow worse than I imagined.  The movie feels like someone forgot to put in a laugh track, it squanders the comic talent and affability of its lead actors, but more than anything, it upholds a vile, mean-spirited message all the way down to its final, unfunny joke.

The Three Musketeers (2011)

“Guilty pleasure.” That’s a phrase that feels strangely appropriate when referring to Paul W.S. Anderson’s The Three Musketeers. It’s silly and daft, and has two fairly fundamental flaws, on top of the cheesiness that’s going to divide audiences straight down the middle. However, despite these fairly central and hard-to-avoid problems, it also features a knowing self-awareness, an appealingly straight-forward approach to the fact that is so very silly, a (mostly) great cast and some rather wonderful steam-punk production design. It’s not going to appeal to everybody, but I actually warmed quite a bit to it.

“You know what your problem is, boy?” Rochefort demands of D’Artagnan at one point. “You read too many books.” A cynical critic might suggest that the creative minds behind this adventure read too few. Somewhere, there’s a truly great adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ classic The Three Musketeers waiting to be brought to the screen in a respectful and considered manner. This is not that film. And, to be honest, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in that. “We’re obsolete,” an introspective Aramis confesses at one point, and I can’t help but feel the movie never rebukes that idea – it’s too busy overloading the core concept with “airships” and aerial warfare to really give us a sense of who these characters are, and why they aren’t outdated or obsolete. That said, if you can get past that fairly large initial hurdle, it’s good fun.

The movie opens with what’s effectively a nineteenth century James Bond cold open, with the three musketeers going on a mission for “king and country.” Asked what their brief is, one responds, “Whereever we’re sent. Whatever France needs.” They’re effectively an old-time black-ops team, tasked with infiltration missions and other dirty work. This isn’t the largest departure from Dumas’ text. However, it actually surprisingly well. At times, I’ve felt Paul W.S. Anderson is too light on substance, but here it works. You could almost imagine Roger Moore coming out with some of the stuff we see here. Ambushing a target and his companion in black robes, Aramis confesses after hauling the gentleman overboard, “I’m not really a priest.” The young woman responds, “I’m not really a lady.” And Aramis has ten minutes to fill in his top secret black-ops schedule, so we cut away discreetly.

It is the sort of camp we associate with the Roger Moore Bond films, but it works infinitely better here, if you ask me. Despite the prologue featuring a top secret mission, the team never seem like the sort of cold-blooded assassin that we were asked to accept Moore’s James Bond to be, and Anderson wisely increases the saturation to make sure that everything on screen seems the brightest possible shade of a primary colour. It’s a movie about people in funny clothes prancing around and waving swords at each other, after all, if that sort of set-up doesn’t lend itself better to camp than any other subject matter, I don’t know what does. As much as may appreciate serious period drama, there’s just something so theatrical and grand about that sort of design, one that doesn’t suffer if you refuse to take it too seriously.

Helping the matter along is the fact that the movie is very clearly in on the joke. Anderson doesn’t have an all-star cast, but he does have an incredible ensemble of quality character actors that any film fan will recognise. These are performers like Mads Mikkelsen, Christoph Waltz, Ray Stevenson, Matthew Macfadyen and Orlando Bloom, who are overtly aware of the fact that they aren’t making a serious piece of art – they’re wearing silly clothes and waving swords at one another, while chewing down on the scenery. Bloom has clearly been studying Johnny Depp, and seems to relish the opportunity to play a card-carrying evil-for-the-sake-of-being-evil cad with no motivation to speak of and a flying ship because… well, didn’t we all want a flying ship at some point? Waltz and Mikkelson are clearly the bad guys because they have funny accents. Mikkelson even has an eye-patch and dodgy goatee to boost his “bad guy” credentials.

And there’s never a sense that the movie is taking itself too seriously. Hell, Rochefort has the most effective means of ending a duel I’ve ever seen, in one brilliant moment. The Cardinal is well aware of the tropes and clichés of this kind of story, sarcastically wondering if his embarrassed guard brings good news. At one point, D’Artagnan gets a citation for allowing his horse to defecate in public, and he asks for clarification, “In French?” The female lead, played by Milla Jovovich, is actually identified via caption as “Milady.” Ray Stevenson, in his heavy and distinctly not-French accent, utters the line, “Vive la France.”

The film is clearly aware that it’s just popcorn entertainment, and never suffers from trying to convince us otherwise. It even features a climactic sword fight on top of Notre Dame, a scene that might as well have had “look! France!” superimposed over it – I’m surprised the didn’t just stick the Eiffel Tower in there, history be damned! After all, it isn’t like the British were flying airships designed by DiVinci, is it? It’s all very daft, but it knows this as well as we do, and everybody’s in on the joke.

Everybody, that is, except Logan Lerman, which brings me to the first major fault that film. I don’t know why, but it seems increasingly hard to find young actors who can act – I don’t know if it’s because casting directors are shallow or because of established fanbases or even just bad decision-making on the part of executives, but the movie is based around the young and plucky D’Artagnan, who is easily the weakest element of the whole film. I don’t know if it’s the script or the actor, to be entirely honest.

The script asks the young actor to deliver a variation on a classic scene from A Fistful of Dollars, one of the moments that even I (despite my phenomenal threshold for cheese) cringed in response to. But an equally young actor, Freddie Fox, does just as well in the awkwardly-written role of King Louis. I think it’s a combination of both, but the movie breaks down any moment Lerman is at the centre of the action. It really does feel like the movie would be a lot better if you simply cut D’Artagnan out of the film.

The second flaw, which is just as significant, is the ending. I don’t desire to spoil the film for those who haven’t seen it, so I’ll simply say that almost nothing is resolved. Virtually all the character dynamics and conflicts are left dangling, in hope of an inevitable sequel. The problem is that this doesn’t make for a very satisfying final act. I had expected what turns out to be the final set piece to be a prelude to a huge final confrontation, but it just sort of ends… with all the stuff hinted at and developed throughout the movie, and most of the villains, still in play. It just doesn’t work, and it retroactively weakens the entire movie.

It’s especially frustrating because Alexandre Dumas actually wrote a sequel to The Three Musketeers, one that the writers and director could easily stick some airships into to help them build a franchise. Imagine how incredibly camp a steam-punk The Man in the Iron Mask could be. I honestly would be disappointed if the mask didn’t breathe fire or acid or something. I’m not even being sarcastic. If Anderson can sell me on trip-wire-as-eighteenth-century-lasers, I can go along with anything. It just feels like a waste of a lot of set-up, on what ultimately feels hugely pointless. Surely they could fully handle this particular threatto the French monarchy without over-extending an already simple narrative across another film? But what do I know?

Still, it’s mostly quite enjoyable, if you can stomach the idea of flying ships and bright colours in your Dumas adaptations. Anderson is a director who handles style much better than substance, and the movie actually looks quite good. I normally scoff at slow motion and quick cuts, but Anderson knows what he’s doing with them. They’re still clichéd tools, but they’re at least applied well. There is a rather lovely scene early in the film where the musketeers take on forty of the Cardinal’s private guard, and it illustrates that Anderson knows his craft a lot better than most detractors would suggest.

It’s a diverting film, something that is like cinematic junk food – it’s something that doesn’t require too much engagement and won’t upset too many people on a family outing. The campy nature of the film is going to be divisive, but I think it fits well enough with the style of the movie. There are two huge flaws that hold the film back from an unqualified recommendation, but it’s an effective “silly action film.” Whether or not that’s the adaptation of The Three Musketeers that you’ve been waiting for, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Real Steel (2011)

The greatest achievement in Shawn Levy’s Real Steel is building the world of robot boxing.  The term “robot boxing” sounds incredibly stupid when you hear it and flashes of Rock ‘Em, Sock ‘Em Robots and the failed TV show Battlebots come to mind.  But Levy does a tremendous job for showing not just the hi-tech wonder of the World Boxing Organization (WBO), but he takes us to the back-alleys, run-down theme parks, and country fairs where a punching robot and its owner can make some cash and win some glory.  Paired with well-choreographed fights that wisely make heavy use of animatronics and practical effects, Real Steel almost has an unbeatable combination.  But the clunky storytelling and awful performance from child actor Dakota Goyo stop the movie from landing a knock-out punch (I promise I’ll try to keep the boxing puns to a minimum).

Former boxer Charlie Keaton (Hugh Jackman) has had to step outside the ring to make his living off the boxing robots that basically took his job.  However, his impatience, ineptitude, and poor business acumen have left him heavily in debt and scrambling to find any robot that can put up a fight.  Lucky for Charlie, his ex-girlfriend dies and he finds a chance to make some quick money by selling custody of his estranged son Max (Goyo) to Max’s aunt (Hope Davis) and her rich husband (James Rebhorn).  Charlie cuts a deal to take Max over the summer while the aunt and uncle go to Italy and when they come back, Charlie gets the rest of his money, Max doesn’t have to put up with his deadbeat father, and everyone is happy.  But then Max and Charlie get behind Atom, a sparring robot they found in a dump and they start working him up through the ranks of the robot boxing world.  Unsurprisingly, father and son finally begin to bond with Max providing the voice of reason against Charlie’s general incompetence.

Real Steel gets serious credit for not pulling any punches (sorry) when it comes to Charlie’s character.  He’s a gigantic ass-hole and Jackman and Levy have no qualms about turning us against him at the beginning of the movie.  We’re pushed right up to the line of caring about whether Charlie gets redeemed or not, but by making us root for Charlie’s symbol, Atom—a broken down robot that no one thinks will make it because he’s built to take punishment but not dish it out—we get on board with the Rocky story.

It’s an easy story to tell, but Real Steel has a hell of a time trying to get the words out.  If the movie isn’t walking through the robot-boxing world or showing a fight scene, then we either have to drag our feet through the predictable relationship arc between Charlie and Max, or we have to waste time with Charlie’s unnecessary and underdeveloped love-interest/exposition-machine Bailey (Evangeline Lilly).  The Charlie-Max relationship would at least be palatable if Goyo weren’t so terrible.  He never misses an opportunity to remind you that he’s a child actor.  I didn’t know anyone was looking for the next Jake Lloyd, but they’ve certainly found him.  Jackman deserves a lot of credit for not trying to smooth over Charlie’s rough edges, but Goyo’s performance is a serious blow to a movie that relies on the father-son relationship as its emotional core.

But the story and characters almost become an afterthought when we step into the ring.  Rather than having the WBO dominate and own every part of the robot boxing world, the movie takes Max and Charlie on the road and we get to see them fight in different arenas.  By expanding the world, we believe more in the concept of “robot boxing” and look forward to seeing how fights are set up, the different bots from varying locales, and how each bot has its own fighting style.  The design of the robots is terrific and I particularly liked the look of Atom who has the slightest hint of a smile on his wide-eyed face.  Levy also made the smart decision to rely on practical effects.  CGI tends to make objects look weightless, and that could have killed Real Steel.  Instead, Levy uses CGI when he needs the robots to be quick and light on their feet, but then relies on practical effects for most of the hits and the close-ups.  The only downside to this thoughtfully crafted world is that when we’re taken out of it, we notice that nothing else in the world has advanced in 15 years except for HP computers. Every company will keep same logo and slogans they have now.  It’s a bit disappointing since the production designers could have had some fun predicting what future logos would look like, but the marketing teams for corporations like Sprint and Microsoft have strict parameters on their product placement, so it’s tough to hold the filmmakers accountable on this small issue.

Story and characters are the most important elements of almost any movie, and they’re serviceable enough to make Real Steel function.  There’s not a disinterest in those crucial elements as much as poor execution through sloppy dialogue and an exceedingly poor casting decision for a major role.  Thankfully, the movie plays to its strengths by bringing the audience into a rich and fascinating world filled with exhilarating fight scenes.  Real Steel is much like Atom: clunky and a little flat-footed but charming enough to stay in the fight.

Breaking Down:End Times

 On last week’s Breaking Bad, we watched as—in the episode’s final moments—former chemistry teacher and current stressed-out meth-cook Walter White appeared to snap (Killing Joke-style) in the crawl space underneath his house.  After painting himself into yet another corner, it finally appeared that Walter was ready to skip town for good:  he got the number of a guy that could “disappear” him and his family, he sped home, and upon looking for the million-dollar nest egg he’d been building over the past year or so, he discovered that his wife had given the money away (to her former boss, no less).  As the credits rolled, Walt’s unhinged laughter echoed underneath an ominous, droning buzz on the soundtrack.  Where did the things go from there?  Read on for tonight’s Breaking Bad recap, my fellow junkies.

First of all, let’s clear up a loose end from last week’s recap:  it would appear the Beneke—Skylar’s former boss and the guy who just sent a sizable chunk of Walter White’s fortune to the IRS—is, in fact, dead.  When the episode aired, I wasn’t convinced that he’d actually died during the spill he took inside his home:  though some of you were far more confident that the dude had bitten the dust, I was feeling a little more cautious, and willing to withhold judgement until this week’s episode.  Over the course of the past week, it was confirmed that Beneke is definitely dead, so…yeah, that’s settled.  Congrats to all who called it last week, and apologies to anyone who—like me—finds the death to be a little too convenient, a little too tidy (hey, every twist and turn can’t be a homerun, right?).

Secondly:  last week’s episode was one of the most tense, critically-praised, brilliantly performed episodes from this show’s fourth season—I think we’ll all agree on that.  I understand that more people were reading Breaking Bad recaps last week than they had since that savage season premiere, which leads me to believe that a whole bunch of Breaking Bad junkies were as electrified by last week’s installment as we were.

And so, I find myself wondering how many will be reading this week.  I mean, if last week’s episode was “incredibly tense” and “brilliant”, this week’s installment was off the charts:  things started off right where they’d left off, with Walt and Skylar packing their bags and the soundtrack buzzing in our ears.  After a tense conversation in Walt and Skylar’s bedroom, it was decided that Walt would wait out the storm on his own, while Skylar would head over to Hank and Marie’s (which was under constant protection from Hank’s buddies at the DEA).  Skylar wasn’t thrilled with Walt’s refusal to join them, didn’t even know how she’d explain his absence…but Walt’s come to realize that his wife’s just as disingenuous as he is, and when she asked how she’d explain the fact that he wasn’t at Hank and Marie’s, Walt offered a simple, “You’ll figure something out” (or something to that effect; don’t crucify me on the exact wording, sir).

While Skylar, Walt Jr., and Walt’s infant daughter headed to the heavily-guarded home of Hank and Marie, Walt sat by his pool—surely the most iconic pool on dramatic television since the one Tony Soprano used to haunt on HBO’s dearly departed series—and awaited the inevitable:  Gus had made a threat against him, his family, and seemingly everyone else in his life, and Walt was content to sit with a gun (whose barrel always seemed to end up pointing in Walt’s direction) and wait for Gus to strike.

Oh, and I’ve got a question here.  See if I’m following this correctly:  Walt goes to Jesse’s, gets tazed.  Walt gets taken out into the desert by Gus, who tells him that if he ever comes near Jesse again, he’ll kill him and his entire family.  Walt then goes to Saul, has him call in a phony threat to Hank (supposedly attributed to the Mexican Cartel), and then heads home to get his “GTFO of Town” money.  He’s frantic after discovering the money missing, and he’s still frantic when he and Skylar are packing their bags shortly thereafter.  But Gus didn’t really threaten to kill Hank, Walt, and Walt’s family immediately:  he threatened to do so only if Walt continued to bother Dr. Pinkman.  Everyone else is freaking out because—for all they know—Walt’s BS story about the Cartel’s death threat is the real deal, but Walt knows that it’s BS, right?  So, why is he freaking out?  If he just stays away from Jesse—as Gus has demanded—shouldn’t everyone, y’know, remain alive?  Or is Walt just assuming that Gus will kill him, anyway?  Discuss.

Anyway, Hank convinced his old partner Steve to do a little “knock and talk” over at Gus’ sprawling laundry facility, and when Steve’s DEA buddy dragged that dog-sniffing dog outta the car, I was fairly convinced that we were about to see something truly spectacular go down inside that joint.  I’d forgotten, of course, about the air purifiers and every other safeguard that Gus and Gale had built into that super-lab, and—after taking a series of photos that Hank would later pour over in his kitchen—the DEA left, the lab undiscovered.  Down below, Jesse and Gus’ right-hand man rode out the search in silence, keeping their fingers crossed that the agents poking around above them wouldn’t discover the secret passage behind the industrial-sized washer/dryer.

Things then calmed down, if only for a minute:  Skylar had a cigarette out on Hank’s patio (!!!), Walt sat alone in his home, cradling his gun;  and Jesse was kickin’ the flava in his living room…at least, he was, until a frantic phone call came in:  Brock—Jesse’s on-again, off-again girlfriend’s video-game-loving kid—had become suddenly, inexplicably ill, was in the emergency room, and the prognosis was not looking good.  Jesse rushed to the hospital and tried to calm the situation, but realized shortly thereafter that the “flu” symptoms Brock was exhibiting probably weren’t the flu at all.  In fact, after checking his pack of cigarettes for the Ricin-vial he’d been carrying around for the past few weeks (and discovering it missing), he realized that Brock had been poisoned.

Now, when Jesse sped over to Walt’s house, we have to assume that he wasn’t in his right frame of mind, and so we should probably forgive him the scene that followed:  after Walt let him in and poured his heart out about the threats Gus had made the afternoon prior, Jesse picked up the gun and pointed it in Walt’s face.  Again, the soundtrack was used to great effect in this scene, ratcheting up the tension until the whole thing was borderline unbearable.  Apparently, Jesse had decided that Walt had poisoned Brock (yeah, I know) to get back at Jesse for siding with Gus, and Jesse had arrived to kill Walt for this heinous act.  Of course Walt had nothing to do with Brock’s poisoning, though, so we got another variation on the “Someone holds a gun in Walt’s face while Walt talks his way out of eating a bullet scene” (which, by the way, never makes for an uninteresting scene).

Walt’s explanation for Brock’s poisoning?  Why, someone—probably Gus’ henchman—had probably lifted it outta Jesse’s smokes while he was in the lab, took it over to wherever Brock was at, and dumped it into…his juice box?  His Kid Cuisine?  A Lunchables?  The details aren’t really important:  all that mattered was, Gus has proven himself capable of harming children in the past, Walt would never do something like that himself, and Jesse had to be convinced as much.  In the end, of course Walt was able to make Jesse see eye-to-eye with him.

Another sidenote here:  assuming that Walt is correct—that Gus knew about the poison, had it stolen, somehow took it to wherever Brock was at (might he not have been in school that afternoon?  And if not, how did whoever-transported-it get it into the house?), put it in his food/beverage, and pulled it all off in an attempt to get Jesse riled up at Walt (enough so to want to kill him)—isn’t that a little hard to swallow?  I mean, even for Gus?  Maybe I’m just calling shenanigans where there are no shenanigans, but that seems like quite a stretch, even by Gilligan standards.  Am I crazy here, or do you guys find this hard to believe, as well?  Also:  wouldn’t the nurses and doctors in the ER have sat up and taken notice when a shrieking, sweating Jesse bolted into the room to tell the kid’s mother that he’d been poisoned with Ricin?  Isn’t that specific enough to cast some suspicions on Jesse himself?  Again, the mind can’t help but pick at the details a bit.

Meanwhile, Jesse and Walt had decided that—once and for all—they were gonna take Gus out, and so a(n offscreen) plan was formed.  We weren’t privy to the details of this plan, but judging by Jesse’s behavior the following day and the amateur bombmaking going on in Walt’s kitchen, we can probably assume that the whole “luring Gus to the hospital so Walt could plug a bomb into the underside of his car” thing was plotted out in that missing scene.  Upon arriving at the hospital, Gus tried to coerce Jesse into returning to work, but when that proved impossible, he relented and assured Jesse that he could return to work “when (he’s) ready”.  Meanwhile, outside, across the street, and on top of another building, Walt sat with his finger on the trigger of the bomb he’d planted under Gus’ car.

It was here that we got yet another beyond-tense scene:  Gus exited the hospital, made his way through the parking garage, and just before getting to his car…he paused.  Something didn’t feel right, and Gus wandered over to the railing to look out over the ABQ skyline:  was someone watching him, waiting for him to get into that SUV?  Gus seems to have a sixth sense that keeps him alive, one that we simply shouldn’t find all that surprising anymore.  Of course Gus was going to sense something was off.  Of course he wasn’t’ going to get into the car.  Of course Walt’s plan wasn’t going to work:  this dude’s unstoppable, and it’s going to require something a little more elaborate than a car bomb to take Gus out.

From where I’m sitting, I’m thinking that we might just get to see that next week.  This week’s installment is the season’s penultimate episode, and next week’s ep—titled “Face Off”—looks like it’s going to be one for the books.  All season long, series creator Vince Gilligan has been slowly turning up the heat on every character on this series, and we’ve seen that heat roil over from a simmer to a boil in the past few weeks.  There’s every reason to believe that season four will end with a big bang, and I cannot wait to see whether or not I’m right about that.

But what do you guys think?  Sound off in the comments section below with your thoughts on tonight’s installment, and feel free to offer up your predictions for the fourth season finale:  wanna place bets on who’s going to survive to see season five?  Think Brock’s gonna bite it, or will he be saved by the doctors?  Think that Hank’ll notice something strange in those pics from the laundry, or will he have to go there and poke around himself to figure it all out?  Or will he be taken out before that can happen?  We wanna know, so hit the box below to offer up your predictions