Month: March 2014

The legend and legacy of Breaking Bad

It’s been talked about, watched, and puzzled over. Critics and audiences alike have called it one of the best TV shows of all time. The dialogue and images have become iconic. And, of course, it was filmed right here in New Mexico.

AMC’s Breaking Bad, created by former X-Files writer Vince Gilligan, has been universally lauded, winning ten Emmy Awards and consistently receiving high ratings from critics. Lead actor Bryan Cranston and supporting actor Aaron Paul were in particular singled out for their outstanding work in the series, which lasted from 2008-2013.

The story revolves around Walter White (Cranston), a struggling Albuquerque chemistry teacher diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Faced with an uncertain future and his own mortality, Walter takes desperate measures to provide for his family. Unbeknownst to his pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his disabled teenage son Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte), Walter teams up with a former student of his, Jesse Pinkman (Paul), in order to cook, manufacture, and distribute crystal meth. In doing so, Walter becomes entangled in a dangerous business that threatens to destroy him and his family, including his in-laws, shallow kleptomaniac Marie (Betsy Brandt) and ruthless DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris).

Walter deals with numerous roadblocks and obstacles as he becomes Heisenberg, the most powerful drug lord in the border region. Things often go awry as he deals with rival suppliers for the cartel, the DEA, and everything in between – all while battling cancer. Helped by Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a suitably slimy lawyer, Walter and Jesse become living legends in the meth business. Numerous memorable characters emerge in the drug underworld, including the mysterious Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) and the cold-blooded hit man Mike (Jonathan Banks), as Walter and Jesse are enveloped in an unforgiving business.

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Initially, studios were uncomfortable with the premise of Gilligan’s show; they didn’t like the fact that the hero becomes the villain in the end. But AMC took a risk – and the rest, as they say, is history. The exceptional writing and jaw-dropping acting kept the show afloat, and also kept fans coming back for more. Cranston, best known as the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle, hits a grand-slam as Walter White/Heisenberg. The character is simultaneously appalling and sympathetic. He has a family. He’s dying of lung cancer. But he’s also a ruthless meth distributor whose own pride and greed will stop at nothing. In Gilligan’s own words, Cranston’s performance is “a trick. I still have no idea how he does it.”

On a side note, as intense as this story is, there is no preaching. This isn’t a PSA against drugs, a la “Meth – not even once.” This series does not show the consequences of using hard drugs; rather, it is about one man’s descent into destruction. In New Mexico, a real place that has a rate of drug use triple the national average, the show hit a nerve with people. Breaking Bad is undoubtedly a powerful show that is almost reminiscent of a Greek tragedy.

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Gilligan rejected the traditional story arcs of primetime television, making the characters change over time rather than stay in limbo. A lapsed Catholic, Gilligan wanted the show to be about moral consequences, karma, and the cost of a life of crime.

And perhaps that is Breaking Bad‘s greatest strength – the fact that in the dark, unforgiving world of drug trafficking, there is still morality and there is still a cost of not doing the right thing. Despite Walter’s good intentions of wanting to help his family, what he does is still wrong, period. Gilligan went on record as saying that despite his lack of religious beliefs, he still believes in an absolute morality: “If there is no such thing as cosmic justice, what is the point of being good?” Gilligan asks.

In another interview, Gilligan mentioned the philosophy behind the morals of his show:

“I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. ‘I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.'”

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In examining the title Breaking Bad (which means “to raise hell”), one can approach it philosophically: what makes a man bad? Is he born that way? Or does he consciously choose to make bad decisions that hurt him and the people he loves? The show certainly takes the latter approach, to its benefit. It’s refreshing to see a TV show with such an honest portrayal of humanity.

I end this post with an encouragement to everyone out there who has not seen this show. Watch it. It’s explosive, harrowing, and poses some great questions.

 

 

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The biggest rock band you’ve never heard of

 

 

 

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When you think about the history of rock and metal music, there are numerous subgenres – glam metal, hard rock, and space rock, just to name a few – that have influenced musicians worldwide. Now, 60 years after the British Invasion, the list of cultures and genres that span the rock world is impressive.

Meanwhile, classical music is commonly overlooked in the world of rock. You may be asking yourself the connection between the two. Most symphonic rock bands have failed to find a truly international audience.

One place not usually recognized as a haven for rock and metal is Japan. Long isolated from the west in pretty much every way, you wouldn’t think that Japan would be home to a thriving rock industry, especially considering that the men and women leading the charge in the early days of rock were almost entirely from America and Europe.

But I’m about to rock your world – no pun intended.

What if I told you that there is a band from Japan that has filled the Tokyo Dome a record 13 times and has sold over 20 million albums worldwide? I would be describing X Japan, a hugely successful band that combines both rock and classical music to create a beautiful, cutting-edge sound.

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The early years of X Japan were strange indeed. Again, that country is not well-known for producing rock or metal acts, but that didn’t stop youngsters Toshi Deyama (vocals) and Yoshiki Hiyashi (drums/piano/lyrics) from creating their own group.

Today, X has become nothing short of iconic in their home country and has developed an enormous following nearly everywhere in Asia. They started off as a power/speed metal band, but always placed an emphasis on a unique sound infused with piano and strings. You could call them “symphonic” or “progressive” – and those words certainly come to mind when listening to the music – but X has never shied away from their identity as rockstars.

Originating in Chiba (a suburb of Tokyo), X started as a small project by Toshi and Yoshiki, who were childhood friends. Yoshiki had grown up listening to classical music; his mom was a piano teacher and he had played since age three. Later, Yoshiki discovered the glam-infused rebellion of rock and metal at age 10 when he bought a KISS album, shortly after the sudden suicide of his father. Today, Yoshiki looks back on that sad time in his life as therapeutic. 

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The band that became X started in 1982, but didn’t achieve a breakthrough until 1988-89 with the release of Vanishing Vision and Blue Blood, respectively. By then, X was composed of Yoshiki, Toshi, Tomoaki “Pata” Ishizuka on rhythm guitar, Hideto “Hide” Matsumoto on lead guitar, and Taiji Sawada on bass. With the success of Blue Blood, which stayed on the charts for more than 100 weeks, X established themselves as an up-and-coming metal act in the Far East.

In 1991, the band released Jealousy and it remains their highest-selling record to date, with hit singles like “Say Anything” and “Silent Jealousy.” After the album’s release, Taiji left the band and was replaced by Hiroshi “Heath” Morie on bass.

Two years later, X made an experimental album called Art of Life – it consisted of only one song, clocking in at 29 minutes long, and remains the group’s most ambitious work to date. With no real chorus, a number of guitar solos, and an eight-minute-long piano solo, Art of Life was a surprising success, and it sold over 600,000 copies.

The band later released Dahlia in 1996, which was an album primarily consisting of piano-driven ballads, continuing in Art of Life‘s direction. But on September 22, 1997, the members of X held a press conference and announced the breakup of the band. They played a final show on New Year’s Eve of that year.

The decision to break up was a mutual one. Many of the band members wanted to release solo material and focus on different projects, while Toshi wanted to leave rock music altogether in favor of a simpler life. So after selling hundreds of thousands of records and changing the face of Japanese music, X disbanded.

Then, tragedy struck. Guitarist Hide was found dead in his apartment on May 2, 1998, sending shockwaves throughout the music world. After a night of partying, the 33-year-old rockstar had fallen asleep underneath a doorknob with a towel around his neck, accidentally strangling himself. Although officially ruled a suicide, it is believed that Hide was trying to relieve muscular pain in his back and neck (a common problem for rock musicians) when he fell asleep and died. The surviving band members later remarked that no suicide note was left at the scene and that Hide was not obviously suffering from any depression at the time of his death.

After attempts (and varying degrees of success) at solo careers and side projects, the members of X finally reunited in 2007 after a decade-long hiatus. Adding a new member, Sugizo, on guitar, the band embarked on an ambitious tour that eventually brought them through North America for the first time ever in 2010. Playing once again at packed venues and armed with new singles “I.V.” and “Jade,” X was still rocking and captivating listeners worldwide. They have plans to eventually record a brand-new album, containing lyrics written almost entirely in English.

As the saying goes, “They’re huge in Japan.” Well, in the case of X, it might not be long before they are huge everywhere.

 

“Silent Jealousy”

 

“Jade”

 

The 2014 NMSU football schedule

*indicates Sun Belt Conference game.

Aug. 28 – vs. Cal Poly Mustangs

Sept. 6 – @ Georgia State Panthers*

Sept. 13 – @ UTEP Miners

Sept. 20 – vs. New Mexico Lobos

Sept. 27 – @ LSU Tigers

Oct. 4 – vs. Georgia Southern Eagles*

Oct. 11 – @ Troy Trojans*

Oct. 18 – @ Idaho Vandals*

Nov. 1 – vs. Texas State Bobcats*

Nov. 8 – vs. Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns*

Nov. 22 – vs. Louisiana-Monroe Warhawks*

Nov. 29 – @ Arkansas State Red Wolves*

Offseason developments

In addition to the Aggies bringing in a class of 25 recruits and hiring veteran Larry Coyer as defensive coordinator, the team will start spring practice in March. The 2014 schedule has also been announced (more on that later).

The Aggies enter spring practice with a number of questions on both sides of the ball.

  • Who replaces Austin Franklin as the go-to receiver? The Aggies are deep at that position, with Jerrel Brown, Joseph Matthews, Joshua Bowen, and Adam Shapiro all having their moments in 2013, but the real revelations could be a pair of redshirt freshmen from Texas, Greg Hogan and Prentavious Morehead.
  • Is Brandon Betancourt healthy? The Las Cruces native was having a breakout year in 2013 before hurting his foot in a win over Abilene Christian, and apparently his recovery has been slow. Sophomore Xavier Hall is a speedster, but at 5’8″, he is too slender to handle 20-25 carries a game. Keep an eye on two young contributors: Larry Rose, who scored an eye-popping 51 touchdowns last year in Texas, and redshirt freshman Marquette Washington, a decorated prep standout in California.
  • The Aggies surprised some when they moved do-it-all senior Travaughn Colwell to safety in the offseason. Colwell runs a 4.5 in the 40 and is a natural athlete. It will be interesting to see how quickly he picks up a new position.
  • The Aggies’ special team unit (with the exception of departed punter Cayle Chapman-Brown) was awful last year. Coach Martin, who coordinates special teams himself, is hoping that some of the freshmen he signed in the Class of 2014 will improve the unit’s speed.
  • Who’s the quarterback? NMSU’s offense struggled often last year due to a lack of an elite playmaker at QB. Expressing a desire to “start over” at the position, Martin and his staff signed six QBs in this year’s recruiting class. Only one, however, is on campus now (junior college transfer Tyler Rogers).

The Good Shepherd (2006)

Although a fictional tale, this film is based on actual events during the Cold War period. It is the previously untold story of the birth of the Central Intelligence Agency and a spellbinding showcase of one man’s life and struggles to remain sane and loyal in the midst of secrets and deception.

The film begins in spring 1961 during the Kennedy Administration. An anonymous package containing an audio recording and some film stock is dropped off at the home of CIA operative Edward B. Wilson (Matt Damon). We are informed that this package could contain critical data that may explain why the Big of Pigs invasion failed – as well as expose a mole within the covert organization.

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Flashback to 1939. Edward is a bright, gifted English literature student at Yale who is a member of America’s most secretive society, the Skull and Bones. Approached by an FBI agent who informs him of the secret dealings of his poetry professor (a Nazi sympathizer), Edward is drawn into a world of secrecy. A man of few words, Edward was affected dramatically by the suicide of his father, a Navy admiral, at age six. As such, Edward rarely reveals his personal opinions or views, and is reluctant to share anything with anybody. Despite his many flaws, he loves America and believes in what he does; by all accounts, Edward is an ideal spy candidate.

As war breaks out in Europe, Edward meets General Bill Sullivan (Robert De Niro) at a Skull and Bones retreat in upstate New York. Sullivan has been asked by the

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President to create a foreign intelligence agency. Sullivan is looking for bright, talented, well-educated young men like Edward to join what eventually becomes known as the OSS. Later that night, Edward sleeps with his best friend’s sister, Margaret (Angelina Jolie); she gets pregnant and a quick wedding follows. Edward is then sent overseas to London, and eventually to West Berlin. Throughout these events, he becomes entangled in a risky business that threatens to damage him and his family.

Following the war, Edward returns home to discover things have changed. His relationship with Margaret is strained at best, and he is unable to connect with his son Edward Jr (Eddie Redmayne). General Sullivan contacts Edward again, asking him to head up a main division of the CIA, which has become the peacetime equivalent of the OSS. Sullivan, perhaps even more so than Edward, was born to be a government official. As he says, “I believe in a just God. I always seem to err on the side of democracy.” He confides to Edward that there is great danger in power abuses occurring within the CIA, and tells him to be careful.

Meanwhile, Edward Jr. has grown up and, despite his minimal relationship with his distant father, longs to impress him by attending Yale and joining the Skull and Bones, which he does. What ensues could potentially destroy both father and son and simultaneously bring about a major change of leadership in America’s most powerful covert agency.

 

It took me awhile to like this movie for what it is: a drama. Directed by Robert De Niro (who also portrays General Sullivan), this film is not sleek, sexy, or action-packed. It’s a drama, and that’s how it should be appreciated. Nonetheless, the film is almost three hours long and can be tough to sit through at times due to the slow pace. Admittedly, I thought the film was average at best when I first saw it. But the subject matter intrigued me and I bought it on DVD. After another viewing, I appreciated it as a drama and it’s now one of my favorite movies.

Featuring a star-studded supporing cast (including Alec Baldwin, John Turturro, William Hurt, Timothy Hutton, and Michael Gambon), the real standout here is Matt Damon in the lead role of Edward. Damon is terrific in the role, never showing much emotion, but doing it convincingly and truthfully. The best adjective to describe the performance would be “authentic.”

When first examined, The Good Shepherd is uninvolving and emotionally distant. But once appreciated for what it is, this film is a tour-de-force.

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Rating: 8/10

Released 2006

Directed by Robert De Niro

Screenplay by Eric Roth

Starring Matt Damon, Angelina Jolie, Robert De Niro, Lee Pace, William Hurt, Alec Baldwin, Tammy Blanchard, Billy Crudup, Eddie Redmayne, Michael Gambon, Timothy Hutton, John Turturro, John Sessions, Oleg Stefan, Martina Gedeck, Gabriel Macht, and Joe Pesci.

Rated R for some violence, sexuality and language.