Sunday, August 30, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.3: "My Old Kentucky Home"

OMG, best. ep. ever.

Ok, maybe not if I think back and remember the best of seasons 1 and 2. But this one just sparkled in a way I haven't seen in a while. It's the musical episode! And easily the most comical episode in MM history - I must have laughed out loud at least half a dozen times. At the same time, there was so much going on underneath and in between the funnies - the usual rich thematic layering, the acute observations of a society on the brink of change (though its members don't know it), and the nuances of the characters' positions in the social pecking order and their shifting relationships with one another. And of course, there was that jaw-dropping image - Roger in blackface - that's sure to rocket to the top of the list of "most shocking moments" in "Mad Men."

I'm too tired to do a recap that does the episode any real justice, but thought I'd flag some highlights (and lowlights):

-The entire reefer party in Paul's office: it's a toss-up who was more hilarious stoned, Peggy "I am so high" Olson or Paul Tiger Tone Kinsey.
-Jane falling down drunk ("I'm a nice person! Why don't you like me?"), esp. when bookended with her pathetic snobbishness towards Joan earlier
-Don's response to Gene's grumpy "You people think money is the answer to all problems"

-The Campbells' Charleston. That Pete sure can cut a rug!
-The ravishing concluding shot of Don & Betty in the woods. So beautiful, and yet there was something melancholy and fragile about it, too. Or maybe I'm just projecting my feelings about the Draper marriage onto that image.

-Don telling Roger he's an old fool. Roger's response puzzled me, though. Was it meant to be ironic?

-Roger's tribute to...Al Jolson? Paul Robeson? Whomever. That shit is just wrong. (btw, while Don's reaction was the most noticeable - I think he was just uncomfortable with the ongoing spectacle of Roger making an ass out of himself - Pete also had a very peculiar look on his face. Is this supposed to be yet another clue that Pete, however improbably, may be the most forward-thinking of that lot?)
-The triangulated tension between Gene, Sally, and Carla over the stolen money. Good on Carla for not taking crap from Gene, though the latter was surprisingly lucid. No fool he. The incorporation of Gibbon's Decline and Fall was perhaps a bit too on the nose, but I liked it.

-Every time Joan picked up on a hint that her husband wasn't the BMOC she thought he'd be. And her accordion solo - lovely, but so, so sad. Terrific acting by Christina Hendricks in this episode.

-The belly rub, and Betty's glances at that dude afterwards. Are we going to see her venture into Don territory? This would be much riskier, though, than her anonymous fling with Captain America last year.

Can't wait till next week.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Mehness of the Fall Movie Lineup, and What It Might Mean

No doubt about it, fall is my favorite time of year. Not just because of the cooler temperatures and crisper air, but because as a long-time student, I've always associated fall with the beginning of a new year - new opportunities, a fresh start - and a long-overdue resurgence of the arts scene. I'm no longer a student, but I still love the feeling of shaking off the summer doldrums and looking forward to the new seasons for orchestras, theater companies, dance companies, and my favorite TV shows. Above all, I love the return of intelligent movies for grown-ups, after a summer of mostly bang, boom, fart and f--k, interspersed with a handful of "chick flicks" of varying and largely unremarkable quality.

Of course, summer isn't over yet, and in fact this year there were a number of more cerebral, well-reviewed summer offerings, many of which I still have yet to see: e.g., "The Hurt Locker," "Ponyo," "Cold Souls," "In the Loop," "It Might Get Loud," and "District 9." (Though it says something, I think, that most of these movies were not on my radar at the beginning of the summer.)

But if Entertainment Weekly's Fall Movie Preview issue is any indicator, this may be the first fall in memory that I'm approaching feeling positively ho-hum. As always, I'm sure that excellent, as yet unheralded films - particularly in the independent and foreign genres - will sneak in and that some of these may end up garnering the attention they deserve. What I'm talking about, however, is the dearth of mainstream movies that pique my interest. In fact, I think there are really only two I'm actively anticipating right now: Spike Jonze's dreamy-looking "Where the Wild Things Are," and the bleakly post-apocalyptic "The Road," based on the Cormac McCarthy novel and starring Viggo Mortensen.

To be fair, there are some other films I'll see if the reviews are good. Like "Nine," another glitzy musical-turned-movie by "Chicago" director Rob Marshall, with a bedazzling cast that includes Daniel Day-Lewis, Nicole Kidman, Judi Dench, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, and, um, Fergie. Or "Bright Star," Jane Campion's take on the romance between poet John Keats and his beloved Fanny Brawne. Or Steven Soderbergh's "The Informant!" (though the premise doesn't much interest me), or George Clooney's "Up in the Air" (ditto), or "Avatar," James Cameron's much-ballyhooed return to directing (though I think I was more interested before I saw the trailer). And then there are those that I feel like I should be interested in but just ain't, e.g., Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Lovely Bones and Guy Ritchie's reinvention of Sherlock Holmes as a brawny Robert Downey, Jr. Oh yeah, and Hilary Swank as Amelia Earhart. No thanks. All in all, slim pickings, at least from my subjective, middlebrow Hollywood-centered point of view.

What happened? Could just be an off year. Or, more portentously, it could be the first fall season to reflect a general movement by the studios away from the kind of movies I tend to want to see. The reason? Those movies - glossy, smart, well-made studio productions like "Duplicity" or nearly every movie Russell Crowe's been in recently - don't make money, esp. when compared with the astronomical take of blockbuster franchise flicks like "Transformers" or the high profit margins of shoestring-budget indie or borderline-indie hits like "Juno." This development has gotten plenty of attention already in the media, a recent example being an article in the Washington Post (never known to be ahead of the curve on entertainment trends) with the telling headline, "Rating High on Hollywood's List: Immature Audiences":

[O]nly two types of movies -- big-budget blockbusters or poverty-row strivers -- seem to be making profits these days. The middle range of high-end, relatively sophisticated movies made with glossy production values and well-paid stars might do well with critics and some filmgoers but, between star salaries and the high costs of marketing, fail to earn their keep. And many observers worry that this will influence Hollywood's decisions about which projects to greenlight.

Note: These aren't movies described as "quirky" in their newspaper ads. Nor are they "gritty," "edgy," "offbeat" or "groundbreaking." These are movies that are simply smart, well-made and directed at filmgoers with discerning but not necessarily adventurous tastes.

A few weeks earlier, A.O. Scott had a more nuanced but considerably sharper take on the forces shaping Hollywood's product line. Describing a growing dominance of what he labels "spoon-fed cinema," he excoriates what he perceives to be the studios' increasing infantilization of their audiences, which ends up becoming a horrible self-perpetuating phenomenon. What he doesn't address is the fact that the fall tradition of "serious," heavyweight movies, admittedly fueled largely by the studios' insatiable hunger for Oscar, have by and large resisted this trend. What worries me is that this tradition, too, may finally be succumbing, or at least eroding, in response to the collapsing bottom line.

Perhaps I shouldn't worry. Shrinking profits or no, I'll be very surprised if Hollywood completely loses its yen for Oscar or its penchant for transferring critically acclaimed novels to the screen, even if blockbusters like Harry Potter or the Twilight series are the ones that make bank. But this fall's meager lineup, together with the Academy's decision to nominate ten films per year for Best Picture (supposedly, so the theory goes, to make room for commercial juggernauts like last year's "The Dark Knight"), really makes me wonder if we're ultimately condemned to a dual world of cineplexes overflowing with glorified product placement, talking CG-enhanced rodents, potty humor, and histrionic Michael Bay action sequences on the one hand, and on the other, little arthouse theaters filled with hand-held digital films about self-consciously quirky characters carefully examining their navels. Plus the occasional low-budget horror flick, a genre that never seems to die.

Or maybe not - something tells me that's an oversimplification, and moviemaking and moviegoing tastes will continue to develop in ways we can't possibly predict at this stage. But one thing seems fairly certain: the days of old-school Hollywood prestige projects are numbered.


On a different note, I was delighted to see that A.O. Scott's "Critic's Pick" video this week highlighted "Gattaca," a 1997 futuristic sci-fi film in which an Everyman protagonist (Ethan Hawke) attempts to make his way in a rigidly stratified society where the people at the top are genetically engineered, and "natural" people like him are the peons. That's a terrible description, but I'm too tired to elaborate on it. Just trust me (and A.O. Scott): this is a damn good movie. I've always thought it was severely underrated. I saw (and reviewed) it for my college newspaper, and remember coming away distinctly impressed. The general critical reaction, however, was mixed to cool, and the commercial reception cooler still. More than ten years out, it deserves to be reevaluated.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

R.I.P. Senator Kennedy

These days, especially in these sorry times on Capitol Hill, "Senator" doesn't carry the cachet it arguably once did. But there's still something about the word, as a prefix to Ted Kennedy's name, that sounds like a title of distinction. There's no doubt he wore it with pride, and I would say he executed it with honor - even if his conduct in other departments of his life was too often less than honorable.

"End of an era" is a phrase frayed from overuse, yet as with "Senator," it seems to have a special significance when attached to Teddy Kennedy. He may not have been the last of the Kennedys, technically, or even the last of his generation of Kennedys, but he was the last true carrier of the Kennedy mythos. He also may have been one of the last legislators of his kind - the kind who could work effectively across the aisle without losing his identity as a liberal Democrat, and the kind who was always a little larger than life but used that to his advantage.

We can't ignore Chappaquidick, nor should we. But it isn't the only thing to remember about his life. An anonymous commentator on one of his obituaries had it right:

He must have known that Chappaquiddick would always be his legacy. He must have known that he would always be an assassin's target. He must have known that he would never be more beloved than his brothers. At some point, long ago, he knew he'd never be President.

He could have easily retreated into a private life of wealth and leisure. But he soldiered on through decades of cynicism and ignorance, when Liberal was a dirty word.

What/who did he do it for? You and me, and America. That's what/who he did it for. I, for one, am grateful to the man.

Me, too.

Rest in peace, Senator.

Monday, August 24, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.2: "Love Among the Ruins"

Well now, that's more like it.

A lot to chew on in this episode (not that that isn't true of every episode). Much more focus on Peggy, making up for her relative lack of scenes last week. A woman caught between two contradictory roles - that's a theme the show has been developing for a while now, but which came especially sharply to the forefront tonight. Perhaps a little too much so; it wasn't exactly subtle. Still, Peggy's response to the conflict was absolutely intriguing. She's clearly experimenting with her persona, but what will be the ultimate result? (And by the way, is she just naturally drawn to guys who look like Pete Campbell, or are they just naturally drawn to her?)

There was something a little surreal about opening with the clip from "Bye Bye Birdie." Almost had a David Lynch-like feel; it reminded me a little of the opening of "Mulholland Drive." I thought Ann-Margret was actually supposed to be able to sing, based on her co-starring in all of those bad Elvis movies; apparently not. Not that it mattered, if the reaction of the men folk at Sterling & Cooper was any indicator.

For the first time since I started watching MM, I actually felt a pang of sympathy for Don's domestic situation. Having to come home to a moody pregnant wife and a houseful of in-laws, especially after a bad day at work, is no picnic. I'd read a spoiler about papa Gene moving in with them, but what was most interesting to me was how willfully Betty was rushing to attribute malign motives to her brother and sister-in-law - motives that their private conversation belied, IMO. Don't know what to make of Don's taking charge of the situation. Was it out of genuine consideration for Betty, or just an alpha-male reflex to her brother's dithering? An assertion of control here, in this sphere, that he didn't have at work? Perhaps some combination of all of the above. Still, the look Betty gave him when she realized what he'd done was quite touching. But this can't possibly end well, picture-perfect family though they are.

Significance of the Maypole dance at the end, Don's fixation on the teacher, and his stroking the grass? For me, it had echoes of the fantasy he plied Betty with in the last episode to help her sleep - imagine you're on a beach, digging your fingers into the cool sand beneath your chair, etc. Perhaps Don was entering his own, um, happy place? Or maybe he just got a good idea for the Diet Pepsi ad right then & there.

Other random observations:

Totally with Paul and the naysayers about Penn Station. The place is now depressingly void of charm or grandeur, both of which it appears to have once had in abundance. But how in hell did Paul get away with telling off the client? And if the Brits are even more conservative than Don Draper, conservative enough to turn down Madison Square Garden, I think Sterling Cooper is in trouble. Of course we already knew that.

Yay for Embeth Davidtz as Mrs. British financial manager (or whatever he is)! Loved how every word out of her mouth sounded like a sneer. Wonder what they'll do with her character. Not have her sleep with Don, I hope.

Oh Roger. Get a clue. At least you always get the best lines, though I forget what they were this week.

Odd but poignant moment with Roger and Joan, and the beat before he calls her "Mrs. [whatever Dr. Rapist's name was]." And her unreadable expression before she turned away.

Some strange editing in some of the scenes, and I could have done without the close-up on Roger's daughter's wedding invitation (hey look, everyone! the wedding date is NOVEMBER 23, 1963! Could that possibly mean anything? Could it now?), but overall, a well-executed episode, stronger and faster-paced than the season premiere.

"Soul Power" Gets its Groove On; "Julie & Julia" Make a Winning Recipe


directed by Jeffrey Levy-Hinte
starring many legendary musicians + Muhammad Ali, Don King, and lots of nameless organizers and spectators

“Soul Power” is one of those rare films that feels, purely and simply, like a celebration. Perhaps because that’s precisely what it’s about: a celebration of the greatest that African and African-American music had to offer in 1974, in the form of an epic concert in Kinshasa featuring a lineup that included James Brown, Bill Withers, B.B. King, the Spinners, Celia Cruz, and Miriam Makebe, to name just the more famous performers. Zaire 74, as it was called, was originally double-billed with an epic fight better known as the Rumble in the Jungle. As it turns out, injuries forced the George Foreman-Muhammad Ali faceoff to be postponed for several weeks, but the other show went on as scheduled.

Director Jeffrey Levy-Hinte, who worked on “When We Were Kings,” the 1996 documentary of the far more famous fight, put together “Soul Power” entirely out of historical footage of Zaire 74 and the preparations leading up to it. There’s no present-day commentary, no voice-over, and no overtly political or sociological angle in general. Perhaps as a consequence, the prevailing mood is one of unfiltered joy—joy in music, performance, and the communion that comes out of both. It’s something like what I expected “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” to be and wasn’t quite. The film takes a little while to get going (though the lead-up has its share of amusing moments, including one very musical plane ride to Kinshasa), but once the performers start to take the stage, it never ceases to be anything less than spellbinding. Their connection with their music, and with the meaning of being in that place at that time, is so vibrant, so palpable, we can feel it over thirty years later, as intensely and immediately as we feel the beaded sweat on their faces, shining through the sweltering heat of a September night in Kinshasa. If nothing else, “Soul Power” is worth going to for the concert footage alone. To this hour, I’m still haunted by Bill Withers’ rendition of “Hope She’ll Be Happier”—soul power, indeed—and still kicking myself for having to go to the bathroom during Celia Cruz’s number.

But the offstage dynamics are equally riveting, whether it’s the sight of African and African-American women learning new dance moves from each other backstage, or the shots of performers improvising with locals in the street, and the fascinatingly varied reactions of the latter to the camera’s presence. And there’s a generous sprinkling throughout of Muhammad Ali waiting for his own stage while shooting the shit with reporters and being his legendarily charming, provocative, hambone self. It’s a delight to see him juxtaposed with that other charismatic showboat, James Brown, and between the two of them they provide most of the social commentary that the film otherwise leaves to the margins or deeply buried in subtext. (Dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who approved the fight and the concert, gets only a few very glancing, mostly oblique swipes.) Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing that the focus remains on the music and the sense of promise that Zaire 74 represented. That history may or may not ultimately have fulfilled that promise takes nothing away from the glorious sense of anticipation and wonder, crystallized in that moment, on that stage, that “Soul Power” captures so effectively.


Also saw:


directed by Nora Ephron
starring Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Stanley Tucci, Eric Messina, Jane Lynch
based on the book by Julie Powell

I enjoyed this movie quite a bit, but really don’t have much to say about it that hasn’t already been said. Is Meryl Streep fabulous as Julia Child, the woman who introduced American households to the delights of French cuisine? Of course. Is Amy Adams miscast as Julie Powell, the formerly frustrated writer who cooked and blogged her way through the entirety of Mastering the Art of French Cooking? Perhaps. Does she win us over anyway? Yes. Does Stanley Tucci do his usual wonderfully understated supporting work as Mr. Julia Child (aka Paul Child)? Yes. (Eric Messina, too, delivers a strong performance as Eric Powell, Julie’s supportive but not-quite-saintly husband.) Do the dishes look scrumptious? Oh yes. And the shots of the Parisian streets, markets, bistros, and kitchens that shaped Julia’s mission? Those too. The parallel shots of Queens and Manhattan—ehh, not so much.

“Julie & Julia” is warm, entertaining, and memorable chiefly for Meryl’s star turn as the First Lady of American celebrity chefs. Julie Powell doesn’t burn quite as bright as a character, partly because there’s an inherent conflict between what the film tries to convey as her bitchy edge, a self-absorption bordering on solipsism, and Adams’ inherent adorableness, a conflict the actress doesn’t succeed in resolving. Still, it’s that incorrigible likeability that helps make Julie sympathetic, and her eventual triumph feel like a sincere tribute to la Julia, and not the self-serving act of exploitation some critics (and, it’s suggested, even Julia herself) have felt it to be. I don’t think anyone involved in the making of this film, including Julie Powell herself, meant to imply any equivalency between the accomplishments of the two women. It’s simply a story of inspiration, delivered as lightly as a good soufflé, and it goes down just as easily. Bon appétit!


Monday, August 17, 2009

Welcome back "Mad Men"!

And away we go!

First reaction: I am, truth to tell, just a wee bit disappointed with the S3 premiere. The writing was more uneven than usual, to my mind - some parts didn't ring quite true, and some themes/storylines lacked, well, freshness, though it's too early to tell where some of them are going.

However: There were excellent moments, as always, and I DEFINITELY think the episode planted some very, very promising seeds for the rest of the season.

WARNING: MANY spoilers below

Things I loved:

-Pete v. Ken: Awesome setup for the rest of the season, and the contrast between the two of them was hilarious.
-Pete's little dance of joy
-The look on Don's face when he saw what was going on in Sal's room. Also his reaction later to Sal, and Sal's reaction to his reaction. Great acting by Bryan Batt throughout this ep.
-All of Roger Sterling's five minutes he had onscreen. And I don't even like the guy (John Slattery, though, is marv)
-Bert Cooper's taste in art strikes again!

Things I didn't love/things that felt forced:
-The vapid flight attendants, esp. the blond one (btw, was she or was she not supposed to have a Southern accent?)
-Related: Don cheating. It's just...getting old.
-Don's "flashback" sequence at the beginning (though of course it couldn't have been a true flashback - more of a reconstruction based on what he knew, I guess)
-The meltdown by the head of accounts after he got canned. It was funny at first, and then it wasn't.
-Don being able to reassure the anxious London Fog guys in five seconds and about as many words. I mean, it was a good line, but really, I wasn't buying *them* buying it.

Jury's out:
-The Brits. Especially the new non-secretary who's a dead ringer for Pete

Favorite comment thus far from Television Without Pity:

"Needed more: Peggy, Roger with a drink, cigarettes, Joan.

Needed less: Dippy stewardess, Pete whining, Trudy (although her hat can stay)."

As the chappies from Putnam Powell & Lowe (which I keep thinking of as "Dewey Cheatem & Howe" in my head) would say - brilliant!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A few thoughts on John Hughes

I was out of town this past weekend, and so missed my chance to offer a timely commentary on the death of John Hughes, Hollywood's poet laureate of '80s suburban teenage angst. Perhaps that's appropriate, since I came to his movies quite late - I was a little too young when they were actually in theaters, though I vaguely remember some of my older cousins talking about them - and to date I've seen only three of them (admittedly the big guns): "The Breakfast Club," "Sixteen Candles," and "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." (I don't count "Home Alone," which Hughes wrote and produced, but didn't direct.) Also, by the time I got around to them I already had conflicted feelings about Hughes, for one simple reason: the one memorable non-white character in his canon happens to be one of the most ineradicable Asian American stereotypes to come out of my childhood.

I'm speaking, of course, of Long Duk Dong - he of the pidgin English, bad bowl haircut, and hopeless ching-chong foreignness, the gong-heralded exchange student from "Sixteen Candles." Come on, non-Asians might say, it was just supposed to be funny, not serious, no one takes it seriously. Depends on whom you ask, is what I say. NPR did a feature on the character last year that pretty well explained why so many Asian American men of my generation think differently. Having said that, I'll admit that when I finally did see "Sixteen Candles," I was less outraged than I thought I would be. First, because Gedde Watanabe, who plays the "Donger" (and whom I'm glad to say I knew and loved as Yosh from "ER" before I saw him as LDD) is an infernally able comic actor; I found myself laughing involuntarily before cursing myself. I don't blame Watanabe for taking the part, considering roles for Asian American actors weren't exactly plentiful back then or even, sadly, now. Second and perhaps more importantly, taken in context, the Donger is no more of a caricature than many of the other characters that populate the movie. And while he is supposed to be the ultimate outsider of all outsiders, he still ends up pretty happy: he gets laid. That's kind of the point that underlies Hughes' other films: everyone, no matter how cool or not cool, is just another brand of freak inside, and at bottom, everyone wants the same basic things. Still, I maintain that of the three Hughes films I've seen, "Sixteen Candles" is by far the weakest.

But oh well. We'll always have the infectious breeziness of "Ferris Bueller," which deserves its iconic status, and "The Breakfast Club," which I could watch - and have watched - over and over again. It's not a perfect film by any means, but it perfectly captures that sense of wanting to fit in, not knowing in the least how, and secretly suspecting the whole charade is a sham, that just about everyone has at one point or another during adolescence. Or even beyond. That's Hughes' legacy, and it's one any filmmaker would envy.

Monday, August 03, 2009

"Moon": This is not a review

But it is a recommendation. "Moon" is a small independent film directed by Duncan Jones, son of David Bowie, that's still only playing in a handful of theaters across the country. Despite that, it's picked up a fair amount of positive buzz - not so much among mainstream critics (who have mostly given it mildly positive but not ecstatic reviews) as online circles of film buffs and sci-fi aficionados.

I haven't decided whether to write a full review, because it's the kind of movie I want to discuss in a way that would reveal far too much. So for now here's the thumbnail version.

Set in the not-too-distant future, "Moon" is about a dude named Sam (played by a dude named Sam - a brilliantly cast Sam Rockwell) who's finishing up a three-year contract running a one-man energy-harvesting operation on the dark side of the moon. (No Pink Floyd jokes here.) It's just him and a highly artificially intelligent computer named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), and the three years of virtual solitude - apart from limited communication with the company and his family on earth - have clearly taken their toll. He starts to have hallucinations. He gets into an accident. Then things really get weird when he encounters a guy who looks and talks just like him and claims to be him.

The film obviously owes much to Kubrick's "2001" and both versions of "Solaris," and pays subtler homage to various other sci-fi classics. It owes an even greater debt to at least one other famous movie that I can't name without potentially giving the whole game away. My main problem with "Moon" is that the ideas it explores have all been much more thoroughly and deeply mined by other films, and it doesn't really bring anything new to them. That said, it's well executed as far as it goes, has some clever touches, achieves impressive visual effects on a shoestring budget (think miniatures, à la original Star Wars), and is definitely primed to provoke both thought and discussion afterwards. It also features a remarkable double-lead performance by Rockwell that should get more attention than it's currently receiving.

The movie's low profile reminds me a little of that of "Gattaca" and "Strange Days," underrated sci-fi movies that didn't make a big splash either critically or commercially, but ended up picking up a small core - not quite a cult - of dedicated fans (and no, I don't just mean me). Only time will tell if "Moon" goes the same way. But it's certainly well set up for that path.