Monday, September 28, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.7: "Seven Twenty-Three"

And the curveballs just keep on coming...

I called the Peggy-Duck hookup fairly early in the episode, but I most certainly did NOT see it coming before tonight. And while I'm in the very small minority of MM viewers that actually likes Duck (or at least is, or was, sympathetic to him), this turn made me feel really, really icky. It can't be just because he's so much older than Peggy, considering I found Betty's interaction with the silver-haired Henry what's-his-name in the same episode kind of hot. Maybe it's because Peggy seemed so vulnerable and Duck seemed so aware of it when he moved in for the kill. It doesn't help that I strongly suspect the main reason he did it was, again, to get revenge on Don; maybe he even thinks Peggy and Don were lovers. If so, I really don't like where the writers are taking his character, though I heart Mark Moses.

But who knows with Peggy...she may be the one who ends up using and screwing Duck (I don't just mean literally), esp. if she ultimately decides to stay at Sterling Cooper.

If she does, no thanks to Don Draper. I never cut Don any slack, but even for him, he was an unmitigated asshole in this episode. His smackdown of Peggy was a brutal response to circumstances that had nothing to do with her. His outburst to Betty was almost as ugly and even more unreasonable - kudos to Betty for standing up to him and not taking his crap. And even though he was mugged, blackmailed, and effectively emasculated at just about every turn (even his interaction with teacher-lady didn't go exactly as expected, though it's obvious she wants to bone him), I can't feel any real sympathy for him. He had it coming to him. So he doesn't get to set the terms of all his relationships anymore - boo fucking hoo.

Oh, and mixing alcohol, barbiturates, driving, and picking up hitchhikers? Phenomenally stupid, Don, even for 1963.

Finally, I'm glad to see Betty get a chance to peek out of the shell that is her home life. I thought belly-feeler Rockefeller man was more than a little inappropriate, not to mention borderline creepy, in "My Old Kentucky Home," but there was definitely a spark between them, as this episode confirmed. I still don't trust the guy - the comments of the other Junior League women suggest he's no less of a hound than Don (though at least he doesn't appear to be married anymore) - but there's a part of me that wishes Betty would have an affair with him anyway. Especially if Don insists on sleeping with teacher-lady.

Other random observations:

Ol' Bert Cooper is still a sly fox. And color me surprised to see Pete Campbell being the level-headed and clear-sighted one in this episode, esp. as compared with Peggy. (Though I did laugh at her line to him about not coming into her office and spreading his paranoia to her - I'm paraphrasing. And he is so going to flip his lid if he finds out about her and Duck.)

Still not enjoying the Dick Whitman pseudo-memories, though this one worked a little more for me than the others.

More Vietnam references - I wonder if they're setting the stage for a more direct impact on one of our characters.

I'm with the interior decorator - that sofa looked truly hideous on the Draper hearth. Though Betty looked like a dream lying on it.

What was the solar eclipse supposed to symbolize? Sepinwall has a pretty good theory on that, and I haven't come up with a better one.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

An "Informant" Walks Into an Office Building...


directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Matt Damon, Scott Bakula, Joel McHale, a whole bunch of random vaguely familiar actors

As a film, “The Informant!” is an odd bird. It’s also an oddly enjoyable one, despite—or perhaps because of—the offset between its breezy comic tone and an ever-present sense that something is wildly off-kilter. In fact, that tension is what lingers in the memory, long after the details of the plot fade away.

At first glance, the real-life story behind the film hardly seems like the stuff of comedy: A high-level executive of an agribusiness megacorporation voluntarily goes undercover for the FBI to collect evidence of a massive price-fixing conspiracy, only to reveal, over the course of the investigation, that neither he nor his motives are what they seem. This sounds like the premise for a thriller or, at the least, a serious psychological drama. Or it would to most people. But then, director Steven Soderbergh isn’t most people.

I have to admit I’ve never been able to form an entirely cohesive opinion of Soderbergh’s work. Though he’s made movies that I’ve loved (“Ocean’s Eleven,” the underrated “Solaris”) and admired (“Traffic,” “Out of Sight”), and none that I’ve seen and hated, there’s a polished smoothness, almost glibness, to his style that tends to make even his best, most probing films feel a little slick, a little lightweight, or at least not as consequential as one feels he intended them to be. This, together with the level of commercial success he’s achieved with his mainstream features, has also tended to obscure the genuine experimentalism he usually indulges in smaller, lower-profile, lower-budget ventures wedged between installments of the “Ocean’s” franchise.

In some sense, then, it isn’t, or shouldn’t be, particularly surprising that this taste for experimentation shaped Soderbergh’s approach to “The Informant!” Aided by screenwriter Scott Burns, he’s turned the strange-but-true tale recounted in Kurt Eichenwald’s book of the same name (sans exclamation point) into a goofy upending, bordering on parody, of the standard whistleblower narrative. Right from the get-go, we’re confronted with the astounding spectacle of the would be-hero, Mark Whitacre (a superb Matt Damon, who deserves an Oscar nomination, though he probably won’t get one), with his well-fed, self-satisfied, slightly fatuous look, his ridiculous toupee, and his even more ridiculous interior monologue that runs ceaselessly from one non sequitur to the next—from the chlorine in swimming pools to how polar bears know to camouflage themselves. He may have a biochemistry degree from Cornell, but it’s almost impossible to take this guy seriously. The joke, of course, is that he’s a man whom quite a lot of people take seriously, from his colleagues at Archer Daniels Midland (one of those giant corporations that processes the unpronounceable ingredients in packaged foods) to his anxiously affectionate wife (Melanie Lynsky of “Heavenly Creatures”), to his harried FBI handlers (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, playing it straight and surprisingly sympathetic), who develop an amusingly protective relationship with their charge. (Other comedians pop up in small, mostly straight-man roles—presumably that’s part of the joke, too.) And as the government discovers, all at once but much too slowly, just how much of a loose cannon their inside man is, their panicked consternation is both believable and hilarious.

Soderbergh punches up the drollery through some idiosyncratic stylistic touches: even though the Whitacre/ADM story took place principally in the mid-’90s, the film has the look, feel, lighting, and even the musical score of something from a cheesy-but-durable ’70s TV show. Ultimately, though, the best and funniest thing about “The Informant!” is Damon, who delivers one of the slyest, deftest, and most remarkable performances of the year, and perhaps of his career, as the slippery, confounding Whitacre. From his cheerful, inflection-free voice-over to the contrast between his vacuously genial, ingenuous face and the hard, bright glint in his eye, he conveys the distinct and disconcerting impression of someone who might equally likely be a diabolical mastermind or just flat-out crazy. Layer after layer of deception peels away, eventually revealing clues to what Whitacre’s up to and why, he becomes a strangely tragic or pathetic figure, depending on your point of view, even as his claims become more and more outrageous.

Anchored by Damon’s (anti)star turn, “The Informant!” is the kind of movie that makes you laugh while it’s going on but leaves you thinking afterwards. Whether it’s an indictment of Whitacre, ADM, agribusiness, the Department of Justice, the kind of society that made Whitacre’s rise and fall possible, or all or none of these things, is left for the viewer to decide. Overall, however, it comes off less as a specifically targeted satire than as a broader commentary on human folly, greed, and capacity for self-deception—for which Mark Whitacre happened to be an especially flamboyant, and fragile, vessel.

Ah, Whitacre! Ah, humanity!


Thursday, September 24, 2009

And the best moment of the fall TV season so far...

...was not in "Mad Men" (much as I love that show).

Nope, that honor goes to a silly little show called "Glee," which for me just crossed over tonight from guilty pleasure to shameless addiction. Oh, it's got plenty of flaws - a couple of the storylines are a bit crazy, most of the characters border on caricature, and the tone sometimes wobbles uneasily between overbroad satire and after-school special sentimentalism. But the performers rock, the musical numbers are ace, and the unabashed celebration of song & dance goes straight to my karaoke-loving, former-choir-girl heart. And this week's episode made use of Beyoncé that was nothing short of sublime. Five words:

"Single Ladies" on football field.

And I'm not talking about the cheerleaders - I'm talking about the football team. You have to see it to believe it. I laughed so hard I think my neighbors could probably hear me.


On a different topic, it's a little late for a tribute to Patrick Swayze, and I'm not sure I'd be able to write much of one anyway, considering the only movie I recall ever seeing him in was "Dirty Dancing." Not that I couldn't write a whole post on "Dirty Dancing" alone, which is up there among my top semi-guilty pleasures of all time. "DD" is quite possibly the most viscerally satisfying dance movie ever made (and I'm a sucker for the genre), and a large part of that is due to Swayze. Although I was too young at the time to have the hots for him (and even when I was older I never really did), even at the age of 10 I could appreciate his outstanding grace and physical charisma and understand his appeal to the character of a quiet, bookish, ugly-duckling girl. He was a delight to watch in that movie.

But beyond that, Swazye was by all accounts a gracious, generous, deservedly well liked guy, and there's no question he died too young. This has been a bad year for the passing of cultural the rest of them, may he truly rest in peace.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.6: "Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency"

Hole-ee shit. I cannot believe what went down in THIS episode. Gruesomely funny, and also just plain gruesome. Who'da thought we'd ever see blood being splattered across the Mad Men's suits and office windows?

I've been feeling pretty under the weather this weekend so I'm going to turn in early tonight and do a fuller recap later - but just some brief thoughts:

Figures it was Lois. Is this the last we'll see of her? Can't say I'll miss her.

By contrast - Joan absolutely rules, and we'd better not be seeing less of her. Never have I admired her so much while feeling so badly for much talent, ability, COMPETENCE being so terribly wasted. I hope she finds a way out of that dead-end marriage, and I believe she will - she's got too much gumption to stay down forever. Christina Hendricks was fab, fab, fabulous again. Joan & Don in the hospital waiting room was quite possibly my favorite scene so far this season. Joan's last convo with Peggy, OTOH (Peggy all awkwardly well-meaning as only Peggy could be), made my heart break.

Speaking of Peggy, one little detail I liked: Pete catching her when she swooned. Aw. Have to admit I'm still kind of 'shipping those two, though I also root for Pete-Trudy sometimes.

I need a freeze-frame shot of that "reorganization" chart drawn up by Guy Kendrick aka One-Foot...though I suppose it's moot now(?) since One-Foot is out. Those Brits are coldhearted bastards, as evidenced by their easy use & disposal of Duck, Pryce, and now One-Foot. I'm kind of glad Pryce is sticking around, at least for the moment.

Very interested to see what comes of Don's re-connection with "Connie" Hilton. If Don's playing in the big leagues now, doesn't this put him in a better position to strike out on his own?

Meanwhile, at home, Don steps up to the plate as a dad. That lovely closing moment of the episode forced me to admit something I usually don't - in this episode, at least, Don is a way better parent than Betty. But I still don't blame Betty for being the way she is. She's doing the best she knows how; too bad her imagination/empathy seems so limited, at least compared to Don's.

And finally - congrats to "Mad Men" and Matthew Weiner for another Emmy victory! Now i just wish Emmy would give the cast more love.

Monday, September 14, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.5: "The Fog"

Still processing this episode, but I can say, overall, it was a DOOZY, and for the most part in a good way.

Visually, it was brilliant, and unlike anything I've seen before on the show - think David Lynch meets Douglas Sirk. And it even made me think of "Rosemary's Baby": after all, when was the last time the process of childbirth played like something out of a horror movie, as opposed to the usual 30 seconds of crying and pushing followed by the emergence of an improbably large infant and a weary, happy smile on the new mother's face? Come to think of it, this isn't the first time "Mad Men"'s made a point of avoiding that particular cliché: as with Peggy, we never see the actual moment of delivery. The effect in both cases is to make the mother seem totally alienated from the baby.

But if anything, this birth was even colder and creepier and more surreal, from Betty's second glance backwards to see Don seemingly disappear (as she says later, "he's never where you expect him to be!") to the distant screams she overhears from some other mother, to the enemas and the distinctly discomforting nurse and the virtual invisibility of the delivering doctor. And, of course, her drug-induced delusions and dream sequences (more on those in a minute.) Even when it's all over and she's back to being a picture-perfect mother, there are still ominous signs: the pattern of the drapes - like prison bars - against the wall of her hospital room, the passing reference to Carla being let go (only temporarily, I hope?) at a time when Betty can surely least afford to be without help, to that last, chilling shot of Betty pausing before going to baby Gene wailing in the night. I don't know if her shoulders actually slumped, but everything was written in the set of her back. It was an incredibly tense moment in an episode chock-full of incredibly tense Betty-related moments; I actually said out loud, "Please don't let Betty kill the baby."

I really felt for Betty throughout this episode, but never more so than in the passing moment - right after she's signed the birth certificate, I believe - when we see a hopeful expression on her face, as if she's thinking maybe this will all be ok after all. A sentiment that others in this episode vocalize - the prison guard to Don, Don to Peggy - even when we have every reason to believe it ain't true. Sadly, Betty was probably closer to the truth when she was drugged up and in labor: "I can't do it." And, even more pregnantly (sorry): "I'm just a housewife. Why are you doing this to me?" Once again, the writers hammered a little too hard on the theme that Betty's been raised solely to be, in the words of her dream, a housecat - but January Jones (still criminally underrated as an actress, IMO) makes the most of what they give her. And those dream sequences were weirdly haunting.

(btw, for anyone who's wondering who the bleeding black man in her second dream was supposed to be - that's Medgar Evers, the black civil rights activist who was murdered in June 1963, shortly before the events of this episode, and whom Sally couldn't stop talking about in class. Although I'm not convinced Betty would have dreamed up the line "See what happens when you speak up?")

But if Betty is and has been feeling trapped, there's no question Don has, too. It's no coincidence that the episode put him in an extended tête-à-tête with a guard from Sing Sing. Like Betty's second dream, that whole encounter was a bit too heavy-handed for my taste, from Hobart's comments on bad men blaming their offenses on their parents to his telling Don he was going to be a better man and that he knew Don was "an honest guy." I like my irony a little subtler. Still, I did like the cuts to Don's expression throughout this scene. And I'm still trying to figure out what was up with Hobart's avoiding Don's gaze when they pass each other later in the hallway.

I really, really hope Don doesn't end up becoming involved with Sally's teacher, though all indications certainly point that way.

Meanwhile, back at the office, Sterling Cooper continues to toss about like a rudderless ship. Enter, or rather reenter, Duck Phillips (DUCKK!!!), now working for what I assume is a Jewish-friendly agency and, in an intriguing development, looking to steal SC's two most talented employees who aren't named Don Draper. Looks like Peggy is at least considering the offer, particularly after her frustrating conversation with Don. The plot thickens! I'm esp. glad to see Duck again, because I like his character and I really like Mark Moses.

Pete was at his Pete-est in this episode, once again demonstrating he's got mad skillz when it comes to spotting and capitalizing on sociocultural trends but no knack at all for understanding or interacting with individual members of the society he's so good at observing on a holistic level. Both his conversations with Hollis (hilarious) and with the Admiral brass (awkward) exemplified this dichotomy. Interesting that after the dressing-down Pete got from Roger and Bert, it was Lane "pennies make pounds" Pryce who was most willing to entertain his ideas. Is it, as he seemed to suggest, his outsider's perspective that allows him to see what many Americans still could not? Or does he just like Pete and the numbers he's pitching?

One thing's for sure, though: of this lot, Roger Sterling is the guy who's going to be left farthest behind. Even Bert Cooper was willing to say, of the "Negro" market, "we're looking into it," while Roger looked supremely uninterested and even a little disgusted. Hear that sound, Roger? It's your relevance deflating just a little bit further.

Best line of the episode: Pete to Peggy - "Your decisions affect me." Absolutely perfect delivery by Vincent Kartheiser.

Runner-up: Peggy to Don - "What if this is my time?"

What if, indeed. That's what we're all waiting to see.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

End-of-Summer Movie Roundup


directed by Neil Blomkamp
starring no one famous, but that may change: Sharlto Copley is great in the lead role

At this point, there’s really only one question I need to answer about this movie: Does it live up to the hype? With a few reservations, my answer is “yes.” The debut feature by South African director Neil Blomkamp, discovery and protégé of Peter “Lord of the Rings” Jackson (who produced the film), “District 9” is a movie about aliens that borrows ideas and themes from previous movies about aliens, yet manages to give them a twist that’s just new enough to be interesting and gripping. Blomkamp turns the stock premise of an alien invasion on its head to pose the more interesting question: If aliens were to arrive on Earth as a large but weakened population in need of our aid, how would we treat them? Very poorly, as it turns out, especially when they look different from us, speak differently from us, and are stuck with us for an indefinite period of time.

In “District 9,” the giant alien ship, which comes to a passive standstill just over Johannesburg, turns out to be filled with sick, helpless creatures who resemble a cross between crayfish, bug, and man, and speak a strange clicking tongue that’s subtitled for the viewer’s benefit. Dubbed “Prawns” by the humans, the aliens are removed from the ship and placed in relief camps just outside the city, where they remain for the next twenty years, unable to leave the planet or organize effectively. These camps, collectively referred to as District 9, degenerate into a de facto ghetto, and after increased complaints from the humans, a final decision is made to relocate the Prawns to another, more remote site. Responsibility for the move, which is coordinated by a shady government contractor called MNU (Multi National United), falls to a thoroughly unimpressive mid-level company man named Mikus van der Merwe (Sharlto Copley), whose only apparent qualification for the assignment is that he’s married to the daughter of the head of MNU. Mikus soon finds himself in over his head when a disastrous accident makes him both persona non grata and valuable prey for MNU, forcing him to seek aid from an unlikely source—a Prawn named Christopher Johnson (Jason Cope) and the Prawn’s precocious young son.

Blomkamp films much of the movie, especially the first third or so, like a fake documentary, interpolating “news” clips and interviews with various observers and experts, though he eventually shifts to a faster-moving, more close-up style once the action and suspense start to ratchet up. And while he doesn’t delve all that deeply into the social allegory underlying the story, he gets plenty of mileage out of its imagery of cruelty and neglect, whether it’s the bleak expanse of run-down shacks and trash-heaps or the signs that say, visually or verbally, “humans only.” The Prawns’ predicament isn’t just an allegory of apartheid, though “District 9” is clearly a callout to the infamous removals from Capetown’s District 6 and also recalls shantytowns that still exist outside Johannesburg today; rather, it’s a more general and often brutal reminder of just how easily supposedly civilized societies can mistreat sub-populations perceived to be inferior and disadvantaged but also dangerous. Sometimes the movie oversells the message, but what it loses in subtlety it makes up for in visceral power.

Is “District 9” a masterpiece? No. There are some plot weaknesses that are hard to gloss over (I can’t explain more without giving too much away), and the climax is uncomfortably if only superficially reminiscent of the trailers from “Transformers” or any number of flashier, more expensive, and more disposable action movies. Still, the overall product works, boosted by a terrific performance by Copley as the hapless, frantic Mikus. It was also a smart move to make Mikus’ foil a Prawn who also happens to be by far the most intelligent, admirable, and, yes, humane character in the movie. There was a long stretch, about two-thirds of the way into the movie, when I was rooting for only Christopher Johnson and his son and couldn’t have cared less what happened to Mikus. In the end, Mikus manages to regain a tenuous foothold on our sympathies, though only by realizing—in a very literal way—that there’s little that separates him from the Prawns, and certainly nothing that gives him any claim to superiority. With that redemption, Blomkamp simultaneously rounds off Mikus’ story and leaves the door open for a potential sequel. But I hope it doesn’t come to that. “District 9” is much more powerful as a stand-alone piece than I can ever imagine it being as a franchise.



directed by Kathryn Bigelow
starring Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, Brian Geraghty, with cameos by Guy Pearce, Ralph Fiennes, Evangeline Lilly, and others

Taut yet fluid, restrained but not detached, seamlessly shot and acutely observed, “The Hurt Locker” is a film that’s easy to admire but not as easy to love. Or maybe that’s just me. I admit it takes a lot for me to warm up to a war movie, even an excellent one, owing mostly to the fact that I regard war as a scourge, or at best a necessary evil. So to the extent a movie’s chief message is that war is hell, I’m already sold and don’t particularly enjoy watching the point get proven; on the other hand, when it focuses on the positive effects war can have, such as freedom from tyranny, courage under fire, forging of character, fraternity among troops, or humanity across enemy lines, I can never shake off the dour sense that this good still comes at great cost.*

“The Hurt Locker” is a bit of an anomaly in that it doesn’t really take either of the two general arcs I just outlined. The title suggests it’s heading in the direction of the first one: for those of you wondering what “the hurt locker” means, from what I can gather, it’s an expression roughly equivalent to “a world of pain.” As such, it seems like an appropriate enough title for a movie that tracks a three-man U.S. Army bomb squad in the last 38 days of its rotation in 2004 Iraq; certainly, the movie itself doesn’t hesitate to show the high stress and, yes the pain and collateral damage that dog their work. Director Kathryn Bigelow (“Point Break,” “Strange Days”) demonstrates, not for the first time in her career, that she can run with the best of the boys when it comes to shooting deadly action sequences: the bomb-dismantling scenes in particular, as well as an extended stakeout that features a cameo by Ralph Fiennes, are riveting and almost unbearably tense—and no, they do not all end well.

Yet Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, a former journalist who covered Iraq and also penned “In the Valley of Elah,” aren’t interested in merely tabulating the carnage of war. Nor are they interested in making their three protagonists vehicles for an overtly polemical statement about the Iraq war; this ain’t no “Three Kings.” Rather, they zero in on how these men—especially their leader, Staff Sgt William James (an intriguingly opaque Jeremy Renner)—respond psychologically to the extreme tension that pervades their entire daily routine. James, new to the squad but an old hand at disarming IED’s (improvised explosive devices), clearly gets off not just the technical challenge of defusing each bomb but the added pressure of knowing that if he makes one error or takes one second too long, he’ll get blown to bits. Tellingly, the quote that prefaces the film is not “War is hell” but “War is a drug.”** Much of “The Hurt Locker” is devoted to showing just how true that is for James, an ace at his job who also brashly takes risks that both stun and anger his comrades (Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty, who turn in solid rather than striking performances). They endure danger stoically enough, but they’re not addicted to it as he is—and this difference ultimately plays a large part in determining their respective fates. In the end, the focus remains on James, posing a question that the film leaves to the audience to answer: Did war make him what he is, or only exploit it?


* For some reason, I don’t seem to have this problem when the wars are fantastical, e.g., Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, etc.

** The quote is from Chris Hedges’ book War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. The full quotation, and the passage from which it comes, is worth reading:

The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug, one I ingested for many years. It is peddled by myth makers—historians, war correspondents, filmmakers novelists and the state—all of whom endow it with qualities it often does possess: excitement, exoticism, power, chances to rise above our small stations in life, and a bizarre and fantastic universe that has a grotesque and dark beauty. It dominates culture, distorts memory, corrupts language and infects everything around it, even humor, which becomes preoccupied with the grim perversities of smut and death. Fundamental questions about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of our place on the planet are laid bare when we watch those around us sink to the lowest depths.


directed by Ang Lee
starring Demetri Martin, Imelda Staunton, Henry Goodman, Eugene Levy, Emile Hirsch, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, others
adapted from the book by Elliot Tiber

As Elliot Tiber, the protagonist of the amiable, gently ruminative “Taking Woodstock,” tells it, he was the man who made Woodstock possible, without having any idea of what that would entail. It’s important to bear this in mind going into the movie, which is much less about that Aquarian exposition and much more about how the experience of facilitating it affected one nice, rather shy, closeted young man. “Taking Woodstock,” based on Tiber’s memoir of the same name, recounts the story of how he came to the aid of the Woodstock organizers when they lost their permit for their original venue. A New Yorker who grew up in the sleepy town of Bethel before leaving for the city, Elliot (Demetri Martin) happened to be president of the Bethel chamber of commerce at the time, and as such was able to offer his permit for an annual arts festival. According to his account, he also helped broker an agreement with local dairy farmer Max Yasgur (Eugene Levy) to use the latter’s wide open fields for the concert, and succeeded in turning his parents’ painfully run-down motel into a sold-out accommodation and ticket-seller for the festival while basking in the hippie glow that came pouring their way.

I enjoyed “Taking Woodstock,” but I can understand why it was so coolly received, and why it’s probably doomed to fall into the category of “lesser Ang Lee.” Still, even lesser Ang Lee is pretty damn watchable, and I suspect that a second viewing would yield greater rewards than the first. While the film incorporates barely any of the music that made Woodstock a cultural touchstone, it does feature wonderfully evocative shots of the throngs of concertgoers, as well as engaging appearances by a number of likable actors, including the delightfully droll Levy, Jonathan Groff as the laid-back yet shrewd chief organizer, Mamie Gummer (Meryl Streep’s daughter) as his ally, Henry Goodman and Imelda Staunton as Elliot’s parents, who get almost as much of a waking-up as he does, Paul Dano as a friendly hippie, and most memorably, Liev Schreiber as a cross-dressing cop who provides security detail and motherly advice. Less effective: Emile Hirsch as a young Vietnam vet plainly suffering from PTSD; and Martin himself, as Elliot, is something of a cipher, which is partly why the movie as a whole never really catches fire. Nevertheless, “Taking Woodstock” makes the most of its modest charms, and if it doesn’t leave your memory entirely, it’s likely to sneak up on you long after you’ve stopped consciously thinking about it.



directed by Robert Schwentke
starring Eric Bana, Rachel McAdams
based on the novel by Audrey Niffenegger

I didn’t expect to love the book The Time Traveler’s Wife. After all, it’s a love story about a man who time-travels and a woman who doesn’t, and I am (1) not a romantic (never have been) (2) not a fan of time travel as a plot element, as it invariably offends my strictly linear sense of logic. Yet something about the novel’s sweeping romanticism burrowed into my skeptical heart and relaxed all my rational scruples. Truth be told, it’s one of my favorite books of the last five years. And the highest praise I can give the film adaptation is that it does justice to the book.

Not full justice, mind you: the movie simplifies the narrative, excises some supporting characters and at least two major subplots, and in so doing smoothes some of the edges off the time-traveling hero, Henry (Eric Bana). Nonetheless, at a fundamental level it remains true to the spirit of the novel. There’s a dreamy lyricism about the cinematography, and a warmth between Bana’s Henry and his lady love, Clare (Rachel McAdams), tinged with a faintly autumnal quality, a melancholy undertone, that struck me as just right. This is also the first time I really felt and understood Rachel McAdams’ appeal; she wouldn’t have been my first casting choice (Clare is one of the few roles I think would actually have suited Scarlet Johansson), but there’s an irresistible radiance about her that really fits the character. As for Bana, there’s a lot of him running around without much in the way of clothes (like the Terminator, Henry time-travels naked), which is never a bad thing—but whether dressed or déshabillé, he conveys a restrained soulfulness that prevents his scenes with Clare from verging into creepiness (for there are many interactions in which Clare is still a little girl) or schmaltz.

Overall, in mood and affect, “The Time Traveler’s Wife” reminded me somewhat of “The Lake House,” another time-bending romance, starring Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, from some years ago that didn’t get much love from either critics or the public. It’s easy to tear down both movies for similar reasons, yet what stands out about them, and softens my tendency to criticize, is their basic sincerity and a certain quietness that some might mistake for inertness. The plots might be sappy and ridiculous, but there’s very little in the way of dramatic posturing or declarations. Instead there’s an essential purity about their dopey, earnest, unhistrionic romanticism that, as in Niffenegger’s novel, can prove unexpectedly beguiling.


Tuesday, September 08, 2009

"Mad Men" Ep. 3.4: "The Arrangements"

As Alan Sepinwall observes, parenting is a central theme of "Mad Men" that comes to the forefront of this week's episode. Horace Cook, Sr's weirdly, almost wearily resigned attitude towards "Ho-Ho," Jr. serves as a prism through which every other parental relationship in the show is reflected (or is it refracted? no physics major, I). Most obviously Don's, both with his own parents and with his children, but also, Pete's, and, somewhat more indirectly, Peggy's, Betty's, and Gene's. Is it better to be more or less involved? To try to help your children to realize potential they may not know they have, as Gene seemed to be trying to do with Sally (and suggested he didn't do with Betty), or to prevent them from making mistakes with huge consequences?

These issues for the most part don't lend themselves to easy resolution. Though judging from the comments I've seen online, there's popular consensus on at least one point: that Betty is a terrible mother - and, by extension, a terrible person, or at the least, a mean, cold, selfish, narcissistic bitch. As I don't share this view, I'm going to take a minute to defend her treatment of Sally. While Betty's never exactly been warm towards her daughter, I've always chalked that up to a combination of the way she herself was raised and the general parenting norms of that time: Children were to be seen and not heard. Even prior to "Mad Men," I was under the impression there was much less cuddling and coddling of kids than we seem to expect today, or at least much less of it in families of a certain background and social class. (Those Nordics!) And for the most part, Sally seems to roll with it; she's never struck me as being particularly unhappy, even though I won't dispute that she's being very subtly effed up by her upbringing in any number of ways. (Though no more so, I would argue, than anyone else on the show.)

Of course, this time Sally was upset. Really and understandably upset, and no one, not even Don, gave her any comfort. But what do you expect? While I felt for her during her outburst in the kitchen, Betty's response - telling her she was hysterical and ordering her to watch TV - didn't faze me a bit, though it did sadden me. To me, it seemed obvious that Betty was wrestling with her own grief and was either stung by Sally's accusation that no one cared that Grandpa had died, or incapable of abandoning the drilled-in conviction that such a raw, unrestrained display of emotion was unseemly and improper, especially in a young child. Or both. Not exactly mother-of- the-year behavior by a long shot, but not beyond the pale of humanity, as some people seem to think.

I will say that Betty's behavior as a daughter has tended to bug me more than her behavior as a mother - not that the two aren't intertwined - and this was especially true of her reaction to Gene's attempts to discuss his post-mortem "arrangements." (That said, I must confess I myself am no better whenever my parents try to bring up the same subject with me.) She was so ridiculously, smack-worthily childish in her attitude. I think her pouty "I'm your little girl" was actually a bit too much - the line really wasn't necessary to drive the point home. We get it, writers. We really do.

Anyway, on the flip side of the overly detached WASPy mother, we also get the overly involved Catholic mother (Peggy's), laying on the Catholic guilt with a trowel. Am I awful for laughing at the line "You'll be raped?" While my own mother's never delivered precisely that line to me, let's just say Asian guilt is a close cousin of Catholic guilt, and I have more than a nodding acquaintance with both types. Luckily, Peggy seems more capable than anyone I know of leaving that load behind her. It must be that inhuman streak in her, which I find at once fascinating and a little repellent.

Perhaps for the same reason, I do not see the new roommate turning out well (wonder what Joan, the brilliant Joan, would have made of little miss Swede?). But Pegs has surprised me before, so I wouldn't put it past her to do it again. Oh, and the chipmunks? Are 12. Seriously, grow up, boys. Though Peggy's petulant "You're a jerk!" made me laugh out loud.

Other observations:

Jai Alai: While I get that the folks at Sterling Cooper - outside of Don and, perhaps, Bert - were only too happy to help part young Ho-Ho and his money, I couldn't help wondering if they really wanted to be associated with what they plainly perceived to be a fool's venture. Isn't it better for an advertising agency to launch successful products, as opposed to campaigns that become fodder for jokes? Will we see this storyline again? Is it possible that Jai Alai will enjoy at least a brief period of interest? I don't know enough about the history of the sport to say, though they did make it look awfully dopey.

Peggy's smirk at the failure of the Patio ad: Priceless. The ad itself: Horrible. Sorry, Sal.

And oh, Sal...channeling Ann-Margret? That performance, taken in context, was almost more shocking (at least in effect) than Roger's blackface of last week. Poor Kitty. I have no idea exactly what she realized in that moment, but she definitely realized something. I tend to think, however, that she still doesn't understand its full significance. There's a clear parallel to that moment last year when she picked up on Sal's vibes towards Ken; once again, she seems to be seeing, or close to seeing, the truth through a glass darkly. I've no doubt it will become clear to her eventually, even if she never brings herself to articulate it. And even amid all of MM's myriad marriages built on lies and self-deceptions, that would be the deepest tragedy of all.