Monday, July 26, 2010

"Mad Men" Season 4 Premiere: "Public Relations"

"Mad Men" has always been a slow-burn kind of show. The season never starts with a bang; instead, the first episode is invariably about setup - reintroducing us to the characters, establishing where they are in relation to where they were, and laying the groundwork for future narrative developments. Season 4 stuck to this pattern, which works just fine for me. However, it doesn't leave me with much to say about the premiere other than these scattershot observations:

Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce: New digs! Closer quarters than we're accustomed to seeing our Mad Men (and women) occupy; but still a prime location in the Time Life Building. Overall, it's hard to tell how the firm's really doing. Up and coming, yes; secure, no.

Who is Don Draper?: Who indeed. Good luck, one-legged man; we've been trying to figure that one out for years.

The new Don looks, talks, and walks much like the old one, but people aren't falling all over themselves for him anymore. Is he off his game, or has the game simply changed? On the whole I lean towards the latter view, and I have faith Don will pick up on the new rules. Clearly, it'll take some time - the man so good at selling his product still has a good deal to learn when it comes to selling himself - but he certainly seemed to be coming around by the end of the episode with the Wall Street Journal interview. As for his blow-up with Jantzen, on the one hand it was uncharacteristic behavior for him (and costly for SCDP); on the other hand, I'm not so sure we aren't supposed to see him as right and Jantzen as wrong, or at least wrong for SCDP.

As for Don's personal life, it's true he's not scoring with the ease he's accustomed to, but then I wouldn't expect a divorced man to have the same perverse appeal (or target market) as a married man. I expect he'll learn to adapt in this arena, too, though it's obvious he hasn't lost his madonna/whore complex when it comes to women.

Roger Sterling: Insouciant and incorrigible as always, the old Roger appears to be back, along with some semblance of the old Roger-Don dynamic. Be interesting to see how that relationship evolves.

Bert Cooper: Still as sharp as ever, and as eccentric - I love his rationale for no conference table.

Pete Campbell: Pete seems more comfortable in his own skin and looks like he's enjoying the challenge of launching a start-up firm. Still, I had to laugh when he jumped to thank one-legged man for his service in Korea. That's our Pete, smarmy as ever.

Peggy and her boy(s): Peggy continues to acquire greater poise and self-assurance, and to stand up to Don when necessary. She is, however, as exasperatingly inscrutable as ever. Glad to see she and Pete have learned to work together, even if it's over dumb publicity stunts with hams. (Side note - was the ham an in-joke for those who remember Jon Hamm hawking ham on Saturday Night Live?) And she seems to have a comfortable rapport with the cute new art guy (Matt Long, whom I remember from the WB's short-lived "Jack and Bobby"). Will sparks fly? But who's the guy who claims to be her fiancé? Ah, Peggy - always the dark horse.

Deep-fried Harry: In his brief appearance, sporting a lovely John Boehner-esque shade of orange, Harry doesn't give any sign he's become more competent... but we'll see. If he doesn't shape up quickly, I hope Joan pushes him out.

Mostly MIA: Lane Pryce and Joan. Presumably they'll have more to do in future eps.

In the household of Henry Francis: Oh, Betty. It's hard for me to defend you when your idea of disciplining Sally is to force-feed her and then rush her from the table and pinch her when she protests. And you really need to stop trying to get "even" with Don, now that you're free of him. That said, I'm already on your side when it comes to dearest Mother-in-Law. That woman is a biatch. Battles loom ahead.

Henry himself came off ok in this episode, all things considered, but trouble is definitely already brewing in that marriage. I hope his mom doesn't make him regret his decision. Wonder what kind of relationship, if any, will develop between Betty and Henry's daughter? Henry and the Draper children? I am not optimistic - this is "Mad Men," after all. Hoping to see more of Bobby - it *is* the same actor as last season, right? Both of the kids have grown a lot since then.

All in all, a quiet episode, but one that's definitely sown some promising seeds - per usual for "Mad Men."

Monday, July 19, 2010

"Inception" of a Summer Turnaround? "Kids" Provide Easy, Breezy Counterpoint


written and directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Leonardo di Caprio, Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Tom Hardy, Dileep Rao, Marion Cotillard, Ken Watanabe, Cillian Murphy, Michael Caine, Pete Postlethwaite, others

Love it or hate it, Chris Nolan’s latest head trip has become the must-see movie of the summer. And with reason, for it’s that rarest of beasts—a blockbuster with intellectual and philosophical ambitions. “Inception” is on track to becoming the “Matrix” of this decade (one hopes without any awful sequels in its wake): the kind of water-cooler conversation piece that’s already entered our pop culture zeitgeist. But is it worth seeing? Does it live up to the hype?

I’d say yes to the first question, no to the second. Truth be told, I enjoyed thinking about the movie afterwards more than I enjoyed actually watching it.

This isn’t really a slam. Nor is it a compliment.

“Inception” is a vaguely futuristic, more than vaguely noir-ish tale of an expert dream thief, Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), who, for the right price, can infiltrate an individual’s subconscious and “extract” his or her most deeply guarded secret. A mysterious utilities magnate named Saito (Ken Watanabe) solicits Dom’s services for a different kind of job: not extraction but inception, whereby an idea is introduced into the subject’s subconscious. Saito’s target is a young man named Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy), son and heir of a dying business rival (Pete Postlethwaite); his goal, to persuade Fischer to break up his father’s conglomerate. The hitch? It turns out inception is far more difficult than extraction and may even be impossible, because (according to the movie’s logic) the mind can nearly always detect and reject the presence of a foreign idea. (Kinda like an organ transplant, I guess.)

Impossible or not, Saito makes Cobb an offer he can’t refuse, and Cobb sets about assembling a literal dream team, including Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), his trusty right-hand man; Eames (Tom Hardy), a master identity “forger”; Yusuf (Dileep Rao), a chemist capable of concocting sleeping meds potent enough to create three dream levels (a dream within a dream within a dream, the only way to plant the idea deeply enough to escape detection); and newbie Ariadne (Ellen Page), a green but talented “architect,” whose task is to design a fake dream-world for the subject, convincing enough to pass for his own, which his subconscious will then fill in for itself. Monitored by Saito, who decides to come along for the ride, the team tracks down Fischer and enters his mind. Unfortunately, they discover in short order that (1) Fischer’s subconscious has been fortified against intruders with some formidable defenses (which mainly take the form of an endless stream of silent, well-armed goons), (2) Cobb’s own considerable psychological baggage, embodied in the recurring image of his dead ex-wife, Mal (Marion Cotillard, competing with Page for least subtle symbolic name in the movie), threatens to hijack and undermine the entire enterprise.

Some have described “Inception” as a “reverse heist” flick, or “Ocean’s Eleven” as imagined by Philip K. Dick. It’s an apt enough description, though one that frankly makes the film sound more fun than it is. Thematically, “Inception” borrows not only from Nolan’s earlier, breakthrough film “Memento,” but from a long cinematic tradition that enjoyed its most recent surge in the late ’90s (not just “The Matrix,” but lesser known movies like “Dark City,” David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ,” and the underrated “The Thirteenth Floor”), though its roots reach back to “Blade Runner,” and even further back, to the original “Solaris.” These movies all in one way or another spring from the same set of questions that most of us tend to keep safely tucked away in our subconscious: Am I real? Is everything I see, do, and feel real, or is it all a dream—an illusion? And to paraphrase Lewis Carroll, is it even my dream? Perhaps most intriguingly, what are the true implications of memory, our memories being so unreliable and yet so integral to our identities—are they, too, illusions, or merely distorted snapshots of our real, lived experience?

Of course, just because these questions aren’t original doesn’t make them any less provocative; what matters is how artfully they’re presented. In this respect, however, “Inception” only partially succeeds. There’s no doubt it’s exceedingly carefully crafted. I’m just not convinced it’s particularly well crafted. That’s not to say there aren’t well-crafted things in it, most of them purely visual: Nolan shows a liberal hand with haunting images, eye-popping effects (especially during Ariadne’s training), and virtuosic set pieces that bend the rules of time and space no less daringly than the Wachowksi brothers did in “The Matrix.” Yet the narrative gets bogged down by its own internal mechanics—specifically, the cogs and wheels governing the process of dream thievery, which I found clunky and unnecessarily complicated, notwithstanding the gobs of expository dialogue (mostly carried by Ariadne) that are clearly intended to help the viewer along. It also suffers from increasingly tedious action sequences, which, as the film goes on, tend to drag on longer and longer, degenerating from an early, genuinely pulse-pounding yet eerily dreamlike footchase to a seemingly interminable, deadly-dull shootout between faceless men on skis.

More generally, the film lacks that jolt of pure elation that offset “The Matrix”’s tendency towards ponderousness—that exhilarating sense of the limitless possibilities of the human mind. There are a few moments early on—again, during Ariadne’s training, when her imagination is allowed to play—when “Inception” gestures towards this feeling, but fails to sustain it. Tellingly, when Ariadne, explaining why she agrees to join the team, describes the architect's work as “pure creation,” those two words just fall flat. Worse, what follows feels less like creation and more like a military exercise bound by rigid yet confusing rules.

As for those rules, it may well be that I was simply slow on the uptake and they’re really not that hard to follow. Still, even if most of my fellow viewers, unlike me, had little or no trouble keeping up, I suspect most of them spent more mental energy on the arbitrary and really rather silly logistics of dream-invasion than the broader and far more interesting implications of the universe it opens up: of appropriating someone else’s dream, sharing dream space (or “limbo,” a state beyond dreaming that’s never fully defined), or getting quite literally lost in—or addicted to—one’s own dreams. These metaphysical concepts are present just enough to tantalize us, but tend to get crowded out by the machinery of extraction and inception. Arguably it’s enough that the seeds are sown; perhaps Nolan’s succeeded in doing a bit of his own inception. After all, there’s no doubt that most viewers, including me, will find themselves pondering and discussing the bigger questions—the boundaries between reality, fantasy, and memory—long after the movie’s deliberately, cheekily ambiguous final scene. But I’d have liked to see deeper probing of these themes over the course of the movie itself, which too often felt frantically busy yet oddly inconsequential.

Ultimately what saved “Inception” for me, at least while I was watching it, wasn’t its physics or its metaphysics, but Cobb’s struggle to free himself from the burden of his guilt. Nolan and DiCaprio both have a thing for overly tortured heroes (side note: I would like to see Leo do a romantic comedy some time soon, just for a change), but in this context all that anguished brow-furrowing actually works. Some critics have complained that the film, while intellectually stimulating, left them emotionally cold. The opposite was true for me. It was Cobb’s pain, above all else, that cut through all my back-of-the-brain fussing about “kicks,” totems, and how exactly one escapes limbo, and gave the whole structure of the film any meaning. Cotillard, as the projection of all that pain, makes the most of her underwritten character, cutting a figure by turns dangerously alluring, dangerously psychotic, and dangerously tragic. The rest of the cast, alas, is given even less to work with; it’s to the actors’ credit that they contribute as much as they do, with Cobb’s teammates providing most of the film’s meager comic relief, and Murphy lending a quiet but effective pathos to his character’s thinly sketched daddy issues. In the end, almost despite itself, the film’s heart matters more than its brain. And I’m willing to bet that’s exactly what Nolan, that solemn, soul-searching trickster, intended all along.



directed by Lisa Cholodenko
starring Annette Bening, Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska

I saw “The Kids Are All Right” a couple of days after I saw “Inception,” and I have to admit it felt like a nice sorbet after a rather heavy pot roast. That’s not to suggest that it’s either a better film or, conversely, a less substantial one. There’s no denying, however, that it’s much lighter in tone and frequently laugh-out-loud funny, though in no way a pure comedy.

“The Kids Are All Right” chronicles one tumultuous summer in the life of an outwardly stable, happy Los Angeles suburban family. To the casual eye, Nic, a doctor, and Jules, a homemaker who’s flirted with various careers over the years, clearly love each other and are blessed with two remarkably well-adjusted teenage children: Joni, a straight-A student, bound for college in the fall, and Laser (yes, that’s really his name), an all-around high school athlete with perhaps questionable taste in friends but no sign of any deeper trouble. Something, however, is troubling Laser, and goes on to trouble his family: the identity of his biological father. It’s never been a secret to the children that their “bio-dad” was a sperm donor; but Laser wants, if possible, to know who he is, and enlists his sister’s help in finding out. They discover that bio-dad is an attractive, personable man who still lives in the area (and runs a trendy organic restaurant, no less!), and in due course seek to incorporate him into their family. Complications ensue that ultimately test and fracture Nic and Jules’ marriage.

The twist on this story, of course, is that Nic and Jules (played by Annette Bening and Julianne Moore) are lesbians. Director Lisa Cholodenko (“High Art,” “Laurel Canyon”) assumes a matter-of-fact attitude towards their sexuality, and the film unfolds as a largely apolitical dramedy about the dynamics of marriage and parent-child relationships. I say “largely,” because sexuality—both lesbian and hetero—does play an important role in the plot, though not in a way you might expect. (And not to spoil anyone’s expectations, but there are no hot lesbian sex scenes in the movie. There are sex scenes involving Mark Ruffalo, on which I will discreetly take the Fifth Amendment.)

“The Kids Are All Right” is a witty, likable film that does many things right, the first and foremost being casting: in addition to Bening and Moore, it stars Ruffalo as bio-dad Paul, while the gifted Mia Wasikowska (“Alice in Wonderland,” HBO’s “In Treatment”) and Josh Hutcherson play the children. Wasikowska and Hutcherson acquit themselves respectably as mostly well-behaved teenagers who are still perfectly capable of being brats. The adults, however, are the standouts in this film; in fact, their acting is so good it almost, but not quite, succeeds in masking some fundamental problems in the writing. As scripted, both Nic and Jules are drawn with fairly broad brushstrokes—Nic as the uptight control freak, Jules as, well, the opposite—and some of Jules’ behavior may strike many viewers as downright unrealistic. Yet somehow Bening and Moore make a believable couple, forced by an outsider to confront the fault lines in their marriage. Similarly, that outsider, Paul, functions more as a catalyst than a fully developed character in his own right; yet Ruffalo’s portrayal is so nuanced that you barely notice how contrived his role is—or the fact that Paul is basically a slightly (but only slightly) less feckless version of Ruffalo’s character in “You Can Count on Me.”

Somewhat ironically for a movie that’s bound to arouse the ire of the family values crowd, I came away thinking “Kids” was unexpectedly conservative in its views on marriage and parenting. I also couldn’t help thinking that in reaching the conclusion it did, it was too hard on one of the characters and far too easy on another. Still, even if the film’s resolution ends up being overly tidy without being particularly fair, it doesn’t take away from the sheer delight of watching three brilliant actors bring their flawed characters to messy, vibrant life.