Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Fall 2010 Movie Preview

After a generally uninspiring summer movie season, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s looking forward to the fall—which is usually when 85% of the best movies of the year come out anyhow. Hard to believe that Labor Day just around the corner; maybe it’s the continued run of high 80 and 90-degree temperatures here in swampy, sweltering D.C., but it doesn’t really feel like summer is over yet.

Be that as it may, this is the time of year when I flag ten or fifteen films slated for fall release that I’m excited to see. Inevitably, for at least some of them my enthusiasm wanes—whether because of poor reviews or other factors—so that I don’t even end up seeing them after all. And as often as not, the ones I do see will disappoint me, while other movies not even on my radar end up becoming my favorites of the year. Therefore, rather than announcing the following as my “most anticipated films” of the fall season, I'll just say they are films that have piqued my interest, listed in order of release date:

THE AMERICAN (Tomorrow – Sept. 1)

It’s really all about the poster: retro in a good way. The trailer, not so much: a weary hit man carrying out one last job, a possible femme fatale or two, hints of a shadowy conspiracy – nothing we haven’t seen before, and nothing that suggests a novel approach. But trailers are deceptive, and I place my faith in (1) George Clooney’s ability to pick smart, quality projects that hit the sweet spot of his acting range (within which he’s consistently excellent); (2) director Anton Corbijn, whose exquisitely composed “Control” wasn’t so much a biopic as, well, an étude on Joy Division lead singer Ian Curtis.

NEVER LET ME GO (Sept. 15)

Kazuo Ishiguro is one of my favorite living writers, and Never Let Me Go one of his best novels. It’s never struck me as particularly filmable, however. As usual with Ishiguro, the narrative is filtered through a protagonist who spends a lifetime in quiet denial and an often frustrating passivity, only reaching belated recognition of certain essential truths when it’s too late to do anything about them. And even though the plot has some of the elements of a mystery, there’s no shocking climax or big reveal, nor is there any true moment of crisis or epiphany; in this respect it’s far more elliptical than The Remains of the Day, the only other Ishiguro novel that, to my knowledge, has ever been adapted for the big screen. Still, I’m extremely curious to see what kind of film could be made from a story that moves in ripples rather than an arc, and the casting—Carey Mulligan as the narrator, Keira Knightley and Andrew Garfield as her two best friends—intrigues.

THE TOWN (Sept. 17)

Ben Affleck is back behind the camera, mining the same territory—the seedy criminal underbelly of working-class Bah-ston—that netted unexpected praise for his 2007 directorial debut feature “Gone Baby Gone.” This time, he’s put himself in front of the camera, too, a decision in which I hope vanity played no part. What really attracts me to this film is the rest of the cast: Jeremy Renner (“The Hurt Locker”), Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” “Frost/Nixon”), Pete Postlethwaite (“Inception” and a hell of a lot of films in the ’90s, most memorably “In the Name of the Father”), and, last but not least, Jon Hamm as a rather non-Don Draper-like FBI agent. Sold, barring terrible reviews.

EASY A (Sept. 17)

Let's face it, teen sex comedies have become pretty old hat by this point. “Easy A” tries a slightly different spin as a comedy about a teenager who everyone thinks is having sex even though she actually isn’t. That sounds an awfully feeble premise, yet “Easy A” looks surprisingly fresh or, at the least, reasonably engaging—thanks mostly to the wry, wise-eyed appeal of Emma Stone as the sardonic outsider who, through a mixture of misunderstandings and deliberate deception, goes from nobody to school slut. It’s no Nathaniel Hawthorne, but it may be good for some easy laughs.


If you’d asked me a year ago what I thought of the idea of a sequel to “Wall Street,” I’d have said either "no thanks" or, more simply, "why?" Yet something about the preview has sucked me in: I don’t know whether it’s the half-ironic, half-affectionate nods to the original film, the still-sharp gaze and easy demeanor of Michael Douglas as a newly sprung, remarkably unchastened Gordon Gecko, or the whisper of topicality that hangs about the movie’s themes in our post-bailout, post-Madoff, post-Enron times. It’s certainly not Shia LaBoeuf’s hair or Carey Mulligan’s tearful mug, though I’ve liked both those kids in other roles. Whatever it is, my attitude towards the movie has flipped from dismissive to weirdly hopeful. Then again, I had a similar shift in feeling this past spring towards “The A-Team,” which I never ended up watching or regretted missing. It remains to be seen whether “Wall Street 2” meets a similar fate or manages to hold on to my interest.


I doubt that this film will reveal anything especially illuminating about the founder(s) of Facebook or the clash of interests that drove them apart. Still, with David Fincher at the helm, a screenplay by Aaron Sorkin based on Ben Mezrich’s book, positive festival buzz, and a cadre of up-and-coming young actors—including a perfectly cast Jesse Eisenberg as Mark Zuckerberg and rising It Boy (and future Spiderman) Andrew Garfield—I can’t pretend I’m not intrigued.


I don’t have particularly high hopes for the penultimate Harry Potter movie, but as a devoted fan of the books I feel compelled to see it anyway. Director David Yates’ track record with the franchise is mixed: from my perspective, he has one hit (“Order of the Phoenix”) and one miss (“The Half-Blood Prince”), so all bets are off for the next one. However, I take some encouragement in the fact that Deathly Hallows, though perfectly satisfactory as a series capper, wasn’t one of my favorites in the overall saga. That bodes well for the film, since thus far there’s been an inverse relationship between how much I like a Harry Potter book and how much I’ve liked the big screen adaptation.


The story of how George VII, successor to the British throne after his older brother, Edward VIII, abdicated to marry Wallis Simpson, learned to overcome a bad stutter and rally his country as it entered WWII doesn’t exactly sound like riveting material. But it boasts a stellar cast, including Colin Firth as the king, Helena Bonham-Carter (in non-Goth mode) as his wife, Geoffrey Rush as his speech therapist, Guy Pearce as Edward VIII, and Derek Jacobi as the Archbishop of Canterbury.


Indie wunderkund Darren Aronofsky ("The Wrestler," "Requiem for a Dream," "The Fountain") sets his sights on the gorgeous, effed-up world of professional ballet. This ain’t no “Center Stage,” though, or even an Altman-esque “Company.” Rather, it’s a psychological drama about a star ballerina (Natalie Portman) who, threatened by the presence of a rising star (Mila Kunis), starts to lose her bearings and her sense of identity. Judging from the thriller, the film has a compellingly creepy, almost horror-movieish vibe, but horror in the way that Hitchcock's films are horror. Aronofsky also scores extra points for casting Barbara Hershey and Winona Ryder in key parts.


Helen Mirren as a gender-bending Prospero? Julie Taymor directing? A scantily clad Djimon Hounsou as Caliban? Yes, please.


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is by far my favorite of the Narnia series, so basically, I can’t not see this. I have mixed feelings about the trailer (when, oh when, will a movie adaptation ever get the character of Reepicheep right?), but I actually rather enjoyed the previous installment, “Prince Caspian,” (especially cutie Ben Barnes, who’s back as now-King Caspian) and am interested to see how the film evokes some of the more haunting images from the book.


From Shooter to Fighter: Mark Wahlberg knows where his strengths lie as an actor. (“Rock Star” being best charitably written off as an unfortunate lapse.) Based on a true story, “The Fighter” depicts an Irish American boxer’s unlikely ascent to the world championships with the aid of a troubled brother (Christian Bale) who helps train him for the big time. Doubtless nothing groundbreaking here, but I have a soft spot for Marky Mark and am quite fond of both Christian Bale (when not ranting) and director David O. Russell’s “Three Kings.”

TRON: LEGACY (Dec. 17)

I never even saw “Tron,” but I’m tickled at the idea of updating its Atari-era concept for our present digital age, and the buzz out of Comic-Con seems to be pretty good. Having Jeff Bridges (who starred in the original) helps, too.


Sofia Coppola resurfaces with a new film that, like “Lost in Translation,” takes place largely in a hotel and centers on a washed-up movie star (here, Stephen Dorff). This time, however, she hones in on the guy’s efforts to develop a relationship with the young daughter (Elle Fanning) he barely knows. This one's a no-brainer: Coppola's films are virtually must-see events for me. Not because they're perfect - they're not - but because hers is such a uniquely delicate voice in a Hollywood that seems to grow louder and brassier by the day.

THE WAY BACK (late December)

It’s unclear whether Peter Weir’s latest film, which premieres at Telluride, will actually open in theaters this year. But if it does, I’ll be there. The subject matter sounds like the stuff of rather grim heroics, as it’s based on the supposedly true story of a group of Polish prisoners who miraculously escaped a Siberian gulag during WWII and trekked all the way to India. Still, if there's any director who can make it work, it's Weir. No one else can capture the dynamics of a closed, cut-off society with such sensitivity and power: see, e.g., “Gallipolli,” “Witness,” “The Mosquito Coast, “Dead Poets Society,” ”The Truman Show,”and my personal favorite, “Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.”

All in all, looks like a promising fall...Stay tuned to see if any of these babies live up to expectations.

Monday, August 30, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.6: "Waldorf Stories"

First off, congrats to "Man Men" for winning its third consecutive Emmy for best TV drama series (and for best writing too, I believe). Gotta love those Emmy-Clio parallels: I'm willing to bet that timing was NOT coincidence.

Overall, I thought tonight's episode was a bit of a comedown after the last few weeks. Maybe that's just because it didn't move the season forward in any immediately discernible way. Rather, it hit the pause/rewind button to freeze-frame Sterling Cooper, Then and Now - or more specifically, Don and Roger, Then and Now, with a little bit of Roger and Joan for good measure - for comparison and contrast purposes.

Are we supposed to infer that Cure for the Common Midget could become the new Don, or that Don's becoming the new Roger? The latter seems more likely, though either possibility frankly depresses me.

The structuring of the episode wasn't particularly subtle - "Mad Men" has been less so generally this season, I think - but the flashbacks did shed an interesting new light on the Don-Roger dynamic and how Don got a leg up the Sterling Cooper ladder. Hard to believe that he was once that bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, especially after seeing his sodden present-day self. (Oh, the bitter irony of Don and Roger laughing at Duck at the Clios!)

I have to say that Don's descent is starting to remind me of Alice's fall down the rabbit hole - it's going on so long that it's starting to get tedious. You've made your point, writers, and underscored it several times - do we really need to see Don on yet another bender or another sad, sad attempt to pick up Dr. Faye? Or did you just want to show that his drinking is now directly affecting the quality of his work? (His riff on the Life cereal ad was painful to watch.) Fine, but can't you just let him hit bottom already?

Similarly, Peggy seemed to be mostly running in place in this episode. Amusing as it was to see her get the best of Arrogant Prick Art Director, that plotline just felt like a distraction. It didn't show us anything about Peggy's character or her peculiar betwixt-and-between status (not one of the girls, but not one of the boys, either) that we didn't already know. Oh, and the scales are falling from her eyes with respect to Don. But we've seen *that* coming for a while, too. On with it!

Random notes:

-Don's hair during the Life cereal pitch, together with his drunken demeanor, made him look like his father.

-Flashback tidibts: Loved the brief shot of Betty in the fur store ad, looking surprisingly...austere. And Joan's Marilyn-esque 'do.

-Pete's reaction to Ken's arrival was predictable, and typically childish, but it wasn't unjustified. Did he get what he wanted with his little charade in the conference room, I wonder, or will there be more friction ahead between those two? I have to admit that if it comes to another showdown, I'm on Team Pete - even though I have no ill will towards Cosgrove, who seems like a basically decent guy with much less psychological baggage than just about every other character on the show.

Best line:

Peggy: “I only changed one little thing.” The accompanying hand gesture KILLED.

Monday, August 23, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.5: "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

One problem with waiting to write about a "Mad Men" episode is that by the time everyone else on the internets posts his or her recap, there's really not much left to say except "It was awesome!" At least this week was extra-specially awesome, if for no other reason than our getting to see Peggy riding around in circles on a red motorcycle. Don's con on Ted Wannabe-Draper had much of the fun "Ocean's 11"-ish feel of last season's finale - jazzy '60s heist-movie music and all - and reaffirmed that whatever we might think about Don Draper's personal life, it's always a treat to watch him in full-on professional mode. (And even more of a treat to see him tripped up by the wonderful Mrs. Blankenship. May her ineptitude never cease.)

There was of course plenty of darkness to balance out the light, thanks primarily to two characters who probably couldn't have made themselves more unlikable if they'd tried: Roger with his cretinous rejection of the Honda delegation and Betty with her equally cringeworthy treatment of Sally. But it's important to keep in mind that neither of them committed these ugly acts in a vacuum. Each drew from a well of anger that, while not exactly deeply buried, had deep roots. And in the end, both Roger and Betty at least attempted to make amends and reconcile themselves to ideas they'd previously found intolerable.

I never thought I'd defend anyone - least of all Roger Sterling (whom I've always found charming but completely indefensible) - for what looks at first glance like the worst kind of bigotry. Certainly Roger's provided ample evidence of his racism and sexism in the past, though he's been more of a *casual* racist - the kind who doesn't seem to give much thought to minorities at all except to assume their social inferiority as a fact of life. But with the Japanese it's different, and intensely personal. That should come as no surprise. Anyone who fought in the Pacific in WWII saw firsthand a shockingly ruthless, brutal style of warfare by the Japanese, which, compounded with the racist anti-Japanese propaganda drilled into the heads of all Americans at the time, was enough to warp minds stronger and wiser than Roger's. (Not just the Americans either; to this day, there's still a good deal of intransigent anti-Japanese sentiment across parts of Asia, particularly in Korea and China.)

Which is not to excuse Roger's boorish conduct towards the Honda folks, only to emphasize that there's something more going on here than his garden-variety WASPy prejudices. For this reason, Pete's reading of his behavior as motivated by turf jealousy struck me as totally wrong-headed, even if Don agreed or pretended to agree with it. It may be true of Roger's attitude as a whole, but not, I think, in this particular instance. Still, the sting of the accusation was evidently enough to get him back in line, at least for now, and he did have a very lovely moment with Joan - as those two so often do - in which she was able to siphon off some of that long-festering bitterness. Dear Joan! I hope you learn from Roger not to go down his path, because it leads to a dead end.

As for Betty, it'll be a miracle if she has any sympathizers left after slapping poor Sally. That blow was inexcusable. It most likely reflected her pent-up rage, not against Sally for cutting her hair, but against Don for doing his Don thing and not being there (and, in Betty's head, off schtupping some other woman). I'm willing to cut her a little more slack for her response to Sally's masturbating (btw, did people really say the word outright like that back then?), because, sad to say, I imagine many, if not most, other mothers of that period would have reacted in a similar way. (The woman who discovered and reported Sally certainly wouldn't win any prizes over Betty for enlightened parenting.) But the fact remains that Betty's too handicapped by her own issues to understand what's going on with Sally. I do think, though, she was on to something when she linked Sally's "acting out" to the death of Grandpa Gene - even if she was primarily self-projecting. And no, I do NOT think Eugene ever molested either Betty or Sally. I believe Matt Weiner's denied it as well.

I feel like I'm always quoting Alan Sepinwall (who as always writes the best recap), but I really thought his take on Betty this week was spot-on:

It's easy to paint Betty as the villain in the family. She's cold and judgmental and quick to take out her frustrations on her kids. She's not charismatic or funny (at least never intentionally), and she doesn't get to dazzle us with her brilliance in some other field so we'll forgive her personal flaws. But she's also not the one who was cheating on her spouse for years (other than that quickie with Captain Awesome on the night when the world was possibly ending). She's not the one who disappeared for hours on her daughter's birthday because she didn't feel at home there. She's not the one who lied about who she was. And she's not the one who got her spouse's shrink to reveal all the secrets of therapy.

Don's betrayal with Dr. Wayne is easy to forget. It was a long time ago (in both show-time and real-time), and so many other things have happened to Don and Betty since then. But if ever there were a character on "Mad Men" in need of a little self-examination in a safe environment, it's Betty. (Don at least has the capacity for self-awareness, even if he usually pushes down what he understands about himself.) And Don took that option away from her. And Henry the gentle homewrecker may have given it back.

I'm in complete agreement, and I think "Dr. Edna" has the potential to do good for Betty as well as Sally. Ditto Henry, who seems able to create that soothing safe space that Betty never had with Don.

I found it interesting that an episode titled "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword" - the book that first advanced the idea of Japanese/Asian "shame culture" in contrast to Western "guilt culture" - should spend so much time showing Betty's world as its own kind of shame society. Just as interestingly, it ends with both Betty and Sally participating in something akin to confession, which is more commonly associated with the purging of guilt. Meanwhile, Don, who's like the one-man walking embodiment of guilt culture, is able to understand and capitalize on the Honda executives' sense of shame by turning it against them. At the same time he, too, engages in a kind of confession (to Faye), wherein he's able to admit that he isn't much better of a parent than Betty.

Maybe the idea here is the promise of confession free of guilt and shame. Otherwise known as therapy, heh. Lord knows both Don and Betty could use it, though I think I trust Dr. Edna more than I do Dr. Faye.

Other observations:

-Pete continues to come into his own. I think Don praised and/or sided with him at least three times this episode, which has got to be a first. But Pete is still Pete, and he still tries too hard, as evidenced in the gift-giving scene with Honda. Fine bit of physical comedy there, with the swapping of the melon and the whiskey.

-Rather ironically, I think Henry may end up being a better father-figure to Sally than Don, if she lets him. I'm not sure she'll let him.

-Loved the brief return of Smitty, and his boss's peeved reaction to his calling Don a genius: "Get out of here, go work for your boyfriend...Find me twenty different words for pimple!"

Best line/exchange:

HONDA GUY: (in Japanese) How does she not fall over?
JOAN: They're not very subtle, are they.
INTERPRETER (staring at her chest): No, they are not.

Runner-up: Pete's "Christ on a cracker, where do you get off?"

Also, not really a line, but my other favorite LOL moment was Pete and Ms. Blankenship going all tug-o'-war on the package.

In unrelated news, I finally got my reviews of SALT and AGORA up this past weekend. Enjoy!

Monday, August 16, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.4: "The Rejected"

It's the Peggy Olson Comedy Special! You know you're in for a rare treat in episodes that feature Peggy getting high, and so it is with this one, even when she's sober - from the hilarious sight of her head popping up over the office partition to spy on Don to her equally hilarious rejection of Ms. Assistant Photo Editor's advances. ("He doesn't own your vagina." "No, but he's renting it." Bwah!)

But of course it wasn't all laughs all the time from Peggy. We got a glimpse of her not-so-sunny side both in her treatment of Allison and in her reaction to the news of Trudy's pregnancy. While her anger at the insinuation that she slept with Don was understandable, I thought her pushback was unnecessarily harsh. Peggy's always had a streak of cruelty, or maybe it's just a lack of empathy; interestingly, the last time I remember seeing it was when she crushed Pete's declaration of love with her revelation about his baby, a confession that seemed to give her an odd kind of peace even as it robbed Pete of his. At the time, it really seemed that with that gesture she'd managed to put her whole history with him firmly behind her. Pete took a bit longer to get to the same place, but nothing we've seen so far this season has suggested that he's let their past intrude on their present. And yet with a single, supremely awkward congratulations (loved Peggy's silent head-slam afterwards) and a couple of exchanged glances, pregnant with meaning (sorry, couldn't resist), it all came back in a flood. But only for a moment, I think. They've both moved on, however ambivalent a part of them may still feel about it, and there was something valedictory about that last look.

Speaking of which, that last shot? Not subtle at all. Powerful, though. Past and future, juxtaposed: suits (with Pete) on one side of the glass, counterculture (with Peggy) on the other. A suggestion of diverging paths. But I don't think it's really that simple. After all, for all the attention this episode gave to Peggy branching out, it was just as much about Pete thinking outside the box - with an indirect assist from Ken Cosgrove (Kenny!), no less - and coming into his own. Pete's always shown an ability to see the big picture, only he didn't always have the timing or judgment to capitalize on it. His coup with daddy-in-law showed he's gotten exponentially better at calculating when to take a gamble. What's that line about sharks having to move forward or die? Pete's still a shark, and I mean that in the best possible way. I can't see him losing his forward-looking stance any time soon.

Meanwhile, Peggy, for her part, may be a modern woman, but she's still a bit of a square. She continues to hold on to the idea of getting married. She parties with bohos, but she clearly isn't one of them. Not yet, anyway. Nor does she seem particularly tuned into the social upheavals that are coming. That little exchange with her art guy about Malcolm X (don't remember the exact quote, but his crack about her not reading the stuff between the ads) was pretty telling.

If anything, I think that last shot was just a reminder that Pete and Peggy each still have one foot in the future and one foot in the past. And their tenuous positioning underscores a point that the show has been hammering home all season, thus far mostly through Don - that the new Sterling Cooper is still trying to decide what kind of firm it will be. Will SCDP move ahead of the times, or will the times overtake SCDP?

The answer still lies largely with Don, whose developmental arc hasn't started bending noticeably upward yet. He's still drinking way too much, and still has no clue how to make amends with poor Allison. He did, however, continue to champion Peggy's ideas for the Pond's Cold Cream ads rather than a return to Freddy's tried-and-true "it will help you find a husband!" mantra. True, Don's rejection of the latter had a lot to do with his visceral distaste for Doctor Blondie's testing methods and, by extension, his own personal junk (“you can’t tell how people are going to behave based on how they have behaved!”). But his basic insight - that to succeed advertising has to influence the consumer's wants, rather than the other way around - rings essentially true. I also couldn't help wondering if it wasn't at least partly, if unconsciously, triggered by the sight of Peggy trying on the wedding ring. He doesn't want Peggy - or SCDP - to be mired in tired old tropes and traditions, even if he hasn't figured out how to change them. Therein lies the chief challenge and source of suspense for the rest of this season.

Other random notes:

-John Slattery (aka Roger Sterling) directed this episode; perhaps as a consequence, there wasn't much Roger in it. That opening phone call with Lee Garner, Jr., however, was priceless.

-The episode was titled "The Rejected," an obviously important theme that I haven't really discussed - partly because Alan Sepinwall has preempted me with his excellent recap.

-Lots of significant, mostly uncomfortable, exchanged glances in this episode: Don and Allison through the one-way glass (awk-ward); Don and Peggy (over the wedding ring); and, of course, Pete and Peggy.

-Oh, the things Pete thought but did not say when Trudy said, “How would you know what it [fatherhood] feels like?”

-I laughed when that one secretary joked about her and Joan's exclusion from the Pond's Cold Cream focus group: “We’re old and we’re married. They don’t want us.” Joan's posture: "Bitch, please. Speak for yourself."

-Speaking of older secretaries, Don certainly had his coming to him. Joan made sure of it.

-Will Cosgrove jump ship and rejoin his old pals at SCDP? Pete will love that.

-Harry's still a bumbler. And it still doesn't seem to matter. I bet we continue to see his fortunes rise, all because he lucked into one good idea (television). C'est la vie, I guess.

-Did Life photo-girl find Peggy and her new beau hiding in a *closet* during the police raid? Food for thought there...although Peggy did seem pretty into the guy, who came across as rather charming. Not that that forecloses Peggy's experimenting. But I don't see a three-way in her future any time soon.

Best line: I love Stoned Peggy (“This film is more interesting than I thought...It’s rhythmic!”), but I have to give the prize to the little old man at the end:

"Did you get pears?"

Monday, August 09, 2010

R.I.P. Patricia Neal; a word on "Friday Night Lights" Season 4

Sad news: Patricia Neal succumbed today, at the age of 84, to a long struggle with lung cancer. Her entire *life* was a struggle, stricken with tragedy after tragedy, but one she weathered, by all accounts, with courage and grace. I'm a little ashamed to admit I've only ever seen her in one movie, "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (though "A Face in the Crowd" and "Hud" are in my Netflix queue), and even more ashamed to admit that at the time I was girl-crushing too much on Audrey Hepburn to take favorable notice of the woman threatening Holly Golightly's happy ending - but I do remember my mother saying that in her heyday, Neal was as much a movie star and a renowned beauty as Audrey. And so she was.

As always, the Film Experience and the Siren have been quick to provide much more thorough and insightful tributes to a great actress and a great lady.


Blogging "Mad Men" sometimes makes me feel slightly guilty about not blogging the show I love just as much, if not more - "Friday Night Lights," which had its fourth season finale last week on NBC. True, FNL has never been as good as its first season, which was as perfect a season of TV as I've ever seen. The writing can be sloppy and inconsistent, and the less said about season 2, the better. But what FNL does better than any other show on TV, including "Mad Men," is create fully realized, well-balanced, yet inherently likable characters who succeed in earning and maintaining the viewers' good will. The contrast with "Mad Men" in this respect is striking: while I'm fascinated by the "Mad Men" characters and their relationship to their cultural milieu, I don't truly like very many of them and definitely don't love any of them. By contrast, I have affection for most of the characters on "FNL"; even the ones I don't like, I can sympathize with to some degree.

Season 4 presented a monumental challenge for the writers in introducing a whole new town dynamic and a raft of new supporting characters that needed to be developed over a mere 13 episodes. For the most part, they rose to the challenge. Some of the new players were more fleshed out than others - I felt that Luke, for example, got a bit of short shrift at times, probably because Coach Taylor's attention seemed generally more focused on Vince, and I'd have liked to learn a little more about Jess's dad and Jess and Vince's past - but I give full credit to the writers and actors for making the most of their limited time. Even Becky, whom I found intensely annoying, managed to get to me with the abortion storyline, which I thought was handled with remarkable sensitivity.

As for the returning characters, I still question the wisdom of keeping Matt Saracen lingering around for another season, much as I love him, and then arbitrarily dispatching him to Chicago when there was apparently nothing more to do with him. Nevertheless, he had his share of great moments - most notably the episode in which he had to bury his father and confront the demons of his suppressed resentment and bitterness. (Zach Gilford, who plays Saracen, deserved an Emmy nomination for that performance.) Meanwhile, Landry provided gold nuggets of comic relief and got his heart trampled on *again* (though one senses he'll get over Jess more easily than he did over Tyra); Julie Taylor was - well, she was just there, a believable if not particularly interesting picture of a high school senior dealing with the heartbreak of first love; and while I wasn't as invested in the travails of little-lost boy Tim Riggins, damned if he and Billy didn't end up making me cry during the season finale.

But of course the core of the show continued and continues to be Coach and Mrs. Coach Taylor, who consistently present the best-drawn, most nuanced portrait of a stable, happy marriage I've ever seen on TV. Their characters are beautifully written and even more beautifully acted, and I'm glad the Emmy voters finally saw enough sense to give Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton their long-overdue nominations. I'm even gladder I'll be seeing them - and the rest of the Dillon crew - next spring, for season 5.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.3: "The Good News"

"I can't fix anything else, but I can fix this."

Two episodes in, we've already seen Don Draper's old world order crumbling away, even as he strives to build a new one from the rubble. Now Dick Whitman's world is losing one of its main pillars of support. Meanwhile, the show's most outwardly competent and composed character sees the control she's so carefully exercised over her life slipping out of her hands. Don's and Joan's storylines, like parallel lines, never meet - but interestingly, they both intersect with that of Lane Pryce, the outsider who's now completely unmoored from all his old ties and connections.

Unifying themes notwithstanding, this had to be one of the most disjointed hours of "Mad Men" ever. Not that I didn't enjoy watching it - only that I've never seen so many abrupt tonal shifts over the course of a single episode. Some of that I can chalk up to the action moving from New York to L.A. and back again: the California interludes have always felt faintly surreal to me, partly because Don acts so differently there than he does in New York, partly because the character of Anna Draper has always seemed a little too saintly to be true. But beyond that, I felt whipsawed between half a dozen different emotions - from creeping unease to outright disgust (did you have to go there with Anna's niece, Don? Ugh) to crushing sadness about Anna (the shell-shocked look on Don's face as he absorbed the news really hit me, more than the revelation itself) to cold fear (Joan slicing her hand open, qualms about her husband's competency) to outright hilarity (Don and Lane Pryce out on the town...comedy gold!) back to unease (that last shot of Don in the conference room doesn't bode well).

To some extent the schizophrenic quality of this episode may simply reflect the chaotic, precarious state the characters are in right now. Certainly those who were front and center tonight - Don, Joan, Lane - are in a crucial, and painful, moment of transition. It's still too early to tell which way the shoe will drop, but what troubled me was a sense that they've all given up trying to control the outcome. Put another way, this episode seemed to be all about trying to fix things and discovering that some things can't be fixed. On the other hand, turning to what *can* be fixed results in small, surprisingly touching gestures that probably kept everyone (including me) from banging their heads against the wall. Don can't save Anna from cancer, but he can paint her living room - in his skivvies, no less, which she evidently appreciates. He can't fix Lane's marriage, but can take him out to amuse and distract him. Joan's husband, by his own admission, can't fix their unstable situation, but he can, after all, fix her finger.

And I have to say - Dr. Donkey Dick may be a rapist and a whiney douche to boot, but that was a moment of genuine tenderness there between them, even if he was treating her like a small child. I give the writers credit for making the guy a three-dimensional character rather than an unmitigated villain. After all, there had to be a reason Joan chose him, other than mistaking him for a better prospect than he was. And I think she does love him, despite everything, and he, in his own way, loves her. Still, gotta wonder what he'd say if he knew she'd had two abortions.

As for Don, I keep waiting for him to hit bottom, and it still hasn't happened. He at least had the grace to admit, in a rare moment of candor, that he was responsible for the collapse of his own marriage. And I truly felt for him when he realized he couldn't do anything for Anna - not even tell her the truth about her condition. (Though don't you think she already knows?) But I really wish he had kept his paws off Miss Barely-Legal, Kate Hudson-lookalike Berkeley undergrad - even though anyone could tell from the knowing look on the girl's face that she wasn't having any of it. The guy's a mess, and losing Anna is going to remove the last pin that's holding him together. Even his attempt to show Lane a good time ultimately emphasized how empty his own life has become since his divorce. I hope that Lane learns from that, and doesn't start ending his own nights with booze and hookers.

That said, I'd pay good money to see more of Don and Lane painting the town red together. Easily my favorite quarter hour of "Mad Men" so far this season, and a welcome break from all the impending tragedy and despair.


The entire discussion between Don and Lane on what movie to see. I wish I could reproduce it exactly - but anyway, some of the highlights:

Don: It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. No kidding.

Don: Send Me No Flowers.
Lane: (Emphatically) No.

Lane: The Guns of August?
Don: I hate guns, and I hate August.

Lane: The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.
Don: (practically smacking his lips) Catherine Deneuve.

(Cut to Don and Lane, sozzled while watching a Godzilla flick)

Lane: This movie's very good!

Don: You know what's going on here? Hand jobs.

Also loved Lane's mock Japanese in response to the lady who was giving them a dirty look.

And: "YEEEEEHAWWWW!" Never did I think I'd see Lane Pryce rubbing a steak against his crotch.

"Mad Men," you so funny. More of the funny, please.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

I must get last Sunday's NYT Magazine in hard copy...

...because my idol, LAURA LINNEY, is the cover story.

It's a pretty good article, too, once you get past the condescending suggestion that she has yet to hit the big time. Laura Linney is one of the few actresses over 40 who IMO has achieved exactly the career she deserves. And I mean that as a compliment. She may not be getting all the obvious plum parts, à la Meryl Streep, but she's never lacking for quality work...because everyone knows how good she is.

My only complaint is that she hasn't yet won an Oscar *or* a Tony, despite being a frequent nominee.

Side note: I don't care what demons and life struggles he had to dispatch along the way - Frank Bruni is one lucky s.o.b. to jump from being the NYT food critic to interviewing & writing features on Laura Linney.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.2: "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"

Damn it, Don...why did you have to ruin the one perfectly healthy, totally professional relationship in your life?

I don't know which was more cringe-inducing, the drunken one-night stand or the awkward awkward AWKWARD interaction the morning after. Poor Allison - her expression tore at my heart.

This was a highly uncomfortable episode to watch, not least because so much of it seemed to be about someone making someone else feel like a whore: Lucky Strike Guy and Roger; Don and Allison and the ill-timed bonus; even, to a much lesser extent, kindly, well-meaning Freddy Rumsen and Peggy, his onetime protégée. Not that that either Freddy or Peggy would ever see his advice that way, and I rather like the dynamic between those two. For Peggy, Freddy's another surrogate father-figure (a kind of anti-Don), though one she's realizing she may have outgrown. But maybe not in all respects, judging from her face after she finally boinks her clueless boyfriend: is she pondering Freddy's words, old-fashioned or no?

As for Roger, we're so used to seeing him do exactly what he wants to do that it was strangely discomfiting to see him forced to act against his will - for another man's pleasure, no less. Lucky Strike Guy is a sadistic brute, and I have a feeling Roger won't be able to keep him appeased forever.

Roger's self-abasement was at least for the good of the company, which is more than I can say for Don. How jarring was it to hear one of the underlings call him "pathetic"? And yet I can't quarrel with that sneer, based on what we've seen of our hero so far this season. The Don Draper mystique is fast eroding, revealing a desperately lonely, lost man who's forgotten (if he ever knew) how to forge an emotional connection with anyone. Even calling Peggy "sweetheart" - uncharacteristic for him - felt like him clutching at such a connection. Blond research lady seems to have his number, or at least knows enough to rebuff his advances. (Don turned down twice in one episode - have the stars stopped in their courses?) At the same time, something about her weirdly personal attitude towards him reminded me of Suzanne from last season, and we all know where that ended up. Still, at this point research lady seems more like a device than a character. That whole survey of hers, Don's predictable reaction to it, and her little line about the tension between what we want and what's expected of us, all felt *way* too on the nose for me.

Tonight seemed to be the night for returning characters we never really missed: Freddy Rumsen (well, some of us may have missed Freddy), Lee Garner, Jr., and last but not least, creepy Glen! Actually, I never found Glen all that creepy before, but this time around he's definitely giving off a psychopathic vibe. Sally, alas, seems charmed, or at least intrigued, by his attentions. Probably because she sees him as expressing the rage she can't yet fully unleash. Heaven help Betty and poor old Henry Francis once she starts taking Glen as a model.

On the whole, a fairly depressing hour of "Mad Men" (which we should be used to by now), though not entirely bereft of Christmas cheer. Among the bright spots:

-Joan at her most brilliant as mistress of ceremonies and queen of the conga line
-Pete's ridiculous crimson smoking jacket, or whatever it was he was wearing at the party.
-Harry sitting on Santa Roger's lap and mumbling apologies out of the side of his mouth
-Allison reading Don Sally's letter to Santa. That was sweet. (And then Don had to go and piss all over it.)
-New yet familiar TV faces: Dr. Anspaugh from "ER"! (Less excited about the saucer-eyed chick who plays Don's nurse neighbor; she's almost *too* familiar, having been in so many other things - "Heroes," "Everwood," the movie "Brick," apparently also "Grey's Anatomy," which I don't watch. It's a little distracting.)
-The passing gripe about Medicare. Subtle? No. Relevant? Hell, yes.

Best line/exchange:

Don (in goofy German accent): Did you enjoy the Führer's birthday?
Roger (in equally goofy German accent): May he live a thousand years.

Lee Garner, Jr., on receiving a present from "Santa": You didn't have to!
Lane Pryce (aside): Yes, we did.

Second runner-up: I don't remember the exact exchange, but Peggy's idiot bf's jabbering about the Swedish way of love, and her curt retort - "You're never going to get me to do anything Swedish people do."

"Salt" Has Savor, Not Substance; "Agora" Makes Philosophy Sexy and Tragic


directed by Philip Noyce
starring Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor

Preposterous plot? Check. Implausible twists? Check. Paper-thin characters? Check. A fun ride? You bet.

“Salt” is a triumph of style over substance. Not just Angelina Jolie’s style, though that’s obviously a key component. But it wouldn’t be enough without the support of her co-stars and, most of all, the savvy of director Philip Noyce. While there’s no hiding the high cheese factor, what could have been pure Velveeta instead tastes more like a sharp, bracing cheddar.

After a grim opening in North Korea – Hollywood’s last bastion of faceless totalitarian villainy – the film quickly gets to the main point: a mysterious Russian man identifies CIA agent Evelyn Salt (Jolie) as a mole tasked with assassinating the president of Russia. Never mind why a Russian spy would want to kill her own president (the writers don’t concern themselves very much with this point); the real question, on which the movie expends most of its energy, is that of Salt’s loyalty. Is she a double agent, or isn’t she? Her closest colleague, Ted (Liev Schreiber, doing his usual sturdy, understated good work), insists she isn’t; a less sympathetic counterintelligence specialist (Chiwetel Ejiofor, engaging as always) concludes rather peremptorily that she is.

To be fair, Salt’s behavior isn’t that of an innocent woman: after a desperate attempt to find her husband (August Diehl), she goes on the lam and heads straight for the Russian president’s next known destination, taking out a bunch of other agents and enforcement officers along the way. Chase follows spectacular chase, in various forms – foot, cars, motorbike – as the action shifts from D.C. to New York and back again, and shifting with it, our interpretation of Salt’s motives. There’s a twist or two, of course, and an ending that leaves the door wide open for a sequel, but nothing that an alert viewer can’t anticipate. The entertainment definitely lies in the journey, not the destination.

Make no mistake, “Salt” is pure fantasy, though it may have acquired a veneer of unexpected topicality after the FBI’s recent, uncannily well-timed bust of a ring of Russian spies masquerading as ordinary Americans. Certainly there’s an echo of that bizarre story in the tall tale Salt’s accuser spins of schools of Russians who are rigorously trained to assume the identities of upstanding American citizens and wait for years before moving into action. At the same time, there’s something endearingly old-school about the movie’s resurrection of classic Cold War film tropes of Communist brain-washing and sleeper agents. (The only reference to the more current bugaboo of choice, Muslim fanatics, is a throwaway line that, whether intentionally or not, plays for laughs.)

Noyce doesn’t take these hoary Soviet-era themes too seriously, but to his credit, neither does he wink and nudge the audience—at least not overtly. Rather, he adopts a businesslike approach to a wholly improbable plot: his business is to keep viewers on the edge of their seats and guessing what happens next, and in this he succeeds admirably. The Austrialian director is an old hand at the art of maintaining suspense, dating back all the way to his 1989 killer-thriller “Dead Calm,” and he’s had practice with the espionage flick, having twice directed Harrison Ford as Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan in “Patriot Games” and “Clear and Present Danger.” (Sadly, he was also responsible for Val Kilmer’s unfortunate turn as the big-screen version of “The Saint,” one of the dumbest movies I’ve ever seen.) Noyce has since moved on to more serious, politically and socially conscious films, e.g., “Rabbit-Proof Fence” and the very fine “The Quiet American,” but “Salt” shows he hasn’t lost any of the skills that propelled him into the big time. He understands, maybe better than anyone else in the business, how to pace a film like this and how to shoot a bang-up action sequence—crisp, tight, and crackling with tension—with a minimum of actual bang and boom.

He also knows how to use Jolie’s star power, which is obviously the force that drives the movie. “Salt” was originally written with Tom Cruise in mind for the lead, and the critical consensus is that had he in fact accepted it, the movie would have been a failure. I concur, although I resisted at first: why would a warmed-over James Bond/Mission Impossible-derivative thriller be any fresher or more effective with Angelina Jolie instead of Tom Cruise? It isn’t just because Jolie’s a woman (this is hardly the first time she’s played action heroine, after all), or because her star wattage is higher (debatable, though one can make a decent case for it). Perhaps it has something to do with the air of mystery that’s always pervaded Jolie’s persona and that serves her particularly well with this character (Charles Taylor has some perceptive thoughts on this). Perhaps it’s the fierce conviction with which she attacks the role yet somehow manages to make it look easy—something Cruise has never been particularly good at doing. I’m not talking about the physical stunts so much as the shifts in mood, expression, and bearing Salt undergoes over the course of the movie. (Don’t get me wrong, Cruise can be effortless in certain parts, but in others—and Salt, I think, would have been one of them—you can feel him working really hard at it, which can be a bit of a drag.)

And perhaps Jolie’s success does have something to do with the role’s gender reversal—again, not so much with respect to Salt’s superhuman physical abilities, but rather in the depiction of her marital relationship. That dynamic, which would have been merely trite if Salt had been a male agent with a vulnerable, loving wife, suddenly becomes more intriguing in the context of a female agent with a vulnerable, loving husband. “Salt” isn’t the kind of movie that has either the time or the inclination to carve out much emotional depth, yet Jolie manages to infuse it with something resembling pathos without giving the entire game away. Hence, even as we roll our eyes at the silliness of every plot turn, we stay invested in who this woman is, and what she’s really up to, right up to the absurd, adrenaline-soaked end.



directed by Alejandro Amenábar
starring Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Rupert Evans, others

A star vehicle of a wholly different sort, “Agora” also happens to be the most provocative film I’ve seen all year. Sadly, it probably won’t find more than a tiny fraction of the audience that “Salt” drew in its first week alone, and it isn’t the kind of small picture that’s likely to take off through word of mouth: its ostensible subject, the life and times of a female mathematician and philosopher in fourth-century Alexandria, is a little too esoteric, even as its broader themes are a little too controversial. Moreover, “Agora” lacks critical buzz, having failed to gather momentum when it made the film festival rounds, and even though it’s been substantially edited for its theatrical release, the reviews have continued to be mixed.

That’s a shame, for while the film has undeniable flaws, it raises important, intelligent questions and explores them in a generally intelligent and engaging way. Directed by the talented Alejandro Amenábar (“The Sea Inside,” “The Others,” “Open Your Eyes”), “Agora” depicts the gradual yet inevitable, violence-streaked conversion of a renowned seat of classical learning to de facto Christian rule, as seen from the viewpoint of Hypatia (Rachel Weisz), a beautiful, brilliant scholar of mathematics, astronomy, and philosophy, and three of her acolytes—bold Orestes (Oscar Isaac), quiet Synesius (Rupert Evans), and even quieter Davus (Max Minghella), who also happens to be a slave in Hypatia’s house. All four end up following different paths that reflect their divergent attitudes towards the growing power of Christianity—yet each of them is forced to confront the contradiction that Hypatia succinctly sums up in a conversation with Synesius, an early adopter of Christianity who later becomes a bishop: “You do not question what you believe, or cannot. I must.”

“Agora” takes its time to get going and feels at first like a rather flat – though very good-looking – costume pageant. Against a backdrop of handsome, discreetly CGI-enhanced sets that quite effectively convey the grandeur of classical Alexandria, Amenábar introduces his key players with some stiff, clunky dialogue, and sets up the central conflict with none-too-subtle visual contrasts between the white-robed pagan aristocrats and the blue-clad Christians, who mostly belong to the poor and disenfranchised. (There’s a strong suggestion throughout the film that the success of Christianity rested in large part on these class tensions.) He’s also far too fond of punctuating his scenes with “mother Earth” shots that zoom out to the cosmos, as if to contrast its infinite vastness with the groping attempts of man to explain, define, or limit it. But as the balance of power in Alexandria shifts decisively towards the Christians, the film acquires an increased urgency and sense of foreboding. It isn’t long before we realize that Hypatia and everything she stands for—the gospel of pure scholarship, with its devotion to no god but learning, and rule by reason rather than faith—is doomed, her cool, quiet appeal to the intellect no match for the impassioned, all-consuming fire of religious conviction.

Weisz gives a luminous, if not particularly complex, performance as Hypatia: she’s less a character than a prism through which the film views the events that overtook her and, by extension, Alexandria. Amenábar, who wrote the screenplay with Weisz in mind for the lead, plainly intends her to be the film’s moral center. Yet as “Agora” is structured, it’s as much about her students – or more accurately, perhaps, their evolving attitudes towards her, and what they portend for their city – as it is about Hypatia herself. If Hypatia symbolizes the brain of Alexandria, guardian of its intellectual tradition and legacy, then Orestes and Synesius represent its divided heart, and young Davus its even more divided soul. And it’s the struggle for that soul, in particular, that’s reflected in the trajectory of Davus’ feelings towards Hypatia: from the very outset it’s clear he’s silently besotted with her but frustrated at the inconsistency between her kindly treatment of him as a bright pupil and his status as chattel, and irresistibly drawn to the egalitarian promise of Christianity. There’s a crisis moment, fairly on, when Hypatia treats him with the kind of imperious contempt that could only be reserved for a slave. It’s an uncharacteristic and, frankly, unconvincing aberration on Hypatia’s part, obviously a narrative device to force a turning point for Davus. But even after his break with her, we see that some part of him will always yearn for his old mistress, and the film follows that inner conflict to its bitter end.

Not surprisingly, “Agora” has given rise to some complaints that it’s biased against religion in general and Christianity in particular. It’s not a baseless accusation, but it’s not an entirely fair one, either. While I’m no historian, much less an expert on this particular period of history, from what I’ve been able to gather the movie’s account is reasonably accurate: at least, most of the major characters, except for Davus, were real historical figures, and most of the major events it recounts really happened (except, perhaps, its suggestion that Hypatia anticipated the discoveries of Johannes Kepler). True, Amenábar has a tendency to idealize Hypatia (how can you not, when you cast Rachel Weisz?) and, by contrast, makes the film’s most powerful Christian figure—Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria—into a pretty one-dimensional villain. And certainly one could read any number of disquieting allegories for our current, troubled times into the brutality of “Agora”’s religious conflicts, the mob mentality exhibited by enraged Christians, and the ignorant and intolerant persecution of Hypatia and all that she embodies. However, what the film ultimately condemns is not religious faith per se, but the abuse of faith and the manipulation of religious emotions as a means to power. One would be hard pressed to dispute the value of that message today, or indeed at any other point in human history. It’s timely, but it’s also timeless.