Sunday, September 26, 2010

Many, Many Movies; No "Mad Men" Recap This Week

Got a lot on my plate this week, so even though I did catch tonight's episode of "Mad Men," I won't have time to recap it. All I can say is the writers sure stepped on the gas this week, didn't they? My head is still spinning.

In other news, I've been seeing quite a few movies lately, but haven't had time to review them yet. I'll get to them as soon as I can; in the meantime, here are my initial grades and drive-by impressions:


directed by Mark Romanek
starring Carey Mulligan, Keira Knightley, Andrew Garfield, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins
based on the novel by Kazuo Ishiguro


REVIEW IN A NUTSHELL: About as good as an adaptation of this particular book *could* be. Its problems are problems inherent in the original design of the story and characters. Solidly acted across the board; somewhat to my surprise, I'd give best in show to Keira.


directed by Oliver Stone
starring Michael Douglas, Shia Laboeuf, Carey Mulligan, Josh Brolin, Frank Langella


REVIEW IN A NUTSHELL: Reasonably engaging, though not a patch on the first movie and not as good as it could have been. Slides into predictability and sentimentality towards the end, but redeemed by strength of performances.


directed by Ben Affleck
starring Ben Affleck, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, Blake Lively, Pete Postlethwaite


REVIEW IN A NUTSHELL: Action/suspense elements were well executed; relationship drama less compelling, though that's no fault of any of the actors, who were generally quite good.


directed by Will Gluck
starring Emma Stone, Penn Badgley, Amanda Bynes, Patricia Clarkson, Stanley Tucci, Thomas Haden Church, Lisa Kudrow, Malcolm McDowell, others

GRADE: B (Emma Stone: Easy A, indeed!)

REVIEW IN A NUTSHELL: Agreed with critics who say that Emma Stone is fabulous and by far the best thing in the movie. Worth watching for that reason, but *only* that reason.


written and directed by David Michod
starring Guy Pearce, Joel Edgerton, and a whole buncha Australians


REVIEW IN A NUTSHELL: Gritty portrait of an Australian crime family coming apart at the seams, as seen by a young naif who gets pulled into their messy, nasty web. Doesn't always make a lot of sense, and the main character tends to suck the life out of the movie, but does do a good job putting the screws into the viewers and ratcheting up anxiety levels.

More later, if not sooner!

Monday, September 20, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.9: "The Beautiful Girls"

Death is no joke, but damned if "Mad Men" didn't come pretty close to proving the contrary. I can't remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did tonight at the entire sequence of Ms. Blankenship's, er, removal from the office - everything from Peggy's horrified yelp to poor tiny Pete in the distance, struggling with the dead body, to the transfixed expression on Ken's face to Harry's off-screen protest at the use of his afghan ("my mother made that!") as a shroud. Trust Blankenship to exit as she entered - as a source of unwitting hilarity.

But also a source of pathos. With her passing, death suddenly felt nearer for Roger, Joan, and perhaps most of all for Bert Cooper, though the episode focused more on the dual reaction of Roger and Joan to the thought that they, too might one day end up like Blankenship, dead long after her expiration date. (With Greg all but shipped off to Vietnam, Joanie must have had death especially on her mind already.) Fear and sadness drew those two old friends back together, and an added jolt of fear reunited them, however briefly, as lovers. As to that, while near-death experiences may be a great aphrodisiac and all, I frankly rolled my eyes at their back-alley, post-mugging tryst. But there was something quite poignant about their interaction the next day, and those parting looks of yearning. They're not done yet, those two, not by a long shot, especially if Dr. Donkey-dick bites it in 'Nam. Though frankly I wouldn't be surprised if the bugger just comes back maimed in some way, which would be the worst of possible worlds for poor Joan.

If Mrs. Blankenship in this, her final, episode embodied the fear of being dead and forgotten, she also represented the last of an earlier generation of working women. It was surely no coincidence that we had all the "Mad" women of the succeeding generations in such close proximity - Joan, Faye, Peggy, Meghan, even Joyce on the margins (of course) - and on the other side, Betty, still the antithesis and the throwback. The last shot of Joan, Peggy, and Faye in the elevator starkly framed three alternate paths: on one side, the woman for whom career was supposed to be only a precursor or, at best, an accessory, to marriage and family; on the other, the woman who chose career over marriage and family; and in the middle, the younger woman who still wants it all. (I also noticed that just moments before, we see Joyce entering an elevator by herself: alone and ahead of the rest.) It was also significant, I think, that all of these women, except Joyce, had to deal with both Don and runaway Sally. There's a suggestion of a choice, for both father and daughter, among these various types - in Sally's case, not just as a potential role model but as a potential new parent.

Sally's meltdown was painful to watch; sadly, it was also about due. It doesn't help that her mother continues to treat her as a pawn in her bitter power-struggle with Don. The friend I was watching the show with tonight practically cheered when Don barked, "You learn some responsibility!" at Betty over the phone. But I thought the comment was a bit rich coming from Don, who may be warmer and more affectionate towards Sally, but is still inclined to shuffle her off to whatever woman happens to be handy. Even if it's a woman who by her own admission is no good with children. Faye was right to call him on it. I'm glad Don listened and apologized, but I just don't see him staying with her for the long haul. He's going to want someone who can be a mother to his kids.

Random notes:

-Things don't look too auspicious for Abe and Peggy...or do they? Abe was blundering and tactless and full of that particularly annoying brand of high-mindedness that can only condescend and lecture, never listen and respond. And yet, despite himself, there was something oddly endearing about his passion: unlike, say, Paul Kinsey, he doesn't come across as a poseur. And he *did* make Peggy rethink her own agnosticism about her clients' racial politics; here's hoping she makes him rethink his dismissive attitude towards the discrimination *she* faces. That argument between them - about whether and to what extent you can really compare different forms of discrimination - still has a lot of resonance today.

-Interesting juxtaposition of the racism of Fillmore Autoparts with the mugging of Roger and Joan by a black man. It was probably intentional. Not sure it was necessary.

-I wish Matt Weiner et al. would stop making Betty so unsympathetic this season. I happen to be one of those few who didn't think she was a particularly horrible mother before - just typical of her class and time period, perhaps further crippled by her own particular misery in her marriage and unwanted third pregnancy. But now? She's losing me, and I *don't* think the change has been organic or consistent with the character I knew before. That utter fakeness of her soft touch and words to Sally at the end of this episode ("I was worried about you"), and the hardening of her face as she looked at the other women, sent chills down my spine. Great acting by January Jones, but I want to see Betty's human side, not Mommie Dearest.

-Next to Mrs. Blankenship's impromptu departure, the second funniest moment in the episode had to be Sally serving Don French toast with rum instead of Mrs. Butterworth's. The kicker being his final verdict. (Sally: "Is it bad?" Don: "Not really." Nyom nyom nyom.)

Best line:

Don: "I would have my secretary do it, but she's DEAD."

So wrong on so many levels, and yet so funny.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.8: "The Summer Man"

Well, that was different. But mostly in a good way.

This felt like a California episode of "Mad Men," and it wasn't just the quality of the summer light or the abundance of swimming imagery. It was the sight of Don essentially importing his California self into his New York self. California Don - thanks largely, but not entirely, to the presence of Anna - has always been more open and honest about his own emotions, more willing to admit his own errors, and more at ease with his inner Dick Whitman than New York Don, by turns impassive and imperious, ever was. The boundaries between these two selves have been increasingly blurred this season, but only now, having hit rock-bottom, does Don seem to be actively embracing his other, better half in an effort to pull himself out of the abyss.

That may be why the introduction of his voice-over narration didn't grate, though it was certainly unexpected. It's not a device I want to see continue, but for this particular moment in Don's life, it felt right. If there were ever a time for self-assessment, this would be it. In a sense, he's conducting therapy on himself.

In that vein, Don's swimming is of a piece with his soul-searching. And though it may call to mind another "Swimmer" of the same period, in Don's case it suggests a deliberate self-immersion in his unconscious emotions rather than a futile attempt to escape from them. Even the images of him lying alone in his bed are swimmer-like. They reminded me of a passage from one of my favorite books, A.S. Byatt's Possession:

He disposed himself for sleep. The sheets were white and felt slightly starched; he imagined that they smelled of fresh air and even the sea-salt. He moved down into their clean whiteness, scissoring his legs like a swimmer, abandoning himself to them, floating free. His unaccustomed muscles relaxed. He slept.

The character here, Roland, has little in common with Don; but like Don, his life's messy and he's in desperate need of a period of clean, unencumbered solitude. In another passage, slightly later in the book, Roland tells a woman who's plainly his soulmate - though neither of them recognizes this yet - that at that point in his life (he's trying to extricate himself from a long-dead, rotting relationship), what he really craves is "a clean empty bed in a clean empty room." Don seems to have come to the same realization, judging from his restrained response to both young Bethany and the older, warier Dr. Miller, who finally succumbs to Don's charms. He's clearly done with the former; why he doesn't press his advantage with the latter is a more interesting question. Maybe he's taken Aesop's fable to heart and prefers to play a subtler game. Maybe he really sees potential for something long-term with Faye. But at some level it's got to be because he knows it's best for himself, at this juncture, to be able to stretch out alone in a clean bed.

If Don's turned a corner, there are signs that Betty may be doing the same. This is the second episode in which Mrs. Francis starts off terribly but seems to collect herself, and even redeem herself a little, by the end - even if her last look conveyed an undefinable regret. Meanwhile, Henry, for all his talk of being the adult in that marriage, acted no less childishly towards Don than his wife, from his charade with the boxes to his silly lawn-mowing he-man routine. The punchline to that wholse showdown, of course, was an unfazed Don coolly pitching the boxes into a dumpster. He's moved on in a way that Betty, and by extension, Henry, haven't, and they both envy him that. At least Betty now seems more willing to act the part of an adult; here's hoping the reality will follow.

Of course, for every upward character arc on "Mad Men," there has to be a downward one to balance it out, and unfortunately the latter appears to have fallen to Joan. Not that we haven't seen signs of this all along - in her marriage, of course, but also, lately, in the office. As I commented last week, with the evolution of the new Sterling Cooper there's been an erosion of Joan's power, though it's difficult to separate from her growing unhappiness and anxiety over her husband's imminent departure for Vietnam. Still, even apart from that it's become increasingly clear that she no longer exercises the same influence over the younger staff that she once did. I hate to put her in the same category as Roger, but she, like him, is seeming more and more like a relic of a past era, a point underscored with remarkable brutality by young Joey. (Speaking of whom - oedipal issues, much?)

If Joan literally embodies the old era of female power in the workplace, then Peggy represents the new. Joan, understandably, is hostile to that shift and was unfair and ungracious to Peggy as a consequence. Peggy was right to fire Joey; it was one of the most satisfying moments of the night. And yet Joan, too, is right about its likely impact on perceptions of both of them. It's a problem that persists today.

Random notes:

-"I was blind, but now I see." Indeed. As I've said before, "Mad Men"'s use of symbolism is *not* subtle. But that's ok, subtlety isn't everything.

-How cool did Don look during the "Satisfaction" sequence, from the white shirt to the shades to the cigarette? It was a little cheesy, but it *worked*. Papa's got a brand new bag. And no hat, which might be significant.

-I found the juxtaposition of Bethany and Betty, in addition to being awkward, a bit creepy. Talk about doubling - names, hairstyles, even superficial physical type. Bethany's reaction was priceless, however; you could see the wheels turning in her head as soon as she looked from Betty to Don. Far from being squicked out, she found, er, encouragement, I guess, in the resemblance. But she miscalculated.

-Dr. Faye's loud, semi-public phone breakup seemed very forced to me. But of course it gave Don the opening he needed, and revealed some new dimensions to Faye's character. Her less-than-patrician background may also appeal to the new Don that's emerging, the one that's learning to accept his own shady past.

-Harry is such a poser. Go open the LA office already, Harry.

Best line:

Peggy, on Mountain Dew and whiskey: "That's not a cocktail, that's an emergency."

Monday, September 06, 2010

A Kiss is Not Just a Kiss...As "Cairo Time" Goes By

Quietly, and with zero fanfare, “Cairo Time” has slipped past several flashier contenders to become my favorite film of the year thus far. Granted, the year’s still young (infantile, actually) in movie release terms. And I have to admit that part of the reason I responded so strongly to “Cairo Time” was the element of surprise: it wasn’t on my radar at all, and unexpected pleasures are often the sweetest. There's more to it than that, however. What distinguishes “Cairo Time” isn’t its subject matter, which is fairly rote (WASPy lady, visiting an exotic foreign land, finds herself drawn to attractive native host), but the extraordinary delicacy with which it handles the interactions between its two central characters.

Much of the credit, though not all, goes to the actors: the great Patricia Clarkson as Juliette, an American in Cairo to meet her husband, Mark, a U.N. employee, and Alexander Siddig (“Syriana,” “Kingdom of Heaven,” “24”) as Tareq, a former colleague and friend of Mark’s who, when the latter is held up in Gaza, picks Juliette up at the airport, delivers her safely to her hotel, and politely offers her whatever assistance she may need. As Mark’s detention continues indefinitely and Juliette finds her Western looks and clothes attracting unwelcome attention on the streets, she solicits Tareq’s services as guide and de facto bodyguard. Tareq obliges, and an unlikely friendship—with a hint, if not a promise, of something more—develops between them over the course of her stay.

The dynamic between Tareq and Juliette is somewhat reminiscent of “Lost in Translation,” crossed with “Before Sunrise/Before Sunset,” and perhaps a touch of “In the Mood for Love”—all movies I love, so it’s no wonder I loved this one, too. As in those films, communication is as much unspoken as spoken, if not more so: a gesture, an expression, a seemingly casual touch conveys volumes that can’t be articulated in words. And as in those films, we see how much the connection between two strangers depends on the special and peculiar circumstances that both bring them together and pull them apart. Part of what makes that connection so believable here is how wholly unanticipated it is on both sides, and yet how organically it unfolds. Juliette isn’t suffering from a midlife crisis: a successful women’s magazine editor with two grown children, she seems quite happily married and content with both her professional and personal life. Still, there are moments, calibrated with wonderful subtlety by Clarkson, when she reveals not so much boredom as a certain susceptibility to the lure of the new—new experiences and sensations that not only relieve her temporary enforced solitude but lift her out of the comfortable groove of her everyday life. While Tareq remains more mysterious, as portrayed by Siddig (so good in “Syriana,” so different yet equally good here) he’s far more than a cipher or mere projection of Juliette’s desires. Underneath his courtesy and charm, he reveals signs of a man who’s suffered more disappointments than Juliette, but doesn’t dwell on them—which makes the fleeting glimpses he offers into his heart all the more poignant.

"Cairo Time" has a lovely, seductive languor that gives the title a romantic, slightly wistful significance. The time that Tareq and Juliette have together—mere days for them, and just over an hour and a half for us—lingers luxuriously without losing its fundamentally ephemeral quality. If it all feels a bit dreamlike, that's by design. Never has Cairo looked more inviting: director Ruba Nadda casts the city in a warm, flattering glow that burnishes its incredible beauty while excluding, for the most part, its less appealing aspects. We see Juliette’s changing attitude towards both Cairo and her companion reflected in her attire, which gradually shifts from crisp shirts and khakis to alluring pastel and floral print dresses that cling softly to her body; even her features seem to soften, and not just because of the lighting.

Still, Nadda doesn't let the atmospherics cloud her view, or ours, of the two protagonists or their potential as a couple. The spark between them feels more like a slow burn, kept in check by their respective situations and their own personalities. I won’t give away the outcome of the “will they/won’t they” question, other than to say that the consummation of their attraction feels exactly, poetically right. Their shared experience is their gift to one another, and to the audience drawn into their web of conflicting desires.


Sunday, September 05, 2010

"Mad Men" Ep. 4.7: "The Suitcase"

This episode, aptly titled "The Suitcase," might just as easily have been called "The Fight." The famous Muhammad Ali-Sonny Liston match of 1965, which resulted in one of the most iconic boxing photos of all time, provided a neat framing device for several key "Mad Men" relationships, as long-simmering tensions gave way to open conflict: most obviously between Don and Peggy, as well as Don and Duck, but also between Peggy and hapless Mark, Peggy and her own family, and Joan and the Sterling Cooper junior frat club. (I'd even argue Trudy and Peggy traded a couple of jabs in the ladies' room, whether or not that was the conscious intent on either side.) Like the Ali-Liston bout, each of these faceoffs ended inconclusively or, at best, with an ambiguous victory.

No doubt fans who love Don and Peggy were delighted to see them finally have it out. Myself, I was alternately exasperated with both of them - Don for being so rude and peremptory with Peggy, Peggy for sticking around and putting up with his crap - and worried that the two of them would hook up. (Not that I've ever truly, rationally thought that Matt Weiner would go down that path, but after the Allison debacle I put nothing past Don.) Thankfully, their showdown culminated in greater emotional, not physical, intimacy - a surprisingly feel-good ending after an unpromising beginning. There were so many ways their blow-up could have messed them both up even further: Don was obviously abusing Peggy to hold his Anna-related guilt and fears at bay, while Peggy, in deciding to stay, was just as obviously working through a host of her own issues - daddy issues, mommy issues, career-girl issues (a/k/a "what I want vs. what's expected of me," to quote the good Dr. Faye). The sight of Don and Duck drunkenly fighting - ostensibly over Peggy's honor, but really over her loyalty - was like a grotesque parody of a courtly romance, and all I could think about was what a field day Freud would have had with all three of them.

Yet somehow, against all odds, Don and Peggy seemed to draw strength from each other after tearing each other down. The symmetry of having them both cry was a little too pat, but I'll take it if it means they've both moved forward. We've seen enough of Don wallowing in his guilt and self-hatred and Peggy stewing over Don not appreciating her. I also think we've seen enough of both Mark and Duck, though there's a part of me that will always feel a little sorry for Duck. What can I say, I seem to have sympathy for the characters that everyone else hates (Betty, Pete, Duck, even Dr. Rapist). But if Peggy's going to be a life-preserver to any man, it's clearly not going to be Duck. Don may have cried uncle, but he came out on top after all.

And surely being covered in his own vomit and pinned by an even drunker Duck has got to be Don hitting bottom, right? I'm keeping my fingers crossed that this episode - Don's "purging" (that was a hella puke), his crying, his last vision of the beatified spirit of Saint Anna (with a Samsonite suitcase, heh - carrying away Don's baggage, perhaps, and leaving him in Peggy's care) - was the final kick, the moment of catharsis he needed. I take encouragement in our last view of him, with his fresh shirt, his crisp yet kindly tone to Peggy at the end, the door he told her to leave open.

But on the other hand - Don bet on Liston to win.

Best line - or at least, best-delivered line, from Peggy:

"Cooper has no testicles?"

Random notes:

-There seems to have been a gradual erosion of Joan's omnipotence at Sterling Cooper over this season. First Lane Pryce deprecates her charms; then she gets relegated to the ranks of "old married women" who aren't needed for a focus group study; now that young punk art guy has been going out of his way to defy her authority. (Although to be fair, he doesn't seem to have respect for anyone's authority, judging by his past comments on Don and Pete.) There was a time when Joan would have had all the underlings eating out of her hand. Now, not so much. Sign of a culture shift at Sterling Cooper? Or her own thinning patience and diminishing joie de vivre? Or just a reflection of her own changed social status as a married woman?

-Loved the look of alarm on Pete's face as he saw Trudy and Peggy emerging from the ladies' room. Vincent Kartheiser has really been knocking it out of the park this season.

-Not surprised that Trudy appears to have inherited her father's love of bloodsport. This is a lady to be reckoned with.

-Whom did Pete bet on to win the fight? It wasn't clear to me from his comments, though it was clear he identified with Ali. I thought it was interesting that the dweeby new guy, Jane's cousin (who will always be Doyle from "Gilmore Girls" to me, though I understand he was also on Buffy), definitely DID bet on Ali to win. And he also called out Harry on his greed and antisemitism. Perhaps we shouldn't underestimate the little dude after all.

-So Dr. Lyle Evans does mean something after all! Well played, Weiner, well played.