Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Mad Men 5-11: The Other Woman

"There is no number." - Peggy Olson

So in one of the many corners of the internets devoted to analysis and hyperanalysis of "Mad Men," following the airing of this week's episode, I found a comment by someone styling himself "Matthew Weiner" that ran roughly as follows:



Snark aside, while I don't entirely agree with this assessment - an oversimplification at best , flat-out wrong at worst - it does pinpoint some reservations I've had about what's generally been a very strong season of "Mad Men." As I've noted before, "Mad Men" has never been a truly subtle show. Powerful and layered, yes; subtle, no. (The writing, that is - the subtlety of the acting is a big part of what makes the show work.) And yet this season Weiner (or his writers; but who doesn't believe he's the Don Draper of his own "creative" department?) has laid an especially heavy hand on the structure of each episode to shape it around a particular, pointed theme - usually some facet of the show's larger narrative concern with power dynamics, gender dynamics, the displacement of the older generation, or any & all of the above.

Put another way, substitute "are commodified" or "are objectified" for "can be bought" in the comment above, and you pretty much have, at a basic level, the Theme of the Week.

There are nuances, of course, as there always are in "Mad Men." The writers once again go for a tripartite structure of sorts, exploring the TotW through three of the principal female characters - Joan, Peggy, and Megan - against the backdrop of SCDP's Jaguar campaign, which affects them all in ways both direct and indirect.

Megan's was in some respects the most subtle riff on that theme, or at least the most oblique, though it was also the least compelling of the three. Her audition, if successful, threatened to take her entirely out of Don's reach, an outcome unacceptable to him; yet in the end, she, too, was reduced to a piece of meat at her callback ("Turn around, please") and failed to land the part. Meanwhile idiot-savant Ginsberg, seeing Megan seemingly have her way with Don, incorporated that dynamic into a game-winning Jaguar pitch with a disturbing underlying message about man's unsated desire to control and possess women. (Ginsberg's trademark? We've seen a variation of it before, in his Cinderella pitch.)

Or was it the game-winner, that pitch? Thanks to Joan, we'll never know for sure. On that storyline, I need to say this right off the bat: JOAN IS NOT A VICTIM.

Was her predicament tragic? Yes, absolutely; I'm not going to sugercoat it with some postfeminist BS about self-empowerment. She sold herself, and it was devastatingly painful to watch, the ickiness of the transaction accentuated by intercutting with Don selling Jaguar a tag line that could have been written as an ironic caption for either her or Megan. Something beautiful you can truly own. Yuck.

But it was Joan's choice, and it wasn't a foregone conclusion that she had no other. True, she was operating on imperfect information - actually, misinformation from Pete - giving her the false impression that the partners were fine with her selling herself, and she was facing the prospect of single motherhood with no support from her heel of a soon-to-be-ex-husband. Still, she wasn't yet in desperate straits, and she wasn't given an ultimatum, or even any kind of real threat, from the partners. She could have said no.

This in no way exonerates the leading men of SCDP, who collectively played a significant part in her decision. While some viewers found their actions - or lack thereof - hard to swallow, they were all wholly, if unpalatably, in character. Least surprising, after the initial shock that he would actually go there, was Pete's role as pimp-in-chief, telling half truths to convince everyone that without Joan's, er, participation, they would lose Jaguar. Let's face it, there's nothing Pete Campbell wouldn't do to advance his own interests or, by extension, the interests of the firm - this was the same guy who tried to pimp out his own wife to get his story published, after all, giving one of Joan's scornful rhetorical questions to him an uncomfortable resonance.

The others all played some variation of Pontius Pilate, at least initially: Don was disgusted and would have none of it, but didn't try to stop the train until it was too late. (Neat time-loop device there, raising the question of whether Joan would have gone through with it if he'd spoken earlier. Moved as she was, I'm not so sure she would have acted differently.) By contrast, Lane provided an insidious assist to Pete, having his own, urgent reasons for not wanting to pay out cash upfront. Bert was content to let Joan know she was free to refuse, a position consistent with his Ayn Rand-ian view of individual agency. Roger's inaction evidently disappointed viewers as much as it did Joan, but in the context of their last interaction, it makes perfect sense: Joan just rebuffed his attempts to provide for their child, but is - according to Pete - willing to prostitute herself for the same money? Roger's prone to act like a child when he feels injured, and this was no exception: So that's how it is? Well, she's not getting my money that way, after refusing it when it was kindly offered, no strings attached.

Ultimately, whatever Joan's reasons and external influences, she made a devil's bargain and stuck to it. And there was no sign at the end of the episode (unless you count her enigmatic parting glance at Peggy) that she's going to be looking in any direction other than resolutely forward, as a new partner.

Which brings me, finally, to Peggy, who by all appearances came out the best in this episode. All of her friction with Don over the past season was building to this point. He's repeatedly ignored her, unfairly vented his personal frustrations on her, and taken her for granted. He denied her a role with Jaguar (probably for the best, all things considered) while making her shoulder the rest of the work, then refused to give her any credit for saving Chevalier Blanc. The last straw, however, was his throwing money at her face when she protested - a gesture I frankly found as unlikely, coming from him, as it was insulting, but hey, anything to drive home the TotW, right?

So Peggy declared her independence, in a quiet bombshell of a scene that's bound to go down as the most poignant and emotionally satisfying Don-Peggy interaction in all of "Mad Men," beautifully delivered by both Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss. And her little smile at the end - to the tune (ironic?) of the Kinks' "You Really Got Me") was very Peggy, and wonderful to see.

And yet...there's a suggestion that even Peggy had her price, despite telling Don there was no number. There was no number - or price - he could offer her that she was willing to accept. But she took one from his nemesis. What will be the fallout from that, I wonder?

Random observations:

-FREDDY RUMSEN! I know people were excited to see Kinsey last week, but I, for one, was equally delighted to see Freddy. Whatever Don says about making Peggy everything she is, let's not forget it was Freddy who first noticed her talent. Love that he's still her mentor, love that he's still sober, and loved their conversation in the diner.

-Some viewers fear that Peggy is leaving the show or will have a much-reduced role. I'm not worried. She's too essential a character to be banished or sidelined for long, and her working for Don's arch-rival should have interesting consequences. Will she and Don be in open competition? So many possibilities...

-And poor Kenny gets left in the dust, his loyalty to Peggy unrewarded. Ken's not perfect by any means, but he's a decent guy, and by far the most "normal" of this dysfunctional bunch.

-There's been rampant speculation that someone will be going "out the window" before the end of the season, with most of the betting on Pete. I, however, would put my money on Lane. The noose is tightening.

-Speaking of Lane, although he undoubtedly had his own interests at heart when he advised Joan to hold out for partnership, the tone of his advice - if you're going to do this, do it for what you're really worth to this firm - had a ring of sincerity to it. There's no doubt he admires her immensely, and feels ashamed of what he's doing.

-On the flip side, some have questioned whether Don's attempt to deter Joan was at least partly motivated by his desire to win Jaguar based on the pitch alone. But again, the tone he took with her, and what we've seen of his relationship with her, suggests that any such motives are, at best, secondary. Don likes and respects Joan, and it's personal for him, seeing a woman he cares about whoring herself out. (Contrast with his callous cruelty to Sal, in the same situation.)

-Not sure what purpose Megan's friend playing jaguar served, other than to provide a distraction for the other copywriters while Ginsberg focused his attention on Megan. A bit clumsy, that.

-Best line: "Those are two different stories." -Joan, responding to Pete's clumsy attempts to compare her to Cleopatra.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

"Avengers" and "Margaret" - messy, but full of life

Double dose of Mark Ruffalo this weekend, and you’ll hear no complaints from me about that! I have to say the Ruff’s appearances were much more satisfying in one film than the other – and much to my surprise, it was in the superhero-stuffed popcorn flick that his character was more fully developed.

In fact, as a general matter “The Avengers” did a better job handling its large ensemble cast than “Margaret,” something I would not have predicted a year ago. Neither film is what I’d call tightly structured, but “Margaret” as an end product suffers more from its messiness than “The Avengers” does. On the other hand, “Margaret” left me very curious about what got left on the cutting-room floor (and no, I’m not necessarily talking about more Ruffalo, though I can’t imagine that that would be anything but a bonus), which is rarely the case for most movies I see, good or bad.


directed by Joss Whedon
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel Jackson, Scarlet Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Stellan Skarsgaard, Colbie Smulders, brief cameo by Gwyneth Paltrow

“The Avengers” isn’t a masterpiece. It doesn’t rewrite the formula for comic book blockbusters. It doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is – a major studio summer “tentpole” movie building on previous tentpole movies with the goal of maximizing studio profits on the Marvel franchise. What the movie does do, and do quite well, is create a recognizable human, and human-scaled, team dynamic among its superhuman protagonists that’s immensely fun to watch.

Much of the credit for this modest but crucial measure of success goes to director Joss Whedon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly,” “Serenity”), who knows a thing or two about how teams of misfits come together and shows it in a multitude of small moments, witty touches and snatches of dialogue that quickly and efficiently establish distinct character traits, tensions, and camaraderie. The rest goes to the cast, who manage to leave vivid impressions as individuals while generating convincing, if slow-burning, chemistry with each other. Iron Man, unsurprisingly, is the showboat of the bunch, with RDJ at his rapid-fire best as the incorrigibly cocky, quippy billionaire inventor who might be as brilliant as he thinks he is. But he’s well balanced by a natural foil in the more self-disciplined, less self-aggrandizing Captain America (Chris Evans, who continues to radiate quiet decency and appealing squareness) – the war hero displaced, Rip Van Winkle-style, from his own time – and an unlikely buddy in mild-mannered fellow science geek Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo, using his natural affability to good effect), a/k/a the Hulk in less mild moments. Even the relative newcomers, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), bring just enough emotional charge and back story to make us want to learn more about them, while Sam Jackson’s Nick Fury is content to remain a coolly enigmatic figure at the margins, more recruiter and liaison than director or mastermind. Sometimes less is more.

Alas, that isn’t true for Thor, the one Avenger who falls a little flat, at least in this go-around. Not through any fault of Chris Hemsworth, who hardly lacks charisma, but rather because the movie strips away most of the narrative arcs that shaped his previous big-screen appearance without giving him anything new to work with: Thor’s full immortal powers have been restored; he’s no longer a total fish out of water, having gained some familiarity with Earth and its inhabitants; and the human girl he took a particular shine to is nowhere to be seen. The only plot thread he’s left with is his ongoing personal beef with stepbrother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), which doesn’t really get developed so much as subsumed and merged into the Avengers’ collective beef with Loki. That shift also has the effect of making Loki a much less morally ambiguous (and thus less interesting) villain than he was in “Thor.” Here he’s simply a power-hungry psychopath, albeit a very entertaining power-hungry psychopath whom Hiddleston plays with enjoyable gusto. While the mechanics of his eeeevilicious world-dominating scheme can be a little fuzzy, there’s nothing fuzzy about that monomaniacal glint in those ice-blue eyes.

In the end, though, “The Avengers” is first and foremost about the Avengers; the particular plot and villain they’re assembled to foil remain secondary to the plot of their assembling and jelling, grudgingly, with fits and starts, into a true team. I’ve said almost nothing about the movie’s action set pieces or special effects, and I’ve little to say except that they’re there, they’re competently executed, and do not require 3D viewing to appreciate. The real special effect here is the rapport between the Avengers. Come for the spectacle, but stay for the characters.



written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan
starring Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Jeannie Berlin, Matthew Broderick, Mark Ruffalo, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin, Olivia Thirlby, Allison Janney, others

What is “Margaret”? Almost easier to say what it isn’t. It’s large, it contains multitudes. It’s a film about adolescence and loss of innocence, and the human need to make moral sense out of senseless tragedy. It’s a tribute to a lovely Gerard Manley Hopkins poem. It’s a bombshell performance by Anna Paquin – her best since, well, “The Piano.” Above all else, perhaps, it’s the six-year-delayed follow-up to writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s near-perfect debut film, “You Can Count on Me” – a follow-up that almost perished in the editing room and, later, the courtroom.

As anyone knows who, like me, has monitored Lonergan’s career since YCCoM, the making of “Margaret” was a labor of love that almost turned into love's labor's lost. As detailed in a recent New York Times article, Lonergan reportedly wrote a brilliant, sprawling screenplay and turned it into a brilliant, sprawling film that, no matter how he tried, he just couldn’t cut down to the 2 ½ hour length he’d promised the studio. At the same time, he rejected his producers’ efforts to bring in outsiders to do the cutting, eventually causing one exasperated producer to pull half the funding – which in turn led to litigation that dragged on for years. By the time Lonergan finally did cobble together a 2 ½ hour cut of his beleaguered film, the studio’s budget and patience had run dry, and “Margaret” was only released in a tiny handful of theaters, with no fanfare and almost no promotion. Given this unpromising history, it’s a small miracle that “Margaret” – at least the version released to theaters – isn’t a complete disaster. (An extended three-hour cut is scheduled for release on DVD later this summer.) I wouldn’t even call it an interesting failure so much as an incomplete success. It feels like an unfinished work because, in a sense, that’s exactly what it is.

The film ostensibly focuses on a tragic bus accident, precipitated by a NYC schoolgirl named Lisa (a very young Anna Paquin) who distracts the driver (Mark Ruffalo) at a critical moment, and Lisa’s subsequent efforts to make amends to the family and friends of the victim (Allison Janney, in a fairly thankless blink-and-miss role). However, it spends just as much time detailing numerous other aspects of Lisa’s daily existence – from her prickly relationship with her divorced parents (Lonergan and J. Smith-Cameron, married in real life) to her heated classroom skirmishes with her fellow students to her awkward explorations of her burgeoning sexuality. While this narrative approach might feel rambling and directionless to some viewers, what we see of Lisa’s environment, and how she functions in it, offers insight into her response to the accident; in fact, the accident itself is, in one sense, just another trigger – albeit a violent one – for her attempts to grow up already and take charge of her world. She reacts one way initially, motivated by guilt, then another, driven by more guilt and a desperate desire to restore the shattered moral order of her universe. To some, her zeal in pursuing reparation and, later, her despair at the futility of her endeavors, may tap into the post-9/11 sensibility that Lonergan admits influenced his conception of the movie. To me, it captures something at once broader and more specific to Lisa at her particular stage of development: confronted – probably for the first time in her life – with inexplicable horror, she grasps at adulthood’s tools (the law) to shore up the moral certainties of her childhood.

“Margaret” can be maddening at times, centered as it is on the largely self-created drama of a bright but callow teenage girl who’s annoyingly convinced she’s right and often quite strident about it. Lonergan rarely departs from Lisa’s perspective to show us anyone else’s, which might be why only a tiny handful of characters other than Lisa have any real presence in the film. Among these, Jeannie Berlin is a standout as the best friend of the bus accident victim; J. Smith-Cameron is quite good as Lisa’s stage-actress mother, Joan; and Matthew Broderick and Jean Reno have brief but memorable moments as, respectively, one of Lisa’s teachers and Joan’s gentleman friend. The rest of the cast – including Ruffalo as the bus driver and Matt Damon as another one of Lisa’s teachers – barely register, though one senses that key scenes involving these characters were probably cut to fit the 150-minute mark. Perhaps for the same reason, the film’s pacing is uneven – it lingers too long on some moments, cuts off others too abruptly, and introduces still others even more abruptly. It’s possible this jaggedness is meant to reflect Lisa’s helter-skelter consciousness, but it seems more likely a byproduct of Lonergan’s editing struggles.

Still, even in its choppy, truncated form, “Margaret” is worth seeing. As in “You Can Count on Me,” Lonergan’s dialogue is remarkably attuned to how real people from the real world – albeit an admittedly narrow, privileged corner of the real world – actually talk, and pokes fun at their follies with gentle wit. The classroom scenes, in particular, are excellent. And even the most mundane moments yield, when least expected, a glimmer – sometimes a pang – of recognition. The film’s also worth seeing for Paquin alone, who’s outstanding as Lisa in all her precocious, headstrong, self-righteous glory. Paquin, far from soft-pedaling Lisa’s unlikeable qualities, inhabits every inch of the character, warts and all, with such force and conviction that you can’t look away. By the time Lisa has her final moment of catharsis (while taking in “The Tales of Hoffmann” at the Met, for which I give Lonergan infinite brownie points), earned or not, you feel it, too.


At moments: A

Anna Paquin: A+

Overall: B/B+

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On vacation... a country where I sadly have no access to my regular TV programming, including "Mad Men." Recaps will resume when I'm back and caught up.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

Three to Watch: My British boys of summer

Every year or so, I "adopt" a promising young actor whom I've mentally marked as One to Watch, which is to say I begin monitoring his career and developing a personal attachment to him - as much as I can get attached to someone I've never met. The One to Watch isn't always obvious leading man material. His appeal lies in some combination of outstanding acting talent (the first and biggest draw), charm, and a look that's more often interesting than handsome. Before I know it, I'm mildly obsessed - though in my defense, I'm generally much more invested in his work than his personal life.

Last year's One to Watch, for me, was Michael Fassbender, whom I first spotted in "Inglourious Basterds" and who's since graduated to the big time. But there are three more prospects - all from across the pond, like Fassbender - who've been coming up close behind him and now stand poised for a major breakthrough. They aren't quite there yet, so for the time being, I'm still calling them mine. Allow me to introduce them.


You may know him from: "The Social Network," as Eduardo Saverin, the friend Mark Zuckerberg betrayed.

I first noticed him in: "The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus," where he played a charming vaudeville performer and managed to steal the show from Heath Ledger, Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrell.

Other noteworthy work: "Never Let Me Go"; the "Red Riding" trilogy; "Boy A." Recently nominated for a Tony for his performance as Biff Loman in the current Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman.

Upcoming big break: Duh, he's the new SPIDER-MAN!

When I knew I was obsessed: When I went to New York to see him, and not Philip Seymour Hoffman, in Death of a Salesman. (Not so obsessed that I couldn't tell he was somewhat miscast, and not the most experienced stage actor, but he acquitted himself well.)

Why he's swoonworthy: Those dark, soulful eyes. That slightly diffident boyish charm. There's a kind of vulnerability and fragility about him that doesn't slide into weakness. Plus he has great hair. And he's dating Emma Stone! (Also, physically he reminds me a little of an old ex-boyfriend.)


You may know him from: The BBC TV series "Sherlock" (the modern one)

I first noticed him in: "Sherlock." The show is great, and he's the best thing in it.

Other noteworthy work: "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" (as Smiley's loyal right-hand man); small part in Spielberg's "War Horse"; Sir William Pitt in "Amazing Grace"; both lead roles (alternating with Jonny Lee Miller) in the National Theatre of London's highly acclaimed, Danny Boyle-directed production of Frankenstein last year. Also played Stephen Hawking in a BBC TV movie.

Upcoming big break: He's reprising the role of Sherlock for a third season (season 2 premieres in the U.S. on PBS's Masterpiece this weekend), voicing Smaug the dragon and the Necromancer in "The Hobbit," and has been slated for a major role in the next J.J. Abrams "Star Trek" movie.

When I knew I was obsessed: When I ordered tickets to National Theatre Live's re-screening of Frankenstein - BOTH casts/versions - four months in advance. Also when I realized I'd watched the trailer for Frankenstein multiple times...and it wasn't for Jonny Lee Miller.

Why he's swoonworthy: Without question, he's an odd-looking man. You wouldn't be off base if you called him ugly or horsey-faced. But he's got a presence, which you can really see in the "Sherlock" series. And THAT VOICE. Rich, deep, buttery, toe-curling (you can hear some of it in that Frankenstein trailer, though it's interspersed with Jonny Lee Miller's). Besides, how can you not love someone named Benedict Cumberbatch who can say, about that name, "It sounds like a fart in a bath, doesn't it?"

TOM HIDDLESTON - yes, I chose that picture because it includes Mark Ruffalo (a "one to watch" emeritus)

You may know him from: "Thor" (as Thor's cunning brother Loki) or maybe "Midnight in Paris" (he played a debonair F. Scott Fitzgerald)

I first noticed him in: "Thor." Chris Hemsworth was quite good as Thor, but somehow the cadaverous, stringy-haired Loki ran away with the show - Hiddleston did a terrific job investing him with nuances you don't usually see in a superhero movie villain.

Other noteworthy work: "The Deep Blue Sea" (the romance with Rachel Weisz - not the one about the genetically engineered sharks); "War Horse" (first casualty of what I jokingly call the "Death Horse"); TV series "Wallander" with Kenneth Branagh (who liked him enough to cast him in "Thor" - the best decision he made in an otherwise mediocre movie).

Upcoming big break: Reprises Loki in "The Avengers." I'm a little worried they've turned him into a less complicated, more out-and-out "Evil" villain in "The Avengers," but I trust TH will find a way to make him compelling.

When I knew I was obsessed: When I got upset that "The Deep Blue Sea" had left local theaters before I'd had a chance to see it.

Why he's swoonworthy: He isn't shown to particular physical advantage in "Thor" (especially opposite Chris Hemsworth), but cleaned up he looks like Michael Fassbender's younger brother - tall and slim, with a lovely boyish grin and deep blue eyes that can be alternately tender, opaque, and cold as ice. He also graduated with a double first in classics from Cambridge - so he's smart as well as good-looking! Now that's sexy.

Honorable Mention/"Bubbling Under": TOM HARDY

By all objective criteria, Tom Hardy is definitely One to Watch: he's sneaky-hot and extremely talented, and his movie stock is rising fast, with memorable turns in blockbusters ("Inception") as well as more indie fare ("Bronson," "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy"). He's continuing that double track to stardom this summer with major roles in both "The Dark Knight Rises" and "Lawless" (f/k/a "The Wettest County in the World"). He's even done a rom-com with Reese Witherspoon! (Ok, that last one's best forgotten.) But he hasn't quite crept into my heart the way the other three did. (Evidence: I didn't go see that awful rom-com with Reese Witherspoon.) Not yet, anyway. He may still get there, with the right role in the right movie.

So if you're wondering why I'm showing off my latest actorly pets, it's for two reasons that either complement or contradict each other, depending on your point of view. One: I think they deserve to be more famous. Two: I want this post to be a testament to the fact that I loved them before they became famous. I'll be proud and glad for them if that happens, but in some sense I'll feel like I've lost them to the multitudes. Such is the price of stardom.

Summer Movie Preview

As usual, I would say the summer movie season has snuck up on us...if I hadn't been suffering from dire movie withdrawal for the past three months! I used to think starting the season before Memorial Day was just a box office ploy by the studios (which no doubt it is), but damned if it hasn't worked. Now I find myself yearning for that first sip of summer cinemargarita - which is about three parts superheroes, one part non-superhero action/adventure, edged with just a smattering of indie salt. And if there's a hangover, it's nothing some good, hearty fall-slate Oscar bait can't cure.

And now, here are the ten movies I'm most looking forward to this summer, in order of release date:

directed by Joss Whedon
starring Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston

While I've enjoyed all the precursors to varying degrees, it's all been building up to this...the great blond beefcake showdown of 2012! Er, I mean Captain America vs. Thor. Ok, that's not the only reason I'm seeing the movie, but I admit that the prospect of seeing the two Chrises (both of whom I've found to be engaging screen presences, independent of their hunkiness), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), RDJ and Tom Hiddleston (as the scheming Loki) fighting on a big screen would be a powerful incentive even if the movie sucked. Luckily, early reports are generally positive.

directed by Rupert Sanders
starring Kristen Stewart, Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron

Whether this serious-minded, proto-feminist reimagining of one of our most twisted fairy tales (think about it, it really is) actually works as a narrative remains to be seen. But as spectacle, it looks dandy, and Charlize Theron makes a fantastic evil queen...even if the idea of Kristen Stewart - an attractive girl, don't get me wrong - being the fairer of the two is laughable.

3. PROMETHEUS (June 8)
directed by Ridley Scott
starring Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Michael Fassbender, Guy Pearce

Ridley Scott can be hit-or-miss, but when he does sci-fi, you best sit up and take notice. Rumored to be a prequel to "Alien," the film looks suitably suspenseful and visually spectacular, and features original-brand Girl with the Dragon Tattoo Noomi Rapace as the requisite Ripley-esque strong female character, thinking girl's pinup Michael Fassbender as some kind of super-android, la belle Charlize as...something (another super-android? would make sense, she's too damn perfect), and the always-great Guy Pearce as the head of the sinister Weyland Corporation. This may be the movie I'm anticipating the most this summer...which of course means I should start tamping down my expectations soon. For now, though, I salivate.

directed by Benh Zeitlin

A Sundance favorite, this film is a head-scratcher to describe - something about a 6-year-old girl living in an isolated bayou-like area who tries to survive an apocalyptic flood (complete with sea-monsters!) - but it picked up rapturous early reviews and has already evoked comparisons to Terrence Malick. Which may be a deterrent for some viewers, but at the very least, it should be a welcome indie antidote to the swaggering action heroes surrounding it.

5. MAGIC MIKE (June 29)
directed by Steven Soderbergh
starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey, Alex Pettyfer, Matt Bomer, Joe Manganiello

Steven Soderbergh directing a movie about male strippers? Starring actual former stripper Channing Tatum, for whom I've always had a soft spot (and no, not just because he's hot) as the lead? I am so there, and you better believe plenty of other smart ladies of impeccable taste will be right there with me. Side note: this looks like it could be Matthew McConaughey's best role in years.

directed by Marc Webb
starring Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Rhys Ifans, Denis Leary

No doubt about it, this is one utterly unnecessary franchise reboot, and a waste of creative talent that would be better deployed elsewhere. But how about that talent?? I'm loving the casting of my boy Andrew Garfield ("The Social Network," "Never Let Me Go") as the webbed hero - in my mind, he's already a better Peter Parker than Tobey Maguire ever was - and my girl Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. (Please take a moment of silent SQUEE for them as a real-life couple!) Also curious to see what the director of "(500) Days of Summer" does with a multi-million dollar comic book flick. Possibly nothing all that interesting - I'm sure he was given a short leash by the powers that be - but let's not forget his predecessor, Sam Raimi, also came from Indieland, and ended up giving us one of the stronger superhero movie franchises in recent memory.

directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Marion Cotillard

I almost didn't put this one on the list because I am one of the very few people who was generally unimpressed by "The Dark Knight," outside of Heath Ledger's performance. On the other hand, I quite liked "Batman Begins" and most of Nolan's other films, and I'd be kidding myself if I thought I'd stay away from this one. Put me in the camp that's skeptical of the casting of Anne Hathaway as Catwoman - but she's surprised me before, in a good way (see, e.g., "Rachel Getting Married"), so I'm willing to give her the benefit of the doubt. Much more optimistic about Tom Hardy as villain Bane, though it's a shame we won't really get to see his face or hear his natural voice. Now that's a waste!

directed by Tony Gilroy
starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Ed Norton, Albert Finney, Joan Allen, David Strathairn

Arguably as unnecessary as "The Amazing Spider-Man" as far as franchise reboots go, but at least this one cleverly introduces a wholly new protagonist and leaves open the possibility of a future return by Jason Bourne. It also retains most of the stellar supporting cast. Besides, the trailer looks terrific.

9. 2 DAYS IN NEW YORK (August 10)
directed by Julie Delpy
starring Julie Delpy, Chris Rock

I never saw "2 Days in Paris," but I do like Delpy, and I'm curious to see her acting opposite Chris Rock. It's one of those "so odd it just might work" pairings, and if Delpy sprinkles even a soupçon of her magic "Before Sunrise/Sunset" dust on this one, it should be worth watching.

10. LAWLESS (August 31)
directed by John Hillcoat
starring Tom Hardy, Shia LaBoeuf, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska

Based on the critically acclaimed book The Wettest County in the World, about a family of Depression-era bootleggers, this could be Australian director John Hillcoat ("The Proposition")'s entree into Oscars territory. Then again, that's what everyone was saying about "The Road" last year, and we saw how that turned out. And why the studio thought the generic "Lawless" was a better title than, you know, the title of the actual book - you'd think its readers would be a major part of the target audience - is beyond me. Still, based on pedigree, I'm sold.

Finally, I had hoped that the film adaptation of Kerouac's ON THE ROAD (directed by "The Motorcycle Diaries"' Walter Salles, starring Sam Riley, who was so excellent in "Control," Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart, and also featuring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Amy Adams) would hit theaters this summer - but given that it's premiering at Cannes and therefore has yet to find a U.S. distributor, that's looking pretty unlikely. It's more of a fall movie, anyway - though the breezy nostalgia the book tends to induce in its fans (full disclosure: I am not one of them) would probably translate into a summer-friendly film. Oh well - maybe if we're lucky, it can be our September chaser.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Mad Men 5-7: At the Codfish Ball

This week's "Mad Men" could have been subtitled Not what you expected, was it? I'm not even talking about the fellatio, though I certainly wasn't expecting that. Though come to think of it, that scene was a fitting capper to an episode devoted to exposing the wide gulf between its characters' elevated expectations and the disenchanting reality. Interestingly, we see this pattern primarily through the eyes of three of "Mad Men"'s principal female characters - Megan, Peggy, and Sally - who each experience an event they imagined would be magically life-altering, only to find themselves feeling deflated and conflicted (or, in Sally's case, revolted).

Megan's was the most intriguing of the three variations, though in some ways the most frustrating. She scores her first real success at work, saving the Heinz account with a canny idea, quick thinking, and brilliant tag-team improvisation with Don. Yet after her first flush of triumph, she seems oddly ambivalent about it - something Peggy picks up on with that wonderful puzzled look after Megan's muted response to her warm congratulations. What's frustrating about Megan's reaction is her general opacity: her feelings and motivations have never been particularly easy to decipher, but never less so than now. Is she troubled because she succeeded at least partly by playing Don's pretty little wife rather than his equal? Because her father's disapproval of her life's choices is weighing on her? Because daddy hit a nerve when he suggested she'd copped out on following her true dreams? (What were those dreams, anyway? Who are you, Megan?) It could be any or all of the above, or something altogether different; my quibble is that even after a season and a half we still don't really know Megan well enough to do more than guess at the answer. Her marvelously dysfunctional French Canadian parents - who weren't what I expected, either, especially her mother - offer a few hints, but no real illumination.

Peggy, by contrast, we do know well enough by now to have at least some idea of what makes her tick. Professionally, that is; her personal life choices are harder to figure out, though they clearly don't give her as much pure joy as the thrill of work she describes with such passion to Megan. Still, apparently deep down she does want to be married, or thinks she does; her face, when she thinks Abe's about to propose, is practically incandescent (almost creepily so, considering she didn't even have marriage in mind until Joan suggested it), and it's heartbreaking to watch that glow fade as it becomes clear he has a different proposal in mind, and to hear her soft "I do" in response to his mundane question about dinner. Even more heartbreaking is her confrontation with her mother, whose brutal, wounding words dredge up Peggy's worst fear - the fear that's haunted nearly all unmarried professional women then and since - that she'll end up alone. It remains to be seen whether moving in with Abe proves to be a good idea or not (this being "Mad Men," more likely not), but for now there's little doubt - despite the brave face she puts on it - that the arrangement isn't giving her the happiness she dreamed about for at least a few hours.

Meanwhile, Sally gets to wear a grown-up dress (but not too grown up - Don's expression, when he sees her all glammed up, is priceless) and go to her first ball, only to discover no winding staircase, no Prince Charming (Roger makes a plausible candidate for a while, only to fail at the finish), and nothing to eat other than a fish with its head still on. Then she stumbles on Roger and Megan's maman's tête-à, never mind. Her introduction to adulthood - in all its "dirty" glory - is now complete. Goodbye, Shirley Temples; hello, creepy pubescent Glen.

And finally Don, the common link between these three ladies, has perhaps the most sobering letdown of them all, as the event he believed would boost his standing in the advertising world instead reveals the utter precariousness of his position. Once again, however, "Mad Men" leaves unanswered the question that's been hanging over Don for some time now - will he regain his footing and ascend to the top, or is he doomed to decline and fall? And if the latter, will he take others with him?

Random observations:

-I never realized until this episode how much Julia Ormond (the actress playing Megan's mother) looks like Juliette Binoche. At first I thought it was Binoche, but the British-accented French was a giveaway.

-I sometimes have difficulty hearing all the dialogue on "Mad Men" (sound issue, or my hearing? I hope the former), so I didn't quite understand what Roger was asking Mona to do for him. But I did like that scene, and their easy détente. It helps, no doubt, that Jon Slattery and Talia Balsam are married in real life. (Further bit of trivia: Talia was formerly married to George Clooney, way back in the day. Now wouldn't you like to have a heart-to-heart with her?)

-Was Glen not wearing pants in that last scene?...Never mind, I don't want to know. And I hope Sally never finds out, either - poor kid's been scarred enough already.

-Best line: Roger, as Pete approaches - "And here's Prince Charming!" (A beat) "Nah."

-Runner-up: "Men don't take the time to end things. They ignore you until you insist on a declaration of hate." Joan made the most of her brief appearance in this episode, as she always does. I'm still not sure if she was just being nice when she applauded Peggy's decision to move in with Abe. Her views on marriage have evolved enough that she might actually have been sincere.

-Best moment: Tie between Roger's facial expression at Megan's dad's "spread her legs and fly away" and Ken vigorously shushing his wife for asking for coffee.

-Runner-up: Pete showing Megan's dad what he does for a living - he greased that old hypocrite good. And this is why I still love Pete, despite everything.