Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Mad Men Season 5 finale: "The Phantom"

Ok, now I can say it: We just had an entire season of "Mad Men" in which Don was entirely faithful to his wife. Have the stars stopped in their courses?

Sure, we may be in for a relapse, judging from the very last shot of Don in the finale. But his unprecedented stretch of fidelity is still a fact of no small significance, and I'm only partly joking when I say that must be the reason I enjoyed this season so much. More precisely, I enjoyed the season because it showed all of its major players moving in new directions that still remained consistent with their essential characters.

As for the finale itself, as a stand-alone episode, I liked it. True, it didn't pack the same emotional punch as the preceding episodes, but it had some great moments that captured the gestalt of the season as a whole. It also had moments that encapsulated some of the season's weaknesses.

What I liked:

-Pete's final scene with Beth (aka Alexis Bledel aka Rory Gilmore). I have mixed feelings about the character of Beth (and Bledel's performance, though she was actually pretty good this week), and Pete's melancholy analysis of his own malaise wasn't really necessary for anyone who's been paying any attention to this show. Yet it felt poignant and unforced, unlike, say, Glen's "Everything turns to crap" speech from last week. The difference, I think, lies in the delivery; Vincent Kartheiser knows how to draw us into Pete's unhappiness. He may be a misguided creeper, but there's something heartbreaking about his transparent, hopeless desire to be the romantic hero that he's not and never will be.

-"And I'm the president of the Howdy Doody Circus Army!" Oh, Pete. Never change. But maybe learn to throw a counter-punch.

-The fleeting, tantalizing glimpses we got of post-SCDP Peggy, especially her run-in with Don at the movie theater - a lovely grace note to their relationship that, rather than ending, seems to be moving into a new phase. You may not be in Paris yet, Peggy, but you sure have come a long way, baby.

-The exquisitely jaded demeanor of Megan's maman, who's either an embittered dream-crusher or simply a hardened realist who knows the perils of indulging fantasies that don't match up with one's abilities. It's hard to tell which interpretation is correct, partly because we don't have a clear sense of whether Megan actually has any acting talent. Don's expression while watching her screening tape was way too enigmatic to give us any clues on that point. All we know is he saw something that made him want to help her after all.

-Sterling Cooper is flush, and moving on up - literally! Too bad its boost came at the expense of Joan's body and (symbolically, at least) Lane's life. I did love that shot of all the partners looking out the windows of their newly acquired floor.

-Roger being inappropriate as only Roger can be, from his phone-stalking of Marie at the Drapers' to his inviting her to trip with him, to his beatific state of solitary nudity. More, please.

-That long, gorgeous, faintly surreal tracking shot of Don walking from Megan's commercial shoot to the bar.

What I disliked:

-The implication - heavily underscored by the sight of Don lighting a cigarette and contemplating a come-on in a bar that could have been right out of season 1 - that he may be about to revert to his old ways. One of the intriguing, if not always pleasant, surprises of this season was watching Don behave as we'd never seen him behave before - as a devoted husband, emotionally dependent (sometimes unnervingly so) on his wife and detached from his work, rather than the other way around. To watch him go back to his old self would be extremely tiresome.

-Don's rotten tooth, redolent of Scotch and guilt. In the words of the snarky commenter from earlier in the season, "SYMBOLISM!1!1!1!" Too much, Mad Men. Too much.

-Joan's suggestion that she could have prevented Lane's suicide by sleeping with him. Come on, Joan: you're fab, but pity sex wouldn't have begun to solve that man's problems.

I'm conflicted on:

-The recurring "phantom" of Adam. Heavy-handed, yes, especially in conjunction with that rotting tooth. But undeniably haunting, and I'm not just punning.

-Megan's latest character (d)evolution. Backstabbing, whiney, *and* a sellout: not an attractive combo. But a convenient way to break her spell over Don, with an assist from that ridiculous "European" outfit she had to wear for the commercial. I can't say I'm particularly disappointed or elated by this latest development. Even after seeing so much of her this season, I still don't feel strongly one way or another about Megan. As an NPR critic astutely observed earlier this season (need to find link), the fundamental core of Megan's character has been hard to locate because from week to week she's been used to hammer home the "theme of the week" instead of being allowed to develop organically as a figure independent of Don's desires and projections. That seems unlikely to change in season 6, but we'll see.

All in all, it was a strong season that effectively conveyed the rapidly quickening cultural shifts of the late '60s and their impact on our aging ad men and women. And unlike the end of last season, it's left me wanting more. Bring on season 6!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

"Prometheus" lights spark, doesn't catch fire


directed by Ridley Scott
starring Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Idris Elba, Guy Pearce

Early reactions to Ridley Scott’s “Prometheus” already seem to be dividing into two main camps: those who find it profound, and those who find it profoundly silly.

I fall somewhere in the middle, since I enjoyed “Prometheus” on a visceral level but found it a bit of a narrative and intellectual mess. Sometimes a scary alien movie is just a scary alien movie; “Prometheus,” however, seems to want to be something more, and doesn’t quite get there. It flirts with some high-concept ideas about creation, existence, and the nature of humanity but doesn't seem to know what to do with them - or if it does, doesn't show that to the audience. Perhaps this is why its plot is riddled with dead-end threads, head-scratching elisions, and developments that just don’t make sense. For all that, the film's still entertaining, even if thinking about it at any length afterwards leads to exasperation and/or extreme overanalysis.

"Prometheus," in good old sci-fi tradition, tracks the exploration of a strange and forbidding planet – stunningly rendered through a combo of CGI, soundstages, and footage shot in Iceland – by a team of scientists and mercenaries from late 21st century Earth. Leading the mission, at least in name, are a pair of bright-eyed archeologists (Noomi Rapace and Logan Marshall-Green) searching for an ancient alien race they believe may have created humans (and, it’s implied, life on earth generally). Shockingly for no one who’s seen the movie trailers, they find a lot more there than they bargained for – most of it somewhere on the scale between creepy and monstrous, definitely lethal, and extremely hostile and aggressive when aroused.

The connection between “Prometheus” and Scott’s “Alien” has been one of the worst-kept secrets in Hollywood – assuming it was ever really meant to be a secret at all, which I doubt – though the precise nature of that connection is only hinted at until the very last few frames of the movie. But “Prometheus” also shares DNA with the director’s other masterpiece, “Blade Runner,” in its interest in the moral implications of creating life and being “human.” Here it’s the humans (Rapace’s character in particular), not the androids, who are trying to meet their maker. And yet one of the main characters, “David” (Michael Fassbender, fantastic) is an android whose presence is both necessary to the humans’ quest and a silent commentary on it.

David is, to borrow “Blade Runner”’s famous catchphrase, “more human than human”: he can pilot a ship without rest for two years, speak any and all languages ever known to man, shoot baskets while riding a bike one-handed in a perfect circle, and mix a perfect cocktail. Early on, we see him watching the film “Lawrence of Arabia” with apparent pleasure, and in fact his refined cadences and the elegant insouciance of his demeanor seem to be channeling Peter O’Toole – if Peter O’Toole were a robot. David’s expression, regardless of how tense or even dire the situation, remains calm and politely attentive; occasionally there’s a flicker of something else, when, for example, he’s confronted with something new to him or when he's insulted by one of the other crew members (notably Marshall-Green’s scientist, who seems unsettled by David’s very existence). But it’s no more than a flicker, not long enough to ascertain what that “something” is, though enough to create a feeling of vague unease.

It’s a marvelously calibrated performance by Fassbender that should but probably won’t get an Oscar nomination, and it pretty much steals the show from the rest of the cast – a cast that includes acting heavyweights like Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, and Idris Elba, but whose characters mostly remain underdeveloped. In some sense, Dr. Shaw and David represent two sides of the coin in mankind’s efforts to understand his own existence – faith and science, creator and creation, parent and offspring – though the boundaries are blurred enough for each of them to contain elements of both. What’s frustrating about the movie is that it never develops these connections in a sustained or coherent manner. The problem isn’t that the movie poses questions it doesn’t answer, but rather that it doesn’t provide enough for viewers to come up with their own answers - at least, not without importing a lot of outside knowledge or speculation to fill in the blanks.

Still, there’s a lot to enjoy for moviegoers not looking for any particular insights into the meaning of human existence. “Prometheus” is visually gorgeous and immersive (say what you like about Ridley Scott’s uneven filmography, the man knows how to direct a great-looking movie), even without the 3D, and effectively builds an atmosphere of slow-growing dread and suspense. Once bad things actually start popping out, the movie loses in logic what it gains in the ick-jump factor – yet it also gives us an absolutely riveting sequence that I unfortunately can’t describe at all without giving away major plot points, other than to say it’s terrifying, features Dr. Shaw’s only true moment of Ripleyesque badassery, and is apparently already stirring controversy in certain circles. Not being a member of those circles, I submit that that sequence, together with Fassbender’s performance as David, are alone worth the price of admission. More broadly, whatever its conceptual flaws, the film succeeds in bringing viewers into another world – a palpable, beautiful, dangerous world literally light years from their own. If summer movies are about escapism, “Prometheus” offers it in spades.


Michael Fassbender: A+

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

Mad Men 5-12: Commissions and Fees

I, however, would put my money on Lane. The noose is tightening. -Me, last week, re: speculation that someone would commit suicide before the end of the season

I wish I hadn't used that particular cliché, despite - or perhaps because of - its prescience. Death, even on a TV show, isn't a mere betting game, at least not if the show's been at all successful in getting you to care about the characters.

And we - or at least I, and I know I'm not alone - care about Lane Pryce, even if he never quite elevated himself from a supporting role either in our eyes or in the eyes of the people around him. That was the tragedy of his life, in a way: always to be shoved to the margins, no matter how hard he worked to earn the respect and liking of others. (He's kind of a weird obverse or foil of Pete Campbell in that regard, which in retrospect makes their mano-a-mano episode as thought-provoking as it was comical.)

Even more poignantly, Lane's was a tragedy of someone who never got more than a taste of anything he truly wanted. He was an Englishman who came to America and fell in love with the prospect of breaking free of everything he'd chafed against in England (which I maintain began and ended with his social class: the English are obsessed with class in a way that no American can really understand). Yet he was never really able to leave England behind; whether it came in the shape of his wife and son, his tyrannical cane-wielding father, or the even more tyrannical British tax system, it stretched its hand across the pond to squeeze every last bit of hopeful American spirit out of him. What was so sad about Don telling him to "start over" was that Lane, with his background and his personality, was the person at Sterling Cooper least equipped to do just that. And so - exit Lane, not so elegantly.

I don't mean to suggest that Don handled the Lane situation badly, because he was absolutely in the right. True, there's some hypocrisy in his sitting in judgment on a man who arguably committed no worse a crime than anything Dick Whitman ever did. At the very least, there's something deeply ironic about punishing a man for forging a signature you've forged every day of your life for the last twenty years. (Embezzling, on the other hand...) Still, as a colleague, he was being only fair and even merciful in letting Lane resign without exposing him to the other partners or holding him accountable for the money. That knowledge, of course, did nothing to diminish Don's shock or guilt at the horrible outcome, especially since it so clearly echoed the suicide of his brother Adam - after a conversation not unlike the one he had with Lane.

Nonetheless, despite its timing, I'm not sure that Lane's death will put a lasting damper on Don's professional mojo, which showed signs of returning in the Jaguar pitch and in his bid for Dow's business. I couldn't tell whether his aggressive, balls-to-the-wall approach to the latter was a hit or a miss (he seemed too angry to me to be compelling), but I can't help thinking the writers wouldn't have included that terrific scene with Roger and Ken Cosgrove - who, in a rare and welcome moment, bared his professional fangs - if it wasn't going to lead anywhere. The question is, where? Don's line about happiness being the moment before you want "more" happiness is suggestive, not least of which because it's true...at least for 99% of the characters on "Mad Men." (And, if we're honest, a high percentage of its viewers, too.) Even if SCD(P) lands Dow, it's pretty much guaranteed not to yield any more lasting happiness than Jaguar did.

Sally's entree into "womanhood," the other major storyline of the episode, actually delivered a more genuine surprise than Lane's death, if less of an emotional wallop. I admit I gritted my teeth throughout that first scene of her fighting with Betty, thinking: oh great, just what I need - more rebellious Sally "acting up" and being a general pain in the ass, and more Betty letting her insecurity and pathological jealousy of Megan turn her into a raving bitch...And I admit I feared the worst when Sally called Glen and then greeted him all dolled up, looking like a mini-Betty in mini-go-go boots. I was, however, rather pleasantly surprised by everything that followed, especially since it gave us - for the first time in a very long time - a glimpse of Betty's softer side, which most people have forgotten from the earlier seasons. It was only a moment, made possible only by a traumatized Sally's temporarily reverting to little-girl state - but it was surprisingly moving.

Random observations:

-Jaguar better hope that there's no such thing as bad publicity, because the unreliability of its vehicles is now firmly established as a running joke on "Mad Men" - and not even a light joke that's easy to laugh off, but a very dark one, with an unsuccessful suicide attempt as its all-too-memorable punchline. I also can't help but wonder if Jaguar isn't going to be a harbinger of a larger failure for our Mad Men: something beautiful and desirable that doesn't start.

-Between the gruesome close-up of Lane's hanging corpse and the revelation of Sally's, uh, ailment, there wasn't much left to the visual imagination in this episode. Some have suggested that "Mad Men"'s shift towards a more graphic, jarring style is supposed to reflect the shift in cultural mores in the late '60s. Considering almost nothing about "Mad Men" is unintentional, I'd say it's quite plausible.

-I'm not buying Sally's preemptive rejection of Glen: her face definitely fell when he lobbed it right back at her. Then again, maybe she was just cramping. As for Glen, I tend to believe he was being sincere when he said he viewed her as a little sister. After all, he's more into older women, isn't he? He seemed awfully ready to receive the hospitality of Mrs. Draper #2, and if I remember correctly, was already calling her "Megan" by the end of the day. If Betty ever finds out...I was so terrified Sally, in her moment of vulnerability, was going to say something about him, but luckily the show didn't go there. I hope it never does.

-Still, I have no doubt the warmth and affection Betty showed Sally was genuine. I also have no doubt she derived significant pleasure from the knowledge that Sally had, at the critical moment, chosen her birth mother over the cooler, hipper, younger not-mom. But really, what's so terrible about that? Great acting by January Jones in that last phone call to Megan: just a touch of smugness, not too much. And Megan, for her part, was a trooper.

-I couldn't quite tell if Ken's no-Campbell ultimatum to Roger reflected a simple long-running personal dislike on his part or disgust at Pete's tactics in landing the Jaguar account. Perhaps it was a bit of both. Good-natured as he is, Ken's only human. I did like that he was the first to comfort Joan after their nightmarish discovery of Lane.

-Best line: "Eh, it wore off." -Roger's response to Don's "What happened to enlightenment?"

-Worst line: Glen's palaver about how everything you think is going to be good turns to crap. Way too on the nose, even for "Mad Men." I did like the last shot of Don letting him drive, though - for once, the kid actually did look happy. If only adult happiness were so easy to attain!