Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Mad Men 6-9: The Better Half

Because I'm coming so late to this week's episode (I was away from home Sunday night, and for some reason my DVR failed to record the original broadcast), I'll just offer ten quick thoughts:

1. In form, less strange than last week's episode-on-speed, but in substance, arguably even stranger. Don and Betty hooking up? Joan and Bob Benson going to the beach together? Peggy stabbing Abe with a bayonet? Way bigger wtf moments than Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing.

2. Didn't really care for the Don and Betty hookup - telegraphed the moment the miraculously hot-again Betty pulled her head out of that car - but their postcoital conversation was worth it. These occasional flashes of insight Betty has are all the more welcome for being so few and far between. But then she knows Don Draper like no one else does, and now that she's no longer in his thrall, he no longer has any power over her.

3. Duck Phillips returns! Gotta give the guy credit, he seems to be professionally indestructible - takes a licking (or, in his case, a shitting) and keeps on ticking. I can't help liking the guy for some reason, despite everything.

4. Poor Peggy. I would say Abe was a huge jerk for the way he dumped her - but then it's hard to blame a guy for being cruel to a girlfriend who just stabbed him in the gut. At least he was honest about what he couldn't stomach (har, har) about her. And truthfully, that writing's been on the wall for a while now.

5. Poor Megan is about to lose her soap opera gig...but possibly regain her husband? Too early to tell, though it would be a nice twist if it was his fling with Betty that made him return to his marriage. This is Don, though: it probably won't last.

6. What is up with Joan and Bob Benson? For that matter, what is up with Bob Benson? I don't get a sinister vibe from him, but he's also coming off as a bit too good to be true. When he met with Pete and mentioned gossip, I thought for a moment he was going to say something about Joan and Roger. Thankfully, he didn't. However, it's worth noting that the actor who plays him, James Wolk, previously played the ultimate con man on the short-lived TV series "Lone Star."

7. As other recappers have pointed out, so I can't really take any credit for this observation, there's a lot of play with doubling and duality - appropriate for an episode titled "The Better Half." Megan playing twins, Roger trying (and failing) to be both father and grandfather, and of course Peggy's resistance to choosing between Don and Ted, culminating in seeing both of their doors shutting on her. And while Ted shows more integrity - in a way - in turning Peggy down, I couldn't help remembering the famous Don Draper line, "It will shock you how much this never happened."

8. Relatedly, a lot of echoes of the past, another favorite MM theme: Don cheating on his current wife with his ex-wife, Henry witnessing another man hitting on Betty just as he did when she was married to Don, Bob Benson brown-nosing like a mini-Pete Campbell.

9. Also a lot of sirens in this episode: sounding the alarm for our characters, or simply signaling the growing unrest in late '60s New York?

10. Line of the week: oh, without a doubt, "I'm Bobby Five!" (Meta joke alert: in case you haven't noticed, there's been a different child actor playing Bobby just about every season of MM.) Runner-up, courtesy of Roger's daughter - "Don Draper, father of the year." It's all about that tone of utter disdain.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Narrator's the Thing: "The Great Gatsby," "Stories We Tell," and "What Maisie Knew"

Please check back for what I hope will be a brilliant and insightful commentary on narrative voice and perspective in the following three movies:


directed by Baz Luhrmann
starring Leonardo di Caprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher



directed by Sarah Polley



directed by Scott McGehee and David Siegel
(loosely) based on the novel by Henry James
starring Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgaard, Joanna Vanderham, and Onata Aprile as Maisie


"Star Trek Into Darkness": Boldly going where it's gone before


Directed by J.J. Abrams
Starring Chris Pine, Zach Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, Karl Urban, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Bruce Greenwood, Peter Weller, Alice Eve

As summer entertainment, "Into Darkness" is a lot of fun. As a signpost for the future of “Star Trek,” however, it’s not clear where it’s pointing. Two installments in, J.J. Abrams’ series is starting to feel less like a reinvention and more like a remix. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it suggests less room to grow, which is what the series needs most in the long term.

When the first, rebooted “Star Trek” came out in 2009, it felt like an infusion of much-needed new life into a moribund franchise. True, Abrams, by his own admission more of a “Star Wars” man, cranked out a movie that seemed more like a "Star Wars" movie: heavy on the action, derring-do, and blowing up planets, light on the Trek-topian reflection and idealism. Still, he (mostly) managed to retain fan goodwill through wink-and-nod references to the original show and film series, a significant role for Trek icon Leonard Nimoy, and savvy casting of up-and-coming young actors who demonstrated a fresh, confident take on their beloved characters and an appealing chemistry with each other. I haven’t seen the movie since its initial release and have heard that it hasn’t aged well, but at the time it seemed to crack open a door to limitless possibilities for the crew of the Enterprise.

Four years later, those possibilities feel more circumscribed. Don’t get me wrong, just about everything that made the first movie worth watching is still around. The actors—Chris Pine as Kirk, Zach Quinto as Spock, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, Karl Urban as Bones, Simon Pegg as Scotty, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekhov—click, clack, jangle and make up as engagingly as ever; Nimoy pops up for another key, if brief and awkwardly inserted appearance; and the alterna-Trek universe still has more of a “Star Wars” vibe that’s tempered by a plethora of artfully embedded Trek references. In fact, at a broader level, the political overtones and ultimate moral messaging of “Into Darkness” comes closer to a Trekkian sensibility than anything from the first movie.

What’s missing is the sense of newness, and the attendant exhilaration, that animated the first movie. It doesn’t help that the plot of “Into Darkness” is fundamentally a reworking of a story that will be familiar to much of the audience. I can’t say much more without giving too much away, except that the movie starts off with Kirk once again breaking the rules and getting punished for it, only to be given a chance at redemption when a mysterious, ruthless, and frighteningly powerful adversary named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) commits a double act of terrorism and then goes to hide out at the fringes of Klingon (i.e., enemy) territory. Kirk and his crew are dispatched by the Federation - specifically, Robocop! (Peter Weller, here playing an admiral) - to hunt down Harrison, only to discover that neither he nor their mission is quite what they thought.

In the action, suspense, and visual effects departments, “Into Darkness” is perfectly competent, no more, no less. The plot is serviceable, with the usual manageable quota of silliness and suspension of disbelief. Like its predecessor, the film’s real strength lies in the interactions among its characters. The Kirk-Spock dynamic in particular never gets old, and Pine and Quinto continue to sparkle playing their respective differences off each other, as well as the mutual frustration that merely highlights their blooming bromance. The only downside is how pallid and uninteresting Spock’s romance with Uhura seems by comparison. In the supporting galley, Pegg and Urban add extra comic punch as the perpetually frazzled ship’s engineer and doctor, while Chekhov ups the ante by moonlighting for Scotty and donning a red shirt. (I won’t spoil whether the shirt proves to have any significance.) And as our heroes’ chief adversary, Cumberbatch cuts an impressive presence, projecting an icy hauteur and superhuman self-possession that keeps the audience continually guessing his motivations and his next move.

After a series of reversals—including one rather protracted emotional scene that would be a lot more moving if it weren’t so obviously going to be rendered immediately irrelevant—the movie builds to a pretty satisfying climax and resolution, once again leaving the door open to a vast range of possible future adventures for the Enterprise. Here’s hoping that in its next outing, Abrams et al. will take full advantage of that freedom. They don’t have to go where no man has gone before, but they should at least try to go where “Star Trek” hasn’t gone before. Because ultimately that's the best, and only, way for the franchise to live long and prosper.


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Mad Men 6-8: The Crash

Sometimes I wonder if the process of writing "Mad Men" bears any resemblance to the ad campaign work it loves to depict. Even if there isn't any, I have to think the show's writers must feel some kinship with the "creatives" at Sterling Cooper (aka, post-merger, the Alphabet Soup firm). I'm not sure, though, what that says about the profound weirdness of this week's episode. All I know is I now have a vision of the MM writers getting high as kites while casting about for that spark, that brilliant idea around which to build the episode, and deciding that they've hit upon it after writing down every idea and image that pops into their head. All 666 of them.

Ok, probably none of that is true, as I suspect the episode was carefully crafted and meticulously honed under the gimlet eye of Matthew Weiner - who's well known as a control freak and much more of a micro-manager than Don Draper ever was or will be. Nonetheless, the end result was (undoubtedly deliberately) so disorienting that I had to check to confirm that it wasn't directed by David Lynch. It wasn't. But it very well could have been, right from that jarring opening shot of a petrified Ken Cosgrove, trapped in a car full of lunatics, not so much steering as hurtling towards a terrifying crash, to just about everything that happened following the good doctor's "vitamin shots," which were more likely vitamins laced with a mother-lode of speed. It was impossible at any given moment to be certain whether anything we saw was "actually" occurring or was a product of Don's illness, the ill-advised booster, or some combination of both. Even the scenes that didn't include Don at all still felt distinctly surreal; in fact, some of the most unsettling moments were those involving the Draper kids and their midnight visitor/burglar, who came on like a nightmare version of Aunt Jemima. At that point I was fully prepared to accept that that whole storyline was Don's fever-dream, even though it turned out to have a more mundane - but still bizarre - explanation.

"Mad Men" has done both drugs and fever dreams before, the former, IMO, more successfully than the latter - I'll take Roger's acid trips any day over Don's fantasies of murdering a persistent paramour. But it's never let the border between reality and imagination become quite so porous, and for me, at least, the jury's still out on whether the technique was effective. Stylistically, it was interesting; substantively, I'm not convinced it had any real point, other than to underline the fact that Don's losing his grip on his conception of the world and his place in it. It's never a good thing when the plodding Dick Whitman flashbacks are the the pins holding an episode together, but that appeared to be the case here. We got further insight into Don's madonna-whore complex, and why he can't seem to let himself be loved, as I Ching girl could have told him. (Or did tell him; I wasn't sure she was real, either, though apparently she was the daughter of Ted Chaough's dead partner.)

The thing is, does anyone even care anymore why Don's attitude towards women and love - and by extension, all relationships - is so fucked up? At this point in the MM trajectory, the only way that shit stays interesting is if we see Don coming to understand his demons or better yet, fight them as he's seemed to do in the past, if fitfully. So far this season, however, he's just been wallowing helplessly in his fucked-upness, his inability to change in any fundamental way. We get it, but I think we've had enough by season 6, and all the Lynchian distractions in the world can't disguise that fact.

Tellingly, the best and most poignant moment in the episode - for me, anyway - didn't involve Don at all, but Stan (who's somehow gone from being one of the more annoying characters on MM to one of the more likable) confiding in Peggy about his cousin's death and Peggy gently telling him that she's had loss too, and knows that you can't dull the pain through drugs or sex. Sure, Stan fails to profit from her wisdom, but at least we haven't been watching him fail, and fail, and fail again. And Peggy, at least, doesn't seem to have fallen into the Don trap. True, she may yet repeat the mistake of getting too emotionally invested in her boss, if that little moment of intimacy with Ted Chaough - appropriately witnessed by Don in his state of, um, augmented reality - was any indicator. However, it hasn't yet become a habit that wearies. There's hope for her yet.

Random observations:

-Poor Ted Chaough (whom, like Stan, I'm beginning to like). Takes the weekend off to mourn a dead friend, like a normal person, only to have the inmates take over the asylum. As Ginsberg more or less put it.

-Speaking of Ginsberg, he sure doesn't need drugs to be strange...or to have lousy aim.

-Another Lynchian moment among many: Guy with glasses whose name I forget (the Roger Sterling to Ted Chaough's Don) spying on Stan and Wendy getting it on. Perhaps the second creepiest moment of the night, after the Draper kids' encounter with fake black grandma.

-Speaking of Roger, I'm disappointed we didn't get to see his reactions to the mysterious drug cocktail. And where was Joan? You know she wouldn't have stood for such goings-on.

-Although I continue to have little use for the Dick Whitman flashbacks, I did feel a twinge of real pity and discomfort for the poor kid. Mothered and then raped by his crush, and then punished for it by his - well, not real, but appointed mother. That would be more than enough to mess up up any kid for life. In a way, though, that's my problem with this storyline: it's too much, too heavy-handed with the symbolism, even for Mad Men.

-Just to be clear, while I'm getting sick of Don as a character, there's no question Jon Hamm's acting has been top-notch. He was especially good tonight, shifting convincingly from stalkerish/obsessive to completely drugged out (loved the timbre of his voice as he was going on about the timbre of his voice) to emptied-out nowhere man at the end, in the elevator with Sylvia.

-Episode highlight: What else but the magnificent Ken Cosgrove TAP DANCE? Preserved eternally through the wonders of GIF-making.

-Episode MVP: Ken comes close, but I have to give it to Stan, who managed to be hilarious (in his gloriously unfazed reaction to being stuck with an Exacto knife), piggish yet oddly seductive (in his move on Peggy), and touchingly vulnerable (in his heart-to-heart with her about his cousin).

-Best lines: a plethora of them this week, but top prize goes to little Bobby (for the second time this season after seasons of silence!) - "Are we Negroes?" Runner-up: Don washing his hands of Chevy - "Every time we get a car, this place turns into a whorehouse." And honorable mentions to Stan, for his delivery of what should have been (but oddly wasn't) a sleazy compliment to Peggy's ass, and the otherwise-absent Pete, for his disgusted response to the grunts' callousness towards a dead man: "He IS in a better place."

-Least subtle line of the week: A lot of contenders, as always, including Don's whorehouse comment, but let's hear it for Sally's last cut at Don - "Then I realized I didn't know anything about you." It hurts cuz it's true!