Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men season 6 finale: "In Care Of"

For the first time in a long time, I have hope for Don Draper. Or, more accurately, for Dick Whitman.

Hope tempered with skepticism, mind you. We've seen Don attempt fresh starts before; we've even seen him reveal the truth about himself before, leading to changes no less dramatic than those that concluded this season. And he's always ended up reverting to his previous, self-destructive patterns, never more wearyingly so than this season.

But this time, the reset really does feel different, in large part because it took place in the office. Up till now, Sterling Cooper was the one place where Don, with the tacit support of Bert Cooper, had been able to preserve the fiction of Don Draper. The office was his last bulwark against the reemergence of Dick Whitman, that scared, confused, abused little boy, born dirt-poor and raised in a whorehouse, who grew up to steal another man's name, another man's life.

Well, no more. Don's astounding kamikaze act during the Hershey pitch marked the first time he deliberately set about destroying his self-constructed identity, his life's work, at work, leading to the equally astounding sight of Don being canned. All right, technically he was placed on temporary leave and he theoretically could return next season - but then why was Duck Phillips, headhunter, coming in with a stranger (and a shit-eating grin) as Don was leaving? More significantly, Don would have to want to return, to reengage, and all signs indicate that he has no interest in doing so. He's had enough; he wouldn't have burned his bridges otherwise, which at some subconscious level he had to have realized he was doing.

And stunning as it was, we can't really say we didn't see this turn coming. If anything's been hammered home this season, it's been the rapidly accelerated erosion of the Don Draper persona, at work as much as outside of it. Brief spurts of inspiration did little to mask his long stretches of general indifference to the business. Worst of all, he began to see Sterling Cooper as just another whorehouse, one that merited no more than minimal attention to its day-to-day demands. The Don Draper that made Sterling Cooper, and that Sterling Cooper made, was in free fall, just like the man in the show's opening credits, and everyone could see it happening. In a way, the Hershey debacle was merely the last straw, although a pretty heavy straw. From our perspective, it was like seeing Don strip naked in the office (shades, again, of that haunting Sheraton Royal Hawaiian ad - clothes, accessories strewn across the sand, conveying "suicide" to Sheraton, "freedom" to Don), which of course was exactly what it was. From SC&P's perspective, it was a sign that Don was quite literally no longer Don, and for that very reason had to go. It may have been a unanimous decision among the partners, but I sense the hand of Bert Cooper - Bert who sees all and knows all. Pragmatic to the bone, Bert can tolerate a liar; what he can't accept is a liar who's become unable to maintain his lies, even (or especially) to himself. Bad for business, see, especially a business that thrives on making people believe its fictions.

(Side note: someone on another site smartly noted the prominence of the new Sterling Cooper logo in this episode emphasized the shift from SCDP to SC&P - the first visual hint of Don's fate?)

But maybe not bad for Don, if he can just figure out who he is, now that he's no longer Don. I asked a few episodes ago whether the often heavy-handed birth/death, heaven/hell imagery that's haunted him this season signified the rebirth he so desperately craved, or death. Not surprisingly, it turned out to be both. To paraphrase something he said to Sheraton, to find paradise ya gotta die first. Don Draper died tonight; who the man is that's being reborn, and whether he finds the peace his last lover wished for him, we've yet to see.

Peace isn't assured, of course, and knowing Weiner, it's likely to elude Don still. And to the extent rebirth implies starting over with nothing, no attachments, no obligations, no past, that prospect doesn't exist for him. Interestingly, it was this realization, I think, that triggered his self-immolation in the Hershey pitch room, rather than the other way around. Almost as shocking as that moment, after all, was what came immediately before it - Don's decision to move to L.A. I stupidly let myself get excited at that prospect, even though it was clear that he was yet again simply acting on a fruitless impulse to run away, to leave all the painful parts of his past behind him. His conversation with Ted, fascinating on so many levels, woke him up to the fact that all this California dreamin' was only a mirage.

In one sense, Don saw his own predicament mirrored in Ted's: the shared fantasy of escape, the illusion that by traveling a great distance to a new place, you can leave the worst parts of yourself and your life behind you. (Haven't we all shared that fantasy at one point or another in our lives?) In another sense, though, Don also saw Ted seeking escape for his family, not from it. Don may have let Ted have California because he realized California wouldn't fix anything, but he also may have been responding to Ted's fairly eloquent plea on the importance of one's family to one's identity. Don knows he's let Sally down in a huge way, and that she's probably doomed if he abandons her now. He may not be able to save her by staying, but he at least has to try. And staying isn't enough; he has to kick off the last vestiges of the walking lie he's become to her and to himself.

Of course, in making their decision on California, both Don and Ted end up hurting other people they claim to love: Megan in Don's case, Peggy in Ted's. "Well, aren't you lucky to have decisions," Peggy seethes, and she's right to be angry. But she isn't totally without agency or blame, and that last shot of her in Don's office underscores her power to set her future course, free of both her mentor-figures. ("Everything's here," she tells Stan, in one of those characteristically pregnant-with-meaning remarks "Mad Men" loves so much.) Megan may have less responsibility than Peggy for her situation, but she still has agency, and it looks like she's going to exercise it, too. More power to her. It's not her fault she can't give Don (Dick) what he needs, and she might as well be free to pursue what she really wants.

Finally, with even less agency, but strangely quiet acceptance, Pete joins Ted on the California train, though in his case it feels less like an attempt at escape and more like a surrender. Laid low in typically ludicrous Pete-fashion by Bob Benson, he goes west because he has nothing left for him in New York. That's a sad thought, even for Pete, underscored by his last few moments with his baby daughter. Yet as Trudy points out in a poignant scene, possibly their last together, it also means he's truly free in a way that the others are not. As a not-so-secret Pete sympathizer, I hope to see more of his quest for peace next season - though this being Pete we're talking about, he'll probably find some way to fuck it up. Some things on "Mad Men" never change. But it looks like some important things may be about to, and for that I'm thankful - and looking forward to the final season.

Random observations:

-Everyone wants to go to L.A.! Of course they do, says this former L.A. resident and permanent L.A. lover. Poor Stan - it does suck that the one person who actually had good reasons for wanting to go there doesn't get to go. I hope the silver lining is that we get to see more of him next season. Loved the appreciative grin he gave Peggy surveying her new domain.

-Maybe this makes me a terrible person, but I found the bizarre demise of Pete's mother simply hilarious, down to her sons being too tightfisted to see justice done. To be honest, I can't blame Pete, at least, too much; it's not like he ever got any love from that old bag, or anything other than a huge headache. I would say whatever gratitude he owed her for his existence he's paid back.

-Also hilarious: Pete's ill-considered attempt at revenge on Bob, and how spectacularly it backfired on him. Again, I can't blame Pete for being angry about his mother's death, but he should have known better than to take it out on Bob. That Bob Benson, he does not fuck around. I don't know which scene was more entertaining - the two of them side by side in the elevator, Pete stewing and sputtering, Bob barely suppressing a smile; or Pete sweating in the car while Bob smilingly asks him if he knows how to get into first gear (another super Mad Men-y line). All I know is that smiling Bob Benson may well be figuring in my future nightmares.

-Speaking of which, the only thing more terrifying than smiling Bob Benson is smiling Bob Benson wielding a Thanksgiving carving knife. Is he going to take on Roger next in his quest to take over Sterling Cooper? Roger's savvier than Pete, but strangely blind to the real threat Bob poses. Plus if Bob's got Joan in his corner, Roger better watch out. I've heard that James Wolk (the actor who plays Bob) has a pilot lined up for a TV show next season, so we'll have to wait to see just how much of a role he plays in "Mad Men"'s last season.

-Nice to see another glimpse of human Betty, admitting her failures as a parent...while remaining beautifully oblivious to the fact that trying to be "everything my mother was to me" might be just the problem.

-Line of the week: oh, so many contenders, but I'm gonna have to give it to Pete in the elevator.

Bob (cheery): How are you?
Pete (beside himself): NOT GREAT, BOB!

It's not the words; it's the delivery. Vincent Kartheiser is a treasure.


Stan to Don, after losing California: "I'm going to have that sandwich on my desk. I want to get to it before you do."

Bob (recurring, every time he gets called on the carpet): "I don't understand." (when he clearly does)

Roger, on Chevy: "It's all fun and games till they shoot you in the face."

"Much Ado About Nothing" is really something


directed by Joss Whedon
starring Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion, Jillian Morgese, Fran Kranz, Reed Diamond, Sean Maher

Who knew Joss Whedon and Shakespearean comedy would be such a good fit?

In retrospect, it's no surprise. Whedon’s known for his ability to create lively, self-contained worlds out of ensembles of disparate characters, and he likes his characters quippy and slightly irreverent. That makes him a perfect match for everyone’s favorite tale of warring wits who fall in love while a sinister outsider threatens to disrupt their community. It helps that he’s even got his own band of unofficial Joss Whedon Players—actors he likes to cast in his shows—and in fact it’s from them that the germ of this tiny, charmingly off-the-cuff production first sprang. The back story’s almost as good as the film itself: Whedon, who reportedly hosts periodic Shakespeare readings just for fun, was taking a much-needed break from post-production of “The Avengers” when he decided to spend his down time making a shoestring black-and-white film version of Much Ado About Nothing with his best go-to actors/readers. The film was shot in less than two weeks at Whedon’s house in Santa Monica and kept on the super-secret downlow until it was completed.

Yes, that’s Joss Whedon’s idea of a “break.” More of a creative recharging, really, and it shows in the irrepressible sense of breezy fun that pervades the entire film. Maybe because we never really leave Whedon’s (very inviting) home, maybe because of the modern-day cocktail attire and the abundance of wine and cocktails being quaffed at all hours, the whole thing feels like an extended, boozy party where all the conversation happens to be in Shakespearean English, presided over by an unusually genial and twinkly-eyed Leonato (Clark Gregg, a/k/a Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and a dishy Don Pedro (Reed Diamond).

Which is not to suggest that the actors aren’t taking their roles seriously, because in fact they are taking very seriously their mission to entertain and engage us. And they succeed brilliantly, especially when it comes to the most beloved part of the play—tart-tongued Beatrice and Benedick, tricked by their friends into falling for each other. Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof are a treat as the lovers “too wise to woo peaceably,” exhibiting not only great chemistry but a fine sense of physical comedy, reminding us that Much Ado just may have been the first true screwball comedy. Whedon also makes it explicitly clear right at the outset that this Beatrice and Benedick have history, an interpretation that gives an extra edge to their sparring.

But how do Whedon et al. handle the darker elements of the play – namely, the main plot involving Beatrice’s cousin Hero (Jillian Morgese), her noodling suitor Claudio (Fran Kranz), and the malignant scheming of villainous Don John (Sean Maher) to drive them apart and break up the whole happy party by tarnishing Hero’s honor?

With a light touch, as it turns out, something more than a shrug but less than a full exploration of the play’s more troubling undertones. It’s a tough balancing act for any production, since few audiences enjoy being reminded that both the Beatrice-Benedick and Hero-Claudio plots turn on conspiracy to deceive and a lover’s willingness to believe what he at some level wants to believe, however flimsy the evidence. Much Ado About Nothing isn’t considered one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” but for a modern audience it almost should be. After all, the central crisis of the play revolves around whether a young woman is chaste, and when it’s falsely inferred that she’s not, she suffers terribly in a way that’s never really satisfactorily remedied.

Whedon doesn’t exactly gloss over the cruelty to Hero by the very men who are supposed to love her (though I think he does excise a few of the lines that make Claudio and Don Pedro seem like especially callous assholes). But he also doesn’t really address the discomfort that modern audiences might feel in seeing a modern-looking Hero happily take back the man who was cold-blooded enough to slut-shame her in public based on the flimsiest of evidence. Nor does Whedon try to flesh out the motives of Don John, one of the flattest villains in the Shakespearean canon, who seems to exist simply to be evil—though Maher does invest the role with a surprisingly potent aura of menace. (Somewhat distractingly, the film makes one of his henchmen, Conrad, his female sex partner, without changing any of the references to Conrad as a male; why not simply make him a boy toy rather than a girl?)

Yet none of this ends up mattering much, as the romantic and comic elements remain fully in control of this charmed universe. On the comic end, Nathan Fillion and Tom Lenk offer rather subdued drollery as those unlikely agents of justice, Dogberry and Verges, but the approach works for those of us who find a little Dogberry and Verges go a long way. And even without them, there’s plenty of merriment, much of it owing to the sly visual gags sprinkled throughout the movie—from Benedick pontificating on male independence while seated amid children’s toys to the hilarious camera response to Claudio’s assurance, near the play’s denouement, that he will marry Leonato’s unseen daughter even “were she a Ethiope.” It’s touches like these that make Much Ado as delightful as it was meant to be.

Finally, a word of advice to those who hold the glorious 1993 Kenneth Branagh-Emma Thompson “Much Ado” close to their hearts: that’s no reason you can’t love this one, too! It’s simply a different take – more casual, modest, and scaled-down than Branagh’s lush, star-studded Tuscan production, but no less enjoyable for that. Light rather than rich, effervescent rather than exuberant, it’s perfect Shakespeare for a summer evening.


Monday, June 17, 2013

Mad Men 6-12: The Quality of Mercy

Called it! I called Bob Benson as a con man.

Ok, that's stretching the truth a bit. The closest I came to guessing Bob's secret was to note that the actor playing him, James Wolk, had previously starred as the ultimate con man - a man leading a double life - in the cancelled 2010 TV drama "Lone Star," and to wonder if BB was a character in the same vein. Sure enough, there's a reason Wolk keeps getting cast in these roles: he's good at playing the charming, plausible faker.

But in retrospect, we all should have called it (to be fair, about half the internets did). There were plenty of little hints along the way. His inconsistent stories about his family. His ambiguous relationship with the equally shady-if-charming Manolo. The self-help tapes he listens to to on the sly, again inconsistent with someone of his claimed posh background. And of course his over-eagerness to please. All this time I've been wondering if he was supposed to be Pete 2.0, and it turns out that he's actually Don 2.0 - or rather, Dick Whitman in the process of becoming Don.

And Pete once again finds himself first to discover the impostor's secret. Only this time he's choosing to handle the situation differently, having learned his lesson from his failed attempt to unseat Don years ago. "I have learned not to tangle with your kind of animal," he tells a perplexed Bob. (I, thinking he was talking about homosexuals, was equally flummoxed at first.) Pete abandons his efforts to eject Bob, apparently believing that he can better use his leverage by keeping the man where he can see him and, presumably, control him. That complacent look in Pete's eye, in his very last scene, says it all: he's got Chevy, and he thinks he's got Bob where he wants him. I'm not so sure, though, that this strategy will work out any better for him, especially after seeing Bob show his teeth in this episode. That line about his "waning admiration" for Pete, and the warning to "watch what you say," was chilling - almost as chilling as his immediate transition to artificial hearty congratulations. True, this was before Pete found out he was a fraud, but the fact is that Bob's already a much smoother operator than Pete - something Pete grudgingly recognizes - and may not stay subordinate for long.

No question Bob's certainly got a good model for ruthlessness in Don 1.0. Don starts and finishes this episode in a sorry-looking state, curled up in fetal position, still looking emotionally drained and estranged from everyone who should be closest to him. Yet none of that prevented him from working with cruel and masterful efficiency to gain the upper hand over Ted Choaugh. I commented last week that Ted's paranoia about Don being intent on undermining him seemed unfounded, but it appears that he may have been right and I wrong. (though I did predict that Don wouldn't stand by their bargain!) Don may have been acting to save the firm, yet - as with his good samaritan act on behalf of the Rosens' son last week - I can't help suspecting him of ulterior, baser motives: in this case, to establish dominance over Ted, and subconsciously to disrupt the connection he perceives between Ted and Peggy. While Don's never been romantically interested in Peggy, it's clear that he's never totally gotten over her leaving him for Ted, and something of those feelings had to have been revived by the sight of the two of them bonding (at the movies, no less - Don's turf!) and flirting in the office. Don doesn't like being supplanted, and reacts accordingly. And Peggy rightly calls him on it.

Not that Don isn't right, too. That he, of all people, should admonish Ted for not thinking with his brain, is pretty rich; yet the fact is that unlike Ted, Don's amours never had a direct negative impact on his work. (Unless you count promoting Megan, but she at least turned out to have a natural talent for the ad business.) I have to admit some dissatisfaction with this particular storyline, and not just because I like Ted. Ted and Peggy's openly giddy flirting and giggling, and Ted's complete lack of self-awareness, felt overdone to the point of being unconvincing. And perhaps it's just Don's MO or natural genius to be able to tune out most of what's going on at the firm and then tune in at just the right moments to land the killer blow. But these sudden turnarounds aren't entirely convincing, either, at least to me.

Finally, I don't have a whole lot to say about the other big narrative arc of the episode - Sally's interview and trial night at boarding school - except that it confirmed that (1) she's finally had enough of Don's BS, (2) she can hold her own in a hazing, as I expected she would, and (3) what she craves right now isn't sexual attention but someone to protect her sexual innocence (pretty much exactly what her father failed to provide her). And so Glen to the rescue as her unlikely white knight. Lord knows those are in short supply in the world of "Mad Men" - so enjoy yours while you can, Sally.

Random observations:

-Once again, Don shows himself to be a truly terrible father. When Betty calls him about Sally, you can see him stiffen, worried she's spilled the beans; his relief when he realizes she hasn't, and is just avoiding him, is palpable. He doesn't care if she visits or not, and he's only too eager to pack her off to boarding school, to pay anything to get her out of his guilty consciousness. And people think *Betty* is a bad parent? Sally's right: Don hasn't given her anything.

-Betty, for her part, is engaging in one of her occasional efforts to reach out to Sally. Sure, she's probably primarily excited at the thought of Sally attending a prestigious school with the children of other important people: notice how she herself behaved as if *she* were being interviewed (which she undoubtedly was), and nailed it. But she also seemed genuinely curious as to why Sally's decided to go this route, and perturbed rather than triumphant when Sally makes it clear she's renounced her father. This is the Betty I like, and am glad we're seeing more of this season.

-Glen's friend to Sally: "Are you frigid?" No, just Nordic. Also, traumatized by watching my dad having sex with the neighbor and my dad's business partner getting blown by my stepmother's mother.

-Is there some kind of "South Park" in-joke going on among the Mad Men writers? Only instead of killing Kenny at or near the end of an episode, they pretend to kill him off at or near the beginning. That's twice now they've done that. Poor Ken survives, but not before getting the full Cheney hunting experience. At least he's rocking the eye patch.

-That was a great eyeroll from Megan as she passed the phone call from Harry over to Don. She hasn’t forgotten Harry’s grossness over "Zou bisou bisou."

-Rosemary's Baby, really? That ad sounded more creepy than funny. Not to mention horribly un-PC, but well, I guess we're still in the '60s. Don does a pretty passable crybaby, maybe because that's exactly how he's feeling right now.

-Line/exchange of the week:
“You’ve finally found a hooker that takes traveler’s checks?”
(Harry, in an undertone) “Why did I tell you about that.”

-Runner-up: Roger to Kenny - "Shiver me timbers!" followed by "I'd listen to the Cyclops."

-Honorable mention “Crocodile tears!” Bert, as always, has Pete's number.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

"Man of Steel" shoots for gravitas, settles for gravity


directed by Zack Snyder
starring Henry Cavill, Michael Shannon, Russell Crowe, Amy Adams, Kevin Costner, Diane Lane, Christopher Meloni

For a movie about a guy who flies around Earth in a cape and red and blue Spandex, “Man of Steel” is awfully serious—a lot more serious than it needs to be. Surprisingly, it’s also more fun than it should be.

The latest reboot of the Superman franchise, coming only seven years after the tepidly received “Superman Returns,” bears the unmistakable thumbprint of Christopher Nolan, who produced (but didn’t direct) the film and co-wrote the underlying story (but not the screenplay). Nolan’s limited participation might explain why “Man of Steel” feels akin to his “Dark Knight” trilogy in concept and sensibility, though noticeably clunkier in execution.

Not that Nolan’s take on Batman is necessarily the ideal model for most superhero movies. Exploring the troubled psychology of a brooding, self-isolating figure and how it reflects—or refracts—the society he’s sworn to protect is one approach to redefining a superhero. It’s not the only one, and in fact seems peculiarly suited to the tortured, tortuous psyche of Batman. But Superman, the figure we’ve come to associate with Christopher Reeve, truth, justice, and the “American way”? Can he really be Nolanized and still be Superman? The short answer is he can—to a point. The model works only to the extent that Superman’s internal struggles are more a product of his external circumstances, rather than the other way around.

As if to emphasize that point, more than half of “Man of Steel” takes place before Superman becomes Superman; the first 20 minutes or so alone focus on events that take place before or shortly after his birth. Amid the destruction of his home planet, Krypton, his parents (played by Russell Crowe and Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer) make the fateful decision to send him to Earth, against the will of the militant General Zod (Michael Shannon). The action then shifts thirty-some years into the future, showing Kal-El (Henry Cavill) on Earth, fully grown but not fully actualized. While he still answers to the name Clark Kent, he’s about as far removed as possible from our favorite bespectacled, awkward Daily Planet reporter. This guy is a scruffy, silent drifter working a succession of menial jobs essentially incognito, content to remain unnoticed – as much as anyone who looks like Henry Cavill can really go unnoticed – and prone to disappearing every time he shows a glimmer of his superhuman self. It’s clear he hasn’t yet found his purpose in life, even though flashbacks to his childhood reveal that his foster father (Kevin Costner) is convinced he has one—that he was sent to Earth by his true father for a reason.

If that reminds you vaguely of a certain figure who was also sent to Earth by his father for an important purpose, well, that’s pretty much the idea here. Superman has traditionally been identified with both Moses and Christ, and director Zack Snyder plays up both the visual and narrative allusions to the latter in particular. (Kal-El is 33 when we first meet him as an adult—coincidence, much?) The question the film presents is how we mere mortals would receive someone who was as a god to us. Would we embrace him as our savior, or reject him out of fear?

That question is thrust upon Superman when he finally discovers the message his birth father, Jor-El, left for him and in so doing, attracts the attention of the still-alive, still-wrathful General Zod. From that point on, the plotting behind Zod’s mission to hunt down Superman, Superman’s response, and the U.S. government’s involvement gets a little convoluted and more than a little silly, though you wouldn’t know it from the solemn faces all around. Cavill’s Superman, as he surrenders himself to his fate, looks more than ever like a really hot Jesus, or at least a pretty dreamy saint, smiling enigmatically at his grim-faced captors before being made to suffer for them. Even the bright primary colors of his suit have been sanded down to more subdued hues. At least “Thor,” which had a superficially similar driving conflict—god-like beings from another world prevented by one of their own from wiping out puny humanity—had more of a sense of humor about the absurdity of the whole situation.

You’ll look in vain for such goofiness here. Even Superman’s interactions with Lois Lane (Amy Adams) feel oddly muted. Adams’ intrepid reporter pierces the Clark Kent veil fairly early on, which wins her points for greater savviness than past Loises, but sadly deprives us of any good Lois and Clark screwball comedy antics. The Daily Planet, too, is mostly sidelined, leaving the great Laurence Fishburne (as Lois’ editor, Perry White) little to do other than occasionally admonish Lois and watch in consternation alongside the rest of his staff as the forces of Zod threaten to grind them all into dust. Shannon, meanwhile, channels his usual intensity into the role of Zod, but gives the impression of consciously trying to avoid crossing into camp. The only one who seems to be having any fun is Zod’s formidable female second-in-command, Faora-Ul (played with zest by German actress Antje Traue), who mows through her adversaries with a wicked gleam in her eye. But her deadly efficacy doesn’t exactly lighten the mood.

With its oversupply of earnestness, and a run time of nearly 2 ½ hours, “Man of Steel” should be a drag. Yet, for some reason, it isn’t. There’s something compelling about Clark’s early struggle to stay under the radar and still stay connected to humanity, even if it’s unnecessarily underscored by hopelessly hokey lines that, to give Kevin Costner credit, sound more convincing coming from him than from either of the child actors who play Clark as a boy. Costner, along with Diane Lane as Martha Kent, are the best parts of “Man of Steel,” despite their relatively modest amount of screen time. They anchor Clark’s conflicted feelings, which could seem like a mere abstraction, in real human warmth and affection. Crowe, as his wise and benevolent real father, and Adams, as his other main link to humanity, can’t quite compete, despite turning in perfectly serviceable performances. Rather unexpectedly, it’s Christopher Meloni (the veteran TV actor best known for “Law & Order: SVU”) who proves next best at putting the “human” in humanity, bringing a sympathetic presence to the otherwise-predictable role of an Army officer handed the impossible task of apprehending Superman and negotiating with Zod.

The last third of the movie goes all-out (and all-in) on the action, as superhero movies are wont to do, and does it better than most. (As the director of “300” and “Watchmen,” Snyder knows a thing or two about filming digitally enhanced battles.) The hand-to-hand combat between Superman and Zod goes on perhaps a beat too long, but there’s a certain unholy, almost Emmerich-ian thrill to watching the buildings of Metropolis come crashing down during their fight. Viewers will get their money’s worth in mayhem, to the point that they may find themselves yearning for a return to the quiet Kansas plains of Clark’s childhood. But there’s no going back now. At least, not until the next reboot.


Monday, June 10, 2013

Mad Men 6-11: Favors

Well, sheee-it. Just how many primal scenes does poor Sally Draper need to witness, anyway? First it's Roger Sterling and Megan's mom; now it's her own father and the lady from downstairs. And this time she's old enough to understand exactly what's going on.

That jaw-dropping moment was enough to put the title of the episode, "Favors," in a different and thoroughly dirty light. In the world of "Mad Men," there are no true favors, at least in the sense of having no strings attached. Whether it's Don extending himself to save the Rosens' son from the draft, Ted helping him, Bob Benson finding Pete the perfect caretaker for his increasingly addled mother, or Peggy seeking male assistance to dispose of a dying rat, every favor has its price. And with the exception of Ted, the price nearly always involves sex, though the real price is a heaping dose of shame. Ok, in Peggy's case it's no more than mild momentary embarrassment - but then she didn't actually give or receive any favors.

And speaking of sex and shame: all right, Internet, you were right about Bob Benson, the man responsible for the other jaw-dropping moment of the night. For a moment there, when the camera panned to his expression (extremely well played by James Wolk) as Pete was dismissing the charming Manolo as a "degenerate," I thought "aha, Bob is clearly gay" and assumed the writers would leave it at that. But no, we then got to witness Bob quite unmistakably coming on to Pete despite the equally unmistakable negative signal from Pete on his feelings about all things gay. There is no rational explanation for this move. It appears that Bob doesn't want to be Pete after all - he just wants Pete, period. Or does he? I'd still entertain the possibility he's trying to pull a Talented Mr. Ripley, only let's face it, Pete is no Dickie Greenleaf/Jude Law. Which just brings back the question: why Pete Campbell? Does Bob see how lonely and insecure he is, and does he see in that a vulnerability he can exploit? Or is the vulnerability simply what's appealing to him? We still don't know, and thus Bob Benson continues to be a man of mystery.

But back to Sally: while the plot mechanics that led her to walk in on Don and Sylvia were pretty labored (the doorman's jangling keys serving as the stand-in for Chekhov's shotgun), it was intriguing to see that storyline in the context of her friendship with Second Base Girl. Second Base Girl may talk a bigger game than she plays, but she seemed pretty normal in her overt interest in the cute older boy. By comparison, Sally's reaction wasn't abnormal - for every girl of that age like Second Base Girl, there are at least five who are a lot shyer, or at least less brazen - but I couldn't help wondering if her relative lack of interest in thinking sexually about the Rosens' son wasn't at least partly rooted in her first traumatic encounter with adult sex. (For those of you who forgot or missed the episode, last season Sally walked in on Megan's mother giving head to a blissed-out Roger.) One can only imagine how she feels about sex now - a dirty, tarnished act between dirty, tarnished adults. The most disgusting aspect of the incident, for me, was that Don's greatest fear was clearly that Sally would tell, and the effect her discovery would have on him - not the scarring effect it would have on her. That non-explanation he tried to give her through the door was so lame it made me cringe. That's Don Draper, father of the year, "comforting" everyone other than his own family, doing more for his mistress' kid than his own. And while I'd like to think his assistance to Rosen, Jr. was as much out of regard for Arnold as for Sylvia, you just know that his true ulterior motive, whether or not he was conscious of it, was to get back into Sylvia's pants.

Amid the high drama raised by Sally and Bob Benson, it's easy to lose sight of the fact that this was a very Pete-centric episode. Personally, I'm always happy to see Pete get more screen time. Yes, he's a selfish, slimy weasel, but he's also a fascinatingly sad, complicated, contradictory little man, and the fact that he so desperately fears being pitied only makes me, well, pity him. Especially since the flip side is that the only thing he fears more than being pitied is being unloved and unappreciated, a point his mother quite cruelly uses against him in her dementia. If this episode had an alternate title, it should have been "Bad Parents," with Mama Campbell just edging out Don Draper for worst parent of the year. We've seen before how little love there ever was between her and her younger son, but if we had any doubt, she erased it tonight. Pete, no less than Don, owes a good part of his messed-up attitude towards women to his mother. That said, I did love his moments with Peggy at the post-Ocean Spray celebratory dinner, even if there was something a bit heartbreaking about his half-envious, half-affectionate recognition of her success and the fact that she, better than anyone else, really knows him. (Although does she really, anymore?) I also liked that he was able to pick up on the connection between her and Ted - without being jealous or possessive in response - and that Peggy didn't deny it.

As for Ted Chaough, his narrative arc, while interesting in itself, felt a little out of sync with the others'. Perhaps that was deliberate, as he's clearly the outsider who lacks the long history of relationships that the other characters have with each other. (Another moment I loved from the post-Ocean Spray dinner was Ted's inquiring look at Pete and Peggy when he returned to the table: like Pete, he senses something between the other man and woman, but he doesn't have the knowledge and back story that they do.) He's so obsessed with Don and the idea that Don's trying to beat him - something his wife picks up on without even being in the office - he doesn't realize that Don simply isn't paying attention to him, or for that matter to the business, most of the time. Forget about reading memos, Don doesn't even seem to know when any of his meetings are! Consequently, it's doubtful whether the bargain he strikes with Ted will yield the latter the desired results. Too bad, as I have to say I'm getting to like Ted quite a bit; so far this season he seems like the most normal and decent man on the show, though admittedly that's not saying much. It's telling that the last shot we see of him is his coming home to his family; the look on his face as he picks up his younger son couldn't be a sharper contrast to the last shot of Don, turning away from his daughter's door with a look of shame and defeat. Don knows he's failed immeasurably and irrevocably as a father; Ted still has a chance to redeem himself.

Finally, for an episode that had some very dark threads, it was also a remarkably funny episode, particularly in all interactions involving Peggy. Elisabeth Moss is a bit understated as an actress, but this worked to great comic effect in all her scenes, from her receiving and relaying Pete's mom's raptures on the "physical satisfactions" of love and the "fire in her loins," to her adventures with the rat and her attempt to coax Stan into a booty-for-rat-disposal call. I hope the final shot of her new cat doesn't portend her turning into a crazy cat lady - hearkening back to her mother's advice on companionship (talk about bad parenting, again) a couple of seasons ago - but I have faith that she'll continue to be the coolest cat lady in Manhattan.

Line of the week: This was actually a great episode for two-liners. Some of my favorites -

Peggy: I had a really strange conversation with your mother.
Pete: There's no other kind.

Ted (petulantly): I don't want his juice. I want my juice.
Cutler: It's all your juice.
Ted: Tell him that! (ok, technically that's a three-liner)

Peggy (realizing Stan's not alone): You can bring her.
Stan: I'd be dead by morning.

Least subtle line of the week: Mrs. Campbell, in mistaking Peggy for Trudy, telling her they should stay together "for the sake of the child you have together." Dum da-dum! Runner-up: Megan to Don, ostensibly about the Rosens' son - "He can't spend the rest of his life on the run." Gee, really? Who's learned (or hasn't learned) that lesson already on this show?

Monday, June 03, 2013

Mad Men 6-10: A Tale of Two Cities

As someone who used to live in L.A., I'm always fascinated by "Mad Men"'s visits there without ever being quite satisfied with them. They generally center on Don and often presage, perhaps precipitate, some big change or epiphany in his life. Yet they have an air of gauzy unreality about them that can be a bit frustrating, at least to those who know California as a real place. To be fair, I think it's deliberate: inevitably, on these California trips, Don ends up detaching himself from his carefully constructed existence as Don Draper and assessing it with the eye of a dispassionate outsider - a feat that seems only made possible by the dreamlike strangeness of his surroundings.

So it was this time, except that Don seemed to exercise much less agency in the process than he has in the past. In an episode in which Megan advises him to "go for a swim," he ends up looking bemusedly on his own body floating face downwards in a pool in the Hollywood hills (or as an annoyingly smug Harry would put it, "THE Hills"). It's an image that evokes both "Sunset Boulevard" and The Great Gatsby, both tales of men who tried and failed to escape the sordid reality of their true identities. It's also a more passive (and more ominous) version of Don walking out into the Pacific Ocean, so many seasons ago, on a previous trip to Cali - an image that was also echoed (as the "previously on Mad Men" reel thoughtfully reminded us) more recently in Don's ad campaign for the Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Like that ad, his latest immersion could signal a rebirth; it could also signal, simply, death. After all, and surely not by coincidence, it follows a sequence in which he imagines first Megan telling him she's pregnant (and, as if we needed the underlining, that this is a "second chance"!), then the ghost of the soldier-bridegroom he met in Hawaii, now maimed and somber, announcing he's dead and hinting that Don is, too. Now I don't think Don is literally going to die anytime soon, but there does seem to be something dead or dying inside him, and count me skeptical that he's getting a second chance to come alive again. For some time now he's appeared checked out of his own life, oblivious to what's going on around him, including the fact that a coup is brewing right under his nose at the Frankenfirm he helped create.

Meanwhile, back in New York, there are actually two separate coups brewing - even if Pete Campbell, with his usual odd blend of perceptiveness and self-centered paranoia, conflates them as all part of one and the same. One is the takeover from within by the Cutler/Chaough half of the merger. True, it's mostly being driven by Cutler (aka bizarro-Roger), but it's tacitly approved, if also reined in, by Chaough. Some of Cutler's specific machinations remain a tad murky - for example, did he set up Bob Benson to fail with Manichewitz? - but his ultimate goal is pretty clearly to render Sterling, Cooper, et al. as partners in (literally) name only. It's interesting to see Ted as, if not the more principled, certainly the more prudent of the two, unwilling to toss any Sterling Cooper-ites if they retain any value to the firm as a whole.

Then there's Joan's quest to be a partner more than in just name -i.e., a partner with actual clout. She sees her chance with Avon-man and takes a huge risk in bypassing the firm's hierarchy to bring him in as her client. We don't know yet whether this will turn out to be a brilliant or foolhardy move on her part, though I tend to share Peggy's more pessimistic view (not because I think she has better judgment than Joan but because this is "Mad Men," when bad things seem to happen more often than good things). Regardless of who turns out to be right, Peggy and Joan's argument over Joan's handling of the situation was, for my money, the best written exchange by any characters so far this season. The Joan-Peggy dynamic has always been one of the most intriguing yet under-explored on the show, and it was remarkable how much suppressed tension, how many years of accumulated, complex feelings about each other's rise were packed into those few minutes. Kudos to Peggy for coming to Joan's rescue in the end, despite her disapproval of the latter's methods.

But poor Joan! I'm not sure Peggy knows about the deal with the devil (Jaguar); I actually don't think she does, though I may be having a memory lapse. Nonetheless, her insistence that she, Peggy, worked her way up without sleeping with anyone clearly stung Joan in the same way it would have if she had known about Jaguar - as evidenced in the double meaning behind Joan's withering, yet wounded, response: "Congratulations. You really are just like them." Joan may or may not be privately regretting her decision to sleep with gross Jaguar guy, but it seems to be at least partly fueling a sense that her partnership hasn't proved to be worth the price she paid for it. Callous comments by resentful colleagues, whether it's Harry, bitter over not having a partnership, or Pete, outraged at being left out of the Avon meeting, surely don't help.

Of course Joan's not the only one of the "and Partners" who's feeling insecure about her status. Exhibit A: Pete Campbell, whose enraged, vicious subtext-laden comment about the Avon man ("oh, I bet you're making him very happy") elicits an equally cutting retort from Joan ("It's better than being screwed by you") but is really more reflective of his panic at the increasing tenuousness of his own position than lack of respect for Joan. While Pete's never been above doing weaselly underhanded things (like pimping out Joan) to get ahead, there is a part of him that's always believed that people should be rewarded for working hard and playing by certain rules, and been continually exasperated when following that course doesn't yield the expected results. "It's a revolt," he sputters impotently at Ted Chaough, unable to accept the latter's glib shrugging off of Joan's power-grab ("Possession is nine-tenths of the law"). Revolt, upheaval of the existing order, is indeed in the air, as the footage of the post-DNC Chiago riots pointedly remind us. In the end, at least nationally, it was more or less quashed - temporarily - by the election of Nixon. Whether it's similarly subdued within the world of SC&P remains to be seen.

Random observations:

-This episode was directed by John Slattery (aka Roger Sterling), who once again shows a great eye and sense of pacing, and isn't too vain to allow his character to get punched in the balls. Though not before getting in what had to be a record number of height jokes at poor little Danny.

-The title of the episode, "A Tale of Two Cities," appears to refer to New York and L.A. But one could make a pretty good argument for Chicago, in which events both mirror and trigger the unrest that afflicts our characters.

-This week's hallucinations and/or revelations brought to you by...hashish! "Mad Men" may be going a little too often to the drug-tripping well this season, but it does generally fit in with the hazy uncertainty, the search for escape that we associate with the late '60s. Still, when you've got Pete Campbell smoking a joint, you know shit is hitting the fan.

-Is it just me, or did Joan seem initially disappointed that Avon man was treating their first lunch as a business meeting rather than a date? But being Joan, she recovered almost instantaneously, enough to perceive it as something better than a date.

-Is Ginsberg having a total meltdown? He's been slowly unraveling this past season, but this was the first episode where he seemed really unhinged. He apparently has a similar political compass to Abe (Peggy's ex), but even less control over his feelings. Something about Bob Benson's attempt to calm him down was weirdly hilarious.

-Every week, a new mystery about Bob Benson. What on earth was that recording he was listening to? It sounded like something in the self-help genre. Also of note, he did not answer Ginsberg's question about his sexuality (though I personally think that's just the writers messing with us).

-Could Megan be having an affair? She seemed strangely distant in her interactions with Don this episode, even when Don was clearly making an effort to rekindle their marriage. I also found it telling that in trying to convince her to come to L.A. with him, he referred to Disneyland (trying to recapture the past, the "beginning of things," as Dr. Faye might have said), while she responded by joking that that was where she made the biggest mistake of her life. Maybe it wasn't a joke.

-Not much screen time for Stan, but that's because he was so adroit at making his exit from awkward situations - whether it was Ginsberg going off on someone ("This is my stop," "I can't watch this") or Pete stealing his joint.

-Line of the week: Cutler to Bob Benson - "Why are you always down here? Go back upstairs!"

-Runner-up: Roger on him and Don as conquistadors: "I'm Vasco de Gama, you're - some other Mexican guy."

Sunday, June 02, 2013

"Before Midnight": Third time's a bittersweet charm


directed by Richard Linklater
starring Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy

Richard Linklater. Ethan Hawke. Julie Delpy. Those three names in combination have become virtually talismanic, at least for a subset of moviegoers who like their relationship movies talky and their movie relationships multilayered. It’s been 18 years since the trio first teamed up to introduce the world to an attractive pair of Gen X-ers who meet on a train and decide to spend a day in Vienna together, and nine years since they reconnected in Paris. And if there’s one thing we’ve come to know and cherish about Céline and Jesse over the course of those two unforgettable days “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” it’s that they love to gab. They never shut up, and we wouldn’t want them to.

The first part of that remains true in our latest glimpse into their ever-evolving relationship, “Before Midnight.” And that's as it should be; the chief pleasure of these movies, after all, lies in hearing Céline and Jesse talk, watching their expressions and body language as they bounce observations by turns inane and insightful, wistful and cynical, romantic and provocative, off each other. But there’s something different about the tone of their exchanges in “Midnight.” Gone is the sense of romantic expectation that pervaded the first two movies—heady though guarded in the first, still potent but more tempered by experience in the second. In its place is a new kind of tension that can be (and is) harsh, even painful, and sometimes downright ugly, to the point that there are times you do want them to stop talking.

In a way, there’s nothing particularly surprising about this development. If “Before Sunrise” was about two young people exploring the possibility of romantic connection, and “Before Sunset” about their somewhat older, somewhat more jaded selves who still carry an idealized memory of their first encounter, then “Before Midnight” marks the logical next phase for [mild SPOILERS ahead] a couple that’s been together for, well, nine years. They’re no longer flirting with intimacy, they’ve lived it. Hence all the suspense hangs not on whether they’ll get together but whether they’ll stay together. The underlying question, though, is fundamentally the same: is what they have love, and can it be sustained?

At first glance, Céline and Jesse seem to have every reason to be happy together: they live in Paris, they’re successful in their respective careers, they have two adorable young daughters together, appear to be still attracted to each other, and are vacationing in Greece, fer cryin’ out loud. But beneath the idyllic surface, frustrations roil and resentments fester. Jesse is haunted by paternal guilt over being so far from his son, who still lives in the U.S. with Jesse’s ex-wife; Céline reacts defensively by going on the offensive. To be fair, Céline also has her own private grievances with Jesse, which are only hinted at initially but eventually come to the forefront as the two shift from semi-playful bickering to real, heated argument.

In this progression, “Before Midnight” both continues and departs from the walk-and-talk patterns of its predecessors. The film falls roughly into three acts, with the first set entirely in a car, as Jesse and Céline drive back from a local airport after dropping off Jesse’s son from a visit. Their back-and-forth, as the girls sleep in the back seat – mostly about Jesse’s son, though also extending to Céline’s professional malaise – is only a prelude of things to come. The second act, which takes place at a beautifully pastoral Greek villa, is more like an interlude: for the first time in the series, Céline and Jesse interact at length with other characters—their host and other assorted guests, including two couples, one older, one younger, and an elderly widow, who together with our friends, seem to represent the potential different stages of romantic relationships. Among them, it’s the widow who makes the most lasting impression in these scenes, as she speaks poignantly of her loss and the fading of memories that give it meaning. As a commentary on the fragility (futility?) of the human quest for connection, even the kind that lasts a lifetime, it’s heartrending; yet somehow in its sadness and its beauty it raises rather than diminishes the stakes for finding that connection.

The third act starts off innocuously enough, with Jesse and Céline taking a scenic stroll to an inn where their friends have generously booked them a room for a private romantic night away from the kids. For a while, their banter feels almost like old times, though it’s tinged with an undercurrent of anxiety—until they arrive at the inn, where an ill-timed phone call triggers a fresh argument that escalates quickly into a knock-down, take-no-prisoners fight over everything that’s been bugging both of them. More like a scene from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf than anything in “Before Sunrise” or “Sunset,” it leads to a crisis point in the form of a single line, a line so shocking it actually made one woman in my theater (not me) gasp audibly. I won’t give away how or even if the crisis resolves itself, because in true “Before” fashion, the ending is very much left open to the viewer’s interpretation. Paraphrasing something Jesse once said to a reader of his first book, it may depend on how much of a romantic or a cynic you are about love.

I am neither, which might be why I left feeling deeply ambivalent about “Before Midnight.” It’s not that I’d failed to anticipate that the dynamic between Jesse and Céline would change; I knew it would, and I knew if it was a remotely realistic long-term relationship, there would be sources of doubt and dissatisfaction on both sides. What I didn’t expect was how imbalanced my sympathies would be in watching their struggle to figure out whether they should still be together. Without prejudicing the uninitiated viewer, I’ll just say that while neither party was without blame, it felt to me like one was doing all the heavy lifting trying to save what they had while the other was consciously or unconsciously trying to sabotage it. That I ended up "siding" more with the former speaks to how invested I’d become in a relationship that I hadn’t even seen in its most crucial phase: the day to day of being in the relationship.

Should that be the case? Am I a simple-minded romantic after all? Maybe there’s a part of me that is for these two—or was. In the years since “Before Sunset,” the first two films had fused in my mind into one, near-perfect film not so much about romance as about the potential for romance, the desire for a soulmate even if you (like me) don’t believe in soulmates. “Before Midnight,” by contrast, continues a trend of recent movies that have explored the question, “So you found your ‘soulmate’—now what?” by dissecting that question mercilessly. It does so with the intelligence and honesty we’ve come to expect of Linklater & co. But in the process, it almost killed my instinct to root for Céline and Jesse as a couple, and this makes me sad.