Thursday, September 12, 2013

I've Moved

There have been way too many technical difficulties at this blog, so I've decided to move. While this blog will remain online, you can find my new writings at
Hope you come along for the ride!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Back with Three Movies

Coco Hits NYC took about a month-long hiatus, since yours truly went on a physical and emotional vacation that ended up demanding much more than I anticipated. Anyway, I'm back! I had a great time and have already visited the theater three times since I arrived in New York. Here are some thoughts on what I saw... 

The World's End
Director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost re-team for the last part of their unofficial Cornetto Trilogy, which started with Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. This time, Pegg stars as a man who can't let go of his glorious past as a youth, who decides to reunite his high school friends to attempt the ultimate "pub crawl". Wright is undoubtedly one of the best directors out there, I'm a big fan of all his past movies, but The World's End left me a little cold.

Pegg and Frost really good in their roles. Their characters are very well defined and developed and there are a lot of very smart jokes, but something didn't quite work for me. These collaborator's previous movies focused on the relationship between the Pegg and Frost characters. This time, they add three more characters to their gang (played by Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan and Paddy Consadine) who the filmmakers are not all that interested in. They can't seem to find the time to give them satisfying character arks. By the end of the movie, we see what happened to each of this characters and it's telling how little impact the fate of these three supporting players had on me. There's also a character played by Pierce Brosnan who doesn't serve any purpose. I guess I would have liked more focus.

Even if it isn't quite as good as the previous entries, The World's End is still an entertaining film. I mean, it still features wonderful performances by Pegg and Frost, great jokes and Wright's talent behind the camera. As a matter of fact, Wright has turned out to be one of the best action directors around. Even if the fights get a little repetitive towards the end of the movie, an early fight in a bar's restroom may be the year's best action sequence yet.

The Spectacular Now 
This movie came out of Sundance with a lot of positive buzz. It was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who wrote 500 Days of Summer, a movie that I actually liked quite a bit. It is based on a young adult novel and does feature many of the genre's typical characteristics, which ultimately make it feel rather familiar (especially the ending). 

But -and this is a big but- it has so much more going for it than any other teenage-romance-based-on-a-young-adult-novel movie of the past few years. Unlike something like last year's Perks of Being a Wallflower it avoids most cutesy and quirky moments in order to bring forth a much more naturalistic and visceral point of view. The performances are all around great, especially Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley in the lead roles. Teller embraces the role of the popular, funny kid wonderfully and it is to the movie's credit that he stands out as the wittiest character. He might be a little too clever at times, but it's made better by the fact that everyone and everything (the art direction is dull to the point of perfection) around him feels so real. Meanwhile, Woodley is incredibly adorable and believable as a regular high schooler delivering one of the year's most natural performances. 

The first half of the movie sees the relationship between these two kids develop in fantastic fashion due to long takes and a slowed-down pace that leaves the perfect room for the actors to do their job and for us to immerse ourselves in their lives. There is a alcohol-abuse plot that is handled pretty well for most of the film but resolves itself a little too quickly as the ending approaches and the film must leave its naturalistic pace to meet an acceptable running time. However, this is a minor complaint when you can watch these two young actors be so fantastic together. 

Blue Jasmine
Woody Allen's last few years haven't been all that great. I'm a big fan of Midnight in Paris, but you'd have to go all the way back to Match Point to find another of his films I truly liked. Thankfully, this year's Blue Jasmine is very, very good. A lot has been said about the movie, and I agree with most of it. The movie is obviously a Madoff-inspired version of A Streetcar Named Desire, it is probably Woody's most interesting film in a long time and Cate Blanchett (whom I am not a huge fan of) is, in fact, fantastic in the title role. 

Nathaniel Rogers from The Film Experience noted in his review that the movie feels like a dark companion to Midnight in Paris and I couldn't agree more. Both films, and Woody himself, seem to be fascinated with nostalgia and the ways we look at the past. Blue Jasmine is very much about leaving the past behind and trying to construct a new future, only in a much darker and realistic fashion than Midnight in Paris. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Hit Me With Your Best Shot: American Graffiti

It's been a while since I last participated in "Hit Me With Your Best Shot", a wonderful series hosted by The Film Experience -whose own Nathaniel Rogers I just had the pleasure to meet during a screening of Monsters University- but I do love having an excuse to watch (or rewatch amazing films) and then share my favorite shots. 

I had never seen George Lucas' American Graffiti despite noticing the VHS tape more than once at my local Blockbuster when I was a kid, but let me tell you, I am quite happy I did. The Star Wars prequel have left such a bad taste in my mouth that watching such a refreshingly unassuming film from Lucas was quite an experience. It's that one-night-of-teenage-shenanigans kind of movie, but if you're anything like me, then you know those can be wonderful when done well. And this one is very entertaining in its love for rock n' roll, cars and early 1960s Americana. 

Unlike Lucas', my relationship to cars is quite antagonistic. I am very unfamiliar with car culture. I mostly see them as polluting/isolation machines and I do wish more people around the world could rely on public transport instead of individual cars. I never had a car, I learned how to drive relatively late and now I live in New York. I can't really relate that much to the kids in American Graffiti's wanting to drive fast cars and impress girls, but I can absolutely relate to riding in the backseat.

This moment with Richard Dreyfuss' Curt is what I can relate to. Riding in the backseat means noticing things the driver and whoever's riding shotgun don't. And it also means not being in a charge. There's no better way to get to the essence of seating on the back than when Curt sees a hot girl who suddenly shows interest in him, but is not be able to follow her just because he isn't driving. Steve and Laurie have their own thing going on so they basically couldn't care less about whatever's going on in Curt's mind. Riding in the back is basically the same as seating on a baby's car seat. As a guy who wasn't that much interested in cars, I've been there many times. You can't escape car culture, its weird rules and hierarchies even if you wanted to. If aliens come to earth they'll probably think this planet is inhabited by four-wheeled machines infested with two-legged parasites. 

I don't know if picking these images is exactly fair. I don't have extensive knowledge about cinematography, so when it comes to movie visuals and "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" I tend to go for more character-centric moments or sequences instead of just one visually striking shot. Anyway, that's just me and I hope readers of the series won't mind. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Mad Men: In Care Of

In the Season Six Mad Men finale, everyone wants to escape to California and Matthew Weiner proves to me, once again, that mistrusting his knowledge of the characters he created and his abilities as a show-runner is just stupid. 

What do I get out of this episode? And out of this season? Well, first of all, I was incredibly satisfied with this final episode. Probably the best of the season. It pulled everything together in a way the show hadn't really done probably since season two, yet another structural element to go with this year's theme. Last season ended with the song "You Only Live Twice" and what came after that was really all about duality: Don's double live and affair with Sylvia, Bob Benson's mysterious past, the remaking of the agency, Teddy Chaough in comparison to Don and Peggy's escape and comeback. Life repeated and showed itself in many colors, and at the end, people were trying to pull off a "Dick Whitman" and try to have a new beginning in California. Not everyone gets to go to the west coast, but the finale is full of new beginnings. So we leave Don listening to "Both Sides Now" (a perfect musical choice) and with a glimmer of hope for the final season of the show.

It was a huge deal, and a great scene when Don sat in that meeting and told all those people about how he grew up in a whorehouse. Yes, he is been more self-involved than ever this season, he's gone to some terribly dark places and done some terrible things, but that moment was truthful. He suffered a great blow when Sally found him in bed with Sylvia. And just when he was about to plan a new escape route, something made him change his mind. He goes, maybe for the first time in his life, for the truth. He, of course, loses everything, but also gains a fresh, new and -most importantly- healthy start.

There might have been a few rough steps, but overall, another terrific season of television! 

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Monsters University: Is not going up the same as going under?

Back in 2010, I was hugely skeptical of the idea of Pixar making Toy Story 3. The second movie had taken the toys to such a perfect ending that I was afraid it was going to diminish the magic of the films that pretty much had made Pixar the powerhouse studio it became. I was, however, proven wrong, since Toy Story 3 is not only great, but a perfect continuation of the ideas and character journeys suggested in Toy Story and Toy Story 2. What I wasn't dreading, but should have been, was the possibility that the success of the third installment in the Toy Story series would send Pixar deep into the game of making unnecessary sequels to their films. Remember that back then, they had only ever made one bad movie (Cars) and never made a lackluster sequel. The following year saw the release of Cars 2, and after another iffy effort with last year's Brave people were quick to write all kinds of "think pieces" about how the magic studio that could do no wrong had started its downfall...

...Which brings us to Monsters University. Where does this movie stand in the Pixar catalogue? And what does it mean? Does it do to Monsters Inc. what the sequels did to Toy Story? Or is this the definitive sign of Pixar's downfall into creative oblivion?

The answer, as you'd expect, is more complex than a single yes or no. But before we go into the detail, let me tell you quickly what Monsters University is about (this is a review, after all). The movie is a prequel to 2001's Monsters, Inc. (a movie that I have come to appreciate much more now than I did when I first saw it at the age of nine). It takes us back to the college years of Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a monster who dreams of being a Scarer and work for Monsters Inc. and tells the story of how  he first was rivals but ended up becoming friends with James "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman). 

Monsters, Inc. was very much about Sully's encounter with Boo and his feelings towards paternity and caring for someone who he was supposed to look as just a part of his job. And in consequence, Monsters University centers much more on Mike's journey. As he tries to follow his dream of becoming the greatest Scarer that ever was despite the fact that he is not a particularly scary monster. There is also an ark to Sully, who is pretty much the laid-back college student that must learn to work hard for what he wants. Most of the movie revolves around a Revenge of the Nerds-type plot in which Mike, Sully and a team of  outcast monsters must compete in the "Scare Games" in order to proof they are Scarer material. This plot is entertaining and very funny, but also basic and overly familiar. But then, the movie takes a turn in the third act and goes to some unexpected and quite poignant places that feel like something that could really influence and shape the personality and friendship between Mike and Sully. 

What I like most about Pixar movies is their ability to surprise, to take you to unprecedented places and end up addressing themes and messages you wouldn't expect were part of the movie going in. When I think of Pixar I think of the surprise of getting to the Space Station in Wall-E, or realizing what exactly was the role Anton Ego and Incrediboy played in Ratatouille and The Incredibles respectively. In this sense, Monsters University felt to me like a Pixar movie. However, despite how surprisingly well-crafted its third act was, it by no means feels necessary to the narrative of Monsters, Inc. in the way the Toy Story sequels made themselves essential as a trilogy. Many critics are calling this Pixar's comeback, but I wouldn't go that far. This is a solid, entertaining movie, but that's it. It loses the magic of the original Monsters Inc. because it isn't our introduction to this carefully created world and doesn't go beyond in its themes. 

Grade: 6/10

Thursday, June 20, 2013

James Gandolfini (1961-2013)

A loss as surprising as it is sad. Gandolfini's work as Tony Soprano was probably the best performance ever put on television (at least the best I've ever seen). By the end of the show's run, we all felt like we knew Tony, and consequently, knew Mr. Gandolfini. He was one of television's greatest, but also showed amazing talent in such films as True Romance, In The Loop, Where the Wild Things Are and Zero Dark Thirty.

He was a great actor and, from what I understand, an even better person. He will be deeply missed.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Mad Men: The Quality of Mercy

"You're a Monster" 

That was Peggy's final words to Don in this episode. So, is he? This season has certainly gone to great lengths to put Don in situations that make him come off as more unlikable than he's ever been. But is he truly worse than he's ever been?

Don vs. Peggy
When Don sat on that meeting with the St. Joseph's executive and put Teddy on the line, suggesting he came out and confess he is in love with Peggy only to come up with a bullshit story about Gleason to save the account, well, that was undoubtedly a dick move on his part. He might tell Peggy (and himself) that he is doing it to save the account, that Teddy has let the budget skyrocket because he is blinded by love, that he did all of this so that the company wouldn't have to pay thousand of dollars in residuals, but we know that at the bottom of his being, he is just jealous. He hangs up on Harry when he announces Sunkist's interest in the agency out of respect for the promise he made to Ted last week. But then, when he sees Ted and Peggy sneak out to watch Rosemary's Baby at 5 in the afternoon, he calls California right away. 
Not that he wants to be romantically in love with Peggy, we know Don better than that. But what he can't tolerate is to see such a beautiful relationship develop between Peggy and Ted. They just giggle and joke and love their work. It isn't only miles away from his tumultuous work relationship with Peggy, but also reminiscent of what he was hoping to achieve with Megan. The huge theme this season has been duality. From the poster showing a Don doppelgänger, to the multiple comparisons in plot to previous seasons, it's been all about history repeating itself as a new set of characters take the place of those that came before. Ted is bizarro Don, and Don just won't have it. 

The Other Secret Life of Bob Benson
Ok, so it isn't exactly clear if Bob Benson is actually gay. But what is clear is, first, that he probably isn't a psychopath, but keeping in line with the season's big theme, a younger version of Don Draper. He too has changed his name and fabricated a new identity in order to make his way up to a better life. And in another parallel, it's again Pete who discovers the secret identity of a Sterling Cooper employee. Only this time, instead of running to Bert Cooper (maybe out of fear of the whole thing blowing up on his face just as it did when he discovered the identity of Dick Whitman), he decides to let Bob Benson be Bob Benson, as long as he stays under his watch. 
To be frank, Pete talked in such vague terms that I barely understood exactly what he wanted out of Bob in that scene. But as far as I could understand, he basically wants to have leverage in order to make Benson work to his benefit. Pete has lost a lot throughout this season (from his marriage, to power in the company to the sanity of his mother) and has been lusting for any kind of power. Now that he not only gets the Chevy account that got Kenny shot in the eye* and now the feeling of having complete power of Bob Benson, which may not be much, but being a proxy to having power over Don Draper, will definitely do. 

*the latest Mad Men theory is that, after surviving the car accident and now being shot in the eye, Ken Cosgrove is actually immortal. 

Little Miss Draper
The last big story of this episode mirrors Don's and ties in with what happened last week. After discovering her dad in bed with Sylvia Rosen, Sally and Don are in horrible terms. Don drinking heavily and sleeping in his kid's room, Sally wanting to go out to a boarding school. Betty, who also doesn't have such a laid-back, relaxed relationship with Sally is ok with this, and so, while Sally stays for a night at her possible new school, we get out yearly Glen Bishop appearance. This time, he brings a friend along to visit the girls of boarding school. 
When Glen is goes out to get lucky with one of Sally's new friends, the other boy makes a move on Sally, who stops his advances and calls out Glen for help. Now, sure that boy insisted on kissing Sally when she didn't want to, but what the girl really wanted was to start a fight between the two friends. Either because she has a thing for Glen and wanted to see him defend her, or because, like her father did to Ted and Peggy, she didn't want Glen to be happy if she wasn't, or probably because of both things. In any case, she is Don Draper's daughter. For sure.

All three story lines this week focused on people trying to dominate other people, molding them into something that will exist in function of what they want them to be instead of just letting them be other human beings. Pete Campbell sees the possibility of creating an ally out of Bob Benson (even if it is by force). Sally has a clear idea of what and how she wants Glen to be and won't tolerate any other versions. And, finally, Don has been trying to fabricate his life for so long that he has alienated almost everyone around him and fallen to a place of deep and dark isolation. He can't resist Sylvia because something about her reminds him of his true life, of the whore that fed him soup. But at the same time, going after his most primal instincts has made lose everything else in his life. He doesn't care for his wife anymore, he has lost any interest in his job, he has lost the respect of his daughter and he is losing the admiration of Peggy. Everything that he has fabricated is slipping through his fingers and he can't do anything more than lie down on his couch in the fetal position and keep hoping he can divorce himself from his most truthful past.

Next week is the season finale, so I hope you're as excited as I am! 

Friday, June 14, 2013

Man of Steel: I'll Believe This Man Can Fly When I See It

The audience clapped and I was appalled.

Man of Steel is without a doubt an attempt from Warner Bros' part to reboot Superman in Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy's image and likeness in search of creating a similarly successful franchise. And from a practical point of view, I don't blame them. Nolan's Batman has made a gazillion dollars for the studio and the idea of being able to expand their superhero universe into something similar to what Marvel did with The Avengers is only a logical conclusion in age in which the box-office is pandering to comic-book friendly audiences. They seem to think they've found a Joss Whedon-style guide in Nolan (who produced and contributed to the story of this film). After all, he did manage to make two really good movies in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight (To say I'm not a fan of Dark Knight Rises would be putting it mildly). But under "visionary" director Zack Snyder, Man of Steel couldn't be described as anything but a bad movie. 

For the first two-thirds of its running-time, the movie is torn between two impulses. One does feel a certain reverence for the Superman mythos and the characters' previous adventures in the big screen. There are, in fact, so many narrative parallels to Richard Donner's Superman that if you focused only on the first half, you could call it a remake. But an excess in reverence is perceived as the flaw that made Bryan Singer's Superman Returns a financial failure in 2006, and so, the other big impulse behind the movie looks to fill it with all kinds of action bits to make it feel cooler, darker, more contemporary. The filmmakers behind Man of Steel are just desperate trying to use anything that made any action blockbuster successful in the past few years. That's why we spend way too many time in the hero's home planet of Krypton at the start of the movie watching an extended action sequence reminiscent of James Cameron's Avatar in which Russell Crowe (as Kal-El's father) rides a winged dinosaur. That's also why when we finally leave Krypton, the structure of the movie is very similar to that of Batman Begins, with Clark Kent trying to find his identity while flashing back at the most pivotal moments of his childhood as a boy of two worlds. Other aspects lifted from successful contemporary movies are an intense use of hand-held camera (as influenced by The Bourne Supremacy, but really any action film of the past ten years) and lense-flares (as influenced by J.J. Abrams' Star Trek).   

And still, amongst the uninspired filmmaking, stupid plot holes and silly dialogue, there are a few bright spots you can hold on to. Henry Cavill, as Clark Kent/Kal-El/Superman, certainly looks the part and does show a certain amount of charisma in the few moments in which he is allowed to do some acting. I would say he is very good casting and wouldn't mind watching him in another Superman movie. One that isn't Man of Steel. The most earnest moments and the palpable love for the character do come through and for the first half-hour of Man of Steel. There are aspects of the character that make Superman remain part of our culture. There is something inherently interesting in the idea of a man who must reconcile the fact that he belongs to two worlds. That he is an outsider in a world he wasn't meant to be in, but needs him. This is a story that has resonated with many people through the 75 years in which the character has existed. This is a story that can potentially explore fascinating aspects about adoption and Christianity. There is reason to believe this story can make for a great movie. Hell, these themes are even said aloud by Kevin Costner (who plays Clark's earthly father). So I focused on what little worked hoping the movie could use those elements to stick the landing in its latter half... 

...Only to be disappointed. I just wasn't expecting the last hour of the film (yes, it is ridiculously long) to turn into something as reprehensible and insipid as it did. The final confrontation between Superman and General Zod (a Kryptonian villain played by Michael Shannon) is handled in such a misguided way that not only destroys any kind of character arch given to the protagonist, but actually made me feel disgusted at the fact that I was watching this film. The two movies director Zack Snyder wants to lift from in this action-heavy last hour of Man of Steel seem to be Transformers and The Avengers. Similarly to the climaxes of those respective films, we get a series of gigantic action sequences in which, by battling his enemies, Superman pretty much destroys his hometown of Smallville and the city of Metropolis. By the end of this fight, after Metropolis is pretty much been reduced to a wasteland and at least half its population has died during the confrontation, I was infuriated. The whole message of the movie seems to be that Superman's destiny is to protect the inhabitants of earth. That in his time in this planet he has learned compassion and the importance of individuals, and life, and all that stuff. But whereas a good movie, like The Avengers, used its epic climax to show how the heroes worked together to safe Manhattan from destruction, in Man of Steel Superman pretty much doesn't give a shit if everyone dies. He is content to let buildings collapse on top of innocent civilians just to punch Zod in the face. 

That is the ultimate conflict between the two movies being made at the same time in Man of Steel. One movie wants us to feel for Superman's Jesus-like quest. The other wants to be a kick-ass awesome summer movie. One half wants to be The Tree of Life, the other wants to be freaking Transformers. All that is horribly and terribly wrong with this movie comes down to -and these are spoilers for Man of Steel, but really, you're better off not watching it- a supposedly pivotal moment in which Superman begrudgingly, and out of despair, finally ends Zod and screams in pain over the decision to kill a person. My reaction: What? Pretty much half the people in the city have been killed, you hypocrite! If you don't stay true to your own theme, then you don't tell me how to feel, Zack Snyder! Not only is Man of Steel boring and terrible, it will also make you angry.       

Grade: 3/10

This is the End: Can a Movie Just Be Funny?

In This is the End, a house-warming party as James Franco's is suddenly interrupted when the apocalypse starts. And so, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride and James Franco are trapped inside a house trying to survive the end of days. These actors are all well known for appearing in a series of movies and television series associated with Judd Apatow. They all share a knack for a particular brand of improvisational humor. In that way, it makes sense to put them together in an extreme situation in which they banter and bounce off each other. But funny people and funny dialogue do not a good movie make.

Comedy movies sidelining their plot is not a new phenomenon. Some of the funniest movies in recent memory work better as a collection of funny situations than as an overarching narrative. Christopher Guest's best movies, for example, tend to rely on his cast of terrific performers bouncing off of each other more than in any plot developments. Similarly, Borat, one of the most successful comedies of the last decade, featured a rather weak plot (something that bothered me at the time it came out), but worked incredibly well when it relied on Sacha Baron Cohen's performance and his interactions with the real life citizens he encountered. You don't need a very complex or original plot to be a good comedy (or a good film in general, for that matter). But when you have a weak plot, you need something else to make up for it. In most cases, as the ones listed above, it's well-developed, interesting characters. 

In the case of the character work in This is the End, my reaction is somewhat mixed. As is usually the case when actors play "themselves", they are actually playing a version of their personality. It was to be expected that these actors would exaggerate certain characteristics of themselves in the movie, but I actually didn't expect them to do it in such an extreme manner. The most extreme of this cases is Jonah Hill who is presented as a truly bizarre individual and even has a very funny demonic sequence towards the latter half of the film. Danny McBride and James Franco are also not afraid of coming off as unlikable and that is a strength of the movie. My problem really is with what is undoubtedly the central relationship of the film. 

The movie can get a lot of laughs from having these five guys bouncing off each other, but that is hardly something I could tolerate for two hours. In that sense I was very happy when the movie opened with a scene featuring only Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel and establishing their relationship as the narrative focus. The movie, after all, was based on a short film called Jay and Seth versus the Apocalypse, which starred, you guessed it, Seth Rogen and Jay Baruchel. The dynamic between these two feels very similar to that of Jonah Hill and Michael Cera's characters in Superbad. But at the same time, the insistence on keeping the other four guys for most of the running-time has the movie spending way too much time on them and not enough on developing the central relationship. The story beats of what goes on between Rogen and Baruchel come sporadically and at times don't even have any weight to them. Unlike the central duo of Superbad, the possible end of this friendship isn't something we are really invested in.

Still, the sincere moments we get from Rogen and Baruchel are much appreciated and do manage to anchor the movie amongst all the crazy hijinks. Most importantly, the idea of Jay being an outsider to Rogen's new life in Hollywood makes him a sort of audience surrogate that allows the movie to get away with a lot of jokes that otherwise could alienate the audience in their "insider-y" nature. In other words, this doesn't feel like a bunch of internal jokes that only the people that made the movie can understand. There is a lot of funny to be found in This is the End, and a lot of it comes from the celebrity cameos. Michael Cera's jerky version of himself is particularly winning (maybe the funniest part of the movie) as is another appearance late in the movie that I wouldn't dream of spoiling for those who haven't seen the movie.

There is a lot of funny stuff in This is the End, but ultimately, it just doesn't have the discipline to work both as a funny movie and a good movie. The story of how Seth's rise to fame and Hollywood lifestyle would alienate his relationship with an old friend is a good one. It's full of real and sincere feelings that could have made a really good movie. The people behind This is the End, however, stand distant to the more emotional elements and decide to refuge themselves in funny banter and grotesque images. They're just trying to be funny on a level that makes it too obvious and insincere. At one point Seth Rogen says "this is cra cra" instead of saying "this is crazy". I suppose the reasoning is that that phrasing is just funnier. But we can see right through the decision and that just takes away from the funny.

Grade: 5/10

Monday, June 10, 2013

Mad Men: Favors

Oh my God...

Last season, Sally Draper walked into a room and found Megan's mother Marie performing fellatio on Roger Sterling in "At the Codfish Ball". But that was a walk in the park compared to walking in on his father having sex with his neighbor.

Sally Opens Doors 
Sally's discovery of Don and Sylvia having sex was definitely the biggest development of the night. We've seen many sides of Don Draper in the past six seasons, but I have never seen him caught in such a tense and world-shaking situation as he was. Jon Hamm was amazing at portraying the sense of imminent doom Don must have gone through in his chasing after Sally, the incredibly uncomfortable scene at the dinner table and the even more uncomfortable and damaging explanation he ended up giving to his daughter. 
There was certainly an element of despair in Don being caught. He is, after all, a man that suffered a lot of anguish guarding the secret of his identity for so many year. But this situation was especially poignant for Don because it involved Sally. There's been a lot of Don trying to be a better father this year (from the extra time we've spent with Bobby to Don's call to Sally after the incident with "Grandma Ida"). At many moments it seemed like the closest Don could have to a healthy love connection was to his children and now that seems to be gone. 
I also thought the episode built fantastically to Sally opening the door. Sylvia is right to point out Don did all he about her son's A-1 status for her. Even though he tried to calm his feelings for a while, we know there's something deep within his psyche that makes him long for her. Especially in a moment in his life in which he is carelessly looking for any kind of happiness. He goes as far as to endanger the agency's biggest account on the thought that he might get Sylvia. He does get her to bed, but an incredibly high prize. (Also interestingly, and fitting with the season's themes, we get a contrasting Teddy Chaough reconnecting with his wife and children).
I wonder when, where and at what stage of Don and Sally's relationship next episode will pick up.

Bob's Out
Is this the big mystery behind Bob Benson? The internet had an immense amount of crazy theories. But he ended up not being a secret agent or a ghost. He was just gay. I actually wasn't waiting for a big reveal concerning his identity, but did expect him to play a big role in the future of the agency. I started to doubt my theory when I heard he had been cast in a new CBS sitcom (which means he will probably not be in much of next season, even if Allison Brie did manage to appear on the show while being on Community for the past few years). Still, there was something incredibly sad not only in Bob's truth, but also the way he chose to reveal it. It would be difficult for me to exactly find the words to describe how sad and lonely Bob Benson seemed when he put his knee against Pete Campbell's and asked him if he wouldn't fall in love with someone who took care of him all the time. At least he didn't suffer the same fate as Sal (who was fired back in season three's "Wee Small Hours"). Bob Benson seems to be sticking around.
Even though she should be happy he isn't a murderer or a completely crazy person, this is still some pretty bad news for Joan. Unless, and this my crazy theorist side talking, Bob Benson is so much of a sociopath that he actually misread Pete Campbell as being gay and was wiling to play along to advance his career?

Friday, June 7, 2013

Mad Men: A Tale of Two Cities

I'm sorry, I just had some incredibly busy week, but here are some delayed and quick thoughts for the latest episode of Mad Men...
I guess I chose a good week to be busy, because there really isn't very much that happens in a "A Tale of Two Cities". It mostly focus on two stories (Don's and Joan's) that more than featuring a lot of plot developments, work more as a couple of character pieces and that don't really have much to do with each other thematically. Weirdly, the thematic looseness between the story lines of this episode made me reconsider being annoyed by the extremely clean plotting of last week. And yet, even if little happened, there was enough moving of the chess-pieces and setting up what will hopefully payoff in the final episodes of the season.   

Off to California
Don, Roger and Harry Crane are away to see a client and crash a Hollywood party. The big focus of this storyline seems to be that Don is trying this thing with Megan again. In what is turning out to be a very trippy season of television, Don smokes hashish and hallucinates about Megan both being pregnant and willing to let him have affairs (or join him in a threesome? It wasn't all that clear to me). 
As it's usually the case with Mad Men, the episode was well executed and full of amusing details so that even if not much really changed throughout Don's trip to California, it was still very fun to watch. Especially Danny punching Roger in the groin. 

When the Cat's Away
One of the two big plot developments of the week was the decision to finally give a name to the agency, but the name "Sterling Cooper & Partners" ends up seeming like a consolation prize when Cutler and Chaough use the time Don and Roger are absent to gain a little power in the agency. You see, Cutler realizes they have lost a lot of their people and so he recruits Bob Benson, who has been consistently ignored by almost everyone from SCDP to be his accounts-man. As Bob Benson is bound to sit on a plane to Detroit, I am pretty sure the character's ark is going to involve him taking most power of the agency by the time the series is done.  

Working Joan
The other big plot development was Joan seemingly getting an account and gaining a little bit more empowerment in the office. Even if Avon doesn't come through as a client (the guy did not really call Joan just yet), this plot was important to Joan and I loved it. It was very well written and focused perfectly on the relationships Joan has to Pete and Peggy respectively. There is no doubt Joan is the unsung hero of the office and we the audience knows she deserves the best, but it's been a tough world for her and it is nice to see things start to look bright in the past few episodes. Here's hoping nothing terrible or tragic happens to her anytime soon. 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

'Frances Ha': Coming of age better late than never

What do you think about when you think about "coming of age" movies? Probably something along the lines of Almost Famous and Stand by Me, right? Movies about that particularly angsty and magical moment in which a kid comes into contact with the realities of the adult world. I guess that is a fairly good definition, and one that both reflected and influenced the realities of the 20th century's youth. But we are in the 21st century now, and just a couple of weeks ago Time Magazine had a cover story about "millennials", people belonging to a generation that is highly narcissistic, self-entitled and immature, btu also creative (It is also a generation to which I undoubtedly belong to). 

Maturity and adulthood seem to be much later developments in the lives of the young people of today, and so, a new kind of "coming of age" movie has appropriately been developed. This genre I propose as relatively new isn't really all that novel. A lot of movies from the past decade (raging from Zach Braff's mopy Garden State to all those man-child Judd Apatow comedies) have dealt with the difficulty of identifying oneself as an adult. However, I'd say it's only been in the past few years that this type of narrative has really blossomed. And the higher quality has coincided with the focus on female protagonists. The quintessential example of this trend is actually not a movie, but Lena Dunham's television series Girls. In any case, all of this is to say that Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha is one of the best films of this kind that I've seen.

Making comparisons between Girls and Frances Ha is pretty easy. They are both about young women caught between immaturity and adulthood, their relationship with a college friend and they are both set in New York City. But declaring them too similar would be a disservice to the artistic voices behind each production and, quite frankly, a underestimation of the genre. You wouldn't go around saying The Godfather and Goodfellas are the same movie just because they are both gangster stories, right? I'm not here to talk about Girls (which is an amazing series nonetheless and you should watch it), but I can say the following about Frances Ha: It is just not another story about a girl in the big city coming to terms with herself. It is much more. 

Frances (played by Greta Gerwig) is a twenty-seven-year-old dancer who is dreaming of making it big in New York, but whose prospects don't look all that bright. She has a really tight relationship with her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Towards the beginning of the film Greta asks Sophie to tell her how they're going to be successful in their respective careers in a sort of prayer that they have surely planned out and said aloud for a long time. It is a little something Frances can cling to even when she is going through some pretty rough stuff. But suddenly her relationship with Sophie isn't as close and Frances seems to be lost at sea without the friend that tells her how successful they'll be. It is then that out heroine embarks in a personal journey that brings her closer to reality and maturity. 

The strength of the movie is the way in which we go though Frances journey. It is shot in beautiful black and white that calls back to Woody Allen's Manhattan and French New Wave movies like the work of François Truffaut. But while it Frances Ha embraces certain visuals and themes present in those movies, it has a voice all its own. A voice that is at once really funny, somewhat melancholic, but above all incredibly radiant and optimistic. Frances' whole journey is surrounded by uncertainty and instability (she is even homeless for a big portion of the movie), but the film insists on putting on a face of hope and security similar to the way Frances relies on Sophie telling her about their hypothetical future to remain calm. All of this, of course, results in what is an insanely enjoyable movie.    

The screenplay credit of the movie goes both to director Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, and it is one fitting credit. Frances Ha is, above anything, a character portrait. Greta Gerwig has been the ultimate star of the independent circuit for a couple years now, and has never been better than she is here. Her Frances is a tridimensional character if there ever was one. And not only does she embody a realistic personality, but she also plays off of Frances' weaknesses and flaws and combines them with her more charismatic elements in a performance that is delightful to witness. Watching Gerwig made me think of Sally Hawkins in Mike Leigh's Happy-Go-Lucky. If you've seen that movie, you know the kind of high praise that association is. 

Grade: 8/10

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Mad Men: The Better Half

Last week's Mad Men kind of got on my nerves for being a little too on-the-nose about spelling out its themes. But that was a minor complaint since the idea at the center of the episode -Don being high on amphetamines- was so crazily entertaining. I really liked that episode, but a lot of people found it too confusing and nonsensical. And yes, in a way, I complained about the obviousness of the flashback that introduced us to Don's deflowering prostitute. On the other hand, the whole conceit of the episode was so sketchy and dream-like that besides getting the overt implications of the flashback, the whole message of the episode wasn't necessarily clear. After all the tripping, I didn't expect "Man with a Plan" to be followed with something like "The Better Half". 

Mad Men has been strangely reactionary this year. This is especially surprising for a show that had its whole season written and (mostly) shot before it even premiered, but there you have it. The first few weeks, people were complaining about the show being slow and Don being too unlikable. Then we got "For Immediate Release", a great episode that in many ways could have been read as fan service. And now, after last week's outcry of confused people, we get what is probably the neatest, more carefully plotted episode the show has ever done. The extreme cleanness of "The Better Half" is, in my opinion, what keep it from being a great episode of television. 

By this point in the show's run, I think we know enough about the characters to let space open to interpretation and delve into more experimental storytelling. The show is never going to get too subtle about the themes it wants to touch on every given episode (it never has been and it never will), but it has also never been obvious on this regard to the point of viewers having to roll their eyes. The conceit of "The Better Half" however, in which the characters encounter difficulties in their personal lives and go for their second option only to find it won't be quite that easy, was a little too much. Maybe it was the fact that it happened to so many characters in the same episode, but to me, it felt carefully plotted to a fault. 

Don and Betty
We ended last week with Don miserable about being stuck with Megan once he couldn't have Sylvia anymore. We knew it was unlikely he would just sit and bare his married life, but it still was a little shocking to see him hook up with Betty. Not that I didn't see it coming from the second he saw her at the gas station, but it felt like an especially desperate (and very Great Gatsby-y) thing to do. 
On the other hand, hooking up with Don must have been an enormous ego-boost for Betty, who must already feel pretty great about herself having gone back to her ideal weight and being once again flirted at by married men at parties. 

Roger and Kevin
Roger tries to connect with his grandson. He takes him to the see "Planet of the Apes" (just like Don did with Bobby), but the whole thing backfires on him when the four-year-old can't sleep due to movie-induced nightmares. And so, he goes to Joan and Kevin (who is probably his child) and is once again rejected. I guess the thing with Roger is he is feeling more lonely every time at a time when all the doors are closing on him. 

Pete and Duck Phillips
Not much to say here this week, but the difficulties in his marriage and the uncertainty of his importance to the new Agency, Pete is looking for other options, which don't seem to look all that bright.

Peggy and Teddy
Now, the whole "other option" thing isn't quite as neat with Peggy in the construction of this episode, but it is very clear in the context of the season. She had to choose between Don and Teddy, and in case we didn't know already, Don questioning her about Margarine vs. Butter made it crystal-clear that she has chosen Teddy. In almost every way, Teddy seems like a much saner pick to be your mentor than Don Draper. Everything indicates he is a much healthier human being. However, the one thing that benefited Peggy in her relationship with Don (whether she knows it or not) is the fact that he didn't want to have sex with her.
Her relationship with Teddy, however, seems to reach an uncomfortably new level when Abe breaks up with her and she goes to Ted only to find he isn't quite willing to have her as his lover.      

The other big theme of the episode (and of the season as a whole so far) was duality. It starts with the debate whether Margarine or Butter is better and it obviously is present in the character's choice of going for one alternative instead of the other. In many ways all this going for Plan B's is about trying to choose the other option once the initial choice didn't pan out. Don's double life with Sylvia, the two agencies becoming one, Teddy Chaough as bizarro Don Draper, so many things have spelled out duality, I couldn't conceive the whole thing not having a pay-off as we enter the season's final stretch of episodes. 

Also... Joan and Bob Benson
So, yes, obviously these two have become a couple. And so far it seems like Bob is in it with truly good intentions, taking Joan and baby Kevin to the beach and all that. And while he does use information Joan feeds to him to amp up his image in Pete Campbell's eyes, he doesn't seem to be hanging out with Joan for that reason. I mean, he obviously helped Pete out with his mother as a power move, right? I mean, that guy can't be that nice, can he? Anyway, my watch on what will become of Bob Benson continues. 

Sunday, May 26, 2013

What's Good About 'Before Midnight'?

Well, sometimes consensus emerges out of a completely valid reason. All those critics are right, and I'll be just one more voice in a praising chorus when I write that I loved Before Midnight and that it is the best movie I've seen so far this year (and that it has a great shot at retaining that position when the year's over). The question really isn't whether or not Before Midnight is any good. The real question is why exactly is this movie (and its predecessors Before Sunrise and Before Sunset) SO good?

There is a spark that comes out flashing when Ethan Hawke, Julie Delpy and director Richard Linklater decide to revisit the lives of Celine and Jesse. Trying to figure out what exactly made this the quintessential love story of the past few decades of cinema is both very easy and very difficult at the same time. It is contradictory, yet obvious. It's been said by thousands of people working in movies (actors, directors, writers, producers) that the thing that renders a story universal is making it specific. Considering the way this trio of movies has connected with so many cinephiles on such a deep level, it would be foolish to say that the story of Celine and Jesse is not universal. At the same time it would feel obvious, but it's worth pointing out, how much the lovers are specific characters. 

Not only are they full of details, but they also feel like real humans. Romantic leads have (ever since the beginning of drama) oh so perfect and likable. Not these two. Jesse can be so cocky, always wanting to seem like the cool guy in control, always seemingly playing a part. Meanwhile, Celine is such a worried open book, so concerned with her personal and political views. So conscious about everything about herself and yet such an open and attacking book. I may have never heard their last names, but I know them way better than any other romantic leads. They might not be perfect, but that's exactly what makes us want to hang out with them even more. It's just like with your friends. Don't you prefer the complicated, imperfect ones to the insufferable people that seem to have everything together?

When we first meet them in the first film, Celine and Jesse feel in many ways like their stand-ins for young romantic lovers all around the world even if their respective characters were full of personality details and backstory. Had there never been a sequel to Before Sunrise, the movie would have remained an immensely charming love story. But Before Sunset did exist, and with it, we not only got to learn so much more about who Celine and Jesse are, but their whole story became bigger. It suddenly wasn't a story about a night of love. It was a story about something much deeper. It was a story about the aftermath of that night. It was a story about that second when you go from thinking about doing something to actually doing it and all that comes after that. 

I am not even as old as these characters were when they met in Before Sunrise, so I feel a little silly saying that this movie gets what life is like. Yet, at the same time, there is such a gigantic amount of truth to what Jesse and Celine say and do that I can't help but identify. The line between actor and characters blurs and what is left is an immersion on life. A life so rich and realistic that there's no helping but identifying pieces of my own in what I'm seeing.  

I don't want to go into too much details about Before Midnight, just because I wouldn't want to deprive anyone from having a completely fresh and personal viewing of the film itself (It is just too good for me to dare spoil it). I will, however, say that it takes the story of these two to a whole different level. After watching the film and putting the whole trilogy in perspective, it's apparent this was the only way the film could go to. Suddenly Jesse and Celine's story becomes even bigger. It becomes about examining a whole life of love. The romantic saga of a generation relies on a guy deciding to talk to a pretty girl on a train to Vienna. Sometimes the most epic aspect of life is a few hours of two people talking. 

Grade: 10/10

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Mad Men: The Crash

It's true that Mad Men is not the most subtle show when it comes to showing the theme they're exploring in each episode. Sometimes, the allegories they use are so on-the-nose and obvious that they sink the episode around them (like Don's rotten tooth in "The Phantom"). But even if they are usually very obvious, they can also work in ways that not only don't bother me, but that I actually really like. Examples of this are the mirrors in "Maidenform", Don and Gene's elevator ride at the end of "Commissions and Fees" and even Roger's talking to his therapist in this season's premiere. What I'm trying to say is that this week's episode, "The Crash" is very heavy-handed when it comes to explaining the subtext of the episode we're seeing. 

"The Crash" is really heavy on Don. It's without a doubt the most Don-centric episode we've seen this season and one of the most Don-centric of the series. We see Don is pretty much obsessed even after his nasty break-up with Sylvia last week, standing outside her apartment like a creep and all of that. He is determined to gain her back and so we get some flashbacks that show us how young Dick Whitman lost his virginity to a whore who fed him soup when he got sick while living in the whorehouse. What's exactly going on in Don's mind? Well, he spent a big part of the episode looking for an old campaign he did in which a mother fed soup to his child, then prepared an elaborate speech to win Sylvia back. Creepy, huh? Well, thankfully, he didn't get to see Sylvia when he got home that night. He got home to find out that an old black lady had come into his house while only his children where there claiming she was his mother. And so the next morning he just stands silently next to her in the elevator and later calls up his daughter Sally to show how much he cares for her. 

Was it really necessary that we got all these whorehouse flashbacks and the deflowering of Dick Whitman so that we understand what goes on inside Don's mind? We know Don's persona is only a façade. We know he liked feeling in complete control because deep inside he is scared he isn't in control of anything. We know he has big mommy issues. Like many people pointed out while reviewing Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, Don Draper is very much like a 1960s version of Gatsby. He looks desperately for something that he just can't get. He constantly obsesses over things he thinks will make him happy but don't. His marriage to Megan didn't satisfy him. Neither did the merger with CGC, especially once he realized how good Teddy Chaough is at doing what Don usually does and how much Peggy admires him. So did we really need to take such a heavy-handed glimpse at the whore that fed him soup? Probably not... 

...But on the other hand... What the holy fuck?! 

This episode might have been unsubtle to the point of actually weakening the whole a little bit, but my God if this wasn't a crazy entertaining hour of television. We got a glimpse of what happens when Mad Men looks like under narcotic influence last year when Roger took LSD, but I wasn't prepared to the crazy fever dream SCDP (or whatever the agency is called now) was going to become once its workers decided to take some amphetamines. The thing about Mad Men is that because it applies such a short-story-like feel to every episode, it has never shied away from experimenting in the way it tells its stories. Yes, this is a fundamentally Mad Men-y episode (I just spent a lot of words talking about the whore's soup), but its presentation was so crazy entertaining, really embracing the perspective of someone who has taken drugs without turning into Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but always remaining Mad Men that I just had to applaud the people who work on the show. 

Stan racing Cutler (in the photo above)? Ken Cosgrove tap-dancing? People who didn't like this episode? I don't know what to say about them. 

Saturday, May 18, 2013

'Star Trek Into Darkness'

When J.J. Abrams rebooted the franchise with his 2009 Star Trek, he did so by taking an approach quite different to what had come before him. Abrams himself said he wasn't a big Trek fan as a child, preferring rival Star Wars. And he did take a lot from the latter to make his version of the former. Taking the highly diplomatic and science-fiction-heavy adventures of Trek and injecting them with a lot of the action-adventure elements of Wars. The result was one of my favorite movies of that year. A popcorn entertainment that fired on all cylinders from beginning to end a glorious adventure with an incredibly charming cast and lots of thrilling action sequences. 

Abrams is particularly good at mixing comedic banter with fast-paced action sequences. His quick directorial style made Star Trek a really good movie and is, once again, the best part of Star Trek Into Darkness. People on the internet likes to call Abrams a hack. Either because they feel he is ripping of the style of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, because he relies too heavily on mysteries that don't pay off or because he uses too many lense-flares. I am not particularly bothered by most of these aspects of Abrams' filmmaking, mainly because he is such a competent action director. He knows how to shoot all of the scenes that are required for this type of film and he knows how to pace a scene so it reaches its maximum entertainment capacity. All these virtuous elements of Abrams' style are in display in Star Trek Into Darkness, which is a compulsively watchable movie. But also a movie with fundamental problems.

Fundamental problems on the script level, that is. This is a big shame, because Abrams did proof back in '09 that he could make a terrific movie even with a decent, if problematic script (it had a really weak villain). The people behind that script, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, are back for Into Darkness. This time they team up with Abrams regular Damon Lindelof and the result is... disappointing. Despite the previous movie setting an alternative timeline for the new adventures of the Enterprise crew, the writers have decided to link the story of Into Darkness to some very heavy aspects of Star Trek mythology that end up feeling very weak and shoved-in, showing the worst, most anticlimactic tendencies of the internet-age approach of keeping a film's plot full of secrets. Secrets handled in a way that will surely enrage Trek-fans and underwhelm everybody else. 

The problems in the script go beyond what they do to the Star Trek mythology. The plot is weirdly complicated, with motivations not entirely clear and a lot of clunky dialogue and plotting. By the end of the movie all stakes seem weirdly irrelevant and we're left with some very heavy-handed 9/11 imagery. But like I said above, even with those flaws, the acting (especially Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto) and the kinetic direction make this a very entertaining movie. You won't be bored when you watch Star Trek Into Darkness, but you may start to doubt some of its aspects once the movie is over.

Score: 6/10

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Mad Men: Man With a Plan

Oh, Don...

This week has been insanely busy for me, with friends visiting and finals approaching, so it took me a long time to finally watch this Sunday's Mad Men and even more to find some free time to write about it. Nevertheless, I did find the time and here are some quick late thoughts on "Man With a Plan". 

The Rise and Fall of Don Draper
Last week we so the ultimate expression of Don's ability to mold his life on the spot no matter what. His most impulsive ways both nearly killed the firm when he fired Jaguar and then saved it when he proposed the merger with CGC. This week, on the other hand, we a get the fallout this kind of behavior has on someone like Don Draper. He is an enormously talented man when it comes to find creative ways to get out of trouble, but he is also well aware of his talents which makes him a very narcissistic and selfish person. He might seem like the coolest guy in the room (or at least he looked like it in the first couple seasons of the show), but by now we know everything with Don is about being great all the time. It's all about the moment and it's all about him being the greatest. In that sense he is not that far away from Pete Campbell. 

When the agencies merge, he feels like he is the man making it happen, like he is in full control and his ego bursts. He is not only getting Chevy, he is also getting a bigger agency and he is also getting Peggy. He needs to feel in control at all costs, so when he sees how Teddy is such a nice guy while being a really competent boss, he decides to get him drunk so that he'll make a fool of himself (just like he got Roger drunk after he flirted with Betty back in Season One's "Red in the Face"). When Peggy left the agency, she chose Teddy over Don and now that Don sees how different, yet great and successful Ted is when compared to him... 

I guess Don is out to take all of his omnipotent feelings with Sylvia. He gets particularly kinky and rough in that hotel room, letting her trapped there waiting for him. Does he want to have complete control over her? Just last week he got incredibly aroused when Megan called him "superman". Don is at his most narcissistic and his little game of power leaves him without Sylvia. As she leaves after dreaming about Don dying and she going back to her husband, he holds on to her hand just like he held on to Peggy's when she left last season. More than ever control is slipping from Don's hands. His new agency has an incredible new leader in Teddy, one approved by his own protégée. His lover is leaving him and at the end of the day he sits and tunes out while listening to Megan, whom he thought would cure all his problems when he married her, but is now just a woman he doesn't care about. 

Bob and Joan?
Bob Benson finally got something to do this week, as he took Joan to the hospital and some sparks of romance were clearly visible. Now, Joan might very well be right when she says he just did it to secure his job (and the deed actually ended up securing him his job when Joan spoke well of him at the partners' meeting). The possibility of him being a sociopath just wanting to move up at all cost is possible, but he seems like such a nice guy in those scenes, I can't help but just hope that Joan could find love in him, because if there's anything I always root for in this series, is for Joan to be happy. 

Monday, May 13, 2013

'The Great Gatsby'

The most frustrating thing about Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby is that there is so little to say about it. The trailers, filled with gorgeous, excessive imagery and a hip-hop-heavy soundtrack, promised a new vision of the classic American novel coming from the mind of director Baz Luhrmann (whose previous work includes Romeo + Juliet and Moulin Rouge). What we got, however, was a piece stuck between postmodernity and conventionalism to a degree that no Luhrmann film had been stuck before.

Adapting such a beloved and well-known novel is always tricky, but it doesn't mean it can't be done. Just last year, Joe Wright took Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and turned it into a theatrically melodramatic experience so unique and immersive I didn't mind when the movie didn't quite have the same effect as the material it was based on. It was just sublime to watch that movie. With The Great Gatsby, I was hoping for a similar experience, but Luhrmann seems weirdly restrained. When he made Romeo + Juliet back in the mid-nineties, Luhrmann brought an aggressively contemporary sensibility to the classic Shakespearean tragedy. Everything about the thing looked distinctively ninety-ish except for the original almost completely intact text. Now the director seems to have a similar respect for the original text of The Great Gatsby. The film might have been filmed in 3D and feature a contemporary soundtrack, but for the most part it is bound to Fitzgerald's novel. 

The film's first big mistake is to decide to create a framed narrative and have Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) retell the tale of Gatsby from a mental institution. Framing devices of this kind are more often than not distracting and cliché, but by having Carraway write the story, the movie ties itself way too tight to Fitzgerald's words, which even appear floating on the screen as they're being written. A large part of what makes the original novel so great is Fitzgerald's beautiful writing, by constantly calling back to it, the movie is making us compare it to the original constantly. Whether or not it were a good movie, it should try to run as far from such comparisons as it can. Everyone who has read the novel has  a version of Gatsby in their mind, why would you want to remind them of it while they're watching your movie?

The problem with the constant narration is that it seems to be used as a replacement for character development. A shortcut to navigate emotional bits as fast as possible. Navigating between Luhrmann's visual excess and more character-based moments, the movie counts on the narration to do the connecting between the two aspects, something it does very chunkily. The visual imagery, especially the incredibly beautiful sets and costumes by Catherine Martin are all amazing, but it's almost as if the characters need room to breathe and develop in a more paused and quiet environment.

Leonardo DiCaprio is very effective as Gatsby. I am not a huge fan of his work, since he tends to have a somewhat boyish and immature acting style that doesn't always work with the kind of obsessive and overly emotional roles he chooses, but that very same acting style goes perfectly with Gatsby's inner life. This is one of his best performances. The rest of the cast doesn't fare as well. Tobey Maguire has the thankless narrator role, Carey Mulligan (whom I usually love) does fine with Daisy Buchanan, which is also a very tricky role to pull off. A stand-out amongst the supporting player is Joel Edgerton as Tom Buchanan, who is a really good foil to DiCaprio's Gatsby. But overall the supporting players suffer from a screenplay that can't really integrate them in what ends up feeling as a greatest hits collection more than a concept album.   

Grade: 5/10

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

'Something in the Air'

There is something grating about that generation. In America, they call them Baby Boomers, but they are all around the world; telling the stories about being young, inspired, revolutionaries fighting for what was right. What's so unnerving to me about these people is the implicit criticism of today's young people in what they say. Listen, I'm not saying that all this romanticizing of hippies, woodstock and revolution is what drives young people to go down to Occupy Wall Street and other types of activism today. Except that I kind of am. I know that these people have real concerns and want to do good and all that, but isn't some of it the desire to feel like they're being part of a zeitgest similar to what happened back in the 60s? 

This situation is kind of fascinating to me. How can young people feel so much nostalgia for the past? Why is it that you have so many young people commenting on YouTube how music isn't what it used to be in the 60s and 70s? Are these stories are new mythology? Are the Beatles our new gods? The thing about the romantic past is that it never existed. What does exist is Something in the Air, a new movie by french auteur Olivier Assayas, that turns the myth into reality. 

Something in the Air takes place after the oh so romanticized events of May 1968 (the french title, Apres mai, meaning "after May" is a direct reference). The movie tells the story of a group of revolutionary high school students that more than anything want to dedicate their lives to make the world a better place through the socialist ideas they believe in. To achieve this, they organize protest, paint graffiti in their high school and attack security guards. They are persecuted by the police. Some of them are put in jail, some have to leave the country, but at the end of the day they are still young men and woman, fresh out of high school, who don't know what to do with their lives when trying to change the world through juvenile pranks won't do. 

Assayas has to be one of the best directors working today. He was thirteen years old in 1968, so he wasn't exactly part of the protests, he was, however, part of the very first generation to whom the stories about this glorious time were told. He got to hear the romantic retelling, but he also probably knew people who were there, people who were more than idealized revolutionaries. What I loved so much about this movie is the way it strips the myth and turns the participants into real humans. These are kids who just finished school, they haven't even been to college yet and still they are a utopian ideal. Idealization isn't really a thing I would recommend, but there is a particularly big problem with idealizing young people: you are idealizing young people. I am pretty young and let me tell you, young people are pretty dumb. We don't know anything about life, yet we think we do. The young people in Something in the Air (played by a wonderful cast that includes newcomers Clément Métayer and Lola Créton) are just like the young people of today. Let me tell you, I identified.

I identified in the way they didn't know what to do with their lives. In the way they wanted to be painters, then all of a sudden filmmakers, then painters again. The way they desperately cling to whatever ideal they can find just to feel like their life has meaning and direction. They let the ideal of revolution influence the way they shape their lives. And how could they not? It's something people are still doing today. Is rioting and fighting the establishment really what young people are all about or just what they are told they are about? If that's the case, then wouldn't fighting against the establishment be the establishment? How can young people be young when their very youth is so charged with ideas of what it is supposed to be like? 

There is a cynical vein to Something in the Air, but it is not a satire. There are very comedic moments about socialists engaging in ridiculous arguments about ideology, but the film doesn't really judge them. The real strength of the film is that is not out to tell us something, but to show us. It doesn't tell us what it thinks of these young people, it just shows us what they're like. It wants to run as far as it can from myth and ideals. It just wants to be. This is a film that shows the protagonists going as far as to commit violent crimes and terrorist activities. But at the end, are they terrorists or kids playing make-believe? 

Score: 8/10

Monday, May 6, 2013

Mad Men: For Immediate Release

Last week, I was reading some of the comments on the Mad Men threat at the Goldderby forums (for those who don't know Goldderby is a website dedicated to award shows speculation), where one of the editors said he had gotten inside word that Kevin Rahm (who plays Ted Chaough) was about to have a big storyline. One forum reader replied that that info meant that either there was going to be a merger between Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce and Cutler Gleason and Chaough or that Ted and Peggy were going to hook up. He then went on to say that if either of those happened it was indicative that Matthew Weiner had run out of ideas and he had officially jumped the shark. I guess that reader must've not been very happy with last night episode of Mad Men, where both of his nightmare scenarios came true. 

And still, with all these comments about how this is shaping out to be a disappointing season, I just don't get it. The negativity has to come (at least in part) from the position of success Matt Weiner (with the help of critics and the Emmys) have put the show into. Are people sitting back with their arms crossed waiting to be wowed by Mad Men? And if so, how could they have not been wowed by what we saw last night?

Sterling Cooper Draper Cutnam Gleason Chaough and Pryce
The biggest development of the episode is undoubtedly the merger of SCDP and CGC, decided by Don and Ted when they realize they'll never get an account as big as Chevy if they little agencies don't have enough manpower to compete with the big guys. This development could be seen as an excuse to get Peggy back into the office so that she can interact with the other characters once again. It might seem weak and easy to reverse Peggy's independence from Don after such a big deal was made about it at the end of season five (more on that later). But even if you don't like the idea of bringing Peggy back, how could you not enjoy this episode?

One of my favorite Mad Men episodes is 'Shut the Door, Have a Seat', in which Don comes up with a little caper to start a new agency and avoid being bought by McCann. 'For Immediate Relase' is an obvious descendant of that episode and an example of one of the narrative styles that the show does best. There's no other program on right now that is better than Mad Men at building up a sense of imminent disaster, where everything makes it seem like doom is imminent and then reverse it by having Don come up with a brilliant idea. The whole idea of coming up with ad campaigns relies on this dynamic, but in episodes like 'For Immediate Release', it is taken to extreme levels that make the final outcome all the more gratifying. That moment when Peggy walks into Ted's office to have Don tell they got Chevy? My smile couldn't have been bigger. 

Don yet again has an idea to save the agency when he proposes pitching a campaign together to Teddy. And while that was his idea and the agency wouldn't have gotten the account if he hadn't come up with it, he is awfully lucky to even be in that meeting*. Pete is right to point out that Don has too many times affected the agency tremendously by acting out of pure impulse. This is one of Don's more singular traits and the way it was handled was one of the reasons I liked this episode so much. He is almost animalistic in the way he lets  his survival instinct and his creativity get him out of trouble. It always results on something he thinks is better for himself, but sometimes it results in a new agency or a new, huge client and sometimes he clashes with Herb, loses Jaguar, puts the agency in huge jeopardy and hurts Joan in a deep and personal way. Don Draper has hurt many people and is bound to hurt many more. After all, the earliest (and most significant) example of this is when he let the original Don Draper die so he wouldn't have to be Dick Whitman. After so many developments relying on Don's impulsiveness, the table has been set for this aspect of the character to pay off in a big way in these last two seasons.

*That, of course, was only made possible thanks to Roger's new unorthodox method of getting new business by using his young flight attendant girlfriend to tell him when a big executive and potential client is going to be in one of her flights. A business-model that is delightfully fitting with Roger Sterling's character. 

Peggy's Coming Back
It was apparent to me from last week that Peggy and Ted were going to hook up. Ted is so inherently different to Don Draper in his treatment of Peggy that she just couldn't resist to her boss. And just when Peggy is fantasizing about starting a romantic relationship with Ted, she is confronted with the fact that she'll be working again with Don. It's no coincidence that this episode undermined two big developments that took place in same episode back in season five. Last season's "The Other Woman" was the episode in which both Joan slept with Herb in order to get the Jaguar account and Peggy decided to leave Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. It's also no coincidence that it is Don Draper's impulsive behavior that reverses both those decisions. Suddenly Peggy is back working for him and Joan's sacrifice is in vain. This is the kind of meticulous plotting and thematic roundness that it's impossible not to love and that makes me think we're in for a very interesting second half of the season.      

Mutually Assured Destruction 
It was a rough week for Pete. He can't get his wife back so he goes to a whorehouse where he inconveniently meets his father-in-law. Ken tells him there's nothing that could develop out of that encounter because it's a lose-lose situation for both Pete and Trudy's dad, but the father-in-law does act and so Pete not only loses Vick's Chemicals account, but also his wife when he goes in to confront her about her father. And just as Pete's world is crumbling down and he has lost his biggest client, Roger Sterling ups his power in the agency by bringing in Chevy. We didn't see Pete's reaction to the merger, and considering all that's happened to him and how hard he was pushing for the agency going public, I'm curious to see where he stands next week.