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.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Disney Canon: The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh

The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh is a unique film in Disney Canon history. Released in 1977, you could say this is the first Package film in the Canon since the forties, since it is composed out of three shorts focusing on the adventures of the title character. But doing so would ignore a big difference, unlike the package films Disney made during World War II, the shorts featured in this movie had all been released previous to being packed together in this feature-length release. Not only that, but they were produced in 1966, 1968 and 1974 respectively, a tumultuous time that saw a lot of change in the Studio, some of which is apparent in the shifting quality and recycling (Tigger's signature dance) of the animation as the years go along.

The origin date of the shorts is an aspect of the film that I have in mind every time I try to suggest The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh as a valid point in proving that not all the movies that Disney made in the period between Walt's death and the '90s Renaissance are disposable and inherently inferior to the rest of the Canon. As you may see from the timeline in which the shorts were produced, at least one of them was released before Disney's death (and he surely had strong creative influence in the production of the second one). At least those two segments are products of a time in which the studio still was in pretty good shape. A time that also gave us One Hundred One Dalmatians, Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. In that sense, is it really fair to say this is an exception to the "dark days of Disney" output? This question becomes even more relevant when you consider the third short, the one released in 1974, is by far the weakest of the three.

No matter how you choose to interpret The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh's place in the Canon, there is no denying it is a successful film. Last week, I tried to make something of a case for Robin Hood, a movie that I find very enjoyable and somewhat underrated within the Canon, but also one whose quality, and even its heart, are put into question when compared to Winnie-the-Pooh. I hadn't seen The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh since I was a child, partly because I prefer watching shorts on their own instead of packed into larger films and partly because I felt a little of character fatigue. I think few characters in the Disney repertoire have suffered (at least in my perception) as much as Winnie the Pooh for being overexposed by the Disney marketing machine. Because it is such a wholesome story, that easily and reliably appeals to very young children it has mostly been marketed as such, making the property lose a lot of its edge (if it ever had one). Paradoxically, it's exactly the film's commitment to appeal to young children that makes it such a good movie.

The sequence in the above video (featuring the song "Little Black Rain Cloud") is an example of the Winnie the Pooh character working at its best. Immediately charming, funny and entertaining, it is both to the animators credit, and also (I would say most importantly) to the amazing voice-work by Sterling Holloway that the character became (and remains) such a great success. Very few times have I found a case in which it has been so clearly how much the work of a voice actor has elevated a character. It is enough to watch any clip featuring Pooh muted to understand how much Holloway's work adds to the character. He is still sweet and adorable, but he gains a whole other level of effectiveness once Holloway's vocal strings enter the mix.

The scene in that video comes from the first short in the film, Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, and was one of my favorites when I was a kid. This is the short in which looking for honey to eat, Pooh ends up stuck in the door of Rabbit's house and is probably my favorite segment from the film. Holloway's performance, the animation style and even the background paintings all embrace a certain tone and simplicity inherent to childhood. One that is frequently present in the movies and media that most perfectly evoke what is like to be a child and that makes me think of another great piece of pop-culture and an outright work of genius known as Charlez M. Schultz's Peanuts. The way Pooh stands and interacts with Christopher Robin in that clip is something lifted out of a Peanuts comic strip and that similarly understands a deep chore in childhood thinking. Having been mildly averse to the character in the past few years, this is something about Winnie the Pooh that I have just realized re-watching the movie for this post and also something that immediately explains and justifies (at least in my mind) the popularity of the character.

But enough about Pooh, many of the most beloved Disney characters come from these shorts. Including one of my favorites, the eternally pessimistic Eeyore, and one so famous that rivals even Pooh in popularity: Tigger. He is introduced in the second short, Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day (which I think general consensus says is the best of the three), but there he is just a funny side character, whereas the true potential of the character is explored in the third short: Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too. At this point I must admit that Tigger is not amongst my favorite characters from the Winnie the Pooh cast and that even as a child I found the character a little overwhelming. Still, as a child I recognized and appreciated the character's bouncy energy and the edge he brought to an otherwise rather calm set of characters. And as an adult, I similarly appreciate the character's more child-like traits.
Tigger might have aged better than Winnie the Pooh as far as popularity is concerned because, when you come down to it, who is Tigger if not an hyperactive child of the XXI century? Not only that, but Tigger is another proof of the writers and animators deep understanding and commitment to childhood thinking. Case in point, the whole third short revolves around how Tigger's bouncing can overwhelm and be a problem to others without him noticing. Still, Tigger is a child at play, who in the final moments of the short has to confront a mature and stressed-out Rabbit and the idea of not being able to engage in his bounces. Starting around the five-minute mark of this clip, you'll see what I'm talking about. A moment of animation so true to what a child feels when he suddenly encounters a stop to his relentless joy that undoubtedly belongs in the animation hall of fame.

I like Robin Hood, and I enjoy almost all of Disney's output during the 70s and 80s at least at some level, but when you add Winnie the Pooh to the equation, then there's no competing. The people working on this film seem to understand what they have set out to do and decided to embrace it to the limit making this one of the few instances in Disney movies (or any movie for that matter) in which catering to a very young audience has actually been a huge advantage and resulted in a superior product. The key? The understanding and embracing of primal childhood feelings and situations. Yes, being so primal is what makes The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh one of the Disney Canon's best.

Next Time: We march on through the "dark days" of Disney and meet Bernard and Miss Bianca in 1977's The Rescuers. 

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Who Will Win The Summer Box Office?

Math is not my strong-suit, but that doesn't stop me from trying to speculate what movies will rule the summer box-office year after year. I usually do quite good, although I always make terrible, terrible mistakes that I feel embarrassed about a year later. Last year, for example, I predicted The Dark Knight Rises would make more money than The Avengers. We all know how that turned out, with Avengers becoming only the third highest-grossing movie of all-time behind Avatar and Titanic.
This seems to be a particularly packed summer. I don't think we'll have a movie that dominates the box-office in the way The Avengers did last year and I'm actually awaiting some surprises in the following months. Here's what I think will happen, The top ten movies of the summer will be...
(These numbers are for the domestic box-office only, I have no idea how to predict crazy foreign markets where 'Alice in Wonderland' becomes the highest grossing movie of all time) 

1. Iron Man 3
Predicted Box-Office: $350 Million
 It already made more than 300 million internationally in less than a week. That doesn't necessarily mean a hit in the States, but considering the box-office performance of the previous Iron Man movies and coming hot off the success of The Avengers, Iron Man will surely do a lot of money. International numbers are usually north of 50% of the gross of this kind of movies, so considering the foreign numbers will keep growing, Iron Man 3 is most likely to be the biggest movie of the summer.

2. Despicable Me 2
Predicted Box-Office: $300 Million
Did you know Despicable Me made more than 250 million at the domestic box-office? That's more than any Madagascar or Ice Age movie has ever made. Animated movies always do good in the summer. Going to the movies is, after all, a way of keeping your children entertained while sitting in an air-conditioned room. And considering a lot of children have probably been watching the original Despicable Me movie over and over on DVD since it came out in 2010, the sequel is going to be high on their list of things to go see this summer. A lot of adults and teens also think those little yellow Minions are funny, so the box-office of this movie is not reserved to young kids and families.

3. Man of Steel
Warner Bros.
Predicted Box-office: $250 Million
At least on paper, Superman feels to much of an old-fashioned hero for contemporary audiences. The last attempt at relaunching the character, in Bryan Singer's Superman Returns, did 200 Million at the box-office and was considered a big disappointment (it had cost, after all, 300 Million to make). Still, back when Returns came out, superhero movies weren't as big as they are now and Warner has recruited Christopher Nolan, who did wonders with Batman to supervise the relaunch of Superman. As recently as 2011 a similarly old-fashioned hero, Captain America, did 170 Million domestically. And you know he doesn't even come close to Superman's popularity. But the best of signs to me seems to be that the excitement for this movie is not reserved to the internet (where anticipation is admittedly huge), but people out on the streets are curious to watch Man of Steel. The original Iron Man made 318 Million when it came out, so these numbers would probably be enough for Warner to look optimistic about launching an Avengers-like enterprise towards releasing a Justice League movie.

4. Monsters University
Predicted Box-office: $250 Million
Pixar movies usually make at least 200 Million and there's no reason to believe Monsters University will be the exception. The question is how far north of 200 is it going to end up? This is another case in which children have been watching the movie in DVD for more than ten years (the original Monsters, Inc. came out in 2001), but this is not as beloved a property as, say, Toy Story, which made huge bank (north of 400 Million) when it came out with a third installment in 2010. My remembrance of Monsters, Inc. is so clouded by how much people preferred Shrek back when it came out, that I am not quite sure how to predict it. Considering it's a well-known property and it's Pixar, I think 250 is a reasonable number.

5. Star Trek Into Darkness
Predicted Box-Office: $250 Million
J.J. Abrams' 2009 Star Trek made 257 Million, and that was back when it was still regarded as an extremely geeky franchise. The success of the action-packed reboot would indicate that the sequel would make more money, but at the same time I feel like Star Trek's situation is the opposite of Man of Steel's. In this case I think the internet is ablaze with expectations for the new movie, while the regular audience isn't particularly excited. Could it end up making less than its predecessor?

6. Fast and Furious 6
Predicted Box-Office: $225 Million
The Fast and the Furious franchise was kind of a niche reliable performer for Universal until the hugely surprising success of Fast Five a couple years ago. It turned from a straightly cars/racing franchise into more of an action/heist movie and it suddenly grew to have massive appeal in general audiences. The excitement for Fast and Furious 6 after that Super Bowl spot is palpable and everything indicates it will be the highest grossing movie in the franchise. So, if Fast Five did 209 Million, then 225 Million for 6 seems logical.

7. The Hangover Part III
Warner Bros.
Predicted Box-Office:. $200 Million
Both The Hangvoer and The Hangover Part II did a boatload of money, but Part II wasn't nearly as well received as the first installment, so what to make of Part III? It will certainly do well, enough people will want to see how the series concludes, but at the same time a lot of people may have not feel as enthusiastic as when Part II came out. It also comes out the same weekend as Fast and Furious 6. Both movies are aiming at basically the same audience and I think there is more excitement for Fast 6 than for another Hangover.

8.Pacific Rim
Warner Bros.
Predicted Box-Office: $180 Million
This is where it gets tricky and this prediction may very well be wishful thinking that Guillermo Del Toro's next movie is a success both commercially and creatively. On the one hand, for people who don't follow this kind of stuff, Guillermo Del Toro might not ring a single bell. Most of America certainly hasn't seen Pan's Labyrinth, am I right? Also, with giant monsters and robots punching each other, many adults may think the film looks silly or that it is nothing more than a Transformers-knockoff. On the other hand, kids love robots. And giant monsters. And even more when they're fighting, so they may turn this into a hit. Is the movie geek/internet community strong enough to join the kids and make this a hit?

9. The Wolverine
20th Century Fox
Predicted Box-Office: $180 Million
Granted, not many people go around saying they're excited for the new Wolverine film, but at the same the last time Hugh Jackman played the character in the big screen, the terrible X-Men Origins: Wolverine did little less than 180 Million. Could it be safe to assume this one ends up around that number again?

10. The Lone Ranger
Walt Disney
Predicted Box-Office: $150 Million
This one has me pulling my hair. Last year, Dark Shadows proved that Johnny Depp is not as much of a reliable commodity as studios might hope. But this isn't exactly Dark Shadows. This is a Jerry Bruckheimer film distributed by Disney that looks quite a bit like a Pirates of the Caribbean movie. And those have always done big money. In any case, even if the film bombs in the US, rest assured it will be a hit overseas where Johnny Depp actually is a reliable commodity. Case in point: Dark Shadows made 165 Million in the foreign market compared to 79 in the US.

What About The Others?
There's a lot of other movies that could end up in the top 10. There is, for example, very little comedy in my prediction. There can easily be room for one or two more big comedy hits. Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy (both very good box-office performers so far) are teaming up in buddy-coop comedy The Heat. Meanwhile Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn share the screen again in Google-commercial-turned-movie The Internship, could they replicate the success they had almost a decade ago with Wedding Crashers?
And what about Will Smith? Are we underestimating one of the most reliable box-office draws as far as stars go? He does star in M. Night Shyamalan's After Earth, though. When was the last time Shyamalan had a hit? Another box-office draw is Matt Damon who stars in Elysium, by Neil Blomkamp whose District 9 was a surprise hit in 2009. Also, there's rising star Channing Tatum who co-stars with Jamie Foxx in White House Down.
Finally, like I've said in this post before, animation does really well in the summer and this season is full of animated films. Dreamworks' Turbo and Blue Sky's Epic seem like the most likely contenders, but I haven't seen much publicity or awareness for either of those movies.
There you have it. Be sure to come back when the summer's over to see how badly I did at predicting this thing.
If you're reading this, leave comments if you please

Friday, May 3, 2013

Iron Man 3: Iron Harder

The creative success of Iron Man 3 lies in Marvel Studios' gamble of hiring Shane Black as the writer and director of this movie. Black, of course, has worked with Robert Downey Jr. before in 2005's Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, a movie that one wouldn't be wrong in suspecting had to something to do with Downey getting cast in the role of Tony Stark in the first place. In this sense, the reuniting of Black and Downing for Iron Man 3 seems logical and is really welcome when you consider how the presence of a strong voice in the writer/director chair can do so much to influence a movie for the better.

The biggest weakness of the Marvel Studios movies is that they can feel very conventional. There is little creativity to be found in the realm of the visual. The cinematography looks very similar going from movie to movie, making them, at their worst, feel more like assembly-line products than works of art. Of course, with The Avengers, Joss Whedon demonstrated how an author could get his personal voice and vision across in such a movie and Black thankfully follows in his footsteps. There is not that much innovation or particularly daring aspects to Iron Man 3 visually, but Black's voice can be felt throughout, just like Whedon's did.  

This time around Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is having trouble dealing with what he experienced in New York, during the events that take place in The Avengers. Only it's a bad time to be having such personal troubles since a terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) is attacking America at full force. The usual characters, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) and Happy (Jon Favreau) are back. As well as the addition of a couple of scientist from Tony's past played by Rebecca Hall and Guy Pearce. There are some really good twists to the plot, so I don't want to go that much into detail. Let me just say that the way in which The Mandarin is handled, and the Ben Kingsley performance are not only delightful, but also indicative of the voice and style Mr. Shane Black brings to the movie. 

Black rose to success by writing action movies in the eighties, such as Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout, and he very much brings the same sensibility to Iron Man 3. The Shane Black style of going back and forth between really dramatic and really funny moments works like gangbusters in the world of Iron Man. The typical Shane Black banter (minus the cussing) is there, making this the funniest Iron Man yet. And this is a great choice, since comedy and Downey Jr's charismatic performance have always been the franchise's strongest aspect. There is a middle section of the movie in which Tony Stark can't wear the Iron Man suit and it ends up being the most entertaining stretch of an overall highly entertaining movie. We all know the power of Downey as a performer, and Black does too. After all, that was what made the world fall in love with the first Iron Man, in which the action sequences weren't really all that good, but it was more than made up for with the writing and the performances (especially by Downey and Paltrow). 

Talking about the action, this is the first time I would catalogue the action in an Iron Man movie as satisfying. A sequence in particular, in which Tony has to rescue passengers falling rapidly from their aircraft to the ground is excellently staged and directed. There is also a lot of great action set pieces in which the Iron Man suit is not even involved. This speaks a lot about Black's background and approach. His interests as a filmmaker lie on the side of this particular story instead of the big Marvel mythology and the superhero stuff. For the most part this is to the movie's benefit, since it focuses on telling a good story and doesn't fall into the same stalling trappings of the info-dump that was Iron Man 2. Still, a part of me wishes there was a little more commitment to the more comic-booky stuff, which towards the end of the film feels unimportant, inconsequential, even illogical within this universe. 

The lack of interest in the more mythology-driven stuff doesn't bother that much when you have Shane Black putting some of his style in a comic-book movie. But at the same time, this is a Marvel Studios movie with a huge budget and millions of moviegoers to please, so Black's full imagination can't really go as wild as it does when he has truly free reigns. So, this is by no means Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but the presence of such a particular voice makes Iron Man 3 a better and more entertaining movie than what we usually get by the time a superhero appears on the big screen for the third time (Spider-Man 3, Dark Knight Rises, X-Men: The Last Stand all sucked, yes?).

Score: 8/10

Hope you liked the review. If you're already reading this, why not write something in the comments? I will write back, I promise.