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.