Friday, August 27, 2010

Review: Antichrist

Non Spoiler Review:
Antichrist is the latest film from Lars Von Trier, a well known director from Denmark, who's earlier work, a miniseries called The Kingdom is something in the vein of a Scandinavian Twin Peaks. His material is usually very bizarre, and not for everyone, and this film is no exception.

Extremely controversial, Antichrist stars Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg. It is a very intimate film, dealing with this married couple who's actions result in the death of their son (in the opening sequence of the movie). What follows is a disturbing, psychological horror story as they try to come to terms with their grief, and specifically the wife's grief. They head off into the woods (called Eden) to work out the process, leading to some nightmarish results.

This film is unlike anything I've seen before. It is very much an art piece, full of amazing, beautifully shot vistas, lazy scenes of characters slowly moving against the enormity of the stunning natural background. Scenes of horror are laid out like a painting on a canvas, to be contemplated, rather than unfolding for pure shock value (though there's enough of that, as well!).

Antichrist plays off the Medieval idea of womanhood as a wild, chaotic element tied to the evil of the natural world, contrasted with the cold logic of the male—exemplified by the rationalism of Dafoe's psychiatrist character. Seemingly supernatural elements are injected in at odd moments, helping to throw the viewer off balance. Is this a psychological horror movie, or are there actual hellish influences at work?

Antichrist is also the most disturbing movie I've seen, and that includes comparisons to any slasher film. This is very much a hardcore film, including a sex act in the opening sequence that tells you right away this is not going to be like anything you've experienced before. Halfway through the movie, as events begin to spiral out of control for the two characters, be prepared for the most graphic scenes of mutilation I've seen in any movie.

That being said, I can't deny the artistic value of the film as it was quite compelling (once I managed to unwind from the intensity of the scenes). The dynamic between the husband and wife plays out very well, slowly ramping up the tension as the viewer knows something is not quite right with them. 

Antichrist is a memorable film, grotesquely beautiful and filled with complex and disturbing themes. The ending is sure to inspire some thoughtful debate, but it is not for the weak of heart!

Review: Mad Men "The Chrysanthemum and the Sword"

Non Spoiler Review:
SCDP entertains a bid for Honda, requiring all the partners to brush up on their Japanese culture, but Roger is not about to put his war years behind him.

Betty is now the living embodiment of pure evil, with mothering techniques best left to the Spanish Inquisition. She and Henry must deal with Sally's ongoing rebelliousness, while maintaining a vitriolic relationship with Don.

This was a great episode, full of corporate and family tension. Some scenes were very shocking to watch unfold. The Draper family storyline is starting to move along. Yet the whole episode continues the great sense of humor we've grown accustomed to this season.

Spoilers Now!
Betty has managed to destroy any ounce of sympathy we might have had for her coping with Don's shenanigans the first four years. She is nothing but a child herself these days, slapping Sally across the face rather than actually discuss a problem with her daughter. Her conversations with Don are pure invective as if she's trying to purge herself of all the anger she accumulated over the last five years rather than deal with matters productively.

Sally's sad state begins when she cuts her hair while under the care of Don's neighbour Phoebe (nice to see her again, but she's a nurse, for heaven's sake...can't she stand up to Don just a little bit?). Don chews her out and takes Sally back to Betty and Henry, and Betty alternates between shouting at Sally and insulting Don. Surprisingly, creepy Henry continues to be a quiet rational voice to her.

Sally then commits her most heinous act by playing with herself while at a slumber party, shocking everyone, and making Betty decide therapy is the only answer. By the end of the episode, we find Sally off to visit Dr. Edna, whom I hope is some solace to her. Otherwise I'm afraid Sally's plotline is going to lead to some dire consequences by the end of the season.

Faye has a heart to heart with Don at the office, offering some advise—just let Sally know she's loved. Don is surprisingly open with her, likely due to Faye revealing she's not really married and only wears the wedding ring as a boundary-setter at all the offices she visits. It was nice to see Don behave properly with one woman without ruining it.

SCDP is being stalked by a new ad man, Ted, from a rival firm, CGC. Ted is obsessed with besting Don, and makes a point of reminding him he has the Clearasil account Don gave up last episode. He's determined to get the Honda account that Pete has managed to get SCDP to bid on. 

Roger, however, has other ideas. As a WWII veteran, he's vowing never to work with the Japanese, leaving Bert, Don, Pete and Lane to read him the riot act about the state of accounts. Bert wants it clear that Roger is to be kept out of the loop on this one.

That fails miserably as Roger shows up at the Honda meeting which, until then had been conducted with all due delicacy and etiquette at Bert's advice, until Roger outrageously insults the Japanese. The scene is extremely tense and cringy as the other partners watch in horror as Roger destroys their hopes. The tactful Japanese depart with rules for the competition, but Bert knows they've been thrown out of the contest, and are expected to resign in shame.

Don can't bear to watch them lose such a large account, so sets about trying to find the solution, reading the Chrysanthemum and the Sword amid dealing with Sally's problems. Roger attempts to find some sympathy, but even Joan won't hear of it, and Pete's declaration that Roger will be useless once they don't need to keep Lucky Strike hit home. He eventually apologizes.

Don concocts a plan to make Ted's firm break the Honda competition rules and so begins an amusing sequence of events as Joan, Peggy and Don conspire to spread rumours that SCDP is filming an actual commercial. This prompts Ted to do the same (violating Honda's rules about not submitting finished work). Don heads into the meeting with Honda, and while he does withdraw, he cites Honda's dishonor at not honoring their own rules. SCDP wins, and CGC ends up spending a whole lot of money on nothing.

What Worked:
The corporate backstabbing was great fun, especially drawing in Peggy and Joan to pull it off. It's interesting that Don chastised Peggy for her canned ham fight in the first episode, but now that it's personal (with Roger) he has no problem concocting such a complex plan of corporate espionage. 

Roger's outburst in the meeting was spectacle and ramped up the tension, watching the meeting collapse and the horrified looks on the partner's faces as they could do nothing to stop it. What followed were some great truths uttered by Pete about Roger's ultimate worth to the firm, Joan refusing to listen to his war stories because her own husband was soon to be off to Viet Nam, and Bert's ultimate frustration of having to deal with him and his sense of entitlement all these years. This might be the season where it all catches up to Roger.

Don's ultimate win against Ted showed a lot of smarts. He could have marched in and tried to win the Japanese with some ad brilliancy, but instead he researched the culture and planned what would work. This Don is definitely an improved version over the drunken Don of past episodes.

Bethany's back...and only three dates with Don in all these months? Run, Bethany!

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Review: Mad Men "The Rejected"

Non Spoiler Review:
We get some older story threads picked up as Pete gets some family news and is forced into making a tough choice that pits him against his father-in-law. We also get to see what's been happening with Ken Cosgrove, and Don's dalliance with Allison comes back to bite him in the ass. Meanwhile, Peggy expands her circle of friends and ponders the direction she's charted for her life.

Not as much seemed to be happening in this episode as previous ones, and this ultimately felt like it was setting up a few more things to pay off later, but it was enjoyable to see the characters interact and deal with the various bits of news. Peggy and Don's relationship continues to fascinate, and we got some more insight into Faye and Allison, while Pete and Trudy received some much-needed focus. Despite the sadness of many of the characters, this is one of the funniest episodes this season.

Spoilers Now!
Everyone seems to suffer some manner of rejection here, as the title suggests. We have the obvious focus on Peggy, who meets Joyce, who works in her building for Life Magazine and the two strike up a friendship. They go to a Warhol-esque warehouse party which eventually gets raided, but Peggy makes some new friends out of it (and makes out with one of them) and manages to establish enough of a coolness factor to get everyone to like her.

Pete has to drop Clearasil due to a conflict of interest, but before he can tell his father-in-law, the other reveals Trudy is pregnant, which comes as a shock for Pete. So while everyone is celebrating, Pete manages to use that as a hammer to heavy-hand his father into giving SCDP the whole shebang of accounts he's been after from him, bringing $6 million to the company. Daddy-in-law is thoroughly pissed, but Pete shrugs it off.

And speaking of the pregnancy, it looks like Trudy and Pete are finally starting a family. The news affects Peggy more than she thought, as she faces the choice she made in giving up the happy married life that so many of the other secretaries are looking for. 

Ken hasn't been up to too much since last season. He's getting married and has apparently moved through a couple of firms. McCann was horrible to work for. While he and Bob have lunch, he confronts Pete about all his backstabbing and name-calling. It did seem like an odd scene, unless it pays off later. There really was no need to bring Ken back just for that little talk.

Faye holds a Cold Cream focus group that includes the secretaries (including Allison). Faye is all about deception, dressing down like the secretaries so she's accepted, removing her wedding ring, and doing all sorts of things that make her one of the girls. But she and Peggy are no longer one of the girls, as Peggy sits behind the mirror with the men. Peggy fits right in these days. It's Freddie who is the joke, sitting between her and Don and acting all old-fashioned with his tedious comments. They watch Faye gain the girls' trust and have them confessing all their insecurities about the men in their lives. Once Allison starts talking, Don starts squirming.

The girls in the group confess how their men are never satisfied with them, and one of the girls breaks down about being dumped, which prompts Allison to have a meltdown and leave the room. Peggy goes after (much like how Joan used to handle things), and Allison tries to commiserate with her, assuming that Peggy slept with Don to get a promotion. Peggy is horribly offended, of course, and leaves. Don goes to talk to Allison who states it was all a mistake. She had the hope of finding a husband at the firm, but realizes she can't work there any longer. She asks for a reference for a magazine that has a female boss. Don, classily says her work has been impeccable and why doesn't she write anything she wants and he'll sign it. She throws a paperweight at him and storms out.

The commotion draws the attention of Joan and Peggy, which results in a hilarious moment  as we watch Peggy peering over the partition of their offices at Don as he pours himself a drink. Don lingers at the office before going home to attempt to drunkenly type an apology to Allison, but finds he can't finish it.

Peggy heads off to lunch with her new hipster friends, while the stodgy partners and businessmen head off to their own meeting, divided by the glass office walls. Through the glass, she shares a glance with Pete, and both briefly contemplate what their lives might have been like had they made different choices.

What Worked:
How does Peggy attract all these homosexuals? I was surprised she handles Joyce's come-on so casually, given she's from a pretty conservative background. But she certainly fits into the hipster lifestyle here, and it's hard to imagine the dowdy Peg we saw walk into Sterling Cooper in season one.

Peggy wistfully tries on Faye's ring, which Don notices. Now that Pete will have his own child, her connection with him has been diminished, and she's faced with reflecting on the choice she made to give up the baby rather than have a marriage. It's ultimately the right choice for her, as she fits in so well with her new company and would likely never have tolerated Pete for very long. Her new boyfriend seems very similar to him, and Peggy has already shown how readily she will search out her own fun while he's not around.

What Didn't Work:
The return of Ken Cosgrove was rather ho-hum. Considering he's in the season cast photo, he should be showing up later to at least justify this appearance.

It's 1965, and Catholic Peggy can wittily throw off a pass by another girl? That stretched things a little bit.

Best Line: Peggy when hit on by her new friend Joyce: "I have a boyfriend."
Joyce: "He doesn't own your vagina."
Peggy: "No, but he's renting it."

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Review: Mad Men "The Good News"

Non Spoiler Review:
It's New Years, and the agency is preparing for the holiday. Don is planning a trip to Acapulco with a detour to California to visit Anne. Lane is unusually resistant about flying back to London to spend time with his family. And Joan is trying to find a way to plan anything, much less a family, with the crazy schedule of her husband, Greg, who is still awaiting orders to go to Viet Nam.

This episode was considerably darker compared to the previous two, as several characters come to grips with bad news. The New Year causes all of them to reflect on the past twelve months, and they're left wondering what lies ahead. There is a really tragic surprise here for longtime viewers. Despite that, there are some laugh out loud moments and really heartwarming stuff between characters who have not as yet shared a lot of scenes together. 

Spoilers Now!
Wow, a bit of a downer this episode. A lot of endings, and a good-bye to one of my favorite characters.

Don pops by to see Anne on his way to Mexico, and she's hobbling around on a broken leg. Her sister and niece are taking care of her, and both know Dick, though it's not really made clear how much Anne has told them about Don. Anne and Don take the girl out on the town, leaving us wondering if he will actually make a pass at her? Sure enough, he does that on the car ride home, but, as with all his previous encounters with women lately, it's a hot mess. She rebuffs him completely, and worse, tells him a secret—she and her mother have been concealing tragic news from Anne—that she has advanced cancer. Don is absolutely devastated. In fact, it's rare that I've seen such emotion from him, even when Betty found out his secret.

Don at first goes back to Anne's to help her out around the house, wanting to fix things, but her sister coldly tells him pointblank that he's just the man with a chequebook and to go home. So he sadly leaves with a final good-bye to Anne.

Joan's in turmoil, trying to plan a family around Greg's erratic and unpredictable schedule. We see her visiting the doctor that she had recommended Peggy visit in the first season, and we learn she's had two abortions. But he assures her there will likely be no problem with conceiving.

With Greg possibly going to Viet Nam in a year, she's trying to maintain some semblance of a family plan. He's still an ass to her, but when she cuts her hand getting him dinner, there's a nice scene where he bandages her up, which makes one briefly forget how much he belittles her.

The end of Lane's marriage was pretty much a given considering his wife's disdain for Manhattan, but here it's revealed as final. He remains an outsider in the firm, the money man, unwittingly insulting Joan, and not fitting in with the celebrations going on around him. When his secretary messes up flower deliveries to Joan and his wife, it provides one of the many laugh out loud moments of the episode, and he and Joan find something to agree on in jointly firing the incompetent woman.

Don returns straight from California and comes in to work to find Lane still at his desk, and the two embark on an adventure for New Years Eve...dinner, a movie (Gamera!), a comedy club and $25 hookers. Lane confides in him the state of his marriage, and subsequently cuts loose for the rest of the evening. Don wakes up in the morning and after sending Lane home, collapses on his bed, emotionally exhausted from the weight of 1964.

What Worked:
The character moments made the episode, striking a balance between moments of tragedy and comedy. Don confessed to Anne his pain at losing Betty, revealing that he knew from the start if she ever learned the truth about him she would no longer love him. He has yet to reconcile with that and move on, and until he does that, it looks like his love life is going to be one train wreck after the other.

So rarely do we get to see Don on the verge of losing it, but it was evident the news of Anne's condition was as heart wrenching, if not more, than losing Betty. Their final good-bye, when it's only Don that knows he'll not see her again, was very sad for both him and the audience. He has so few people in his life who know him for who he really is. Anne is Don's true wife, after all.

Lane and Don's night on the town was hilarious from the start. From Don's suggestions for a movie as Lane notices Don spilling his drink all over his carpet, to going to dinner and the comedy club, being mistaken for a gay couple, and Lane's shock that such a high class hooker was only $25. The two men commiserated a lot over the course of their adventure, and hopefully they will become good friends now. Despite all the financial turmoil, Lane's comment to Don that "though the finances are precarious, it's been a magnificent year" spoke volumes.

The final scene was a nice end cap—the partners sitting around the table with Joan at the head, announcing the beginning of 1965.

What Didn't Work:
No Betty and Henry, and a quick, but funny scene with Peggy was okay, but hopefully the rest of the cast gets more airtime next episode.

I'm going to miss Anne.

Best Line:
Lane's shout out at the comedy club: "We're not homosexuals, we're divorced!"

Review: Splice

Non Spoiler Review:
Splice is one one of those little gems you may have caught briefly in an online trailer, but received little hype. It deals with two wildcat geneticists, Elsa and Clive (Sarah Polley and Adrian Brody), who have succeeded in creating two amorphous organisms to provide genetic material for pharmaceuticals. When their directive changes to focusing on extracting the valuable enzymes rather than creating the life itself, they decide to carry on their own experiments in private—creating a viable human hybrid organism. It’s not really a spoiler to say they succeed (given the result is on all the movie posters), and the film charts the birth and development of their child.

Ultimately this movie is very successful, partly because it crosses over several different horror genres—from the psychological thriller, to the monster movie, and a bunch of stuff in between. It also provides as much focus on Clive and Elsa’s increasingly dysfunctional relationship and personality problems, as it does on the monster itself.

The acting is top notch. Sarah Polley is always great, developing a character that plays both to sympathy and outrage. Elsa and Clive are in this professional and personal relationship at odds with itself—disagreeing on a personal level over having children, yet on the other, striving to create life in the lab. Each brings different motivations and issues to their actions, leading to the spectacular train wreck that is the last half of the movie.

The hybrid lifeform evolves A LOT over the course of the film, beginning as a cute animalistic infant and developing more and more into something uncannily familiar— a gigeresque creature with a stinger tail persistently waving around in the background. As its traits become more human, the audience is forced to reconcile their own reactions to her, and what she's ultimately enduring as a lab animal/prisoner.

Granted, there are predictable plot points, but even those are moments when you’re asking yourself “Will they really go there?” And they do. Several times. The movie doesn’t pull any punches, and leaves lots to think about. I highly recommend it. It ranks as one of my top horror films of the last few years. Yay, Canadian horror movies! Check it out.

Review: The Walking Dead 73 - 76

Non Spoiler Review: Walking Dead reviews have lagged a bit behind, but that can speak to the slow moving storyline. While that's not a negative at all, these last few issues have drifted by at a leisurely pace, focusing on character development, until the last two installments exploded with the usual Robert Kirkman shocker endings.

These four issues have allowed the reader to get a sense of the community and its inhabitants, while our characters familiarize themselves with their new neighbours and the relatively peaceful lifestyle inside the walls. Douglas hands out tasks to Rick and his compatriots, and everyone sets off on their new work orders. 

We get a sense of the inner politics of the village. They are not as tightly bonded as Rick's group, and are willing to let people fend for themselves in order to survive, as Abraham nearly discovers while working on the outer fence construction. 

Meanwhile, Rick continues his conspiracy to obtain weapons, and matters come to a sudden head in issue 75 with some shocking and somewhat mindblowing twists, leaving 76 to pick up the pieces, and here again events do not unfold as one might think.

While this has been a slow burn as far as the storyline, I'm sure patience will be rewarded. Events in the community have reached some irreparable states, and we get answers to some ongoing questions about the characters and situations, as well as the introduction of some looming threats from outside.

Spoilers Now!
I could really get into a lot of individual storylines here, but obviously Rick's is the main source of conflict, as, over the course of these four issues, he finally snaps when intervening in the domestic affairs of the doctor and his wife and child (the one with the black eye from the party). Douglas has allowed this situation to continue, as the abusive husband is the town doctor and they can't banish him without suffering for it. Rick acts impulsively, prompting a standoff and a sudden psychotic break down in front of everyone...which leads in to a full colour segment that involves the return of dead characters and the revelation that the zombie virus was the prelude to an alien invasion. 

Played purely for fun and shock value, this little vignette is quite jarring at first, as we're left wondering at the end how serious Kirkman is to throw this twist at us. But he has teased about introducing aliens in the past, and this was his little joke to the fans for the 75th anniversary. As issue 76 begins, we get the sense that Rick had a momentary lapse, and we're back in the middle of the action again, with Rick realizing he's lost it and surrenders.

There is a lot of dialogue and exposition in issue 76, revealing Douglas' actions with the previous leader of the town, a man who started out with the best of intentions but slowly became a danger to everyone. In a surprise twist, Douglas decides to keep Rick as the constable, preferring his take action attitude over the lack of action seen in his fellow townfolk. 

Rick has his own heart to heart with him, confessing he never wanted to be a leader, and recounts the situation with Shane and Lori from the beginning of the series. It's good to see these two characters confessing to one another. What's more disturbing is the damaged relationship between Rick and the rest of the cast. Even Michonne tells him to get his shit together, which is something in itself coming from her. Andrea has little to say, and Glen is only now returning from his supply run in the city.

The issue ends with Rick having a phone call with the wife, only to have Carl walk in on him. 

What Worked:
Kirkman continues to play against convention here. Preacher Gabriel's attempt to throw the crew under the bus with Douglas blew back in his face, as Douglas would have none of it. Gabriel is curtly told to mind his own business. Unexpected, but it works well. It would be so easy to paint Douglas as the new villain in the story, but he has handled matters quite fairly and logically, aside from his personal faults when it comes to women.

Rick's meltdown could have ended with him banished, but again, Kirkman had the characters resolve it somewhat amicably for now. The series is very hard to predict, and right now, it seems the conflict is going to come from outside, as Glen's trip into the city may have alerted hostile forces from outside of their location.

This storyline, like the prison chapters, looks like it will continue for some time, and I'm anxious to see where the community and our characters end up.

What Didn't Work:
The slow pace may not be for everyone. While the focus has been on the main group of characters, most of the B characters are nowhere to be seen and have completely fallen off the radar. Now, with an even larger cast, I'm wondering how relevant they may be in the future.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Review: Mad Men "Christmas Comes But Once a Year"

Non Spoiler Review:
It's Christmas, and Don is spending another holiday alone. Last year, of course, he was moving into his new Manhattan digs, and Betty and Henry were off to Nevada for a quickie divorce, leaving Sally and Bobby with Carla. Now the kids get to spend the holiday with mom and stepdad, and Don has his secretary do his gift shopping. Much better.

There are some returning faces, including Freddy (the pants peeing alcoholic copywriter let go in season two), little Glen (evolving nicely from hair collector to serial killer), and Lee Garner (the always nasty, sometimes gay Lucky Strike heir). Add to that some new faces—Firebrand Faye, a psychologist who is selling her market research services to SCDP, Don's perky neighbour, Nurse Phoebe, and we (and Don) get to know secretary Allison a bit better.

Lee Garner is in town and expects an invite to SCDP's Christmas party. Up to that point, the party amounted to a thrifty gin and slice of velveeta, but Roger realizes they will have to throw a more appropriate shindig suitable for a Madison Avenue agency to match Lee's expectations. Lane has a fit over this, of course, as they are barely making ends meet (perhaps due to that fancy new board room table?). The party becomes a venue for Lee's nasty character traits (remember Sal?), and this time he has Roger in his sights.

Freddy returns with a $2 million account he's made through a contact at AA. He's clean and sober, and Peggy is excited to be working with him again, though they quickly clash—creatively and personally. She's also struggling with her own relationship issues, which we finally get a peek at.

Little Glen has blossomed into an even creepier adolescent. His mother has remarried, and now he offers Sally all sorts of sage advice about divorce and stepfathers: "Your parents will have a baby soon. You should ask for something big now." Sally eats up the attention. 

And Don's old habits continue, stumbling from one awkward moment to another with the various new women in his life. 

This episode is all about characters exercising power over one another, forcing some to face their weaknesses. It's messy and awkward, like watching your married friends have a fight in front of you, but at the same time, fun to watch some characters get a much-needed slap in the face and confront the weaker aspects of their natures. There are great one-liners and character moments, and this second episode continues to fill in some of the blanks of the past year.

Spoilers Now!
It was nice seeing Freddy again (and that lends hope to seeing other forgotten characters in the future), especially since he's clean and sobre, and is now an AA sponsor. Peggy's excitement fades quickly when Freddy fires nothing but sexist tag lines at her for their cold cream account. Peggy takes as much as she can before she finally unleashes a you're too old-fashioned for this firm at him, and he leaves with his tail between his legs.  It was nice to see Peggy keep her confidence, as she has a tendency to wobble back and forth. Later, she and Freddy have a discussion about marriage, and how she's leading on her boyfriend.

And we meet Peggy's boyfriend. She's been holding out on him, preferring to save herself (!), which is frustrating him to no end. Freddy warns her not to lead him on, and by episode's end we see them in bed together. But he doesn't seem like a good fit for her, and I'm hoping her desire to ultimately get married isn't leading to another Duck decision. Just ask Joan how easy it is to find a modern husband who supports both their marriage and her work.

The party is the focal point of the episode, with Lee ordering Roger to wear the Santa costume and hand out Lucky Strike gifts to the staff. It's a tense moment, broken only by Don's priceless grin and wide-eyed WTF expression as Lee emasculates Roger. While Roger performs his duty, Lee throws out mean-spirited jokes at his expense and gropes Jane. It's good to see that Roger comes out of it all a little more humbled, as he realizes they're all at the mercy of their clients. Lane is sure to be pleased with that.

Don's relationship with women plays out through the episode in various stages of intoxication. The brassy neighbour, Phoebe, helps him into his apartment and quickly rebuffs his advances as he falls on the bed. When she starts to undress him, there's a great exchange:

Don: "You're very good at this."
Phoebe: "My father was a drunk."

Later at the party, Don bristles under the ongoing scrutiny of Faye, who wants to dig beneath his walls and learn what he's all about. When he tries to flirt with her, she doesn't take the bait, and instead offers a nice shot across his bow, "You'll be remarried in a year. Oh, sorry...sometimes I forget people don't like to think of themselves as a type." Ouch!

On the heals of that, Don forgets his keys at the office, forcing Allison to bring them to his apartment later, and this time he scores. I thought Allison might rebuff him like the others, but she's the typical girl from the secretarial pool we saw in the first season of Mad Men, eager to please and hoping for something more with her boss. The next day, embarassed, Don's forget it ever happened mantra kicks in. He makes vague compliments about her good work and service, and offers up a $100 Christmas bonus which makes her feel really good about herself.

And so we fade out to the tune of I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, as Don wanders out of the office with his kids' presents (courtesy of Allison), and we're left wondering if he's learned a lesson from this at all. Probably not. 

What Worked:
SCDP got a table!

I really enjoyed just watching Peggy this episode. Her facial expressions and sideways glances to Don are priceless, whether reacting to Pete's insults to Freddie, or the Christmas party drama. Don's little "sweetheart" comment to her was also a nice touch. 

Times have changed. Peggy, like Faye and Phoebe, are all strong women, able to dish it out as good as the men, who themselves are more than a little unnerved by these strong women. Peggy goes toe to toe with her old mentor and wins. Phoebe and Faye are professionals, who both rebuff Don's advances.

The style was very evident in this episode too—both in women's fashions and their hair, as well as the decor and cultural references (Don's Beatles remark, as well as Roger's outrageously white space-age office)—rooting the show firmly in the mid-Sixties. It's quite the contrast to compare these scenes with those first views of Sterling Draper as Mad Men began.

Freddie, as annoyingly old-fashioned as he is, was a pleasant surprise. The expectation would be that he would eventually fall off the wagon by the end of the show. But on the contrary, he's devoutly sober. He's the one character who went through the same humiliation that some do here, but he's learned from it and has changed his life for the better. The real problem is he's not a good copywriter anymore, and Peggy's harsh rebuke at him for being out of touch was fitting but painful. He was her mentor, and now she's in charge, and all his comments about women wanting to get married pushed her buttons. It was nice to see Peggy lay into him, knowing how tough it was for her to say it to him.

Henry and Betty have precious little screen time here, simply bookending the episode, which was fine, as watching Glen and Sally's developing relationship was much more interesting. Glen is thoroughly disturbed, and one can only wonder what's been happening to him since we last saw him. Now that Betty appears to be a target, who knows what he's going to get up to next. But I did have a thought after Sally expressed her desire to move—could Glen's next act be a fire, perhaps? Yes, it is only 1965, but when did Betty and Henry stop locking the door?

It's been awhile since Pete has been an ass. We could forget how nasty he can be, but he showed he hasn't lost his touch when he starts to bring up Freddie's bladder problem in the middle of a meeting before Roger shuts him down.

Very little of Joan, but she does get to lead the conga line at the party.

What Didn't Work:
I have no real criticisms here, as the season is still getting off the ground and it's just interesting to watch where everyone is at. All the new introductions are fine, as long they just don't abruptly disappear without explanation, and it seems I'll get more Joan next week.

Best Lines: Sally's whole letter to Santa, but in particular, "Baby Gene wants a fireman. I don't know what that means."

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Review: Mad Men "Public Relations"

Non Spoiler Review:
And so begins the summer's Sunday night double-header of True Blood and Mad Men. After the series finale-like events of last season, this feels like a new show, reintroducing our favorite characters and their lives as the show picks up about a year later on Thanksgiving 1964.

Sterling Cooper Draper Price has moved back to official office digs in the Time Life Building, looking strangely like a bizarro version of Sterling Cooper, right down to the wall panelling, with a mythical second floor.  SCDP is now the upstart new kid on the block trying to make a name for itself, but with the precarious Lucky Strike account making up over two thirds of its revenue, Lane is virtually apoplectic.

Peggy is even more confident these days (no doubt, considering Don virtually begged her to join the team last season). And the humour of the episode comes in a great scheme she and her creative cohort (boyfriend?) concoct to get publicity for a canned ham client.

This first episode back focuses on establishing where the primaries are at, and like last season, there is still a lot to find out about each character's personal lives, though Betty and Don get the main attention, while the firm has to deal with the repercussions of an interview Don does with a prominent ad magazine.

I'm very interested in seeing what's happened to Sterling Cooper, if it even exists at this point, given that Sterling used to lament the loss of Lucky Strike would close its doors.

This was a great start to the season, with lots of questions waiting to be answered, and if you haven't gotten into Mad Men yet, get on it! 

Spoilers Now!
Betty and Don have somehow managed to become even worse parents. Betty is living with Henry in the Draper house (much to Don's chagrin, as she is supposed to have moved out by this point and he's still paying the mortgage). Betty is despised by Henry's family, and likely her kids too. I'm not sure what direction Sally is taking this season, but she's getting a bigger role according to the promos. I wonder if she's going to turn into the 60's rebellious teen? Or maybe they might kill her off at some point, in order to throw Don and Betty back into the gongshow of their relationship? Despite the vitriol between the two of them, I still sense Don and Betty haven't completely written each other off.

Betty is quite happy living a lovey-dovey life with Henry and ignoring all the kids. She has a morbidly obese mother-in-law who hates her guts and doesn't want her son playing around in "that other man's dirt." It will be interesting to see how long Betty lasts before the bloom comes off the rose for the two of them and she starts looking elsewhere for fulfillment.

Speaking of Don, he's the new star on the Madison Avenue block, but royally screws up a magazine interview with his stoic Midwestern secrecy and loses them their cashcow client (Jai alai...the crazy new sport from last season). Everyone is on his case, so he comes home to get slapped around by his regular hooker, after going on a blind date set up by Jane. He also throws a fit in a meeting with some conservative clients and throws them out of the office when they won't listen to his creative.

The offices of SCDP look like a messier Sterling Cooper. They can only afford one floor, but speak of their mythical second floor of offices. Clients meet around a coffee table for a more intimate discussion, rather than a costly board room table. It's all a bit jarring at first as we get the walk through, expecting to see familiar faces like Ken and Kinsey, but realize this isn't Sterling Cooper at all. We get Joan in her own office, managing everything. And we get an even more confident Peggy with a stylish new do and a cute boy assistant who obviously has the hots for her as they mockingly pine to one another "Marcia...John...Marcia...John," throughout the course of the episode.

The humour in this episode really comes from Peggy's idea to spur publicity for a canned ham client by hiring two women to fight over it in a supermarket. It works, until one woman presses charges, and Peggy shows up at Don's asking for bail for one of the girl's as well as hush money to keep them both quiet. Despite the success of the stunt, it results in one of the best conversations of the episode, as Don admonishes Peggy, then tells her she won't be needed in the upcoming client meeting, to which she responds, "Now you're just being spiteful." She's certainly grown a pair, and it shows in spades as she leaves him with the jab, "All  of us are here because of you. We all want to please you."

Realizing he's made a mistake with his attitude, Don sits down with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal and pours on the conceit to tell them the true story of SCDP's rise from the ashes, leaving us to look forward to getting our bearings with the rest of the characters in coming episodes.

What Worked:
This is Mad Men. Pretty much everything in this episode worked, especially building on the excitment of revisiting these characters after a summer hiatus. 

I see Ken is in the cast photo, so I hope he comes back in some form to annoy Pete. I like Peggy's assistance, Joe, and Don is now dating the minister's wife from last season's True Blood. She looks a lot classier here. Will he decide to replace his former Barbie doll with another one?

And poor Sal. The last we saw of him he was calling his wife from what looked like a shady area of Central Park...nearly a year and a half ago now! What's become of him? I imagine after losing his job on the heals of his frame by frame re-enactment of Anne Margaret's Bye-Bye Birdie, might have spelled the end of his marriage. And Kinsey? Joan's husband must be off to Viet Nam by now so I'm sure nothing bad can happen with that. Perhaps his death will lead to a renewed affair between her and Roger.

Pete and Peggy seem to have a very friendly relationship these days. It's surprising, given the mess between them, but I guess it has been nearly four years since she had the baby. And where is that little dickens, who just disappeared early in Season Two? 

It will be interesting to see what the ultimate direction of the season will be, as the sale of Sterling Cooper really came out of left field last season.

What Didn't Work:
The only real criticism with Mad Men is the myriad of plot lines that come up and are never dealt with again. With such stretches of time between each season, we really only get a snap shot of these characters' lives and have to pick up the threads sometimes years later, left to wonder about those that have been abandoned.

As mentioned, there's Sal and his wife, Kinsey and his girlfriend, Peggy's baby, Price and his wife's hatred for all things Manhattan...just to name a few. Perhaps the writers plan to bring all of these things together over subsequent seasons to fill the big picture, but it can be frustrating to invest in what's going on with some of these characters and not get answers for half a season.

Best Line goes to Don:
Henry: "Don, it's temporary."
Don: "Believe me Henry, everybody thinks this is temporary."

Recommendation: Pillars of the Earth

Pillars of the Earth is a new miniseries from Starz and airs on Movie Central in Canada. While this series, based on Ken Follet's novel, isn't as sexualized or over-stylized as Spartacus, Starz's other addictive creation, it is certainly a smart adaptation of what must be a dense book. 

The story deals with the troubled succession following Henry I's death as his nephew Stephen usurps the throne from Henry's daughter Maude, and her legal heir, Henry II. Henry is the first of the Plantagenet kings and Stephen's reign becomes known as The Anarchy, as Maude attempts to raise an army with her bastard brother, Gloucester. 

Add to this 12th Century political intrigue, is the rise to power of the scheming Bishop Walernan Bigod (played by Ian McShane). For Canadian fans, Gordon Pinchot plays the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Donald Sutherland is the deposed Bartholomew, loyal to Maude. The corrupt Hamleigh family is also attempting to gain a title, which comes at the expense of Bartholomew's family. All of these machinations focus around the setting of the Priory of Kingsbridge, run by the newly appointed and idealistic Prior Philip.

Tom (Rufus Sewell) arrives with his family in the midst of this turmoil, and meets the very seductive Ellen, who, with her mysterious son, Jack, has a lot of secrets on everyone and what's been happening in the region. Tom is a master builder, and when disaster strikes the local priory, he embarks on a years long endeavour to reconstruct a more magnificent cathedral.

Pillars is very much in line with some of HBO's series like Rome and Deadwood, as you get an earthy sense of everyday life in that time period. And if you're a fan of medieval history, or The Tudors, it's pretty much guaranteed you'll enjoy this, as it has the same political machinations of the latter series, and a consistent look that takes place over three hundred years earlier.

This has all the makings of a great series—a prophecy, curses, epileptic fits, and gritty realism. There is a conspiracy going back to the death of Henry I's heir, witchcraft accusations and lots of 12th Century shenanigans. It kept my attention for the first three episodes and I'll certainly be following it to its conclusion. The first episode was a bit of an info dump attempting to keep track of the many characters and their relationships, royal titles and names, but it's well worth a look.
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