Is he talking to us?
That’s the first of many questions that Mad Men provokes of us with its final season premiere. The episode opens with ol’ Freddy Rumsen delivering a doozy of an ad campaign pitch to the fourth wall — Acutron watches: not timepieces, but conversation pieces! — and laying down some metaphorical lingo in pretty thick globs: “Are you ready? Because I want you to pay attention. This is the beginning of something.” An interesting, if not cheeky way to kick off the very last season of a show whose M.O. is the waiting game for the other shoe to drop.
The first reveal is that Freddy is pitching to Peggy, making ends meet as a freelance ad man since he can’t land a steady gig. The next reveal about the pitch comes much later on in the episode: it was Don’s, not Freddy’s.
Yes, Don can still write one heck of a sales pitch. He doesn’t have a job, can’t conflate his past and present selves, finds no solace in his decaying marriage, doesn’t seem to fit in well in the backwards world of Los Angeles (nor his own New York), isn’t keeping up with his contemporaries, and might be all but a phantom in the eyes of his daughter. But he can still pitch.
We pick up with Don midway through a flight out to L.A. to meet Megan, taking new steps professionally but still strained to find her own happiness or comfort in her relationship with her husband. The difference: Megan is otherwise flourishing, and seems resentfully anchored down by the marriage whereas Don is desperate to define himself by its success…albeit hardly able to work toward that.
No longer able to identify as an industry fixture, Don courses through L.A. in hopes of discovering new soils to plan himself. He is unnerved by Megan’s silent (save for the coyotes) mountaintop home — he purchases the biggest, most obnoxious TV imaginable to stave off the very idea of idle thought. He meets up with former Big Apple purist Pete Campbell, now a resident of La La Land and in a big way: Pete’s tan and crisp, knots a sweater around his chest, and talks about his new home like it’s some kind of new medical advancement that the Neanderthals back East can’t seem to give way to. But this isn’t where Don belongs. Though nor is New York, not any longer.
The most significant scene in the episode comes during Don’s flight back to the city, when a widowed Neve Campbell offers her own sad stories before suggesting a romantic union back at her Manhattan pad. But Don, perhaps sure (for now, anyway… Neve Campbell can’t possibly be a one-time guest, can she?) that he’ll find no self-worth in this affair and afraid to face that vacant reflection once more, instead heads back to his own place, where he shares a sandwich with Freddy Rumsen and admits (to the audience) to being the true author of Freddy’s pitch to Peggy.
From his throne atop the apex of the Madison Avenue world of the 1960s, Don has fallen to a depth where he might find himself sharing sausage heroes with Freddy Rumsen on a weekday afternoon, delighting in his likewise unemployable company and offering him pitch material because it’s the only way he knows how to keep his pulse running.
In Freddy, he who was once known by his kingdom as the epitome of failure, Don now grasps for equity. Or superiority. He aims to weigh Freddy down to his own level of duplicity by affording him campaigns too good to pass over. But even this poor sap, a nice fellow who has kicked the sauce and is simply doing what he can to bring home the bacon, isn’t anchored to Don’s valleys. Upon a visit to Don’s apartment, Freddy bemoans the cocked balcony door: it’s freezing in here. Even Freddy Rumsen can see that you’re living in a grave, empty, toxic state, Don. And one that, much like his jammed door, doesn’t seem like it can be mended.
Big Question No. 2: Why is Peggy crying?
This one isn’t so much a mystery — Peggy breaks down at the end of the hour following a long line of heavy, heartbreaking frustrations — as much as it is something to reflect on.
We see her at sticky odds with Don’s replacement, the folksy Lou Avery, who deems himself “immune to her charms” when Peggy tries to work him over on Freddy/Don’s magnificent pitch… to no avail. We see her, the super of her own building, dealing with agitated tenants and plumbing faux pas. We see her disgruntled over her at work relationships: with former lover Ted and affectionate buddy Stan. We see her practically begging her brother-in-law to spend the night on her couch so that she won’t have to 'fess up to her cloying loneliness. And then we see her break down in tears.
So, yeah, somewhat of an easy question, but still one to ponder on: what, really, does Peggy need?
Considering the fact that we thought she might be traveling skyward by now (the last shot of Season 6 was a positive hint), it’s a little flummoxing to see Peggy at such a low. This is Don’s low point, but we expected her to be finding new avenues by now. Will we have to wait until the tail end of the series to see Peggy ascend, or will the weeks to come rip her from this melancholy and pin her with something in the vein of hope?
Next: Is Roger’s daughter in a cult?
Hypothesis: Yes. Roger’s daughter — who shows up unexpectedly to tell him that she “forgives him,” explaining that she has found a spiritual enlightenment that he would never understand — is in a cult. And I hope whatever is going on there comes back into play, because it’s quite chilling.
Finally, we get to Joan, who battles with a Doogie Howser of a shoe company executive (Dan Byrd, from Cougar Town) to fend off his company’s decision to create an in-house ad team, proud to be on the (more or less) successful end of the sort of battle for which she’s been vying for quite a while, but certainly not yet free of the shackles that have plagued her for so long: in one episode, Joan accuses the exec of not taking her seriously and accuses a business professor of insinuating that he wants to sleep with her in exchange for information. Considering her history, both fair. Although both did wind up surprising her, pleasantly. It was only back home, at Sterling Cooper & Partners, that Joan did find herself unsurprisingly disrespected: by Ken Cosgrove, who gave her lip for the whole ordeal even after she had done her part in keeping Cougar Town from abandoning SC&P. The world outside of the company where she has spent (said with a sigh) the past 16 years might be ready for Joan, but that company surely is not.
One final question: which is better, a New York sausage hero or a Los Angeles “Brooklyn Avenue” sandwich?
Episode Grade: A-, with special bonus points for Ken Cosgrove’s diminished hand-eye coordination and Pete’s majestically douchey L.A. attire.
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Captain America: The Winter Soldier is filled — and I mean jam-packed — with genre-bending, action-heavy, sportily tense and relentlessly sinuous, sky-high-concept and maniacally bonkers stuff. Polygonal mayhem that aims, and impressively so, to top the Marvel lot in ideas, deconstructing every thriller staple from government corruption to talking computers to odd couple agents gone rogue. But oddly enough, the moment in the Cap sequel that I find most arresting several weeks after seeing the film is our peaceful reunion with Steve Rogers, trotting merrily around the Washington Monument as the sun rises on our nation's capital.
The scene is shot from far overhead, a low pulse/high spirits Chris Evans reduced to a shapeless blur as he repeatedly (but politely!) laps fellow jogger and veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie)... and yet it might be the closest we feel to Cap throughout the movie.
The Winter Soldier has a lot to worry about in the delivery of its content. Managing a plot as ambitious and multifaceted as its own, with themes as grand as the scope of the American mentality — as represented by Steve Rogers, raised in the good old days of gee-golly-jingoism — it doesn't always have the faculties to devote to humanizing its central troupe. Cap isn't left hollow, but his battles with the dark cloud of contemporary skepticism play more like an intriguing Socratic discussion than an emotional arc. Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow, a character who ran circles around her Avengers co-players in flavor, feels a bit shortchanged in that department here (in her closest thing to a starring role yet, no less).
Mackie's Falcon, a regular joe who is roped into the calamity thanks largely to his willingness to chat with a fellow runner — a rare skill, honestly — is less of a problem. He doesn't have much to do, but he does it all well enough. Dynamic though he may be, Mackie keeps things bridled as Cap's ad-hoc sidekick, playing up the along-for-the-ride shtick rather than going full (or even half) superhero. We might want more from him, knowing just how fun he can be, but it's a sating dose. The real hunger is for more in the way of Black Widow, Cap, and — perhaps most of all — the titular villain.
Still, these palpable holes pierce through a film that gets plenty right. As elegantly as Joe Johnston did the Spielberg thing back in 2011, Joe and Anthony Russo take on the ballots of post-innocence. They aren't afraid to get wild and weird, taking The Winter Soldier through valleys that feel unprecedented in superhero cinema. We're grateful for the invention here — for Robert Redford's buttoned-up Tom Clancy villain, for the directors' aggressive tunneling through a wide underworld of subterranean corruption, and especially for one scene in an army bunker that amounts to the most charmingly bats**t crazy reveal in any Marvel movie yet. We might be most grateful, though, for a new take on Nick Fury; here, the franchise gives Samuel L. Jackson his best material by a mile.
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But in the absence of definitive work done in our heroing couple, a pair rich in fibers but relegated to broad strokes and easy quips in this turn, most of it amounts to a fairly good spy thriller, not an ace-in-the-whole neo-superhero masterpiece... which, justly or otherwise, is what we've come to expect and demand from these things.
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David Mitchell's novel Cloud Atlas consists of six stories set in various periods between 1850 and a time far into Earth's post-apocalyptic future. Each segment lives on its own the previous first person account picked up and read by a character in its successor creating connective tissue between each moment in time. The various stories remain intact for Tom Tykwer's (Run Lola Run) Lana Wachowski's and Andy Wachowski's (The Matrix) film adaptation which debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival. The massive change comes from the interweaving of the book's parts into one three-hour saga — a move that elevates the material and transforms Cloud Atlas in to a work of epic proportions.
Don't be turned off by the runtime — Cloud Atlas moves at lightning pace as it cuts back and forth between its various threads: an American notary sailing the Pacific; a budding musician tasked with transcribing the hummings of an accomplished 1930's composer; a '70s-era investigatory journalist who uncovers a nefarious plot tied to the local nuclear power plant; a book publisher in 2012 who goes on the run from gangsters only to be incarcerated in a nursing home; Sonmi~451 a clone in Neo Seoul who takes on the oppressive government that enslaves her; and a primitive human from the future who teams with one of the few remaining technologically-advanced Earthlings in order to survive. Dense but so was the unfamiliar world of The Matrix. Cloud Atlas has more moving parts than the Wachowskis' seminal sci-fi flick but with additional ambition to boot. Every second is a sight to behold.
The members of the directing trio are known for their visual prowess but Cloud Atlas is a movie about juxtaposition. The art of editing is normally a seamless one — unless someone is really into the craft the cutting of a film is rarely a post-viewing talking point — but Cloud Atlas turns the editor into one of the cast members an obvious player who ties the film together with brilliant cross-cutting and overlapping dialogue. Timothy Cavendish the elderly publisher could be musing on his need to escape and the film will wander to the events of Sonmi~451 or the tortured music apprentice Robert Frobisher also feeling the impulse to run. The details of each world seep into one another but the real joy comes from watching each carefully selected scene fall into place. You never feel lost in Cloud Atlas even when Tykwer and the Wachowskis have infused three action sequences — a gritty car chase in the '70s a kinetic chase through Neo Seoul and a foot race through the forests of future millennia — into one extended set piece. This is a unified film with distinct parts echoing the themes of human interconnectivity.
The biggest treat is watching Cloud Atlas' ensemble tackle the diverse array of characters sprinkled into the stories. No film in recent memory has afforded a cast this type of opportunity yet another form of juxtaposition that wows. Within a few seconds Tom Hanks will go from near-neanderthal to British gangster to wily 19th century doctor. Halle Berry Hugh Grant Jim Sturgess Jim Broadbent Ben Whishaw Hugo Weaving and Susan Sarandon play the same game taking on roles of different sexes races and the like. (Weaving as an evil nurse returning to his Priscilla Queen of the Desert cross-dressing roots is mind-blowing.) The cast's dedication to inhabiting their roles on every level helps us quickly understand the worlds. We know it's Halle Berry behind the fair skinned wife of the lunatic composer but she's never playing Halle Berry. Even when the actors are playing variations on themselves they're glowing with the film's overall epic feel. Jim Broadbent's wickedly funny modern segment a Tykwer creation that packs a particularly German sense of humor is on a smaller scale than the rest of the film but the actor never dials it down. Every story character and scene in Cloud Atlas commits to a style. That diversity keeps the swirling maelstrom of a movie in check.
Cloud Atlas poses big questions without losing track of its human element the characters at the heart of each story. A slower moment or two may have helped the Wachowskis' and Tykwer's film to hit a powerful emotional chord but the finished product still proves mainstream movies can ask questions while laying over explosive action scenes. This year there won't be a bigger movie in terms of scope in terms of ideas and in terms of heart than Cloud Atlas.
There's an allure to imperfection. With his latest drama Lawless director John Hillcoat taps directly into the side of human nature that draws us to it. Hillcoat finds it in Prohibition history a time when the regulations of alcohol consumption were subverted by most of the population; He finds it in the rural landscapes of Virginia: dingy raw and mesmerizing. And most importantly he finds it in his main character Jack Bondurant (Shia LaBeouf) the scrappy third brother of a moonshining family who is desperate to prove his worth. Jack forcefully injects himself into the family business only to discover there's an underbelly to the underbelly. Lawless is a beautiful film that's violent as hell striking in a way only unfiltered Americana could be.
Acting as the driver for his two outlaw brothers Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) isn't enough for Jack. He's enticed by the power of the gangster figure and entranced by what moonshine money can buy. So like any fledgling entrepreneur Jack takes matters into his own hands. Recruiting crippled family friend/distillery mastermind Cricket (Dane DeHaan) the young whippersnapper sets out to brew his own batch sell it to top dog Floyd Banner and make the family rich. The plan works — but it puts the Bondurant boys in over their heads with a new threat: the corrupt law enforcers of Chicago.
Unlike many stories of crime life Lawless isn't about escalation. The movie drifts back and forth leisurely popping in moments like the beats of a great TV episode. One second the Bondurants could be talking shop with their female shopkeep Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain). The next Forrest is beating the bloody pulp out of a cop blackmailing their operation. The plot isn't thick; Hillcoat and screenwriter Nick Cave preferring to bask in the landscapes the quiet moments the haunting terror that comes with a life on the other side of the tracks. A feature film doesn't offer enough time for Lawless to build — it recalls cinema-level TV currently playing on outlets like HBO and AMC that have truly spoiled us — but what the duo accomplish is engrossing.
Accompanying the glowing visuals and Cave's knockout workout on the music side (a toe-tapping mix of spirituals bluegrass and the writer/musician's spine-tingling violin) are muted performances from some of Hollywood's rising stars. Despite LaBeouf's off-screen antics he lights up Lawless and nails the in-deep whippersnapper. His playful relationship with a local religious girl (Mia Wasikowska) solidifies him as a leading man but like everything in the movie you want more. Tom Hardy is one of the few performers who can "uurrr" and "mmmnerm" his way through a scene and come out on top. His greatest sparring partner isn't a hulking thug but Chastain who brings out the heart of the impenetrable beast. The real gem of Lawless is Guy Pearce as the Bondurant trio's biggest threat. Shaved eyebrows pristine city clothes and a temper like a rabid wolverine Pearce's Charlie Rakes is the most frightening villain of 2012. He viciously chews up every moment he's on screen. That's even before he starts drawing blood.
Lawless is the perfect movie for the late August haze — not quite the Oscary prestige picture or the summertime shoot-'em-up. It's drama that has its moonshine and swigs it too. Just don't drink too much.