I have a startling admission to make: Mad Men is no longer my favorite show on Sunday nights. Now, when I sit around in the sunshine on Sunday afternoon, I'm wondering what the hell is going to happen that night on Game of Thrones not with Don Draper and his clan of merry misfits. It's because Season 6 of Mad Men has been wildly disappointing. There are no surprises, no excitement, and no overaching structure to connect one episode to the next.
Look at last night, most of the really memorable things were nothing but distractions from the main theme. Peggy's Realtor served no real purpose but to get Peggy to realize she doesn't want to move to the Upper East Side. Ginsberg's date really doesn't go anywhere interesting. Don calls looking for Dr. Rosen instead of Sylvia, who he's having an affair with, hammering home the point that he'd rather be with Arnie than his wife (something we established three episodes ago). Harry Hamlin is there for no good reason.
Speaking of which, William Mapother, who played Ethan on Lost was there for no reason either. Well, he was playing an insurance guy and Roger's old drug buddy, Randall, (Roger says, "He talked me off a ledge once" and I can only assume from Randy's behavior that the two shared some LSD together) who had a crazy idea for an ad campaign with a Molotov cocktail. He was quirky in a way that a Boston Legal character is, just for the sake of being odd. Back in the day we had people like Miss Blankenship, whose quirks commented on the existential crises of those around her. This guy is just a pastiche of tics and jargon with a silly idea no one takes seriously. He's also an excuse for a silly joke when Roger says, "Make sure this guy doesn't get lost," an obvious reference to his past show. Between that, the joke about the Second Avenue subway being finished (New Yorkers know that it still isn't), and last week's gratuitous 30 Rock reference, the show seems content being amused at itself rather than working toward some sort of revelation or universal truth. Sure, that still makes it a decent show, but it's not the layers deep drama that I used to enjoy.
There were actually two themes last night, that of fathers and sons and the political turning personal, both brought out by the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. The assassination was reported at an advertising awards dinner (Megan won!). This shadowed both the award ceremony at the beginning of Season 4 and Roger's daughter's wedding in Season 3 that went on even in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. It felt like well-worn territory, that we had seen the pettiness of daily events in the light of historical tragedy before, so this was nothing new. Also the firm's bad seats and the fact that their only nominations were for work Megan and Peggy did and both are no longer at the firm only points to Don Draper and his decline, something that we have seen repeatedly since last season.
But enough bitching. In the wake of MLK's death, Don has his children for the weekend and he has a chance to be a spectacularly bad father once again. First he forgets to pick the kids up and then drives them through a riot to get to his house. Finally, when Megan is going to take the kids to a vigil in Central Park, Bobby feigns a stomach ache. He's not supposed to watch TV because he's being punished so Don gets around his sentence and takes him to the movies. After a matinee of Planet of the Apes, where Bobby is bowled over by the cruelty that men are able to inflict on each other and their world, he has a touching moment with a black usher, letting him know, in his own little 10-year-old way (he's supposed to be 10, right?) that "everyone goes to the movies when they're sad" and that he is sad about King's death.
Don can't do anything. He seems to have an inability to connect with his children and he wants to help Bobby, but all he can do is help him get his Milk Duds open. Don can't deal with Bobby's feelings and what appears to be like some sort of anxiety disorder, obsessive compulsion, or borderline personality behavior (as evidenced by his ripping down the imperfect wallpaper). When Megan comes home, Don is once again the sad drunk (because we haven't seen enough of that) and he tells her that he never really loved his kids, he was just acting, but when they did something good like that, his heart wants to explode that he's so happy. And still, because of his own loveless childhood, he can't find a way to express it. Boo-freaking-hoo.
When Don sees Bobby awake in the middle of the night (probably picking at scabs or something) he gets into bed with him and tries to make it better. Don is literally on his level and asks Bobby what is wrong, the first step to making some sort of emotional connection. When Bobby says he's worried that Henry is going to get shot like MLK, Don responds glibly (and hilariously) that Henry is not important enough. A kid doesn't understand that, and Don takes an opportunity and totally blows it, offering no greater solace. Instead he goes outside and listens to the sirens and the disorder raging below. The night is dark and full of terrors. (Sorry, had to get my favorite GoT in there somewhere.) But Don is in the same position Bobby is and is in at the end of the episode.
Just like MLK had a dream that his son would live in a better world, so does Don, but the world he is giving over to his son is awful and scary. He's handing him a future where the apes take over and the Statue of Liberty lies in ruins on the beach. He can't really do anything to change that, but he can try to make Bobby feel better about it and give him some insight no adult ever gave him. But he can't. Instead he just stands there, anxious and inactive, pondering all the darkness that lurks around the twinkling of the city lights.
While it seemed like Ginsberg's date was going to be about him meeting a nice Jewish girl and maybe, finally, losing his virginity, it was not. It was about him and his father. His immigrant father set up him on a date and Ginsberg even admits that it feels very old world. That seems to be the dynamic between them, which was hinted at before, but it seemed initially like Ginsberg's father was somehow mentally deficient or senile. He's not, he's just embarrassing to Ginsberg because he has not been able to assimiliate into American culture. The disconnect between the old and new society that this show is steeped in is especially powerful here, because there is an even larger gap between Ginsberg the older's culture and Ginsberg the younger's.
There is no progress or movement in their relationship though. It's just stagnant. Ginsberg says that he doesn't want his father meddling and he can meet his own girls, but that is obviously not the case or else, well, a handsome young man such as himself wouldn't still be a virgin. His father wants Ginsberg to have a better life than him and he seems to be working for it, but the two of them have different definitions of what is important. Ginsbert the son wants to focus on his work and Ginsberg the father wants him to focus on the family. But maybe the old way is the right way? All of this is "tale as old as time" stuff and we didn't get an interesting spin on it in the episode. Sure there was some excellent banter between Ginsberg and his date but, like so much else in this episode, it was just a distraction from a plot that didn't have much of a point.
Pete Campbell was also dealing with his own father issues and took the death of MLK very hard. This had more to do with Pete's situation than his love of civil rights however. We learn this when he has the hilarious fight with Harry Crane, who is more upset about work than the death, and Pete has an irrationally outrageous reaction. He ends the fight by telling Harry, "Let me put this in terms you can understand, the man had a wife and four kids."
Pete is really missing the loss of his wife and daughter and, in this time of uncertainty, he wants the love and comfort they bring him. When everything was normal and boring in the suburbs he wanted out, but now that the novelty of the single life has worn off and the only person he has to talk to is the silent Chinese delivery man, he wants back into the fold. Again, this is a story we've seen again and again on this show. Pete is just Don Draper from two seasons ago. This isn't interesting or revelatory. What was interesting was Pete's fight with Harry and Pete actually not being a jerk about the news. When King was shot, I figured Pete would be the one who would care more about work than his feelings, but he wasn't. Of course he only cares so much because of his personal situation, but whatever it takes for Pete to do the right thing. And thanks for being the only surprise.
The women got short shrift this week, especially our lovely Peggy. She starts out wanting to buy a house on the Upper East Side just blocks away from Don Draper, continuing her transformation into the man himself. There is all this drama with her Realtor who is trying to take advantage of the unrest to get Peggy a good deal on her apartment and she ends up losing it. Aw, sad Peggy.
But sad Peggy quickly turns into happy Peggy. Her boyfriend Abe, who is working hard on a story about the riots in Harlem, tells her that he doesn't want to live there, he wants to raise their children somewhere where there is more diversity. Peggy doesn't say anything, but she seems to agree and sits on the couch smiling, happy that her man is envisioning their future and excited about the possibility of going out and doing her own thing. That's the thing about Peggy, she always seems to need a little push. I'm glad that she and Abe are still together. When her boss Ted was giving him dirty looks at the ad dinner I thought for sure she was going to leave him behind in some West Village flat while she moved on up to the east side with the Jeffersons.
Like Pete Campbell, Betty Draper had a bit of redemption last night. She called up and harassed Don in classic Betty harpy mode, but he deserved it. He forgot his kids and didn't even call, no wonder she's laying on the guilt extra thick. I like my Betty like I like a hamburger, fat and juicy, but I felt bad for her after Henry's big announcement that he was going to run for State Senate. "I can't wait for everyone to meet the real you," he tells her, but she doesn't want anyone to meet her. This is what she always wanted, a powerful, rich husband who will raise her profile, but now that it's happening, her beauty is gone. It's too late. "This is what I always wanted for you, what I always wanted for us," she says, but it's what she's always wanted for her.
Later she stands in the mirror and holds up a dress she can't fit into anymore. She plays with her hair that is frizzy from dying it so dark. She's tried so hard to be her real self and she just can't. It's going to be back to "reducing" and pouring herself into those tiny chic outfits once again, polishing the glossy shell of her exterior so her man will have something nice to show off.
It's the little details like Betty pulling at her hair in the mirror that make this show, and there were some great details. We had Peggy showing genuine compassion when hugging her secretary and Joan showing icy concern about Dawn, which came off as nothing but tokenism. We had Dawn saying to Don, "Getting here, well, took some time," with a perfect line reading that gave us so much insight into her life and the character. There was Megan, freaking out slightly at Don and Sylvia giving Don the once over with her eyes that said just about everything. That is what keeps me watching Mad Men and will continue to keep it good. Now let's just work on getting everything else back in order to make it great.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
More: 'Mad Men' Recap: Finally Some Alone Time with Joan'Mad Men' Recap: Don Draper Is a Whore'Mad Men' Recap; Don Draper Has No Idea Who He Is
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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.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.