A quick run-through of everything this week's episode of Mad Men has to offer: threesomes, cartoon monkeys, hippie parties, evil computers, and a guy who cuts off his own nipple. But if you want to get to the heart of the strangeness of "The Runaways," you have to appreciate the peculiar choices episode director/series cinematographer Christopher Manley made in shooting it.
The ep poses a stark contrast to Mad Men's usual structure (a few patient, meaty scenes many minutes in length, flowing seamlessly into one another) with a collection of jagged 15-second clips that lob off mid-conversation or immediately after someone picks up the phone; twice this latter technique is used, once with Betty and once with Megan. We can chalk this up to the throughline of people not getting what they want in this episode — Don wants to see Stephanie (the niece of the late Ana Draper, who phones him in hopes of getting a little support for her fatherless baby-on-the-way), Megan wants to save her marriage, Ginsberg wants to defeat the nefarious machine wreaking havoc on Sterling Cooper & Partners (and woo Peggy), Lou Avery wants a little respect for his beloved comic strip creation Scout, and Betty wants... ugh, who knows — a theme that collapses when the most unpredictable desire is met: Don gets his groove back.
Way back when, Don earned the ire of cigarette kingpin Philip Morris when he penned an editorial decrying the health problems caused by their product. It was the first in a string of antics that fissured Don's stellar reputation in the advertising game, particularly in the eyes of his own bosses and partners. The climax of that string, of course, cost him his place at SC&P at the end of last season, so a mending of the former might be the right touch (psychologically and thematically) to undo the latter. We can't really see Mad Men let Don taking his seat back at the head of the industry, so we're a bit perplexed as to what his apparently fruitful ad hoc chat with the Philip Morris boys this week will lead to (if not just the displeasure of Lou Avery and Harry Hamlin). But mystery aside, Don's determined play at the cigarette account is the only thing about "The Runaways" that feels cohesively put together.
The episode is littered with awkward gambits. Cautious reveals are shafted for abject ones (re: the initial shot of Stephanie's pregnant body), subtlety is all but foregone in thematic references (that 2001: A Space Odyssey send-up went over nobody's head), an incriminating conversation is overheard by the wrongest of persons from a bathroom stall (come on, guys, didn't something like this just happen in "A Day's Work"?). "The Runaways" strings together incredibly bizarre conceits, Michael Ginsberg's sudden schizophrenic explosion topping the lot, with such overt techniques and uncomfortably paced scenes that you can't help but wonder if what you're watching is next-level genius or a severe artistic mishap.
But the material is all interesting. Even the dreadful locking of horns of Mr. and Mrs. Francis lands us some cherished time with Sally, whom we get to see adorn little brother Bobby with that same big-hearted kindness to which she treated Don a couple weeks back — it's adorable, and dripping with severity. Megan's play at a drug-induced threesome "for Don" (after growing jealous and suspicious of his concern for pregnant Stephanie) might be frustratingly ill-fated, but we get the feeling that it's the penultimate straw for the pair. And Ginsberg losing his mind over Sterling Cooper & Partners' new computer, devising homophobic conspiracy theories, jumping Peggy in her own apartment, mutilating himself (his severed nipple "for Peggy" beats Megan's ménage à trois by just a touch as the worst way to win someone's heart), and being carted off by mental health professionals is all enthusiastically stirring, if still outrageous enough to call the script's judgment into question.
But, being told mostly from Peggy's point of view, it has its place. This job will kill them all. The future has no patience for (or interest in) men and women who aren't ready for it. And as Ginsberg is wheeled off screaming, Peggy begins to cry. Both for her suffering friend and for herself. Having seen her own era take down Don, she knows she might be next.
Episode grade: B, with bonus points to Don for getting us away from Megan's banjo party so quickly
Follow @Michael Arbeiter| Follow @Hollywood_com
The age-old debate over fate vs. free will has been and always will be a tough theme to crack in any medium but with the benefits of modern filmmaking technology the theory can be explored in ways that Philip K. Dick never imagined. However when one relies too heavily on spectacle to tell a story a piece of cerebral science fiction can quickly become just another action extravaganza. In this day and age there’s a fine line between the two; The Matrix walked that tightrope with style and grace while Next never found its footing in the first place. Fortunately the precious work of novelist Dick has for the most part been treated with respect by Hollywood (the aforementioned Nic Cage dud notwithstanding) but that doesn’t necessarily mean movies based on his stories are completely faithful to his vision.
Case in point: George Nolfi’s directorial debut The Adjustment Bureau an adaptation of Dick’s short story “Adjustment Team.” The film stars Matt Damon as David Norris a successful businessman and rising political candidate who after a chance encounter with the girl of his dreams (Emily Blunt) loses a crucial election. He happens to run into her on a Manhattan bus the following week before finding his office swarming with masked men who are “adjusting” everyone inside. Richardson (John Slattery) the man in charge captures Norris who unsuccessfully flees the scene after seeing behind “a curtain he wasn’t even supposed to know existed” as the enigmatic figure puts it. From that point on Norris must live with the knowledge that he (and we for that matter) is not in control of his own life. Rather the choices he makes fit perfectly into “The Plan” that’s been written by “the Chairman”.
In relation to my earlier statement I have to say that Nolfi’s picture looks stunning but his natural urban aesthetic doesn’t overpower the story. Sleek contemporary production design and elegant costumes characterize the high-concept story and the wraithlike agents who shape our destinies. Topically we’re dealing with some heavy material but Nolfi and editor Jay Rabinowitz move the action along at a brisk pace that keeps you engaged and entertained without having to try. The film is properly proportioned as a chase thriller romantic adventure and sci-fi fantasy and thankfully no component overshadows another.
Setting the film in the world of politics and big business helps make its larger-than-life revelations a bit more accessible (as do appearances from Michael Bloomberg Jon Stewart and Chuck Scarborough) while providing sub-text about the corruption involved in elections and campaigns (there are conspicuous shades of The Manchurian Candidate in the movie) but the writer-director often tries too hard for broad appeal. For a film with existential implications as severe as they are here the dialogue is at times hokey and superficial. Dick’s source material is far more abstract and Nolfi for the sake of commercial success panders to the palette of soccer moms and mallrats.
What’s worse is his unwarranted exposition of the Bureau a shadowy organization whose major allure is anonymity. Some secrets are best kept and less can be so much more when crafting a mysterious atmosphere; Nolfi reaches that level of magnetic curiosity but squanders it as he reveals the truth about the Bureau and its grand scheme. On the other hand he brushes over the technical lingo between agents Harry Mitchell (Anthony Mackie) McCrady (Anthony Ruivivar) and others without explanation perhaps hoping that the ambiguous terminology will fool you into thinking that his script is smarter than it really is.
Even though Nolfi’s allegorical conclusions are uncomfortably ham-fisted the chemistry between Damon and Blunt alone is enough to enchant you; this is one highly watchable cinematic pairing that should be revisited as soon as possible. Their innocent relationship blossoms organically and together they make it seem as natural on screen as it is for their star-crossed characters. Even if you have a hard time believing in higher powers or manipulative Orwellian forces you’ll have faith in David and Elise’s fated relationship one of the most captivating couplings I’ve seen on the big-screen in some time.
Loosely interwoven plotlines about five characters representing the human senses: A magic-fingered massage therapist (Gabrielle Rose); a bespectacled teenage voyeur (Nadia Litz); a cake baker whose taste in men gets her into trouble (Mary-Louise Parker); a music-loving Frenchman who is losing his hearing (Philippe Volter); and a bisexual house cleaner who says his sensitive shnozz can sniff true love (Daniel MacIvor). Tying the stories together -- sort of -- is the search for a lost young girl in the vicinity.
The terrific ensemble of mostly Canadian actors doesn't have a weak link. Playwright/performance artist MacIvor and Hollywood import Parker break up the picture's melancholy tone with much-needed moments of sarcastic humor. Veteran French thespian Volter gives a complex nuanced performance as a somewhat self-involved eye doctor whose impending deafness eventually generates real pathos.
Writer-producer-director Jeremy Podeswa has mixed success executing this abstract thematically ambitious work. Visually he and cinematographer Gregory Middleton serve up a true feast for the senses -- light streaming into imaginatively decorated rooms close-ups of objects so finely textured you want to reach out and grab them. On the narrative level the director has difficulty maintaining dramatic tension while intercutting between the several independent storylines.