Monday, June 24, 2013

A BRIGHTER FUTURE FOR DON DRAPER


Original caricature by Jeff York of Jon Hamm as Don Draper in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
MAD MEN is a period piece. And like all period pieces, it comments on our modern world. So what does a show with an arrogant, lying and bullying lead character say about us today? Exactly. It’s not by accident that MAD MEN is about America during the turmoil of the 1960’s. A time when we started to realize our country was not the sort pictured in Norman Rockwell’s paintings or Madison Avenue’s idyllic images. The same goes for today as show runner and creator Matthew Weiner clearly comments that we’re still buying into a certain amount of candy-coated fantasy where we think we all can become American idols and are still the great saviors of the world. Don Draper is the poster boy for that self-delusion. But alas, there is hope as the season finale so optimistically proved.

For my money, the show had its greatest jaw-dropping moment of all time when Don told the truth about himself in front of a potential new client. Its revelation was both tragic and stirring as Don told his most shameful secret to his advertising colleagues. And yet it made him stand tall in a way he hadn’t all season long.
Original caricature by Jeff York of Elisabeth Moss as Peggy Olson in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
The ad whiz was pitching a campaign to a couple of Hershey’s big wigs, regaling them with his ‘Norman Rockwell-esque’ childhood memory about how his dad rewarded him with a chocolate bar after chores. It moved the clients and they were clearly ready to give their business to Don’s shop Sterling Cooper & Partners. But Don stopped them as they headed out the door. He could no longer buy his lies and he didn’t want them to buy them either. With his hands shaking from alcoholic withdrawals, he stood up and set the record straight.  

He told them the real story of his childhood. There was no father. He was an orphan. There was no picket fence and tree-lined street. His actual home was a whorehouse. And a chocolate bar from the prostitutes was literally the only sweetness he’d been shown during those awful, formative years. In that revelatory moment to everyone in that conference room, Don lost the Hershey’s business, the faith of his partners, and his job. But in taking that first step towards honesty, he might’ve started to save what’s left of his soul.
Original caricature of Jessica Pare as Megan Draper in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
Don and the 1960’s are very much like our times today. It’s eerie just how similar things are: the abject paranoia about our foreign enemies; a violent culture making headlines daily; a struggling economy; our disaffected youth struggling to find their place; and racial strife revealing prejudices that haven’t gone away.

I was worried about Don this year. He didn’t seem to be changing his ways for the better and was back-pedaling almost the entire season. His drinking got worse, as did his philandering, and his lying was so bad that he could barely keep his stories straight. Then it all came to a head. He lost the confidence of his partners (office manager Joan Harris could barely look him in the eyes). His protégé Peggy Olson called him a monster. The adoration of his loving wife Megan slipped through his fingers and probably off to California where she's headed to explore her acting career. And he even lost the respect of his daughter Sally when she caught him trysting with his neighbor. 
Original caricature by Jeff York of Christina Hendricks as Joan Harris in MAD MEN. (Copyright 2013)
But then, Don had that meeting with Hershey’s and finally, fatefully, irrevocably confessed the truth. And a few days later, still trying to be a better man, Don took his young son and disgruntled daughter to show them the whorehouse that he grew up in. He faced that horrible shack with clear eyes. And them too. And my God, the look of shocked understanding in Sally’s eyes spoke volumes, suggesting that their relationship might actually be salvageable. What an incredible breakthrough.

The show ended with Judy Collins singing, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” from that great Joni Mitchell song. Don has, you see. And despite the fallout from his new approach - losing him his job, maybe his wife as well as friends - it looks like he's going to prefer the honest side. I hope so. I hope it helps him win back Megan. And I think it might help him return to Sterling Cooper a sober and better man.

Our nation may be sobering up in a similar fashion as Don. We Americans thought we had endless credit. We thought everyone would always love us despite our betrayals and bullying. And we thought each generation would live better than the last. That was the candy-coated fantasy we were still buying into even in 2008. Then the economy bottomed out. And it's been a cold splash of water in the face ever since. Still, we're adapting. And moving forward more honestly now. We’re learning to live with less. We’re learning to open up our tent to more people, different kinds of people, and trying to shirk off prejudice better than we have in the past. And Americans rate their elected officials in Congress with a paltry 7% approval rating. We know we can do better. We want to do better. And we have to.

Can Don Draper find redemption? I think he can. It probably won’t be of the Ebenezer Scrooge variety, but I think his character can keep progressing. If he falls, like he does in the show’s opening credits, it will be by his own doing. Don now has the ability to see the path out of the muck. And if he ignores it, he truly is mad. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

NBC'S HANNIBAL IS MOVIE-WORTHY MACABRE ON THE SMALL SCREEN


Original caricature of Mads Mikkelsen as the title character on TV's HANNIBAL

The exquisitely dark series HANNIBAL ended its freshman year Thursday night, June 20. And the hour finale set the table for a delicious return in 2014. The show was one of the NBC’s few hits this year.  Perhaps they should try more horror, as the genre is thriving across the tube. THE WALKING DEAD, AMERICAN HORROR STORY and BATES MOTEL (http://exm.nr/11iJ9cU) are all part of a new ‘Golden Age of Grand Guignol’ on TV. And HANNIBAL may be the most exquisite frightener ever to appear on the small screen, enhancing the genre and its network with superb acting, incredible production values, taut storytelling and discreet violence.

From its impeccable premiere on April 4 (http://exm.nr/XzhHpZ) HANNIBAL not only built a narrative with strong ties to its movie predecessors MANHUNTER and THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, but it also established itself as its own unique dish, one prepared with A+ cinematography, art direction, production design and editing that would be the envy of any big budget theatrical release. Even more importantly, show runner Bryan Fuller took the exceedingly familiar character of Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter and found fresh things to say about him, even going so far as to help audiences understand why he did what he did before his incarceration.
Hugh Dancy as FBI profiler Will Graham.
Fuller shows Hannibal Lecter as both a relatable man and the terrifying monster. Yes, he’s a killer but here he is also seen as attractive, sociable, and a helpful psychiatrist to many, including the FBI. Of course, he’s also happens to be one of the serial killers they’re after, but that makes the show darkly fun. He’s both Jekyll and Hyde, a villain hiding from his FBI colleagues in plain sight.
Lecter justifies his evildoing as a way of touching God, deciding who lives and dies in the world. And he revels in it because such decisions because they make him feel powerful.  That’s a pretty heavy statement for any show, and Fuller treats this dissertation seriously. 
Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford.
As Lecter explores his passions he is also manipulating/playing God to all around him, especially sensitive FBI profiler Will Graham (the wonderfully jittery Hugh Dancy). Will’s talent is to get inside the mind of a killer and explain their crimes. Lecter is both friend and foil to Will, and their cat & mouse game was one of the consistent highlights of the season. 
Caroline Dhervanas as Dr. Alana Bloom
And in last night’s episode, Will got too close to uncovering the truth about the doctor so Lecter set up his colleague to be fingered as a murderer. Mikkelsen’s Lecter was much more stoic and cold in character than Oscar winner Anthony Hopkins was in his performances. And Mikkelsen also conveyed more sadness too. He’s displayed a vulnerability and longing that Sir Tony really didn’t. That’s not to say that Mikkelsen wasn’t exceedingly creepy too. He was, simply terrifying by merely standing still and saying nothing. It's like he was a cat, playfully contemplating a wounded mouse in its clutches, wondering whether he should eat it quickly or make it suffer for a while more.
Gillian Anderson as Dr. Du Maurier
Despite the constant threat of violence in this show, it pulled off the impossible. It chose to be incredibly discretionary when it came to showing any real violence. The murder scenes were mostly kept off camera, dwelling the lens are the aftermath. And the killings were shown in flashback, as a fantasy, as Will imagined they would be committed. That kept something that could have been horribly grisly from becoming exploitation. And it kept the detective story in the forefront instead.
Mads Mikkelsen as Dr. Hannibal Lecter
The actors on this series were all first-rate, with Mikkelsen and Dancy doing career best work. Laurence Fishburne made for the show’s invaluable third star as Will’s boss who manipulated his prize pupil in similar ways as Lecter did. The show also made specific and memorable characters out of all the supporting players like Hettiene Park, Scott Thompson and Aaron Abrams as FBI forensics specialists. Caroline Dhervanas did wonderful work as the show's 'ingenue', playing the FBI psychiatrist who not only recommended that colleague Lecter help with their profiling, but has also become Will’s # 1 protector and potential love interest. As Will was being arrested in last night's episode, she offered to take care of his dogs for him. Now that gal is a keeper!
The cast of NBC's HANNIBAL
And any show that finds a fun role for Eddie Izzard as another serial killer or the great Gillian Anderson (http://bit.ly/173CIi4) as Hannibal's own psychiatrist gets special points in my book. Anderson is as gorgeous as ever, and she was sublime in her sly, enigmatic role. Just what will happen to her relationship with Lecter remains to be seen in the second season, but it appears that she could easily become his lover as much as his next meal. 

And as the first season came to a close, Dr. Lecter visited Will in jail, wrongfully incarcerated for Hannibal's doings. The scene recalled Jodie Foster’s first view of Hopkins’ in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. That kind of homage dotted the show throughout its run, adding even more fun to the fright. Now I doubt that Will is going to be behind bars for too much of the second series, but we shall see. And I doubt that Lecter will be sitting behind bars any time soon himself. Fuller has promised a five-season story arc so one can imagine that the not-so-good doctor will still be whipping up his unique gourmet dishes for some time to come. If the ratings hold, this show could be turn out to be quite a feast.

Friday, June 14, 2013

HOW MOVIES CAN COUNTER THE DIRE WARNINGS FROM STEVEN SPIELBERG AND GEORGE LUCAS


On Wednesday of this week, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were at USC helping to open a new Interactive Media Building. There they made some very troubling comments regarding the future of the movie industry (http://bit.ly/ZKg2Pp). Unfortunately, they see a future where big movies like IRON MAN and other tent pole features are going to cost moviegoers upwards of $25 to view in theaters. And they envision movies like LINCOLN becoming relegated to places like HBO. All in all, they foresee an “implosion” in the film industry as costs rise while TV takes greater risks and succeeds more with niche audiences.

They may be right, but does that have to be so? The threat of TV siphoning away audiences from the film industry has been fretted about since the small tube’s beginnings, yet both have survived and thrived. So why is there a difference now? One could argue that it’s due to TV’s new ‘Golden Age’ of shows that put most features to shame. So isn’t the answer to make better movies? Part of the problem is thinking that movies have to be gargantuan for audiences to trek to the Cineplexes, but that’s myopic thinking.  If studios executives think audiences only want to see $200 million fantasies or superhero sequels on the big screen, then they deserve their woe-begotten fates.

It doesn’t have to be so. Movies can get back their luster, keep audiences enraptured, and make plenty of money for everyone involved. In fact, there are at least six obvious measures that movie studios can start doing now to stem the tide of those cryptic warnings from Spielberg and Lucas.


Make smaller movies
This year, JACK THE GIANT SLAYER was released and reportedly cost $195 million to make. Whew! And estimates for its marketing budget were supposedly another $100 million. Ultimately, its worldwide gross was just under $200 million. I really liked the movie, but aesthetics aside, that’s not a lot of ROI. Now, take Woody Allen’s movie MIDNIGHT IN PARIS which cost just $17 million to make in 2011 and grossed $155 million. (It played at Chicago’s Landmark Century Theater for almost 4 straight months!) That film was the better investment for Hollywood, so why not make more of those? It was aimed at an older adult audience too, not teenagers. That older audience will come out for movies - good movies. And as if there weren't enough surprises with that film's success, Allen's comedy also happened to be primarily a period piece. Most studio exec’s regard those as no-no's for modern audiences, but that is not the case, is it? It would seem there a number of ways that thinking needs to be adjusted in those corner offices.

Stop making so many sequels
I love Robert Downey Jr. but I’ve seen him play Iron Man in four starring vehicles in the last five years. My adoration of Hugh Jackman as Wolverine is considerable but he’s starred as the hirsute hero five times since 2000. Do we need that much of either character? Especially when there are other Kirk Lazarus’ and Jean Valjean’s to be played out there? And each sequel tries to top the previous movie, so the price tags go up and up. That is a self-fulfilling prophecy of doom, no?

Take a page from the horror genre
The young Turks making horror movies are doing so mostly with smaller budgets. And horror very often doesn’t need a lot of high-priced razzle and dazzle to hold an audience’s attention. Filmmakers like Adam Wingard (THE HOUSE OF THE DEVIL) and Tim Tjahjanto (MACABRE) have shown they can consistently work wonders with miniscule budgets. 

Other places are showing how smart budgeting can still produce good films, even genre pictures and period movies. Mads Mikkelsen and Jeffrey Dean Morgan just made a western called THE STRANGER for writer/director Kristian Levring for less than 15 million, according to imdb.com (http://imdb.to/163GtjO). And those crews toiling in the ad industry have been finding ways to keep costs down and even shoot offshore to do so for decades now. Can’t big studios follow those examples more often for their movies? Of course they can. 


Pay stars reasonably
Warner Bros. dumped the long gestating sequel to DUMB & DUMBER this week (http://bit.ly/16f9xWx) and that’s sad news for Jim Carrey fans. Time was, he could command $20 million for a picture, but even a decade ago that seemed exorbitant. No one wants to deny big stars big bucks, particularly if they’re bringing in the audiences, but out-of-control salaries for top actors are crippling productions. And did such salary demands have anything to do with Warner Bros. saying, "No"? Maybe, maybe not, but these days it's more of a buyer's market, and some price tags are too high for the studios that used to say "Yes" to such things. Keep hiring stars, just do it for more reasonable amounts. Everyone else in the country has learned to live with a little less these days so can’t Hollywood’s superstars learn to live with just a little less too? 


Special effects aren't always so special 
How many spaceships do we need to see crash into earth? How many fantasy films with 400 plus CGI effects are audiences truly clamoring for? And don’t teens always think stuff looks fake anyway? Look, when an outstanding company like Rhythm and Hues goes out of business right after doing their Academy Award-winning work for LIFE OF PI due to not making money on the venture, something is very wrong with how the industry is utilizing special effects. I loved LIFE OF PI, but the story of the demise of Rhythm and Hues is a tragic one, and it shouldn't be repeated.

Happy Meals don't make great scripts
Too many budgets (again with the superhero sequels) spend more on co-op dollars than on spending time getting the script right. If the movie needs a fast food franchise or dozens of other product placement tie-ins to even meet budget muster, maybe the project is too costly. I don’t mind product placement, but if half of any movie’s cost is covered by such partnerships, isn't something amiss? 

Take a page from TV shows
TV shows do a number of things that movies would behoove to follow. First, by and large, they’re driven by strong stories with strong characters, not special effects and CGI. Two, TV shows are writers’ shows, and the screenplay needs to be more of the thing on film, not so much a ‘high concept’. Finally, TV audiences may be niche, but I watch BATES MOTEL and HOMELAND and MODERN FAMILY too. I like comic books as much as the next fan boy, but I expect more variety at my Cineplex. Put more types of films in the theaters and more audiences will come.

Look, we're already paying close to 15 bucks to see 3-D movies in some places. And with parking and concessions, movie viewers are already used to opening their wallets - wide. But audiences shouldn’t have to pay 25 dollars a ticket to see a superhero movie or a tent pole film. And we should be able to find a much better variety of entertainment at the Cineplex too. The movie industry can do it. They've made it through depressions, recessions and new media before. It just takes some creative and practical thinking. Let’s just hope they're smart enough business folks to not cut off their audience to spite their face.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

FIVE SUBLIME SUPPORTING ACTORS (AND ACTRESSES) THIS SUMMER MOVIE SEASON


It’s not been a great summer at the movies thus far, (AFTER EARTH, anyone?) but there are some exceptional supporting actors and actresses who’ve added considerably to the luster of the cinema season. Here then are those who knocked my socks off. And surprise, surprise, these five always do, no matter what they’re in.

ROSE BYRNE
It’s often taken for granted, but actors from England and Australia tend to do good American accents, but Aussie Rose Byrne's American accent is so impressive that I didn’t even realize she wasn't American until well into the second season of DAMAGES on the FX Network. She lent wonderful support in that TV series for five seasons, and now is doing the same in all kinds of movies, showing audiences a wide range of roles and accents. She excelled as the icy American villainess in BRIDESMAIDS, the level-headed FBI agent in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the terrified mom in INSIDIOUS, the druggie British rock star in GET HIM TO THE GREEK and the ingénue techie in THE INTERNSHIP that opened last week. There she got to finally speak in her native tongue. And what a lovely accent she has. She also happens to be one of the most beautiful women to grace the large or small screen. She's the whole package.

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH
His female fans are called “Cumberbitches”. As for his male fans, hmmm, well I’m not sure, but count me amongst his biggest backers. His complex performance as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series SHERLOCK has almost made me forget Jeremy Brett. And he’s done exceptional work in even the smallish roles he’s taken on the big screen (ATONEMENT, WAR HORSE, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY). This summer, he finally is starring in a big part as Khan in STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS. In that role, he brings a searing intelligence and confidence to the bad guy that makes one just imagine what he could do with a Bond villain. Cumberbatch is easily one of the best actors working today and he’s only going to become a bigger star. His next leading role is that of Wikileaks scoundrel Julian Assange in THE FIFTH ESTATE due on the big screen some time this year. I can’t wait to see that. And I can’t wait to see him in everything else.

ANDREA RISEBOROUGH
Another British thespian making quite an impression these days is the wide-eyed ingénue Riseborough. She first caught most filmgoers’ attention with her terrific take as Wallis Simpson in Madonna’s otherwise problematic W.E. two years ago. And she took a stock villain character this year in the movie OBLIVION and turned it into a complicated and even sympathetic figure. It was a good movie, but it turned great whenever she was on screen. Riseborough's work is incredibly nuanced in that film, with her fabulous face holding the screen, as expressive as a silent film star's. I think it's a face that will be gracing our screens for some time. 

BEN KINGSLEY
Sir Ben is one of those amazing talents who is both leading man and a supporting one. His inclusion in any film always ensures a better picture. And he can play parts big, small, and all the sizes in between. This summer he pulled off a rather stunning feat by stealing scenes from the rascally charmer Robert Downey Jr. in IRON MAN 3. From the trailers, it looked like Kingsley was conjuring an evil villain in the terrifying vein of his thug Don Logan in SEXY BEAST. And indeed, he was that for the first part of the movie. But then, on a dime, Kingsley’s character became a comical, Cockney buffoon. How many but Kingsley could be so horrible one minute and so hilarious the next? Very few.


WOODY HARRELSON
Of all the people who came out of the CHEERS television show, Woody Harrelson's become the big movie star, and he's only getting better as he gets older. For every comedy he’s rocked over the years, (KINGPIN, ZOMBIELAND) he’s excelled equally in drama (Oscar nominations for THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT, THE MESSENGER). He can play a wily assassin in something like NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, or the straight man in HBO’s GAME CHANGE. This summer, he’s adding lots of wit, as well as some gravitas, to the caper thin NOW YOU SEE ME. Harrelson adds weight and history to even the tritest and lightest of roles. In that summer movie about illusionists, he's the real magic.

Well, those are the supporting performances that impressed me so far this summer. I hope there are more to come, and some exceptional leading performances too. It’s only June, so my hopes remain high. How about yours?