Tuesday, May 19, 2015

FIVE KEY TAKEAWAYS FROM THE END OF MAD MEN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Don Draper (Jon Hamm) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013)

Now that MAD MEN has completed its network run, a full and complete assessment of the series will start by critics, scholars and fans. And as seasons and episodes and minutia are pored over with a zeal not seen since BREAKING BAD went off the air, it will get gloriously complicated. Who was Don Draper really? Did he ever find happiness? Was that ending cynical, hopeful, what? And that's just the last episode's issues!

MAD MEN was a show that was truly one of the smartest, nuanced and most accomplished programs ever to make its way onto our television sets. Arguably, no other TV show assessed the decay of the American Dream like it. It will be a fascinating treasure to return to again and again and discover more and more each time. There is just so much to revel in there. The great acting across the board, the clever dialogue, the sumptuous production values...they were all extraordinary. 

And as we examine it closer, Matthew Weiner’s brainchild will be seen as even more political than perhaps it was during its initial run. Yet such editorializing was always there. Weiner infused the show with his progressive politics and a disgust for the corrupt world of business. Most of the takeaways of the show, as it is examined, are inarguable. Here are five that made the program so thought-provoking and such essential viewing over the course of its run. In fact, for my money, MAD MEN was the television program of the last decade and easily one of the top 10 shows of all time.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss) in MAD MEN (copyright 2013) 
IT WAS A SCATHING CRITIQUE OF AMERICA

Sorry, Marco Rubio, but your tweet Sunday about MAD MEN being a reminder that the 20th century was great was utterly inane. If anything, MAD MEN made a case for the complete opposite. Maybe if one was only looking at its fashion and sets, they'd come away with the idea that MAD MEN was a strong endorsement of the sixties, but it was not. Indeed, it appeared to be a scintillating portrait of mid-century America, but that was just its window dressing. It was its con, if you will. Like all those idealized commercials about love and family sprung from Don Draper's fertile imagination, it was not realistic. But make no mistake, under those tight suits, thin ties and Brylcreem, was something quite ugly. Even monstrous. 

Set aside obvious big ticket issues like assassination, war and poverty that everyone can agree plagued the sixties, MAD MEN shrewdly went after less obvious game. It focused on smaller and subtler horrors of the era. Attitudes, mostly. Repeatedly, the show demonstrated how so many in our nation at the time simply weren't grasping modernity. Even while the times, they were a-changing, a large portion of men in power remained stuck in their ways, unrepentant in their sins, and clinging to their entitlement. They were unwilling to bend and thus got lost in a fog as thick as the smoke from the cancer sticks they still deigned to puff. 

These men acted like pigs at the trough. They not only smoked too much, but they drank too much too. And they treated those not in the "club", particularly women, with contempt. And the show always called these men out. These characteristics were often exhibited by main characters like Don and Roger, the guys ostensibly we were supposed to root for, but the commentary was clear. The indictments were obvious. 

The show was darkly comic as it showed just how these outdated men went a little crazy as the world shifted under their feet. Sure the title of the show refers to the nicknames given to Madison Avenue types, but it carries more important meanings. These men went mad in the world as they realized it no longer was going to be theirs exclusively. And boy, did they flail going down. 

And not only did so many of these foolish men not see how women, minorities and other have-nots were starting to move up and wanted more, but they weren't even on trend with the ad biz. It was shrewd how Weiner even questioned if these relics were masters of that domain. You'll remember that in the very first episode, creative director Don sneered at the revolutionary Volkswagon “Lemon” ad, complaining about how he couldn't decide what he hated most about it. Don was really, really wrong a lot of the time, even in his job.

And Sterling Cooper's power elite displayed other botches too. One of their more famous mistakes was when they worked on the big presidential campaign in 1960. They didn't work for Kennedy, the voice of a new generation; they worked for Tricky Dick. The world was evolving and these guys were still driving their fathers' Oldsmobiles. Even when the British were coming to swallow up the agency, Sterling Cooper's leaders thought it would make things better. Don and his cronies missed a lot of the important road signs along the highway, rendered all the more ironic as ad agency folks are supposed to have their fingers on the pulse of the nation and its trends.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Roger Sterling (John Slattery) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)
IT BROKE MORE RULES THAN ANY OTHER MODERN TV SHOW

Not only did the show roast the old guard of power in the sixties, but also it burned a lot of the Hollywood rule book as it went along telling its story. Tinsel Town strongly believes that people abhor period pieces, but MAD MEN proved them wrong. Like all works taking place in the past, they're really about the present and MAD MEN was no exception. It was about today and that resonated with people. The same issues of men with their heads in the sand during colossal change could be found 50 years after that era. (Wasn't there a lot of Don Draper in Mitt Romney, a man still trying to figure out who he was, what he believed in, and struggling to form a true identity during the 2012 presidential campaign? Even the hair was similar. Again, all that Brylcreem!) 

And who would have ever guessed that a show about people making advertising would become such a phenomenon that enthralled even those who've never set foot in an agency? I suspect Weiner knew that this strange world would resonate with an audience that grew up surrounded by marketing, inundated with commercials and media, and slaves to the urge to consume. Everyone is a potential buyer after all, and MAD MEN was all about showing how everyone then and now is selling something. 

Weiner always talked up to his audience, and I think viewers appreciated having to think a bit more during the show. There was always a lot of water cooler debate on Monday, after the Sunday airing, about the characters and what they really felt, particularly Don. It was fascinating to dissect. Weiner's characters defied convention, so did his storytelling, and we seldom found easy answers. The mystery of it all drew us in even further. 

Weiner truly changed the template for episodic drama even more than his mentor David Chase did during the run of HBO's THE SOPRANOS. It too was amazing TV, of course, but it was about a subject that is always inherently dramatic - the Mob. Then along comes Weiner's show about people who make 30 second commercials and it proved to be just as dramatic and tense as all that gangland warfare was. That was a truly remarkable achievement.

MAD MEN succeeded without any of the surefire scenes that the industry insists upon to keep an audience watching. The show had no action-oriented set pieces. No episode or season finales that resembled anything like a cliffhanger. And few of its characters ever truly found redemption. Every screenwriting book in Hollywood tells you that your script must have such things, but Weiner and his show seemed to thumb their noses at such formula. He resisted. We benefited. 


Original caricature by Jeff York of Betty and Sally (January Jones and Kiernan Shipka) of MAD MEN
(copyright 2015)
IT HAD THE MOST ANTIHEROIC LEAD EVER

And in Don Draper, Weiner created one of the best TV characters ever - a handsome cad who was a train wreck. We just couldn't look away. And Jon Hamm gave one of the greatest performances ever by playing that antihero with such authority and vulnerability. Hopefully, the Emmy voter will finely award him a statue, and shame on them for not doing it years ago! 

And regarding Don, has TV ever seen such an irredeemable lead, a main character so unwilling or unable to change? A man who so often back-pedaled? Don Draper was a cheat, a liar, and a con man so many times that he actually was quite sociopathic in his way. There was a heart somewhere underneath all that, or we'd like to think there was, but Don sure could be the biggest shit nonetheless. At least he was called out on it continually, at work, at home and at play. So why couldn’t Don change? 

Well, as Weiner has pointed out in many interviews, people don’t really change all that much in life. Sure, Don tried here and there, but like most people, he could only venture so far outside his comfort zone. He attempted on occasion to be less selfish and more empathetic, yet for every noble step he took forward, he would seemingly end up taking the proverbial two steps back. It's a credit to Hamm that we always saw the lost soul inside, even when he was wreaking so much havoc.

In an early season, Don bared his soul to his colleague and love interest Faye, and in that moment, he clearly felt like he'd removed a huge albatross from around his neck. But alas, it was too good to last. Don backslid once again, dumping his intellectual equal and moral superior because his ego just couldn't take it. Instead, he ended up quickly courting and marrying his young secretary Megan. She was in awe of him for a while, but she saw his warts soon enough too. Weiner was always on the side of the women Don hurt. And he ensured that they always called him out on his bullshit.

Don did have some wonderful moments of forward-thinking. He recognized Peggy’s talent and often championed her. His shocking admission to the Hershey client about his whorehouse upbringing lost the account and got him fired, but it was a clarifying moment of self-truth for Don. And he reached out to Sally to try to make up for all the hell he had put her through. But Don never quite made it all the way to redemption. It was too easy to turn tail and run.

Don could stand with Tony from THE SOPRANOS in many ways. And that wasn't good. Heck, sometimes Tony came off better than Don because he truly was trying. Despite his sins, mobster Tony was desperate to change, even going so far as to see a psychiatrist. Walter White, too, was another antihero on TV that Don had a lot in common with. Both were always BREAKING BAD, but Walter's motivation for dealing drugs was to secure his family’s future. Comparatively, Don committed most of his transgressions because of a woefully overblown sense of machismo and entitlement. His family never came into the picture. He wasn’t a killer like those other two men, but for a guy whose greatest strength was that he was a marketing whiz, he sure left a lot of damage in his wake.


Original caricature by Jeff York of Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) of MAD MEN (copyright 2015)
And in the last moments of the show, when Don is trying to get in touch with his mind, body and soul through chanting and yoga, he likely smiles in that last close-up because the ad wizard in his soul has just thought of an ingenious way to co-opt the touchy-feely youth culture for a soda brand that desperately wants to be the brand in hand. You don't know if such a brainstorm is to be admired or reviled. Maybe both. Don Draper was both tragedy and comedy, a metaphor for that America which Weiner was critiquing throughout the run of the show. He represented a nation that no longer knew who it was, had some serious integrity issues, and took a lot down with him while he tried to figure it all out. 

THE PRODUCTION VALUES CHANGED TV'S LOOK

Sure, we’re now all used to the incredible production design and cinematography of programs like GAME OF THRONES and HANNIBAL. They look like movies. But MAD MEN did it best and set a new course for making every detail count in ways it hadn't before, from top to bottom, socks to props to everything. It revived sixties fashion styles too, particularly in bringing back those tight fitting, small lapeled men’s suits, and you can see them any night that Jimmy Fallon or Bill Maher are on. AMC TV spent a pretty penny on MAD MEN, but every single cent always was there in plain view. Never had the small screen loomed so large.


Original caricature by Jeff York of Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)

IT PERFECTLY MATCHED TODAY'S TIMES

Weiner's finale opted for a cynicism that is perfectly in tune with our times. Clearly, he didn’t want to go for a neat, pat ending and just because Peggy and Stan are together, that doesn't guarantee a "happily ever after" for them. Same with Pete's reconciliation with Trudy. Joan’s business venture could be wildly successful, or not. And maybe Don returns to McCann with a Coke jingle that puts him back on top of the ad world, but I doubt he'd truly be happy even with such fame. 


Original caricature by Jeff York of Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) of MAD MEN (copyright 2013)
And in thinking about the show this past decade, it seemed to me that the show really zeroed in on how badly we handle turbulent times in our nation. 9-11, like the big tragedies of the sixties, didn't bring us closer together. It tore us apart even more and made factions more partisan. Electing a black president didn't make us 'post racial', as Ferguson and Baltimore certainly proved. And even though we know what global warming is doing to the planet, our heads remain in the sand. Is it much different from that bygone era of MAD MEN when too many people refused to believe that cigarettes were killers? (Alas, poor Betty, we knew thee - cough, cough - well.) 

Are we falling like Don in the opening credits, with everything we once believed in falling away too? Weiner's answer was, "Yes, indeed." MAD MEN held up a mirror to all of us and said, "Look America, you're a nation of Don Drapers." Stop flailing, stop falling, and change. Do more than just obsess over the next iteration of the iPhone. Stop being a self-absorbed consumer and think outside your selfies and personal lattes. The world is going mad, after all. So what are you going to do about it?

Monday, May 11, 2015

EIGHT EERIE WAYS "BATES MOTEL" CREPT UP ON "PSYCHO" IN ITS THIRD SEASON

Vera Farmiga and Freddie Highmore as Norma and Norman Bates in BATES MOTEL.
“Bates Motel” ended its third season May 11 and the show inspired by Alfred Hitchcock’s most famous film has brilliantly forged its own take on Norman Bates’ backstory, yet it’s also moved closer and closer to its source material with each subsequent season. In fact, this year’s 10 episodes riffed on a number of visual ideas and motifs that any fan of “Psycho” would recognize, and it did so with great wit and finesse. Here are the eight eeriest ways A & E’s hit show inched closer to the 1960 horror classic:

Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga) either dresses like a mom or a tramp.
Norman has started channeling his mother’s voice

In the past seasons of the TV show, Norman (Freddie Highmore) has experienced fantasies of his mother scolding him, usually when he was about to have sex. In the movie “Psycho” Norman does as well, but he also imitates his mother’s voice talking to him. Now, that’s happened on “Bates Motel” as well.  This season, Norman truly found his voice, er, her voice. And he’s been caught doing it by everyone from his sensitive brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) to his wayward uncle Caleb (Kenny Johnson).

Norman played the mother role this season. He even wore her housecoat while making breakfast.

Norman is starting to dress like his mom too

Vera Farmiga’s Norman Bates is a walking contradiction. Sometimes she’s the conservatively dressed mother hen, lording her maternal instincts over everyone from her brood to the Sheriff (an often flummoxed Nestor Carbonell). And other times, she dresses to seduce. This season she ran away in a snit and dressed like a floozy, hoping to bed a stranger. Norman was so upset with her exit, he lost his marbles and started channeling her whole cloth, right down to wearing her housecoat. 

Mrs. Bates is starting to sit at the bedroom window

The show has sometimes been hesitant to rely on visuals that clearly come from the movie, but this season a number of shots echoed the film blatantly. Norman observed his mother watching him from her upstairs bedroom window. That is a direct lift from the film, and it added even more chills to the show, as we know that Norman will eventually prop his mother’s corpse in a chair by the window to continue the illusion that she’s alive.


The show frequently employed overhead shots

“Bates Motel” has also started to employ the overhead POV shots to make everything in the hotel more macabre, from shots of the ominous staircase to Norman’s time in the tub. Unusual camera angles like that added to the oddity of the Bates world in the movie, and they did so in the TV series as well.

Good girls are starting to disturb Norman’s libido

Did Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) trigger her own death by mildly flirting with Norman in the movie? Yes, as any stirring of his sex drive triggers his Mother’s jealous mindset. That’s been happening all season long this year, first with the prostitute Annika (Tracy Spiridakos) openly propositioning Norman. He didn't kill her, but he easily could have. And sadly, in the season finale, the forlorn Bradley (Nikola Peltz) made a fatal mistake when she tried to pull Norma away from his home. How will Norman/Norma react when he realizes his old flame Emma (Olivia Cooke) is falling hard for Dylan? The likely outcome is not a pleasant prospect.

Is Emma (Olivia Cole) doomed as a good girl in Norman's world?

The show's tracking shots looked like Hitchcock's

The Master of Suspense loved tracking shots, especially those going up or down stairs, and this season “Bate Motel” added more and more of them to its visual vocabulary. Such shots add urgency and tension to the storytelling as the camera moves us closer into the action. And getting up close and personal with this cast of characters is very frightening indeed.

Norman’s obsession with taxidermy has become prevalent

The show established Norman’s strange hobby in season one, but it’s even more of a recurring visual motif now. It shows he’s becoming more and more comfortable with death. And it's a place he has a sense of control as he seldom does anywhere else in his world. How much longer until he starts preserving some human subjects?

Dylan (Max Theriot) and Emma follow Norman up those famous stairs.


 The soundtrack is starting to echo Bernard Herrmann

As shocking as it is, the show has never vamped on the well-known movie score by master composer Bernard Herrmann. And while the show hasn’t employed the shrieking strings outright, the melodramatic orchestrations are inching closer and closer to it. When Norman goes full psycho in the coming season, as everything is pointing to, can the shrieking strings be far away? Doubtful.

Whether or not A & E renews BATES MOTEL for a fourth season remains to be seen. But if it does, rich story opportunities await as the show inches closer and closer to the movie, and Norman inches closer and closer to his mother and a truly horrible killer. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

FIVE WAYS TO MAKE MARVEL MOVIES BETTER


AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON certainly had the big opening that was expected, but it didn’t do nearly as well at the weekend box office like the first Avengers movie did two years ago. It also failed to receive as many glowing reviews. Sequels seldom do get the same acclaim, as they tend to go over the same material and characters, or they fail to expand the continuing narrative far enough to make the new chapter seem essential, but at least they often make more moolah. Not the case here, though Marvel has nothing to complain about really.

We do though. The movie wasn't great. In fact, it was kind of "Meh." This Avengers sequel had a lot of problems, from repetitive action sequences to little character development to no new arcs. Especially troubling was its reliance on CGI once again and the whole second half seemed almost like a TRANSFORMERS movie.  It all felt very, very familiar. 

And the new Avengers movie even has similar stakes as the last one. The location isn't New York this time, but a city is still decimated by all the action. Even more familiar is how the characters work together, as well as carp at each other. There's little new depth of character explored beyond Hawkeye and his family and some romantic moments between Dr. Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Natasha (Scarlett Johansson). Unfortunately, the Hulk puts the kibosh on that opportunity by abandoning Black Widow at the end to go and brood on an island somewhere. "Hulk sulk!"

The Hawkeye storyline works decently enough. He's a mortal who doesn't have super human strength so his vulnerabilities are apparent. And he's never had a solo outing so there is still plenty to find out about him. But all the other players feel a bit old hat. It’s probably good that this cast of characters will likely not be teaming together again for more Avenger battles because the franchise needs some new blood and certainly some fresh air. 

And because of their incredible success, Marvel Studios has a whole slew of new movies waiting to be filmed in the coming decade. Some of their new solo movies will be introducing new characters and that's great, especially with the upcoming ANT MAN. He's a one-inch superhero rather than a larger-than-life one, and it looks very different and quite compelling. 

Then there's the upcoming CIVIL WAR movie due in 2016 that promises a lot of character-driven conflict throughout as its storyline deals with superheroes being forced by the government to  come out from behind their masks and go public. That comic book storyline was a real barnburner back when it premiered in 2006. It also polarized fans as much as the sides being taken up in the narrative. You'll remember that the irreversible rift at the core of the story was between Captain America and Iron Man. Cap was against the government registration of superheroes, while Tony Stark was hellbent on doing whatever it took to provide checks and balances. This theme was even set up in the Ultron film with those two exchanging a lot of insults. There's a lot to look forward to with that one.

Marvel needs more conflict like that in its slate of films. When you have superhero leads, there's not a lot of arc for a character as their story usually consists of being asked to save the world again. As director David Fincher has complained, such characters can't die or change too much since they're the franchise, and that means very limited returns. With that in mind, it would behoove Marvel to take a hard look at what their pending slate of movies hold, and see if there's more opportunity to create something that stretches narrative, not just visual effects.

The filmmakers need to ask themselves the following question - What does my hero have to lose here? With that in mind, here are five things that Marvel can do, and should do, to make their upcoming slate of films truly worthy of our Cineplex dollars.

MAKE CHARACTER KING

One of the things that DC does so well on TV with its superhero franchises like ARROW, THE FLASH, and GOTHAM, is that they make character king. Episodic television schedules and budgets don't allow for expensive CGI companies to take months crafting eye-popping special effects and titanic action sequences. Thus, the needs of delivering 15-20 hours of television a season must rely on other things to hold the audience's interest - namely character. Detective Jim Gordon on GOTHAM has dozens of relationships with both good guys and bad guys and the show explores them thoroughly. He's vulnerable, flawed, and interesting. Same with DC's other heroes. Granted, a movie is only a couple of hours long, but it still could stress character building like these TV efforts do.

The earlier Marvel based films did just that. It's there in the first few X-MEN films and those first two SPIDER-MAN movies starring Tobey Maguire. Marvel needs to show us more of who the people are behind the mask, outside of the oversized physical theatrics and ginormous set pieces.  

STOP DESTROYING CITIES

Marvel needs to ensure that their films don’t become just big, dumb, city-wrecking extravaganzas, especially because there have been so many movies defaulting to such tropes for a while now.  The destruction of a city was used as the climax of the first Avengers movie too (Yawn!) as well as the big ending of STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, MAN OF STEEL, and just about every TRANSFORMERS movie that has come down the pike. If Marvel can’t kill its leads because they’re indestructible, and they’re hesitant to accumulate a big civilian casualty account, then property damage is likely all they have left, but it's become boring. They need to find something else at stake other than real estate.

FIND THE CHINKS IN THE ARMOR

Tony Stark builds a virtually indestructible suit of armor, but there’s still a flesh and bone person underneath. You'd never know that though from the way he gets tossed around these days with nary a scratch to show for it. He needs to be much more vulnerable in battle. All of these superheroes should be. Even the Hulk. Bullets can’t stop him, nor can bombs, and the big green galoot can even run through buildings and smash everything in sight, all while barely breaking a sweat, so what can stop him? Even Black Widow gets bounced around in these movies, and yet barely dirties her black leather cat suit. That's silly. Where's the vulnerability?

GO SMALL

The ANT MAN preview is so exciting because it’s zigging while the others zag. Not only does Paul Rudd go against anyone’s version of a superhero, what with his ‘James Garner-esque’ silver-tongued coward qualities, but they’ve got him playing a man who’s shrunk down to barely an inch tall. In such a world even a tennis ball could become a boulder worthy of the one that rolled after Indiana Jones in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Placing heroes in a physical world where they’re vulnerable on every level, emotionally and physically, will give audiences more to invest in. They become more relatable and fallible people. I love Thor but I can’t relate to him much anymore. Most gods are out of reach that way, right?

MAKE SUPERHERO MOVIES WITH WOMEN LEADS

Black Widow could have her own movie, couldn't she? What others are there in the Marvel universe? There are dozens potentially. Or would Marvel ever consider creating a new character exclusively for the screen, male or female? One that doesn't have an iron suit, juiced muscles or a god's immortality. Or testosterone, for that matter. Must they all come from the comic book pages, or is there room for a new character that's developed for the movies?

Marvel has truly enjoyed ginormous success on the big screen, and if it ain't broke, well, you know the rest. But fortunes can change in a moment. SPIDER-MAN was once the sure thing franchise but now it's got a host of issues. At least Marvel doesn't have the DC big screen problems. Lots of breath is being held to see if Batman can breathe some life into DC's Superman franchise. But Marvel shouldn't rest on its laurels, no matter what their fortunes are. They need to give us characters and stories that we can truly marvel at. And that doesn't need to involve leveling cities.