Tuesday, September 22, 2009

"Right when he got it in the door."

(Warning: The following post contains heavy spoilers for the sixth episode of this season of "Mad Men". If you watch the show, ensure you watch the episode before reading.)

Yesterday, my buddy Pat asked me if I'd watched this week's episode of "Mad Men" yet. Due to a confluence of obnoxious circumstances, I ashamedly admitted that I hadn't. He then encouraged me to watch as soon as possible, suggesting it might be the best episode in the show's' history. "Mad Men" being one of the best television programs of the modern era – and Pat being a notoriously harsh critic – this was no small claim.

Now, I believe that when people hear from a reputable source that a certain piece of art (movie, TV show, book, etc.) is "can't-miss" per se, they're subject to a curious combination of heightened anticipation and gnawing anxiousness. Expectations are obviously raised, but there inevitably comes a nagging sensation that those expectations somehow aren't being met – not because the art isn't actually providing a strong level of entertainment or pleasure, but because there's a voice in the back of your mind asking, "Should I be enjoying this even more?".

So upon hearing Pat's news, I got quite excited, and I have to confess that for the first 40 minutes or so of the episode, I kept wondering if I might be missing something. (This is in no way a rebuke toward Pat – I may be spoiler-crazy, but I have no issues with someone who simply expresses his enthusiasm. Really.) It wasn't that I wasn't enjoying the episode (I certainly was); it was just that I was waiting for it to distinguish itself from the rest of the season's exceptional caliber.

And then the secretary ran over the British guy's foot with a lawnmower.

I mean, wow.

Was that not the most spectacular scene in the history of the show's 32 episodes? I have to think so. (In terms of best episode, I'd probably still go with the second-season finale, but this one's close.) The sheer lunacy of it all – the blood-spattered suits, the suave British guy suddenly dropping all vestiges of suavity ("For the love of Christ!"), and, you know, a secretary careening around the office on a freaking lawnmower – was spectacular enough. But the way it was set up – the way it completely and instantaneously quashed the pervading sense of dread that had suffused the first half of the episode – was simply extraordinary. With a lesser show, such a preposterous development might have felt forced. Here it somehow made perfect sense, because that's the kind of random, how-the-fuck-did-that-happen? thing that can utterly eradicate even the most well-planned, bone-crunchingly corporate type of takeover that the Brits were about to implement. (As Roger later puts it, "Believe me, somewhere in this business, this has happened before".)

But let's not discount the first half of the episode, which was superb enough in itself. First, there's Cooper's violent misreading of the purpose for the Brits' visit, believing they want to snatch Draper and drag him across the pond to London. What was fascinating about that is that it's perhaps the first time we've ever seen Draper become genuinely excited about anything. He's been asserting his authority on cruise control for years, and he knows he's invulnerable, but has he ever really hoped for anything before?

That leads to the heart-wrenching shot of Draper lying awake in bed with a slight smile on his face (beautifully contrasted with Sally staring in fear at the newly installed nightlight, desperate for protection). I'd never seen Draper smile like that before, and as soon as we see it, we know the London idea is a mirage and that things will go badly. I've always believed that the greatest strength of "Mad Men" is its ability, despite a large ensemble, to compel us to sympathize with all of the characters, and watching that smile on Draper's face (one of Jon Hamm's finest moments as an actor), I felt such incredible pity for him. In the prior episode, Peggy pointed out – quite truthfully – that Draper had everything she wanted, and yet I still felt sadness for him here because it was the first time that he really wanted something, and he wasn't going to get it.

Of course, befitting the show, Draper wasn't the only character I pitied. Joan, poor Joan. It was bad enough when her pretty-boy husband turned out to be an evil rapist, but now he's just a pathetic, incompetent would-be surgeon. That's even more sad, but Joan's painful realization (or confirmation, as hints had already been dropped) – that she won't be able to run off and live the life of luxury with a rich doctor and a white picket fence – just happens to brutally coincide with Sterling-Cooper finally recognizing her for her service. When the British guy toasts her accomplishments and she breaks down in tears, I wanted to join her.

Hell, I even felt sympathy for Jared Harris' character when he gets shipped off to India. It isn't his fault that he's such a schmuck – he's just been toeing the company line. His disappointment after being appointed the company's "snake-charmer" is entirely understandable, and his superior's response ("Don't pout. One of your greatest qualities is you always do as you're told.") somehow constitutes an act of wanton cruelty.

And how about that young British guy who was all set to take charge before John Deere intervened? What was interesting about him was that he reminded me strongly of Campbell, only in all of the best ways. Sure, he's clearly a slick politician (delivering the same line of greeting to both Campbell and Peggy was a nice touch), but he somehow doesn't seem unctuous or officious. He truly believes that he's a corporate prodigy who will lead Sterling-Cooper to greatness. Hell, he probably is a prodigy – in his initial meeting the head honchos, Draper can't find a bad thing to think about him (and as Roger points out, Draper judges everyone). But in the end, the British higher-ups treat him the same way they treated Jared Harris and callously dismiss his entire future (even Draper raises his eyebrows). Their justification? "He'll never golf again."

Of course, part of the pleasure of the episode was watching the Americans conquer their British masters against all odds, and the personified force of American vengeance – besides the lawnmower, of course – is Roger. Motivated by his exclusion from the new corporate hierarchy chart (or perhaps just because he's always amused to see other people suffer), he reacts to the horror of the accident with sublime indifference. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that the following exchange is the funniest in the history of the show:

Kinsey: "He might lose his foot."
Roger: "Right when he got it in the door."

That's funny, but it also typifies Roger's "Don't fuck with me" attitude that likely led to his rise up the corporate ranks. Roger is a legitimate adversary – his bark has bite – and perhaps that's why Draper actually says "Thank you" during the earlier scene in the barbershop. Draper hardly every thanks anyone, and he probably doesn't mean it this time, but he recognizes it's the safer play to mollify Roger rather than continually antagonize him.

(By the way, that aforementioned chart provides one of my favorite subtle moments in the episode. The British guy says that he, Draper, and Cooper are three equal department heads, but if you look closely, you can see that Draper's name is positioned slightly below the other two; the line connecting his name to the British guy's name is diagonal, indicating he's a subordinate. Don't think Draper didn't notice.)

So what happens next? In theory, Sterling-Cooper can just go back to normal (I'm praying Joan is still prominently involved), although the accident will obviously have some minor immediate consequences. Regardless, I'm confident the show will continue to explore exciting new avenues of corporate strife while keeping its focus squarely on its characters, which is exactly where it should be.

Consider the lovely final scene in the episode, when Draper comforts Sally about her new baby brother. "We don't know who he is yet, and we don't know who he's going to be," he tells her. "And that is a wonderful thing."

We may know what "Mad Men" is – the best show on television – but we never know where it's going. And that, too, is a wonderful thing.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Looking Toward Toronto (and away from trailers)

Not being the traveling sort (unless Disney World is involved), I confess that I've rarely thought to myself, "You know what? I wish I were in Toronto right now". This week, however, Roy Halladay's town hosts the venerated Toronto International Film Festival, and I wish I were north of the border, because the lineup looks freaking fantastic. Sundance used to be the preeminent film festival in the North America, but the Canadians eclipsed Robert Redford's ski-bonanza some time ago. As such, Toronto is now the definitive destination for late-season film fare.

Why should you care? Because movies that play in Toronto invariably figure into the cinematic landscape during the final three months of the year. For whatever reason, it's now standard practice for studios to backload their schedules and release their higher-quality productions during this time (thus creating "Oscar Season"). Whatever your opinion of the Oscars themselves, it's hard to argue that the strongest movies of the year don't arrive in theatres after September. (At least for the most part. Avid blockbuster supporter that I am, I freely admit that the summer season can house terrific entertainment – more on that in a future post – but I nevertheless acknowledge that from a pure volume standpoint, October through December is the clear winner.) And a significant number of those films appear at Toronto's now-epic festival.

Just to prove I'm not making this up: Of my top six movies in 2007, FIVE of them – Atonement, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, Eastern Promises, Michael Clayton, and No Country for Old Men – played in Toronto. And I didn't even mention Juno, which scored four Oscar nominations and racked up $143 million at the box office. For studios in search of a launching pad for their features, Toronto is the ultimate cinematic trampoline.

Given that, I thought I'd highlight the top five movies currently playing at Toronto that I'm most excited to see in the coming months. Obviously, this isn't a comprehensive list – many other movies at the festival are likely to figure into this year's Oscar race, and I plan on seeing most of them. But I'm most energized to see the big five.

(For completists, other films at Toronto that I'll almost certainly see once they're released in theatres: Antichrist, Bad Lieutenant: Port Call of New Orleans, Bright Star, Broken Embraces, Chloe, Creation, Enter the Void, Fish Tank, George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead, Get Low, The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, Life During Wartime, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Precious, A Prophet, Whip It, White Material, The White Ribbon, and The Young Victoria. Sadly, it's likely that half of these will fail to make it to a multiplex near me, but for those that do arrive, I'm there. And if you think I'm kidding, you really don't know me.)

Before unveiling the top five, I should acknowledge that, quite frankly, I know very little of what the upcoming films are actually about. I know that I very much want to see them, either because I'm an ardent fan of their pedigree (director, cast, etc.) or because industry buzz has been hot (I may not work in the industry, but I follow it so obsessively that I can pick up on the inside word-of-mouth). But as far as knowledge of a specific movie's actual plot, I'm clueless.

Why? Because I haven't seen the trailer.

I've ranted at length in the past about how aggressively I despise trailers. (If you're interested in said rant, go here and scroll down to the discussion of Before the Devil Knows You're Dead.) Suffice it to say that even the most innocuous trailers give away crucial dialogue, while the most egregious (Cassandra's Dream, Michael Clayton) reveal virtually the entire plot, sometimes even spoiling a film's final scene. Such revelations might be difficult to grasp if you only watch a preview once, but as someone who sits in a movie theatre 90-plus times per year (I'm hoping to finally crack the century mark in 2009), I'm liable to see the same trailer upwards of 10 times.

As Hubie Brown might ask, O.K., what does that mean? Well, it means that the trailer that has permanently emblazoned its imprint on my mind and mentally stalks me once I'm finally watching the movie. Said imprint haunts me in several ways: It reduces suspense (because it's already revealed key plot twists), minimizes laughs (because I've already heard the movie's funniest lines), and generally increases my anxiety (because I'm constantly anticipating scenes that haven't played yet).

Look, I admit that trailers are a necessary marketing tool, and some of them are very nicely crafted. Hell, I'll still watch them on occasion if I don't know whether or not I want to see the particular film they're advertising. But here's the thing: If you already know that you want to see a movie (which is frequently the case with me), watching the trailer isn't just pointless – it actively diminishes your enjoyment of the movie once you finally watch it. (As a personal anecdote, I remain convinced that my sister failed to appreciate Gran Torino – which she saw in January – because she'd already seen the trailer seven different times; it aired prior to each of the movies we saw together over Christmas. It reached the point that she was mocking certain lines from the movie before she'd even seen it. How is this a good thing?)

So, how have I managed to avoid the trailers for the upcoming films? Simple: I listen to my iPod. No, really. Whenever I'm in sitting in a movie theatre and the previews commence, I queue up The Hold Steady's "Same Kooks" and stare at the floor. To the best of my knowledge, I'm the only person in the history of the world who actually does this, but no one has ever complained or ridiculed me (at least, not to me face). If you think it sounds ridiculous, just think about it the next time you go see a comedy and bitch about how the trailer gave away all the best lines.

(By the way, the peculiar thing is that, while The Hold Steady are one of my favorite bands, "Same Kooks" might be my least favorite of their songs, but it serves its purpose because it's consistently loud with no gaps of silence, meaning random snippets of dialogue can't filter into my ears should the song suddenly go quiet. Yes, I'm serious.)

Now, let me assure you that I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this new approach to moviegoing has completely changed my life. When I go see a movie now, I no longer carry in preconceived notions of its plot. I haven't already memorized portions of its dialogue. I don't have a guess at its ending. It's all new.

Take an example: Last month I saw Moon. Going in, I knew the movie's genre (science-fiction), director (Duncan Jones, David Bowie's son), and lead (Sam Rockwell). That was it. I had absolutely no knowledge of its plot. As a result, I was successfully surprised by a major plot twist halfway through the film. It was like I was watching the movie for the first time (ironic because, you know, I was). When I returned home, out of curiosity I watched the trailer – sure enough, it unveils the movie's key twist. Avoiding Moon's trailer made me a happier person.

So, if you're wondering why the following synopses are a little thin on, well, synopsis, now you know. On the plus side, you don't need to fear spoilers from the upcoming list because there aren't any. Which is sweet.

On to the list. Here are the five movies playing at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival that I'm most looking forward to seeing:

5. An Education. I've never claimed to be much of a reader; as such, I've never read Nick Hornby's novel upon which this film is based. In fact, I've never read anything by Hornby. But ever since Stephen Frears adapted Hornby's novel High Fidelity into one of the most effortlessly entertaining, emotionally precise, supremely quotable movies of this decade, I've kept his name on my radar. An Education is being billed as a coming-of-age story of sorts, and I expect Hornby's screenplay to offer his usual keen insight into post-adolescent youth. As for the cast, Carey Mulligan has been receiving rave notices for her performance (several pundits are already insisting that the 2009 Best Actress race is a duel between Mulligan and Meryl Streep for Julie & Julia) opposite the always dependable Peter Sarsgaard, while the even more dependable Alfred Molina is on hand in support. I don't know much about the movie's director (Lone Scherfig) except that she has a badass name, but the combination of a Hornby screenplay and enthusiastic buzz have me more than intrigued.

4. The Informant!
I'm not exactly a Steven Soderbergh disciple. He's plenty full of himself (for Christ's sake, his four-hour-plus biopic Che might have been the first movie since 2001: A Space Odyssey to include an intermission), and he seems to make movies like Bubble and The Girlfriend Experience just to prove how unique and interesting he is. Still, the fact remains that he's made one of the greatest heist movies ever in Ocean's Eleven, while Traffic and Erin Brockovich, if not flawless, are nevertheless eminently watchable. In fact, despite Soderbergh's artistic pretensions, I'd argue his best movies are straightforward, big-budget studio efforts.

The Informant! – an out-and-out spoof starring Matt Damon – could function as a perfect blend, allowing Soderbergh to utilize both sides of his schizophrenic directorial persona. It's clearly an A-list production (courtesy of Damon), so he'll ensure the masses are entertained, but it looks goofy and original enough to stimulate his intellect and encourage him to take some creative chances. I'm also intrigued to see Damon bite into a broadly comic role; he's always been a talented comedian who never received appropriate credit for his hilarious work in the two Ocean's sequels.

3. The Road
. Strangely enough, I do have detailed knowledge of the plot of The Road because I actually read Cormac McCarthy's novel (courtesy of my buddy Pat). Not that there's much plot to spoil – it's about a man and his son trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic world. That's it. And that's why I sort of hated the book, which was so was miserably depressing and unrelenting in its horrific vision that it took me six months to finish. (Plus, McCarthy's florid prose is a bit grandiose for someone whose two favorite authors are J.K. Rowling and Nelson DeMille.) Still, I think the skeleton of the novel is highly cinematic, and it could translate beautifully (perhaps grotesquely) to the screen in the right hands.

Those hands belong to John Hillcoat, and he certainly has the right resume. Hillcoat directed the Australian thriller The Proposition, which was beautifully photographed and almost alarmingly bleak – two features that tie perfectly into The Road's raison d'ĂȘtre. The choice of Viggo Mortensen as the lead also seems perfect, as few contemporary actors devote themselves so fully to a role (remember that prior to shooting Eastern Promises, Mortensen spent five days in Russia without a translator because he wanted to absorb the culture). Throw in supporting work from Charlize Theron, Robert Duvall, Guy Pearce, and Michael K. Williams (Omar in "The Wire"), and The Road just might be the most magnificently depressing movie of the year.

2. A Serious Man
. Coen Brothers. That's all I have to say.

1. Up in the Air
. Here's what I know: I know the director is Jason Reitman, whose first two features (Thank You for Smoking and Juno) showcased a deft hand for snappy dialogue and an innate ability to subtly balance the comic with the dramatic. I know the star is George Clooney, who's an automatic home run at this point and who's two years removed from delivering one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. And I know the buzz for this movie has been downright phenomenal, possibly surpassing the ecstatic fan-cloud that trailed Slumdog Millionaire around throughout the fall of 2008.

Here's what I don't know: Anything else.

I'm going in cold. And I wouldn't have it any other way. Here's to Oscar Season.