Category: 2008


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In 2008, before Revolutionary Road was released, the film generated a ton of hype for a variety of reasons. Most obviously, it was the first on-screen pairing of Titanic stars Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed). It was also buzz-worthy for the fact that Kate Winslet’s then-husband, Sam Mendes (Skyfall), was directing her in a film that required her to have sex scenes with two different men. That’s a feat of marital trust that I’m not sure that I could pull off. While the film was generally well-received, it’s praise nowhere near matched the hype, and having come to the film five years later removed from the hype, I see Revolutionary Road as a film with infinite promise that is sullied by some of the worst, most overcooked dialogue I’ve ever encountered for this blog.

To Revolutionary Road‘s credit, the film is dark beyond compare. The only thing keeping this from being a Todd Solondz-esque journey into suburban malaise is a general lack of graphic material. As a portrait of a marriage on the perpetual verge of collapse and of lives (and perhaps an entire human existence) that are devoid of meaning and fulfillment, Revolutionary Road starts bleak, stays bleak, and ends bleak, and it never shies away from the most brutal and intimate moments in a marriage. With astounding performances from its leads (and supporting player Michael Shannon), Revolutionary Road could have been one of the most effecting character pieces of the 2000s. As it is, I found myself laughing every five minutes from the comically overblown dialogue and speechifying from its principal players.

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Dysfunctional barely begins to cover the marriage of the Wheeler family in the supposed perfectness of the 1950s. Frank (Leonardo DiCaprio) works as a salesman/copy writer for the same firm his father worked for and hates the complete lack of purpose in his life. April (Kate Winslet) was a former actress who now pretends to love her empty life as a house wife. Frank cheats on April with a cute secretary (Zoe Kazan) while April has eyes for their neighbor, Shep. When the duo decide that the only way to save their marriage and their lives by moving to Paris, have they found their last chance for hope or is it just another delusion that their lives can have any meaning?

While I have the sneaking suspicion that this is a movie I may actually appreciate on a second viewing, that didn’t make the first viewing any more bearable. It takes until the film’s final thirty minutes for the slow dripping of characterization to finally gel into something meaningful, and by that time, I had already exhausted my patience with the film’s snail-like pacing. Movies like Sunday Bloody Sunday show that deliberate peeling away of character can make for first-class drama, but Revolutionary Road betrays its thematic material and rich characterization with mind-numbing emotional histrionics and dialogue that nukes away any subtlety the scenes might have carried.

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Thankfully, the film had three simply marvelous performances to distract me from the stunningly awful dialogue in the movie (and it’s flaccid first two acts). Both Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet give one of the best performances of their careers as these spouses whose indifference towards one another spills over to near hatred. Each is lost and hollow and desperate for any form of acceptance and meaning, and through their emotionally explosive performances, Kate and Leo make us feel the years of pent-up resentment and frustration eating away at these two spouses. That they achieve this despite the dialogue hurdles in their way is even more of a testament to their performances.

The real scene-stealer of the film though was Michael Shannon whose dynamic portrayal of the mentally unstable son of the Wheelers’ real estate agent provided the film the emotional and manic jolt it needed to put the pieces in play for the film’s rewarding final stretch. Along with Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, this was a superb modern portrayal of mental illness (i.e. a portrayal set in the 50s). Michael Shannon was the only cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination. Kate and Leo deserved them as well, but more than anyone, Michael Shannon’s performance was incendiary.

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I’ll draw this review to a close because there are other ways I’d rather spend my Wednesday evening than rambling about a film I didn’t particularly care for. There’s a lot to like about Revolutionary Road (and Sam Mendes’s visual direction is superb), but there are even more things to hate about it. I can’t stress enough how “pretentious college theatre student” the dialogue in this movie felt and how much it drew me out of the experience again and again. If you’re a fan of good acting, I’m not sure if I can say that Leo and Kate make this film worth the price of admission, but they’re about the only thing that could.

Final Score: C+

 

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I’ve had a terrible fucking hangover all day. Since I’m 23, most of my friends in college have graduated even though I’m still an undergrad. Sadly, this means I don’t have that many friends left in Morgantown. It’s my fault, but that’s how it is. Anyways, this week, I made a new friend who’s in my Campaigns and Elections class. We were both so stoked about the President’s stellar performance during Tuesday’s debate (which earned a shout out on here via the Boss) that last night we went out and celebrated. We probably celebrated our Democratic pride a little too hard. I spent the entire morning throwing up, and I’m still a little hung-over. She isn’t feeling much better. So what better song to use after I over-indulged in beer, vodka, and jaeger, than “Blame It” by Jamie Foxx feat. T-Pain. I don’t actually know if I think this is a good song (probably not that much) and the first time I heard it was in the alcohol episode of Glee, but it fits my mood right now which is essentially “I’m never drinking again (until the next time I drink).” But seriously. Fuck alcohol. It was a fun night though. I just hate the price I paid today.

One of the perks of this blog is the way that by forcing me to watch such a wide variety of movies, it’s really helped me to learn what I like about cinema and what I don’t. I’m much better at picking out quality movies from mediocre films, and I can tell when a director is really making an insight into the human condition as opposed to cheaply manipulating the audience’s emotions. Another perk is that because I’ve watched so many films that span from my most recent movie review (in terms of how recent it was released), The Avengers, to my oldest reviewed film, The Birth of a Nation, I’ve got 97 years of cinema to draw from to chart the growth of the art form and to see how one director’s works fit in the greater scheme of cinematic canon. I can watch a Terence Malick and immediately notice the debt he pays to Fellini and to Kubrick. Similarly, I can put in a Woody Allen movie and be astounded by just how much the man was influenced by Ingmar Bergman and in turn how much Alexander Payne was influenced by Woody Allen (though striking out on his own, more serious path). I just finished Charlie Kaufman’s directorial debut (in addition to his impressive library of films that he’s written), Synecdoche, New York, and while it’s obvious that Kaufman is likely one of the world’s biggest Federico Fellini fans (especially 8 1/2 as I noted in my Adaptation. review), he is an artist of such startlingly original creative vision that at this point, we must simply bow down and say that along with David Lynch, he is one of the true masters of the cinematic form of this age and that Synecdoche, New York is likely his best film to date.

Caden Cotard is a neurotic and depressed hypochondriac that makes his living as a small, regional theater director. His current play is an (ultimately ironic now that I think about it) adaptation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman where he casts younger actors in the roles of Willy and Linda. He is in a loveless marriage with his wife Adele (Catherine Keener) and their young daughter Olive. Although the critics and audience adore his play, Adele, a fellow artist, sees nothing of value or originality in it and along with other reasons decides to leave for Berlin with Olive and never (intentionally) enters Caden’s life ever again. Caden enters an even more depressed funk and not even the blossoming of a romance with box office girl Hazel (Samantha Morton) can help him. Ultimately, his own neuroses and self-loathing destroy this before it can even take off the ground. Things have the potential to turn around for Caden though when he’s given a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” grant. He decides to stage an original play which he hopes will be the great achievement of his life. Purchasing an airplane hangar sized warehouse (much bigger than that though) in New York City, Caden hopes to stage a massive play to capture the brutal truth and despair of life. He creates a life-size replica of many of the places in his life and casts actors to play himself as well as those involved in his life. As the line between art and reality becomes incredibly thin, time continues to flow forward in Caden’s life as he spends decades working on a play that may never actually come to fruition.

That brief description of the plot doesn’t begin to do justice to the recursive and multi-layered storytelling going on in this film. If you thought Kaufman’s previous pictures were complex and and highly meta-textual, Synecdoche, New York makes them look like child’s play. The plot itself is fairly straight-forward. We’re taken through decades in the life of one man flailing against his own mortality and existence and his own ultimate lack of importance. God, now I’m making even more connections to Death of a Salesman. Caden has so much in common with Willy Loman that I didn’t even think about during the film itself. Except in Synecdoche, New York, I sort of think that the point is we’re all Willy Lomans but I don’t want to ruin the beautiful and heart-wrenching (it manages to be both of those things simultaneously) denouement of the film for anyone who hasn’t seen it. Because you’re going to spend two hours wondering what the hell you’re watching and what the ultimate meaning of this film is. You’re going to think that Charlie Kaufman’s film is as incoherent and unnecessarily sprawling as Caden’s play-within-the-film. And then the ending strikes you like a massive slap to the face, and you realize what a genius Kaufman is. Let me just say this. There are directors and writers whose heads I’d like to explore. I’d love to delve into Neil Gaiman’s mind or David Lynch’s or Woody Allen’s. I want to spend zero time in Kaufman’s mind. The two characters in his body of work that seem to be the most obvious Kaufman stand-ins are A) himself in Adaptation (for obvious reasons) and B) Caden in this film. They’re both highly depressed and neurotic individuals. I have enough of that in my own life and not since Woody Allen has there been a writer who has so expertly nailed self-loathing and neuroses.

Philip Seymour Hoffman is one of the most under-rated actors of his generation and along with Happiness, this is likely one of the greatest performances of his career (and deserved far more recognition than it got). If Woody Allen and Paul Giamatti are the two go-to actors of the last two generations for neuroses and malaise (especially malaise), Philip Seymour Hoffman has taken that mantle for his peer group. When you can make an utterly pathetic and miserable human being so compelling to watch, you’ve achieved something. Back to the Death of a Salesman comparisons, but Caden has much in common with Willy Loman. Except he’s even less likeable and far less charismatic. With the help of wonderful prosthetic makeup to age him, Philip Seymour Hoffman guides us on a journey through Caden’s ultimately fruitless life with few landmarks other than the next tragedy and embarrassment. Yet, in the vein of all of the great “pathetic heroes” or the Willy Loman archetype, it is in the humanity and ultimate rawness of Hoffman’s performance that we care deeply about Caden despite his own insignificance (and in turn, our own insignificance). The performances from the rest of the cast are stellar as well. There are too many wonderful supporting performances to mention all of them but special mention must go to Dianne Wiest and Emily Watson for exceptional performances later in the film in smaller roles (in terms of time on screen) that turn out to be the crux on which much of the film turns.

Virtually the key trait I judge films by anymore (because let’s face it, plot is a dried up well at this point. There are rare exceptions [this film was one of those exceptions]) is their ability to evoke an emotional reaction. Obviously, long-time readers of this blog know the value I place in gorgeous and symbolically rife cinematography but that doesn’t make a film. Those only work when a film is able to either hit me at a visceral, gut emotional level or the film bends my brain to contortionist levels. Not since The Road has a film hit me so deeply. Where The Road took an apocalyptic and desolate story to deliver a fable on fathers and sons as well as the misery of life (and whether life is as valuable as we believe and if it’s actually worth living in such horrendous conditions, Synecdoche, New York looks at the impending apocalypse of our own life. It looks at the fictions we create to deal with our own mortality. It basically lets us know that we aren’t worth a damn in the scheme of things. We create our own misery by focusing on the inevitable terrible parts of life and then we get upset by the fact that someday we won’t even be able to experience misery. It’s a comment on the ways that some of us over-intellectualize our own lives to the point that we stop living and get lost in the dense jungle of our own thoughts. This film hit far too close to for me. Part of me is still convinced that I chose writing as a profession because it allowed me to escape the horrible realities of life and the chance of failure and moral compromise inherent in the paths I had set myself on before my career change. So, to say that I’m still wrestling with the heavy emotional toll of Synecdoche, New York would a gross understatement. I imagine for all intellectuals, your emotional reaction to this film will be similar.

This was Kaufman’s directorial debut and while part of me is slightly curious as to what the film would look like if a more established director had made the film (like say his frequent collaborator Spike Jonze or even Eternal Sunshine‘s Michael Gondry), but with a film this personal, it ultimately makes sense that Kaufman wouldn’t let anyone other than himself this close to the heart of it. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the working pieces of this film, and I suspect (nay, I know with certainty) that it will take multiple viewings to fully grasp what was always happening in this film. By the film’s final act, linearity and reality became a pretzel of fourth-wall blurring magic. Certain visual clues in the film (the way that Caden sees himself and others in the television, the recurring motif that Hazel’s home is on fire, certain things that simply could not happen in reality) lead me to suspect that we are in fact watching Caden’s finished play. We just never see the curtains go up or go down. To me, either that’s the case or the film follows absolutely zero rules of reality. I’m fine with either interpretation. It’s easily one of the most structurally complex films I’ve ever seen, and I’m not ashamed to admit that there were moments in the film (and in my moments of quiet contemplation after it finished) where my head was aching trying to put it all together. Even the title is clever in that typically Charlie Kaufman way as a phonetic pun on Schenectady, NY (where the film begins) as well as the literary concept of asynecdoche which is where a part of something represents the whole (or in reverse). It’s essentially what Caden is trying to do with his play by representing the totality of life and truth through this play (and also what Kaufman is doing with his own film).

If I try to capture all of the intricacies and subtexts of this film, I’ll wind up creating a life-size replica of the movie and I don’t have the energy to go further down the Charlie Kaufman rabbit hole. I warned you all when I reviewed Adaptation. that it was going to be a Charlie Kaufman week here, and the next movie in my instant queue is Being John Malkovich (though I’ll likely watch the Gary Cooper version of For Whom the Bell Tolls that I have at home right now first). So, I’m going to spending a lot of my time in my own head and despite my reservations earlier, I’ll be spending a lot of time in Kaufman’s head. We’re nearing 2000 words which is my limit for any of my reviews (for my sanity’s sake as well as my readers’) so let’s draw this to a close. Should you watch Synecdoche, New York? If you found any of Kaufman’s other films to be unnecessarily obtuse or difficult, then absolutely not. This movie will confuse the hell out of you. If you’re feeling depressed or are in the mist of existential angst, this movie will only make things worse (though I would still recommend you watch it). This is without question one of the most complex and thought-provoking films I’ve reviewed for this blog. In terms of its capability to induce head-scratching confusion, it’s only really matched by Inland Empire though it far outstrips Lynch’s film because of its thematic brilliance and deep insight into the human condition. I don’t give away perfect scores very often. My list for this blog makes me watch the supposed “very best” that cinema has to offer. And out of 235 films, I’ve given away 11 “A+”‘s. So, when I say this is one of the best films I’ve watched for this entire blog. It’s true, and for those wanting an intellectually challenging film experience, Synecdoche, New York is almost peerless.

Final Score: A+

When watching Mad Men, I am consistently struck by the realization that Mad Men is constructed like almost nothing else on television. With its serialized nature, television is a format rife for the possibilities of literary storytelling. However, with rare exceptions, the realm of character driven, mature storytelling has become the purview of genre fiction (fantasy programs like Game of Thrones or science fiction like Lost). Before you throw prime-time soaps in my face, they aren’t mature, intelligent storytelling and also, more often than not, on network dramas (prime-time soaps or other mostly procedural dramas), lessons are learned and episodes are almost entirely self-contained. HBO has had a monopoly on programs like Mad Men in the past (Six Feet Under and The Wire), but there’s a reason why Mad Men is one of the most celebrated TV programs of the last five years, and that’s because it’s proven that cable TV (and maybe, hopefully someday network TV) can do everything that the premium cable channels can do and more.

Betty and Don continue their separation though when Betty’s father has a stroke, they attempt to put their differences aside for a couple days and stay at her father’s house (who thinks Betty is his dead first wife and even feels her up at the kitchen table. Yeesh.) They have sex one evening but when they return home, Betty still asks Don to move back out of the house. Pete Campbell is facing marital problems of his own. He and Trudy are still struggling to conceive and Trudy brings up the possibility of adoption. Pete begins to warm to the idea when he tells his brother about it who then proceeds to tell their shrew of a mother about Pete’s plans. She threatens to cut off Pete’s non-existent inheritance if he and Trudy adopt a child rather than conceive naturally. Don and Pete go on a business trip L.A. together to represent Sterling Cooper at a prestigious industry convention when Don mysteriously disappears and spends several days with a group of wealthy swingers/nomads. Peggy finds herself attracted to the young European Kurt, one of the ad men that Duck brought into to appeal to younger audiences, and is set to see Bob Dylan with him when he unashamedly outs himself to the entire office (I’m guessing Sal wishes he had that kind of courage). Duck falls off the wagon and orchestrates the acquisition and merger of Sterling Cooper by a British advertising firm he used to work for.

Although Pete returns from L.A., Don completely disappears and we finally learn who he’s been writing letters to this season and who the woman was that knew he wasn’t Don Draper in the flashback earlier in the season. Her name is Anna Draper, and she’s the real Don Draper’s wife. Don has been financially supporting her for years. They’ve developed a brother/sister relationship over the years and she was legally Don’s wife for a long time before they got a divorce so he could marry Betty. Because Pete is now refusing to adopt a baby, under pressure from his mother, Trudy’s father pulls the Clearasil from Sterling Cooper (which is Pete’s biggest account). Joan brings her fiance Greg to the office to introduce him to everyone and my suspicions that their relationship was far from perfect are finally confirmed when he rapes her inside Don’s office (after he was unable to get an erection naturally in their bed). Duck brings the news of the merger to the partners at Sterling Cooper and they reluctantly decide to sell the company (where they’ll still be allowed to work. After Peggy lands an account all by herself, she gets her own office to the chagrin of many of her male co-workers. After three weeks of being AWOL, Don finally returns from California only to find the nation in the grips of the Cuban Missile Crisis (and Sterling Cooper on the verge of being merged). Betty discovers that she’s pregnant and has sex in a bathroom with a complete stranger at a bar. Though afterwards (and after receiving a touching letter from Don), she finally reconciles the marriage (for now). Duck, who will be the new President of Sterling Cooper, informs Pete that he’s making Pete the new Head of Accounts. Pete earns the confidence of Don by letting him know what’s happening in the company, and when Pete confesses his love to Peggy, she finally tells him that he was the father of her child and leaves him distressed and confused in the office.

If I found this particular stretch of episodes to be slightly disappointing compared to the last disc, it’s only because “A Night to Remember” was such a stand-out episode. Still, this particular disc took the narrative disconnect that I find so refreshing about this series and pushed it perhaps a little too far. The surrealism that defined the first four episodes of the season (particularly episodes 3 & 4) pushed past surreal and occasionally entered incomprehensible. Specifically, I’m referring to the episode “The Jet Set” where Don hooks up with a group of free-love not quite hippies in their borrowed mansion. Maybe it was the over the top French accent of the de facto leader of the group or the way that Don seemed to be taken this whole trip with such ease, I couldn’t buy it. Don went to California on a business trip and for all of his personal problems, he’s a hell of a businessman. For him to abandon Pete in the middle of a meeting and run off with some chick he just met seems like a real stretch for something that Don Draper might do, even taking his considerable emotional stress into consideration. While I actually enjoyed “The Mountain King” quite a bit, the moments in Don’s youth where he’s describing Betty just showed that man in far too happy of a light. There’s never been a point in this series where he seemed that innocent or that happy. And the scene where he’s talking about working with this group of mechanics he just met to make cars, it seemed like it had no place in the rest of the episode.

I think I can finally articulate why it is that I despise Betty Draper so much but I tend to forgive Don for his more upsetting trespasses. This goes the same for why I dislike Carmela Soprano and Skylar White but I root for Tony Soprano and Walter White. When Don does something hedonistic that might hurt others, he is almost never trying to be spiteful. That’s not an excuse for what he’s doing, but Don is simply pursuing his own selfish self-interest. He has full-knowledge of what he’s doing and he does his best to try and keep it from affecting the lives of those around him. That doesn’t make it right, but I can’t fault hedonism as long as it isn’t causing direct harm to others. Betty, on the other hand, is spiteful and self-righteous and (now) the world’s biggest hypocrite. In “The Mountain King,” she chastised her friend for having an affair with a man they had both lusted after for ages (I think this had more to do with Betty being jealous than real moral outrage), and then in “Meditations in an Emergency,” she goes right out and sleeps with a stranger. Don finally owns up (in his own subtle way) to cheating on Betty with Bobby Barrett. Yet, Betty makes no mention of her affair to Don. She’s pregnant and her doctor told her not to ride a horse. And what does she do, she spends half the episode at the stables (and drinks though that might be before they know it’s bad). Don would never dream of intentionally hurting Betty, but Betty is going out of her way to accumulate a list of things she could do to spite Don later on. Betty almost never acts on her own desires because she doesn’t know what she wants. Instead, she has to ruin the happiness of others (which she regularly indulges in by being a complete bitch to her daughter Sally). Though Don surrounds himself in secrecy, there’s an honesty and urgency to how he lives his life. Betty wallows in self-pity and misery and tries to infect everyone around her rather than try to change her situation (like say Peggy).

Peggy’s growth this season has been one of the most rewarding character arcs I’ve ever seen. When the season began, she was back at the office, but we had no idea what had happened with her baby. Slowly, like a knot methodically being undone, we learned more and more about Peggy’s personal life, where her baby had gone, and how she’d been coping for the last year and a half (surprisingly well thanks to Don’s tutelage). She’s on her way to becoming a female version of Don Draper, and while that isn’t necessarily the best path for Betty, it’s certainly better than the mousey, soft-spoken secretary she was when the show began. Watching her interactions with the preacher (and eventually standing up to him) and then standing down Pete Campbell when he put his heart on the line, Elisabeth Moss has placed an increasing amount of steel in the spine of Peggy, and at this point, she’s arguably the most well-adjusted and happy person in the office. Her career is on a meteoric rise, and I hope she continues to find success and growth next season. Though to be clear, I hope she continues to find appropriate and not overly-contrived drama of her own so her character remains dynamic and engaging. Elisabeth Moss is officially one of my favorite women in television because Peggy has become one of my favorite female roles.

I’ll end my ramblings about this season of Mad Men (which means I’ll begin my ramblings about the first season of Angel soon!) with one last note. Betty and Don’s separation (and then their reconciliation) bore many similarities to Tony and Carmela breaking up and getting back together on The Sopranos. Since Matthew Wiener got his start on that program, it makes sense and more and more, I notice a lot of thematic and visual similarities between these two great programs. I highly doubt that I’ll catch back up with Mad Men before Season 5 stops airing (partially because Angel has 22 episode seasons) so by the time I finally catch back up with this show, it will be like Dexter and Doctor Who where I’m years behind, but no less enthusiastic about one of the most refreshing dramas on American television.

Final Score: A-

So, I saw the Shins last night at Terminal 5 here in NYC. I’d put a link up to my write-up of the show for work but we haven’t actually posted my review yet. Anyways, the band that opened for the Shins (Real Estate opens tonight and St. Lucia opened Sunday) on that particular night of their three night stop in New York City was Brooklyn synthpop/New Wave revival outfit Chairlift. They were fantastic (even if they’re a super odd choice to open for the folk-pop of the Shins). They had a bit of a breakthrough single back in 2008 when their song “Bruises” was used in an iPod nano commercial. I only just heard of the band this year when their album Something was the first album I reviewed at work (and I fell in love with the song “Amonaemonesia”. Anyways, I’m going to make this a quick little jot down because I still have to review Game of Thrones and Glee (man what a shocking episode of Glee). Their song “Bruises” is absurdly catchy and I love this whole trend of the last four or five years where the 1980s are really back.

The April playlist was finished yesterday which you can listen to here. I’ve also started May’s playlist. You can listen to that here and though there’s only one song on it, if you subscribe to it, you can see the playlist as it grows (which will often be a couple hours before I write this actual post).

I fancy myself to be a connoisseur of good television. Yes, I review some guilty pleasure shows on here (Glee, True Blood, The Walking Dead), but I pretty much spend half of my posts opining how those shows fail to live up their reputation. Most of my favorite programs are things that are no longer on the air and I haven’t gotten around to reviewing them on this blog because I’ve been spending my time watching series that I’ve never seen before. I may not be writing about all of the top-tier shows I’ve loved over the years (though I may eventually if I decide to rewatch them), but with the exception of The Corner (which is a miniseries so it doesn’t even count), there probably isn’t a single show I’ve reviewed so far that would actually make my top five series of all time. Only Breaking Bad and Buffy would likely crack my top ten. So, when I say that there was an episode of Mad Men on this particular disc that I consider to be one of the greatest episodes of television that I’ve ever seen, it means a lot. Nothing that had come before in this series prepared me for the exponential leap in quality that the show suddenly made. If this means that Mad Men is finally transforming itself into a truly top-shelf program, count me in because these last four episodes were some of the most sharply scripted television I’ve ever seen.

We finally get a look at what makes Duck tick this episode. Duck is divorced with two kids who can barely stand to be around him. He ruined his marriage with alcoholism, and even though he’s on the wagon now, his wife and children still want nothing to do with him. His wife is getting re-married and Duck is being stuck with the family dog. Though it was originally his only friend in the marriage, realizing that his wife has finally found another man nearly pushed Duck to drink. He doesn’t put when he’s done he releases the dog (a gorgeous breed) out onto the streets of NYC without a word. I literally gasped out loud during that scene. Peggy feels left out of the work in the office despite being one of the copy writers. So, with advice from Joan, she decides to start acting more like one of the guys so she can experience more success including visiting a strip club with the creative boys to celebrate signing a client. Don becomes part of the upper echelon of Sterling Cooper (though the show is a little unclear about what that means) and he buys a new car (though we get a quick flashback to his younger days as a car salesman where the real Don Draper’s wife confronts him as a fraud. Don has one last romantic rendezvous with Bobbie Barrett but he realizes how much she bothers him and he leaves her tied up in the hotel room. Ken wants Sal to proofread one of his short stories so Sal invites Ken over to dinner with his wife Kitty (even though Sal is obviously gay and has feelings for Ken). It is one of the most heartbreaking and awkward scenes of the whole series. Roger also begins a relationship with Jane, Don’s new secretary, after stopping her from being fired by Joan for breaking into Mr. Cooper’s office.

Shit really hits the fan though at a party celebrating Jimmie Barrett’s TV series being picked up for 39 episodes (something that would never happen on modern TV). Jimmie has been able to deduce that Don is sleeping with Bobbie and he tells Betty his feelings on the matter. After Don unintentionally offends Betty by making her part of a “sell” for beer company Heineken on how effective his ideas on product placement would be, she calls him out for sleeping with Bobbie. Though he denies it throughout the whole disc, she refuses to believe him and searches the entire house trying to find any shred of evidence that Don’s had an affair. Even though she can’t find anything, she still calls Don at the office and tells him not to come home. Don is forced to live out of a hotel room and they have to come up with lies to tell the children about why he isn’t home. Betty is a frazzled mess who looks like she isn’t showering or sleeping or changing her clothes. She just wanders through life like a zombie as their maid takes care of Sally and Bobby. Fred Rumsen, one of the account executives, pisses himself and passes from his drunkenness and is let go by the company, and Peggy takes his spot. While Peggy is happy for the promotion, she’s unhappy that it came at the cost of another man’s job and that Pete Campbell ratted Fred out in the first place.

I’ll talk about all of the other episodes later, but “A Night to Remember” is undoubtedly one of the five best episodes of television that I’ve ever watched. Maybe it’s the way that Matthew Wiener has allowed these characters to grow so much over the last season and a half and the way that they already felt so well defined, but in “A Night to Remember,” every single scene was bursting with so much authenticity that it was all almost too realistic to take in. Every moment seemed like it was playing out in two different worlds. There was the actual action and conversations that were taking place which were moving things forward at the face level, but it was the layers and layers of subtext in each word, in each hesitantly uttered phrase, in each sigh or furrow of the brow that spoke volumes about where our characters were. I often complain that Mad Men suffers from a bit of a pacing problem because episodes are often filled with one-shot filler stories. This episode had two filler story lines (Peggy working on the poster for Father Gill, and Joan helping Harry read scripts), but each of those stories moved those characters forward in significant ways. When Joan was let go as the script reader, Christina Hendricks imbued her with so much heartbreak and pain that I thought for sure we’d finally see Joan crying in the bathroom. It’s a testament to this show’s storytelling restraint that we didn’t.

“Six Months Leave” (the final episode of the disc) was nearly as good as “A Night to Remember” and was arguably less disjointed (though I’ll still always prefer “A Night”). There are so many different group dynamics on display in this show. There are so many cogs in the wheel of Sterling Cooper and their family members that you can lose track for a minute of when one person’s seemingly minor actions can have major consequences for another individual. Don and Roger discuss Don’s crumbling marriage which inspires Roger (with Don’s intention) to leave his wife Mona for Don’s secretary Jane. Don is simply talking about how he doesn’t understand why we put ourselves through the pain of marriage as a way to justify his actions with Betty and he ends up ruining another man’s (already ill) marriage in the process. Peggy is simply trying to get by as the only woman in an all-boys misogynistic club, but Pete trying to take care of a problem and advance himself manages to get Peggy a promotion. Fred Rumsen falls asleep at a commercial which causes Jimmie Barrett to insult the Utz family which ends with Don having to do damage control which results in Don sleeping with Bobbie which is the straw that finally breaks the camel’s back of his marriage. To quote The Wire, “All the pieces matter,” and in the giant jigsaw puzzle that is Mad Men, that sentiment is certainly true.

John Slattery impressed me more than any other cast member during this particular disc. If Elisabeth Moss is the unsung here of the cast (as I’ve said in the past), John Slattery is the prop player who sits quietly in the background making everyone else look better. He’s often such a quiet force in the episodes. He certainly takes a back seat in plot to Don or the rest of the boys/girl in creative. Yet, when he shows up, he commands the screen. He’s even more roguish and hedonistic than Don. Yet, Slattery (along with the script) turns Roger into one of those men that you might despise on some level for the callousness of his deeds, but you have to root for him because he’s such an inherently likeable guy. Even when he does something like leave his wife for a secretary, John Slattery pulls your heartstrings towards Roger in the confrontation scene at the office because you can see the pain he’s in but you also see the effort he takes to stay composed. Bryan Batt (Sal) was also a real difference maker on this disc because his scenes with Aaron Staton’s Ken Cosgrove were a brutally honest display of the small pleasures you had to take in life as a closeted gay man in the 1960s.

I’ve used this analogy before as Mad Men being a puzzle where all of the pieces aren’t there yet, and we’re only slowly given more and more pieces as the show continues.  In that regard, Mad Men then is often about the small moments within any given episode. As the series goes on, you get more and more of what’s happening, where these characters are headed, and why they continue to put each other through all of these hells. But on an episode by episode basis, you simply have the puzzle pieces in front of you. Most of your revelations about what’s happening on a deeper level don’t come until you’ve turn the episode off and thought about it. Thankfully, these little moments (the pieces I’m referring to) are so memorable. When Betty smashed a chair to pieces or realized that she was part of a game that Don was playing with his workers, those were defining moments of an episode. When Sal keeps Ken’s lighter as a memento of his visit, that’s a defining moment of the show. Joan and Roger have one last sexually charged conversation in his office before it’s revealed that he’s left Mona for Jane. These moments all build up, but to me Mad Men seems like a show built on a never-ending wave of moments. And somehow, it makes that work.

I’ll stop rambling about how brilliant this season is and refrain from going into a large spiel about how it’s “stories by a series of moments” structure serves as a metaphor for the reality of life as compared to the neatly plot-driven lives of TV characters, and instead implore anyone reading this article that has somehow managed to not start watching Mad Men yet that they must. This is the season where the show may be finally growing the beard. I had always enjoyed the show before and I thought the final four episodes of Season 1 were worth of an “A,” but I almost want to retroactively take that score back, because it wasn’t until now during these last episodes that I finally saw the ultimate potential of this series for intimately detailed, character driven storytelling. There are more textures, layers, flaws, and details in the most minor characters on Mad Men as there are in the main characters of most prime-time dramas, and it’s that sort of mature, intelligent storytelling that makes Mad Men such a blessing in an often barren TV environment.

Final Score: A

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve returned to the offices of Sterling Cooper. My father bought me the first season of Mad Men for Christmas, and I finished watching the last disc in early February. After I finished that first season up though, I took time off to actually finish all of Doctor Who and Dexter which I had been watching for the better part of a year by then. When I finally managed to catch myself completely up with those shows, I knew it was time to start watching Mad Men again. I’ve officially made my mind up that the two shows I’m going to bounce back and forth reviewing on here (like I did with Doctor Who and Dexter) are going to be Mad Men and Joss Whedon’s cult hit Angel (The Avengers comes out this summer bitches!). Since Angel has 22 episode long seasons like Buffy did, there will likely be lengthy hiatuses between seasons of Mad Men but I’m ultimately okay with that because Mad Men is heavy stuff, and I could use decent breaks while I let the myriad themes and subtexts of the season continue to sink in after the season ends. As for Season 2, I have sort of mixed feelings because while certain characters seem to be getting much more fleshed out (Peggy, Joan, Pete, Roger), there’s been a frustrating lack of development for Don Draper and he’s the heart of the show.

It’s Valentine’s Day in 1962 (which I guess means well over a year has passed since last season ended) when Season 2 begins. Trouble is already brewing in the tense marriage of Betty and Don Draper when, after a romantic evening at a restaurant where Betty runs into an old roommate who may or may not be a call girl now, Don is unable to perform sexually for Betty. Don will do anything that moves so this is probably an issue. When Don visits the doctor, we discover that he has high blood pressure which he hides from Betty until the fifth and final episode of this disc in order to cover up being in a car accident while driving drunk with his mistress. Duck Philips, who was brought in at the end of last season to help bring in new clients to Sterling Cooper, is also insisting that Sterling Cooper hire younger talent in order to ease concerns among clients that they can’t sell to young people which sends all of the people in creative into panics that their jobs are on the line. After the crash of American Airlines Flight 1 (which was carrying Pete Campbell’s father), Sterling Cooper decides to abandon their existing airline (Mohawk) to try and sign American who are looking to rebrand their image in the face of the tragedy. Pete Campbell has little time to mourn the loss of his father when Duck ruthlessly uses him to try and gain sympathy with American as  a face of the tragedy who knows what American would have to do to sell themselves back to America.

One of the companies that Sterling Cooper represents is Utz Potato chips, and they use acerbic comedian Jimmy Barrett (who I just discovered is not a real historical figure like I had assumed) as the spokesman. When Barrett insults the Utz CEO and his wife (cause he’s an insult comedian), Don is in charge of damage control to get Barrett to apologize. Don being Don, this winds up with Don banging Barrett’s wife who is as much of a power-addict as Don. Bobbie is really in charge with Jimmy, and while she gets him to apologize, she and Don continue their sexual relationship even after their business is concluded. I left this out earlier, but we finally learn what happened to Peggy’s baby. After she had it, it was taken away from her by the city of New York and now it lives with her sister. We meet Peggy’s family which brag to everyone about her job in advertising but also mercilessly judge her for having a child out of wedlock and her jealous sister ruins Peggy’s friendship with a local priest (Colin Hanks so apparently along with Doomsday on Dexter, he just only plays religious characters). Sterling Cooper is unable to sign American Airlines which means they betrayed their first client for no reason which is sure to cause even more tension between Don and Duck. Don ends up in a car accident with Bobbie (as I mentioned earlier) and Peggy has to bail him out of jail. Bobbie stays with Peggy as she heals and we learn even more about Peggy’s childbirth where she was held basically as mentally ill at the hospital and only an unexpected visit from Don got her out of her funk when he told her to just pretend it never happened. Bobbie gives Peggy some self-empowerment advice which will hopefully mean that Peggy stops being such a wallflower. We also discover that Pete’s wife Trudie (Community’s Alison Brie) is sterile which is causing stress in their fragile marriage as well.

When the season began, I kept thinking about how I could write a good thirty page essay entitledThe Virtues and Vices of American Hedonism as Presented Through the 1960s Screen of Mad Men. Hedonism lies at the core of the series. Virtually every character is a completely selfish caricature of an Ayn Rand protagonist doing what they want and not giving two fucks how it effects anyone else. Don drinks, sleeps around, lies, keeps secrets, and uses other people to accomplish his goals. Despite all this, we root for him (most of the time) because he represents that American ideal of the go-getter and achiever. Despite his myriad flaws, we don’t want to think of him as a bad person (even when he most certainly is) because the allure and glamour that his hedonism provides (because it’s allowed him to be so successful and therefore enviable and desirable). This is probably an effect of the series that I’m reading too much into that may not even be intentional but I love the dichotomy that the series creates between just how detached from typical social mores from the 1960s Don and the rest of the boys in advertising have to be in order to be as creative as they are. If Don weren’t a womanizing rake, he wouldn’t be as good at his job as he is because he knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. Therefore, he knows how to hit exactly on what it is that other people want. So the series creates this interesting back and forth between when the hedonism of our heroes accomplishes something productive (mostly at work or when they simply release their inhibitions and just live) and when it’s damaging (the way Don treats Betty, the way Betty treats everyone on the planet, the way they all use and abuse each other without fail).

One of the things that I’ve also been noticing about this season (at least since “Three Sundays”) is the heavy debt that the cinematography from episodes four and five (“The New Girl”) owe to the French New Wave. There were so many fast cuts and a use of naturalistic lighting that during those two episodes I kept on expecting for things to turn out to be a dream. In movies, these kinds of shots are normal, but on American television, it’s very rare for these kinds of cinematic artifices to be used and it really lent a surrealistic and dream-like quality to the whole proceedings. It really blew my mind because now Mad Men can officially join Breaking Bad as being tied for the best shot show on TV. Thank you AMC for realizing that television no longer has to be a slave to ancient three camera conventions. While there was a lot of the French New Wave stuff, the series still had plenty of the smoke-filled rooms and exciting fashion that made the first season so famous, but there was just something about those last two episodes where I found myself paying nearly as much attention to the way the show was shot as I did the actual story itself (which in true Mad Men fashion is unfurling itself very slowly).

The acting in this series is as phenomenal as always. Whatever complaints I might have about the lack of anything interesting happening with Don as a character (there has been nothing along the lines of a Dick Whitman story for him so far and I find it frustrating), Jon Hamm still sold every one of his scenes like a champ. The best example I can think of comes from the episode where Betty is having trouble disciplining Bobby, and at the dinner table, Don finally loses it and throws Bobby’s toy across the room. It was the way in which the perpetually calm and collected Don finally snapped and then almost instantly returned to normal. Then to make things better, Jon Hamm shares an equally tender scene with his son who comes to apologize. Elisabeth Moss is the unsung hero of the cast and the show. Yes, she’s incredibly unfortunate looking, but that comes with her character, and once we finally got a look at what her personal life was like, we can now understand even more why she is the way she is. Elisabeth Moss was able to add plenty of subtlety and nuance to her interactions with the priest (which I at first assumed were going to be played for sexual tension) as well as her growing confidence when she had to take care of Don’s mistress Bobbie. Vincent Kartheiser is also coming into his own this season and the scenes immediately after his father died were easily his best in the series so far. I still hate Betty Draper (I’m going to avoid giving an entire paragraph about how Betty Draper almost makes me want to become asexual. She makes women look that bad) and January Jones is still an awful actress, but I guess the show can’t be perfect.

I have more to say (mostly about the character paths that were charted for several people: Joan’s engagement, Peggy’s increasing confidence (she called Don “Don”), Pete’s marriage strife, Betty’s flirtation with a man at her horse stable, but I don’t want this review to run on forever because lord knows that tomorrow’s review for tonight’s episode of Game of Thrones will be lengthy enough. With the exception of Don, all of the characters this season seem much more fleshed out and realistic (even C-list people in creative like Ken, Paul, and Harry), and I think the show is trying to make the world a little more detailed and intimate than last time around. Which I appreciate, but I would love to have even more background and insight into Don who seems stuck in a rut as a character as there is very little difference between this Don and last season, and I know almost nothing new about him. I’ve still got eight episodes left of the season though so there’s plenty of time for the show to change my mind or prove to me that there was so much happening right now that I didn’t even realize because I didn’t have all of the pieces in front of me (which is what happened last season).

Final Score: A-

So, I’ve decided to replay one of my favorite games of all time. It has this title despite the fact that I’ve never actually beaten it, which should speak volumes about how highly I feel about its story (which I’ve only experienced roughly 2/3 of). After a frustrating experience trying to re-accustom myself to Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3 a month and a half ago, I decided to actually go back and try and beat its far superior sequel Persona 4. The two games only share a universe and no major plot points, so it’s not a big deal that I haven’t actually finished Persona 3 either because like Atlus’ other games, it’s absurdly difficult (I’d rather fight certain bosses in Demon Souls because I at least know that game plays fair). So, I’m now replaying Persona 4, and I’ve decided to come up with a semi-novel way to approach my review for the game. For fans of the Persona series, you should know that the games take place over the course of one year, and gameplay is broken up into the discrete unit of a calendar day. So, I figured, what better way to ensure that I beat this game and devote time to it than to come up with a way that ensures I have to write posts at regular intervals in my gameplay (i.e. at the end of each in-game month). RPGs take dozens and dozens of hours to beat and the Persona games are notoriously long. If I approach the games in this method, it’s almost like I’m reviewing a TV series. So, without further ado, let’s dive into the town of Inaba and the murder mystery at the heart of Persona 4.

For those who are unfamiliar with the Persona series, this will likely be the only post you’ll want to read before the later ones become absolutely spoilerrific, so here’s the lay-out of the game. At its core, Persona 3 and 4 are what happens if you take the randomized dungeon crawling of Diablo, the monster catching and training of Pokemon, and then a high school social simulation of (no game whose name I can come up with) and put them in one pot. And it is a glorious, absurdly addicting amalgamation. Over the course of one year, your character (who you name) and his nakama (that’s basically Japanese for a group of very close friends) solve some supernatural threat that is terrorizing the populace of your town. You enter dungeons whose layouts change every night/day in order to get stronger and to capture new demons (known as Persona in this franchise) that you can combine to make even more powerful Persona. During your regular high school life, you create friendships and relationships (romantic or platonic) with your classmates, local children, and even grown-ups that in turn make your ability to create new demons even stronger. Every aspect of the game is interconnected with the other and it adds a wonderful layer of strategy and replay value to this game’s very deep combat system. Combat itself is mostly a standard turn-based affair (though you can thankfully actually control your teammates in Persona 4 unlike 3), but it’s your ability to create Persona just to your needs that gives the game plenty of strategic depth.

The basic premise for this game’s story is a great one, although as someone who’s put more than 60 hours into this game before, I know just how long it takes for it to really reveal its depths. The Main Character (whose canonical name in the anime adaptation is Yu Narukami which is how I’ll refer to him from now on) is a boy from the big city (Tokyo I’m assuming though possibly Iwotadai from Persona 3) who is sent to live with his uncle, Ryotaro Dojima, and his young cousin, Nanako for a year while his parents go away on a business trip. Not long after arriving in town, Narukami befriends three students in his homeroom class, the tomboyish kung-fu fanatic Chie Satonaka, the bumbling comic relief Yosuke Hanamura, and the quiet and reserved innkeeper’s daughter Yukiko Amagi. During the first week that Narukami is in town, the mistress of a local Congressman is murdered. Her body is discovered by another student at Narukami’s school, Saki Konishi, who Yosuke has a crush on. Saki eventually goes missing as well and is murdered (her body grotesquely hung from a satellite dish). The group discovers that if you watch your TV at midnight on a rainy day, you can see someone inside your TV. These are people who have been kidnapped. Unfortunately, the group discovers this fact too late to actually save Saki-senpai (she’s older than our heroes so she’s called Senpai. I’m going to be using a ton of Japanese honorifics in these reviews, just like the game itself).

Narukami-san quickly discovers that he can travel into TVs for reasons not quite explained (yet). Dragging Yosuke and Chie along (who is the son of the manager of the local department store, Junes, which the duo uses thanks to their massive TVs), the group enters the TV world and finds a never ending layer of fog and what appears to be a TV studio. After finding a creepy room with butchered pictures of the first murder victim, the trio run into a mysterious creature in a giant bear suit. His name is Teddie (natch), and he will become their contact in this Shadow world known as the Midnight Channel. Yosuke and Narukami enter the world on their own to try and investigate the disappearance of Konishi-senpai again when they are attacked by beings known as Shadows. Narukami manifests a power known as Persona which allows him to draw a creature out of the depths of his soul to aid him in battle. Yosuke rushes off on his own where he is confronted by his Shadow self which is the reflection of the dark side of his personality. After they battle the Shadow Yosuke and Yosuke accepts this part of his inner self, he gains the ability to summon a Persona as well. When Yukiko-chan is kidnapped, Chie joins the investigation (where she gains the power of Persona as well) to find out who is kidnapping and murdering the people in the sleepy town of Inaba.

Future reviews will likely be devoted to me exploring the plot aspects of that particular month (whether this is the main story or the various people I meet and befriend. Actually the social link stuff will definitely be getting its own paragraph I think. maybe), but I just wanted to give a brief introduction to the game’s story. The fact that I’m calling that a brief introduction should say leagues about the game’s opening hours being ridiculously long. People joke about Final Fantasy XIII having the longest intro ever. No, that award goes to Persona 4. You literally go about 4 or 5 hours before you actually get to do any of the stuff that makes up the heart of the game (social links, real dungeon exploring, etc). That’s the reason this month gets a score of an “A-” instead of the “A” or “A+” I’d be tempted to give this game as a whole. Those opening hours are a bit of a drag. The writing and sharp realization of the game’s characters (which is really the best part of the whole game. This game’s stories and characters are pretty unparalleled) are as strong as ever, but this is a video game and interaction is an important aspect of the whole experience and for four or five hours, you just don’t really interact with the game outside of absorbing its immediately wonderful story.

The Persona games are hard… and even on the Beginner difficulty (which I’m not ashamed to admit I’m playing on because I primarily want to experience the game’s story again more than anything else), Persona 4 isn’t afraid to just completely kick your ass. If the Main Character dies, it’s an instant game over, and while the ability to control your team mates alleviates some of the frustration that mechanic caused in Persona 3, it can still be really annoying if a bad roll of the dice causes you to miss your intended target, and then the game proceeds to rape you with the elemental weakness system. I haven’t even gotten to the point in the game where enemies have actual one-hit kill spells that could easily erase an hour spent crawling around the game’s many dungeons. However, it’s difficulty does mean the game is more tactically engaging than 99% of other JRPGs because you are actually forced to spend time thinking about buffs and elemental resistances. This is without question one of the most difficult JRPGs I’ve ever played, and if you fancy a good challenge, Persona 4 will deliver.

Even though I’ve only been playing the game for half a month (You begin in the middle of April, so yeah, it will probably be a while before May’s review comes up considering I spend a good hour minimum each time I enter a dungeon), the story in this game is light years ahead of other video games in terms of maturity and emotional depth. Perhaps because I’m playing as normal high school students who stumble into an urban fantasy murder mystery (rather than your traditional JRPG cast of princesses, amnesiacs, thieves, rogues, kings, what not), the game’s cast feel like instantly recognizable teenage archetypes rather than your traditional power fantasy RPG heroes. I’ve always thought of the game as a very Japanese take on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, especially since Yosuke is almost a direct expy of Xander. You deal with all of the pains and tribulations of being a teenager while you save the world. Thus, I care deeply more about any of these characters than I do about the cast of any Final Fantasy game and I love the Final Fantasy series. They all just seem so real and authentic, and thanks to the Social Link system, getting to know more about them and developing them as characters is an actual game mechanic. It’s wonderful. And I know just how much better it’s going to keep on getting.

I’m nearing 2000 words on this damn game and I haven’t even gotten into the game’s graphics. This was one of the last games I ever bought for my PS2. In fact, it might be the very last game I bought for it. And in the in-game engine isn’t very pretty. That’s the honest-to-god truth. Atlus cared more about delivering as much possible content into the disc than having cutting edge graphics, and for that reason, it’s just not a good looking game 80% of the time. It makes up for things in terms of a distinct art style, but that can only take things so far.  However, there are instances in the game when it switches to an anime-style for cutscenes, and those are all gorgeous. After the success of Catherine, I’m really excited to see Persona 5 on a current-gen system since they’ve proven that anime style is easily translatable to actual in-game graphics.

Ok hopefully, future posts should be considerably shorter since I won’t have to explain what this game is, give my opinions on the game mechanics (unless something new comes along that I find to be cool or frustrating) or generally rehash anything that simply hasn’t changed since this post. Here are some final thoughts. I want to strangle Teddie. His combat announcements are the most annoying thing in the history of video games (ok, that’s not true. That award goes to Vanille’s voice actor fromFinal Fantasy XIII, well that or Hope. god I fucking hated Hope). Honestly, at this point, that and the ridiculously long intro are my only complaints. I’m hoping that fans of the game will join me in on my ride here. In future posts, I’ll include stories about the social links I developed over the course of that month. Right now, I’ve only really started out with Yosuke, Chie, friends I made playing soccer, and a first-year in the band with me. We’ll be back in a month of game time (no idea how long that will translate to in real time), and I hope that you all return.

Final Score: A-

One of the most intriguing aspects of running this blog that I’ve discovered over the course of the last year is the opportunity to see two movies from a writer-director that are so thematically and stylistically different that you would never have believed they were from the same person if you didn’t already know it to be a fact. Try comparing a movie like Match Point (a crime thriller) from Woody Allen to one of his absurdist comedies like Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) or one of his more serious dramedies like Manhattan. Similarly, how did David Lean go from making a small, quiet romance like Summertime and then head on out and make Lawrence of Arabia (I actually don’t remember which film is older and I’m too lazy to look it up right now). Well, British director Mike Leigh gets to join the ranks of directors who works I’ve reviewed for this blog are radically different from one another. The last film I watched of Mike Leigh’s was the period abortion drama Vera Drake which was heartbreakingly sad and depressing. His Golden Globe-winning 2008 comedyHappy-Go-Lucky may not be quite as joyful as its title or protagonist let on and was a serious case of mood whiplash from Leigh’s other more serious films.

In Happy-Go-Lucky, Poppy (Golden Globe winning Sally Hawkins) is a frighteningly cheerful and optimistic woman. If you took every quirky “indie” rom-com heroine and put them in a blender, you still wouldn’t have a character as odd and bizarre as Poppy. An elementary school teacher, Poppy would ride her back to school everyday, but when it’s stolen (which doesn’t seem to ruin her good cheer one bit), she has to learn to drive and hires Scott (Sherlock Holmes‘s Eddie Marsan), a misogynistic, racist and angry man, to be her instructor. Poppy’s buoyant and endless energy and warmth immediately create tension between her and the always glum (if not straight out furious) Scott. However, when Poppy begins to date a social worker who visited her classroom to help one of her students who had been violently acting out, Scott becomes jealous and all of the anger and rage he had been bottling up has the potential to explode on Poppy who would never intentionally harm any living creature (not even the slightest of exaggeration). Along the way, we see Poppy with her best-mate Zoe (Alexis Zegerman) as Poppy weaves her way in and out of different people’s lives in a state of pure, uncorrupted bliss.

Sally Hawkins gave one of the most unique and eclectic performances I’ve ever witnessed as Poppy. As much as I love films like Garden State or (500) Days of Summer), their leads are only slightly eccentric and perhaps flirting with quirky. Poppy borders on being mentally unstable. She is truly just a one-of-a-kind creation that makes Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel look boring in comparison. Had it not been for Sally Hawkins as Poppy, there’s a chance this film would have been borderline unwatchable because Poppy was just so strange that it would have been too easy to “Hollywood”-ize her character, to make it too theatrical. Yet despite being such a content and cheerful person, Hawkins managed to keep her characterization in the realm of reality and though she spent much of the film in the midst of one giggle fit after another, there were moments when Hawkins managed to give Poppy some depths that hinted that perhaps this facade was just to protect her from something much harder and more painful. Somehow even more impressive than Sally Hawkins was Eddie Marsan as Scott. There was so much vitriolic hate and rage in the moments when he suffered one of his many breakdowns that I honestly feared for Poppy’s safety and thought that I would never want to piss Eddie Marsan off in real life because he sold the anger and fury so well. Once again, he managed to make a character like Ray Winstone in Nil by Mouth that was fueled on pure anger without making it seem over-the-top or campy which lesser actors would have failed at accomplishing.

The process by which Mike Leigh makes his movies is almost self-evident in the very natural and realistic sounding nature of the dialogue that pops off of every scene. Rather than writing actual dialogue, his films are largely improved during extensive rehearsal sessions which then result in the actual dialogue being used in the film eventually coming around so it can be practiced. This is not a plot-driven film, and rather a series of vignettes where we get intimate and detailed looks at Poppy’s life (as well as that of her close circle of friends) and are able to see just how someone like Poppy would ever be able to operate in our modern, cynical world. Because there is very little in the way of plot (other than Poppy’s ultimate confrontation with Scott), the first half of the film will likely result in viewer wondering what in the hell type of movie they are watching because even by film’s end, you would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the “point” of the film. However, the last half is over-loaded with compelling episodes that really flesh out Poppy, and whether it’s her interactions with a homeless man, being lectured by her sister about “growing up”, or finally going toe to toe with Scott, we really get to see that there’s more going on in Poppy’s brain than her cheerful demeanor lets on.

If you require your non-plot driven films to have a “point” or some grand statement about life in order to be worthwhile, Happy-Go-Lucky will not be for you. I’ve spent the better part of the day trying to parse out exactly what the film means, and I’m still unable to come up with a definitive answer other than a quiet look at one truly bizarre woman’s life as she tries to find her own happiness and bring smiles to the lives of others. It’s so sharp and insightful into this personality that I suspect that there are perhaps very British commentaries about British society that I am missing out on as an American, but I can’t help if I don’t quite grasp the inner-workings of a very particular subset of British society. For all fans of British humor and fine acting, Happy-Go-Lucky will satisfy you on both fronts and perhaps inspire the same level of introspection in you as it inspired in me. This is a film that I feel I will appreciate after more viewings and after I’ve had the chance to wrestle more with its subtleties and subtext. Go ahead and acquaint yourself with Poppy. Methinks you won’t be disappointed.

Final Score: B+

Have I ever mentioned two of the things about Doctor Who that I’m not crazy about? One are the series’ Christmas specials (which seem to have no real use for the series canon and are mostly mediocre stand-alone adventures [David Tennant’s introductory episode aside]). The other is the Cybermen who are only not the worst recurring villains in the franchise because the Slitheen came back for more than just one episode. So, when I hear that I’m about to watch a Christmas special that features the Cybermen as the main antagonists, I’m obviously going to be a little reticent. While this particular Christmas Special, “The Next Doctor,” was no worse than some Christmas specials of the past, it reminded me of how boring Cybermen stories tend to be (although this one attempted to subvert some aspects of the traditional cybermen tales) and I wish that one of the final episodes of David Tennant’s run as the Doctor could have been a little more outstanding.

After the events of the fourth season finale, the Doctor is alone and transports himself to Victorian London on Christmas Day. As he is walking around and taking in the sights, he hears a woman shouting for “the Doctor!” Never a man to leave a damsel in distress, the Doctor goes running off only for the woman to be confused and accuse him of not being the Doctor. Of course that’s when another “Doctor” (David Morissey) shows up, claiming to be a Time Lord and in possession of a TARDIS and Sonic Screwdriver. The new “Doctor’ shows up chasing some hairy, mechanical creature and before long, the tenth Doctor is embroiled in his adventures. It turns out that things aren’t quite what they seem when this “Doctor’s” sonic screwdriver is a regular screwdriver and his TARDIS is a hot air balloon. To make matters worse, the Cybermen have returned and are being led by a revenge-thirsty woman named Mrs. Hartigan who has sold humanity out to the Cybermen for a place of power in their new society when she never had any of it to begin with. Is this new “Doctor” the next (or even more future) regeneration of the Tenth Doctor suffering from amnesia, or is he something else entirely. Watch the 2008 Christmas special to find out!

I appreciated the way the episode turned the typical “human uses cybermen to gain power. cybermen turn on human story” that is the plot of almost every Cybermen tale that’s ever been written. Rather than becoming a mindless, emotionless drone like the rest of the Cybermen, Mrs. Hartigan’s strength of will is so powerful that she becomes the first Cybermen with emotions and imagination and becomes the Cyberking. So that was a plus. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode that dealt with the two Doctors trying to destroy the Cybermen before it was too late relied on the most stale of Doctor Who technobabble and exposition that I didn’t even care to follow. David Morrissey was an awesome contribution to the cast and since it’s no spoiler at this point that the next Doctor is Matt Smith and not this guy, I would have really loved to have seen him as some incarnation of the Doctor. It’s a shame he was just imprinted by some cybermen technology with memories of the Doctor. Also, there was a nice moment where David Tennant mournfully reminisces on why he isn’t with any companions anymore.

The only thing that really bothers me about episodes like this is that I begin to feel as if they are chores I have to sit through in order to get to the really good stuff like Stephen Moffat stories (or even the good Russel T. Davies tales). Doctor Who is a wildly inconsistent program in terms of the quality of its stories, and I only wish there was a more cohesive tone to the series. Maybe it will improve when Stephen Moffat takes over as head writer. Regardless, we’re now down the final three episodes of the show (I guess technically “The End of Time” is a two-parter but I’m reviewing the whole thing at once). It’s been a long crazy ride that I started here with Doctor Who. My dad and I began watching it with Christopher Eccleston’s run back in May and I’m only just now crawling along to the finish line for David Tennant.

Final Score: B