Monday, 6 April 2015

Mad Men Season 7, Episode 8, "Severance"


            With only 7 episodes of the entire series left, people have been wildly anticipating where our beloved mad men (and women) of SC&P would be. Is it the 70's? Has Don got his shit together? And just like a good episode of Mad Men is won to do, it quickly reminded you asking those questions is not important. Like most season openers (or mid-season openers, because barf) of this show, or really, like most episodes of this show in general, not much happened plot wise. This season opener dropped us in the midst of the company's newest shake up from last season. But "Severance," like all of Mad Men's most successful episodes, isn't as concerned with the "what" as it is the "how." This was one of the most Mad Man-iest episodes you can muster: people attempt to adjust to the ever changing business of SC&P. Roger acts shitty. People try their best to change and then don't. Don fucks a lot of women and then ends the episode solemnly looking off into the distance. Could this episode get any more Drapery than that?
          No, it couldn't. And that is a great thing.
          Mad Men is not unlike a collection of short stories. Every episode is self-contained enough to operate on its own merits. What makes it so good, however, is the accumulation of any given character's trajectory. We don't need a flashback or stumbling exposition to remind us that Joan and Don are not exactly "friendly" anymore, the show is too smart, too cunning for that. Instead it just lets the pre-existing relationships from previous seasons to play out naturally.
          "Severance" is about what happens to people when they lose something important. How do you deal with a sudden loss? Do you chalk it up to fate, something that is totally out of your control ("It wasn't meant to be," Peggy says of a missed date opportunity)? Do you shut down instead of dealing with it, or do you try to make sense out of the chaos? Or, like in the curious case of Kenny Cosgrove, do you go in full attack mode, say "fuck you," and turn that loss into a gain?
          Ken's father-in-law retires from Dow Chemical. Since he's no longer a client, McCaan, who now owns SC&P, can finally fire poor, one-eyed Kenny (McCaan apparently held a grudge after Kenny called them all retarded and quit with four million dollars in billing). But Kenny can't wrap his mind around circumstances under which it happened. His wife had just told him to quit his job and focus on his writing, and he was even pretty sure he was going to do it. And then the next day, the very next day, he gets fired? At first you can't tell if Kenny is pleased or going to vomit. But he should be pleased as punch, right? His wife's family is well off, and he can afford to actually give his writing career a chance. For a moment, it seemed as though a new door was opening for Mr. Cosgrove. A real chance to change his life for the better. So, of course, since this is Mad Men, he didn't do that.
            Instead he took his father-in-laws old job, making him SC&P's newest client. And he promises to be a real sonofabitch about it, too. In Matthew Weiner's world, people don't change that easily, and people rarely do what's best for them. Instead of closing the door on a toxic part of his life, Ken doubles down and takes a position he describes as "a cog in a massive machine that makes weapons and poison," simply to stick it to Roger, Pete, and all the other assholes who have wronged him. It's almost poetic right? Like a one-eyed Hamlet or something.
          Ken's story mirrors Don's in the way he deals with a bizarre coincidence as well. He has a dream about Rachel Menken (his jewish love interest all the way back from Season 1), and when he calls for her the next day to "discuss panty hose" he finds out she's died. Don is left rattled, unsure where to put his grief. Now, this would normally be the perfect time for Don to retreat emotionally as he always does: go into a self-destructive bender, drink away his feelings, and hurt those closest to him. And that leads us to the most interesting part of the episode: He doesn't do that.
          The most telling thing that happens in "Severance" happens very early on, while Don is out drinking with (a very mustachioed) Roger and some lovely looking whores. When the scene starts Don is in the middle of a story about his step-mother and uncle Mac, who he lived with in the whorehouse of his youth. In the one major piece of Don Draper progress revealed tonight (it is not major news that he and Megan are getting divorced because that is an entire season overdue at this point), we find out that Don has actually begun to embrace his Dick Whitman origins. Telling a story about an old toaster electrocuting his step-mother's husband is not inherently a big deal, but for Don this is MASSIVE. Getting him to talk about himself is like pulling teeth, or in his case, like getting Don to get his actual teeth pulled. He just doesn't do it. Even when he talks to Rachel's sister at her shiva, he shows a tremendous amount of candor, telling her about the dissolution of both his marriages (the lack of surprise on the sister's face and the look of shame on John Hamm's are both great). Has Don possibly begun to open up to his past and who he really is?
Meep morp.

        Like the rest of us, Don is just trying to make sense of the world around him. But that's a waste of time. At the end of episode the waitress at the diner who reminded Don of Rachel says, "when someone dies you want to make sense of it, but you can't." And she's right. Don gets lost in thought and looks off wistfully, like Don is won to do. Maybe he actually heard what the waitress said? Maybe he is letting the great mysteries of the world wash over him, because that's all you can do. You can't make sense of this world, and trying too hard will only keep you stuck dwelling on the past.

Arbritrary Episode Grade: A-

Random Observations
  • McCaan has bought SC&P and things seem...pretty much the same but...worse? The scene with Joan and Peggy talking to the assholes about panty hose was so painful it was reminiscent of season 1.
  • It's incredible that even though we haven't seen Rachel Menken since Season 2, her death still holds a great amount of weight to Don without him ever having to say anything. That is how great the character building in this universe is.
  • I didn't mention it up top even though it took a decent amount of screen time, but I liked the scenes involving Peggy's date. It's rare we actually see her connect with someone quickly, on a blind date no less. But at the same time, the second she started talking Paris, we KNEW she was full of it. You could almost see the disappointment in her face when she actually finds her passport later. She wants to be someone who can go on vacation, but she can't just up and let herself go on one, either. It's that whole people don't change thing.
  • Don is back to his philandering ways post-Megan break-up, but didn't he seem so much happier than he did in Season 4, post-Betty? He enjoyed going to sexy casting calls. He went out for drinks with Ted Chauogh. He even had some playful-ish banter with his adorably dumb secretary. Is it possible? Is Don evolving?
Jesus, Roger. You should own a boat. A creepy boat.
  • Those mustaches. Holy SHIT. It's the 70's, man. Aggressively so. If my google researching skills are any good (and they probably aren't), based on the speech Nixon gives at the end of the episode it's April, 1970?
  • Welcome back Mad Men! I'm happy to see you again! But you're going to be leaving us so soon! Such bittersweet agony!

Friday, 3 April 2015

Movie Review: Furious 7 (2015)

Fast and Furious 7 -- Or -- James Bond with Fast Cars That Also Skydive

When this franchise started 14 years ago (That's right...fourteen.) it was about muscleheads that stole DVD players, made shitty tuna sandwiches, and caught the interest of the LAPD for theft. They drove fast cars in glamorous street races with scantily clad (often Asian, I seem to remember) chicks. They stole off the highway. It was all kind of quaint, really. Fast forward a decade and a half and six sequels later, add international locales, the governmental support of the highest “secretive” agencies, and insane cars and gadgets us joe schmoes could only dream of, and you’re left with a weird action movie hybrid; The Fast and the Furious Meets James Bond: The Man Who Drove Too Fast (And Also Too Furious). The franchise has been building this way since its fifth (and best) installment, and is finally realizing its full hollywood blockbuster potential. It’s big, it’s grand, it’s fun, and it’s a million different things all rolled into a high speed engine mixed with NOS and cocaine and whatever else producers could throw at it. With a movie this BIG, its difficult to see it as its own entry as opposed to a (possibly necessary) transition into the ever-continuing future of a big studio franchise. Since the Fifth movie (directed by franchise regular Justin Lin, who took the series into the necessary direction of ridiculous it so desperately needed to remain relevant) they have depended on exotic locations and new international threats, only peppering in the racing silliness that became requisite to the movies afterwards. So the plot should be painfully simple this time. As the tag lines and trailers LOVE to remind us, “Vengaence Comes HOME.” And in this segment, it does so in the form of Jason Statham, a British-Secrets-Op-super-blah-blah-blah-he’s-angry-about-his-brother-blah-blah-dude out to kill Dom and Brian and their family. Sure. Let’s come home. And then we go to Adu Dhabi to retrieve a worldwide surveillance device used to spy on every living human on earth. What the fuck? What rejected James Bond script did we just stumble onto? Where are we? Why is Kurt Russel here? And why am I so happy to see him? 
One of the main complaints of Fast 6 was that “using wolves to catch wolves” was a thin premise for needing Vin Deisel and the Fast Car Gang to get involved in stopping an international terrorist group. Furious 7 hears your complaints and proudly points a middle finger right in your face as it speeds in reverse out of an airplane and skydives into a military operated safe zone in the middle of a war torn enemy territory. For no other reason than “YOU’RE VIN DEISEL!” the whole gang gets information and access to the world’s most sensitive software known to man and given carte blanche to the world’s most powerful Secret Ops Agency. And the director, Kurt Russell (playing white Nick Fury) even make quippy little jokes about how ragtag this gang is! (Why is Kurt Russell even there? And WHY am I SO happy to see him?) The movie takes two completely separate plot lines, the revenge-Stath-aspect (or RSA as we’ll call it) and the Ridiculously-Stupid-World-Surveillance-Device-Retrieval-Bit (RSWSDRB does not sound sexy, sadly) and strangely combines both of them into every action set piece. Dom and the crew, A, have to get B, the surveillance blah-blah, to get C, the Stath, but C keeps busting into every A and B scene there is. At first it seemed stupid to have to completely different missions, and it almost seemed to stupider to just have both of them conveniently intervene, but it actually did the movie well, kept the action on both fronts coming, and didn’t neglect either ridiculous movie trope in favor for the other. But even still, it’s paper thin. None of us, Vin Diesel hanging around on his tree stilts growling, “Yo Soy Groot” included, give a shit about this new technological super threat. Not in the hands of these people. The movie ends up somewhere in-between brilliantly overstuffed and grasping to evolve the franchise in its future direction. The movie, at best, is akin to the newer entries of the Mission Impossible series. The characters play off each other’s group dynamics in a cool and collected way (until: cars) to collect information and whoop ass in big, fantastic set pieces that wonderfully defy logic and sound driving laws. At its worst, it becomes a bad Ocean’s Eleven (or Twelve?) rip-off, throwing too many bad guys, too many dumb plot devices, and the desire to play certain things off as comedy without anyone being actually very funny. After four movies together as this particular gang, they have a wonderful repoir together, but quippy comedy and complex plots have never been the movies’ strong point. But then...Vin Diesel and Paul Walker do drive a four milliion dollar car through not one, not two, but three skyscrapers in fuckin’ Dubai or some shit. And you know what? Ask me if it was awesome. It was awesome. So who cares? It was great fun. Vin Deisel growled about family. People drove cars in stupid and fun ways. I saw girls in thongs. It had all the parts of a Fast and Furious movie I have come to expect, and it didn’t even fuck up all the other stuff it crammed down its overstuffed gullet. We only have two more movies before they go up in space, so let’s just keep this good thing going, amirite?

Arbritary Grade: A- Random Thoughts • Yes, this was Paul Walker’s last film, and they needed to use CGI composite shots mixed with his brothers as stand-ins to complete some of his scenes. To just get it out of the way: Yes, the movie was very tasteful with how it handled Walker’s death, and the scenes that were added after his death (some where noticeable or obvious script-wise, some I’m still not sure) were done respectfully and it was a very loving send-off to an actor and character that, for obvious reasons, could no longer go on in the following movies. And yeah, okay, I absolutely cried at the end of the movie, and thinking about it again is making me teary eyed. I need to put on some more Sopranos. Get me tough. • James Wan directs action well, if not a bit too much rotating camera CGI-y. But you can see a specific desire to keep shots going on for more than 2 seconds when possible. There were moments where fights seemed rushed, but overall it felt like the cameras were carefully placed. Given the fact he had so many big set pieces to get wrapped around he did a fine job, a fine job indeed. However, I can’t help but miss the paintball-sharp sensibilities of Justin Lin. • Three Awesome Action Moments:
Paul Walker has become the de facto bare knuckle fighter of the gang (solidified with the awesome prison cell scene that in Fast 6 that even preceded The Raid 2), and his brawl in the moving jail truck with Thai star Tony Jaa was particularly fun. Man, could Brian O’Connor kick ass. Enjoy your life with Dom’s sister and your cute kid, Jack.
As much as they make a big fucking deal about it in all the trailers, the car skydiving scene was effectively awesome. Six movies later, escalated to levels higher than anyone could have ever imagined, they found a way to pay homage to their original creator (the skydiving without a parachute scene in Point Break), but still stick up a stiff middle finger as to how ridiculous people think these movies can get. “LET’S HAVE CARS SKYDIVE” is possibly the most coke-fueled sentence Hollywood ever created, but the scene was done with a refreshing air of recognition as to how dumb it was really getting. And was fun.
And finally, let’s face it. Dom drove through THREE SEPARATE SKYSCRAPERS. The trailers, as terrible as they are at revealing an action movie’s big set-pieces, didn’t quite reveal that there was an entire other building they went through.