Mad Men, created by Sopranos veteran Matthew Weiner for AMC, was the best new show of 2007. No contest. It’s 1960, a world of cigarettes and martinis and highballs, where successful businessmen have wet bars in their offices, mothers don’t worry about seatbelts for the kids and married men treat flirtation with secretaries and waitresses as a God-given right. Don Draper (Jon Hamm), the suave, successful, supremely confident creative director at a Madison Avenue advertising firm, should be on top of the world. As one character puts it: “Who could not be happy with all this?” Draper, for one. The ostensibly happily married family man is having an affair (and begins another before the season is over) while his wife (January Jones) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown because she can’t figure out why her home and family and security leave her so empty. This series serves up the sixties on the cusp of change, still entrenched in the values and attitudes and fashions of the fifties, still defined by a complacent middle-class certainty that feels less certain all the time.
In addition to Draper, a character whose carefully groomed identity covers up a fascinating life and a dramatic sense of denial, and his fragile wife, we get a rich cast of characters with their own dreams and aspirations and seriously screwed-up dimensions: a young working girl from Queens (Elisabeth Moss) in her first professional job, the queen of the secretarial roost (Christina Hendricks), an arrogant young junior executive (Vincent Kartheiser) who keeps bumping up against Draper. Kartheiser’s Pete, you ambitious young hotshot, is the only one in the firm who sees past the accepted wisdom of the entrenched ad man, who take it for granted that middle class men make the buying decisions that drive commerce, and grasps the exploding power of youth culture and the rise of young adults and teens as a driving, defining force in the marketplace and in the culture. John Slattery is brilliant as Draper’s boss and Maggie Siff, Rosemarie DeWitt and Robert Morse co-star.
While the surface details of fashion and design are dead on, this is no exercise in nostalgia, but a richly drawn look at the social roles, sexual identity, and disenchantment with the façade that is the American Dream. The portrait of male and female social roles and sexual identities – as understood by themselves as well as each other – is brilliant, and the final episodes of the season push the insight into daring and fascinating territory. The times are a-changin’ faster than these Madison Avenue ad execs can fathom.
My review is featured in the TV section of my MSN DVD column.
Also new this week My Blueberry Nights, the English language debut of Hong Kong romantic stylist Wong Kar-wai:
… a road film starring Norah Jones (in her film debut) as a spurned lover traveling through a movie-made America of damaged loves, broken romances and wounded hearts. The script, co-written by Wong with American crime novelist Lawrence Block, is more a suggestion of stories than actual drama, always threatening to dissolve in the woozy, color-saturated images, but the sensuous texture and rich atmosphere holds it together. This is movie about moments captured in time, about the sensuality of image, about the overwhelming emotional assault of loving and living.
The DVD review is here on MSN.
I also reviewed the film on my blog here.
Legend Films, previously a player in film restoration and colorization (including a partnership with Ray Harryhausen to bring color to his black and white films, with not only his blessing but his encouragement), has begun licensing back catalogue films from Paramount and releasing them on DVD. The first wave, released in June, was a mixed bag of star vehicles (Houdini with Tony Curtis and Janet Leigh) and minor cult oddities (the 1965 Amicus horror film The Skull with Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee and the dystopian 1971 sci-fi drama ZPG (Zero Population Growth) with Oliver Reed). The second wave arrives this week and brings a fairly interesting mix of titles: John Sayles’ Baby It’s You, Sidney Lumet’s Daniel, the Martin and Lewis comedy Money From Home, Jacques Demy’s ruly strange The Pied Piper with folk-pop troubadour Donovan, and my favorite of the batch, the French romantic drama Girl on the Bridge:
French everyman Daniel Auteuil and babydoll pop singer Vanessa Paradis star in Patrice Leconte’s rhapsodic fairy tale of a knife thrower and his waif-like muse, a little-girl-lost that he saves from suicide and puts into his act. With her sparkling eyes and curled lips, Paradis looks like she’s walked out of a fashion layout, but behind her facade is the naïve innocence of a child-woman who confuses sex and love, while Auteil’s hang dog face suggests the scarred survivor of a loveless existence and he wears his disappointment like a badge of honor. Leconte drives the film into pure romantic fantasy: alone, they’re hopeless losers. Together, they are pure magic.
Read the entire DVD review here.
Here’s a digest of the other DVD releases featured on my MSN column:
The men of City of Men, a big-screen continuation of the TV series spin-off of Fernando Meirelles’ Brazilian crime epic City of God, are two 17-year-old best friends (Douglas Silva and Darlen Cunha) from fatherless homes in the violent favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. As one searches for the father he never knew and the other is forced to take responsibility for his own son, they both have to go on the run when a rival drug dealer targets them. Produced by Meirelles and directed by his longtime collaborator, Paulo Morelli, it’s another vivid look at the doomed lives and limited options of youth in a world where drug dealers rule their neighborhoods like junior warlords.
TV: The Closer: The Complete Third Season with Kyra Sedgwick and ’Til Death Do Us Part: The Complete First Season:
Film director and cult icon John Waters does hosting duties on this darkly humorous twist on the true-crime drama, which plays like “Love, American Style” meets “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” The series takes real life cases of marriages that end in murder and spins them into morbidly humorous half-hour portraits of jealous husbands and bitter wives and extreme solutions to relationship problems.
Special Releases: Heathers: 20th High School Reunion Edition, Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life In Four Chapters, and Batman: The Movie – Special Edition:
Holy camp fest, Batman! Adam West and Burt Ward leapt from their self-parodying TV series to the big screen to take on their greatest foes – The Joker (Cesar Romero), the Penguin (Burgess Meredith), the Riddler (Frank Gorshin), and purr-fectly sexy Catwoman (Lee Meriwether) – in this tongue-in-cheek superhero farce from 1966. West’s arch deadpan only enhances the painful puns, the exaggerated, ridiculously choreographed fight scenes are punctuated by words balloons (“Pow!,” “Thud!,” and “Blammo!”) and the caped crusader has a handy utility belt accessory for every occasion (Bat Shark Repellent, anyone?).
Like a revisionist Birth of a Nation for the North, this Civil War story takes place in the urban slums of New York. In the neighborhood known as Five Points, Irish immigrants are second class citizens and the national chauvinist Natives run the criminal world and Tammany Hall, until the tide turns and Tammany builds its new power base on the huge voting numbers of immigrant Irish. There’s an amazing story in there but this hodge-podge of a screenplay, built on the tired and bent spine of revenge, betrayal, and clan loyalty, does little to illuminate any of that. It is sumptuous, however, a paean to the craftsmanship of Rome’s Cinecitta studio (where Scorsese recreated his yesteryear New York) and the designs of Dante Ferretti as captured by cinematographer extraordinaire Michael Ballhaus.
The weekly column goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment.