Tag Archives: Matthew Weiner

Top Ten of 2013

Frances-Ha-film-still-31. Frances Ha (dir. Noah Baumbach, 2013, US) – A sensitive look at the ever-increasing pangs of quarter-life crises. An immaculate twinning of star Greta Gerwig and director Noah Baumbach, who each line the precipices of contemporary cinematic visions of stilted adulthood and angst. A beautiful monochrome love letter to New York City by way of the French New Wave, Woody Allen style. A perfect film that spoke to me in innumerable ways.

Breaking-Bad_32. Breaking Bad – Season Five, part 2 (x8) (Cr. Vince Gilligan, 2013, AMC, US) – Completing both a perfect season of television and arguably one of the finest TV dramas ever created, these 8 episodes were a sensational concoction of the show’s finest ingredients, blended together to produce a thudding, devastating curtain close for television’s finest anti-hero: Walter White, whose journey from Mr. Chips to Scarface reaches its poetic conclusion.

Standout episode: Ozymandias (s05xe14, dir. Rian Johnson): Perhaps one of the most heartbreaking, shocking and unrestrainedly shattering episodes of television ever made. Johnson extends the show’s cinematic roots and delivers something that is at once a turning point for every character involved and a treatise on the slow-ebbing consequences of deceit.

28-before-midnight3. Before Midnight (dir. Richard Linklater, 2013, US) – One of the many jewels in the series’ crown is the searing, incredibly attuned and humanistic writing and delineation of its characters, and Midnight upholds this and remains as true to its own canon as it is to the reality it so believably upholds. Yet, where the opening two chapters were entrenched in illusory romanticism (especially Sunset), the tone here is faintly darker as the simmering themes and various contexts of Jesse and Celine’s conversations take on restless, even drastic edges. Mature topics such as sex, parenthood and careers are explored, as are the permutations that lay, gestating, in between. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

12-years14. 12 Years a Slave (dir. Steve McQueen, 2013, US) – Subjecting the art gloss of previous films Hunger and Shame to a more formal model, McQueen’s latest is a towering achievement; an unremitting and equally gut-wrenching combined vision of survival and the hideousness of an evil that continues to stagnate in America’s past.

3NO9_StarredUp5. Starred Up (dir. David Mackenzie, 2013, UK) – A murky concoction of Alan Clarke-esque grit and Shane Meadows’ stark realism, Mackenzie’s latest is a pinned-backed and rough-edged prison drama that takes an unflinching look at institutionalisation, paternity, the unwritten hierarchies of prison and how destructive lifestyles could be seen as strikingly hereditary. With a vérité, fly on the wall approach and superb naturalistic performances (especially from Jack O’Connell and Ben Mendelsohn, playing father and son), this may be the stand-out British film of 2014 when it’s released in March.

leaves-upstream-color-reelgood6. Upstream Colour (dir. Shane Carruth, 2013, US) – Just as his first project, Primer, saw Carruth shunning established filmic principles in his approach to implementing the science fiction genre, his latest is more of an innate symphony of ostracism sung from a deeply idiosyncratic voice; an ambitious, inventive and hypnotically contemplative entity wholly beyond compare. It is within a lack of empathy for, and simultaneous defiance of, narrative codes and genre conventions that make this one of the most challenging and markedly unclassifiable films to emanate from American independent cinema in quite some time. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

blue-jasmine-cate-blanchett17. Blue Jasmine (dir. Woody Allen, 2013, US) – However patchy his 21st century offerings have been, Allen’s tenacious film-a-year approach has paid dividends in numerously rewarding and productive ways, though its arguable that none have been as achingly, bitterly human, or indeed contemporary, as this. Through the prism of a Tennessee Williams-style outline, Blue Jasmine is another notch on a long list of strong female-led films for the seasoned filmmaker, one that – instead of merely adopting caricatures – retools them to mount a portrait of self-indulgence, privilege and deceit gone crushingly sour. It’s a weighty and progressively devastating drama with a chilly conclusion; an ending where the lyrics of the film’s title track, Blue Moon, ring wholly, hauntingly true for all involved. (Reviewed for The Hollywood News)

don_apartment38. Mad Men – Season Six (x13) (Cr. Matthew Weiner, 2013, AMC, US) – Essentially answering the question posed to central character Don Draper at the close of season 5 (“Are you alone?”), this sixth season makes atonal lurches from one unexpected plot curve to the next as it burrows further into Don’s shadowy cerebral cortex. A murkier tone – mirroring the tumultuousness of 1968 America – may make this one of the show’s weaker seasons, but a tepid season of Mad Men is still one of the best shows on television, and this makes for a memorably hectic prelude to season seven’s two-tiered series finisher.

Standout episode: The Better Half (s06xe09, dir. Phil Abraham): An unlikely tryst between Don and ex-wife Betty, sharing screen time for the first time since season 4, further sheds light on Don’s doomed approach to companionship, devotion and fidelity.

Spring-Breakers-promo06-780x5209. Spring Breakers (dir. Harmony Korine, 2012, US) – Embracing the mainstream whilst simultaneously challenging its codes, Korine’s latest is his most fully realised and accessible film to date; a provocative study of chaos that refuses to sugarcoat the ugliness of what it both admires and reproaches. This could so easily have become what it has been advertised as: a cheap and tawdry perusal through its subject matter, using bikini-clad protagonists as exemplars of the accoutrements of present-day youth. Yet it isn’t merely a straightforward depiction of Girls Gone Wild-inspired carnage; quite the contrary in fact. It digs deep into the psyche and inner-workings of the central friendship, the allure of bad behaviour and self-destructiveness, and how the choices these girls make – and the impact of Britney Spears – reverberates and has repercussions.(Reviewed for Take One)

gimme-the-loot-gimme-the-loot-02-01-2013-4-g10. Gimme the Loot (dir. Adam Leon, 2012, US) – The feature debut of resident New Yorker Leon, this is an authentic and charming story of desperation and the desire to leave ones mark in a modern city that doesn’t particularly care for the protagonist’s outwardly diminutive voices. (Reviewed for CineVue)

Honourable mentions:

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Blackfish (dir. Gabriela Cowperthwaite, 2013, US) – Searing and emotionally exhausting, what Cowperthwaite’s documentary lacks in analytical edges it more than makes up for in the sheer weight and comprehension of its central thesis: the destructive ignorance of SeaWorld and animal captivity.

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Girls – Season Two (x10) (cr. Lena Dunham, 2013, HBO, US) – Small screen auteur Lena Dunham’s excellent, ultra-hip series gets darker and more mature as it goes on, growing into an already well established groove whilst – unlike its protagonists – developing its sense of self.

Standout episode: It’s Back (s02xe08, dir. Jesse Peretz): A superb rug-puller that exemplifies Dunham’s prowess as an actress, storyteller and sculptor of authentic characters with authentic problems.

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Southcliffe (x4) (dir. Sean Durkin, 2013, UK) – Another harrowing offering from Durkin, who transcends and repackages his cinematic presence into this startlingly effective British miniseries, which focuses on a town’s devastation brought on by a spate of shootings. A staggering portrait of manifested frustration and grief, stuffed with excellent performances.

Standout episode: Sorrow’s Child (e03, dir. Sean Durkin). Actor Anatol Yusef effectively plumbs the depth of his character, Paul’s, anguish, building to rousing, hair-raising final moments soundtracked by Otis Redding.

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Museum Hours (dir. Jem Cohen, 2012, Austria) – A lucid, dreamy dissertation on the simultaneous intimacy and implacability of life, death and the art of simply looking.

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After Lucia (dir. Michel Franco, 2012, Mexico) – Released straight to DVD here in the UK, this is a gruelling portrait of bullying and the evils of youth that deserves a wider audience, if not for the relentless torment of its protagonist then for the spectacular performance from the actress who plays her, Tessa Ia. (featured on Best of 2012 list)

(A list dedicated solely to 2013 UK releases can be found on HeyUGuys’ Movie Bloggers poll)

Review: Mad Men – Season 6 Episode 3: ‘The Collaborators’

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(Wri. Matthew Weiner & Jonathan Igla, Dir. Jon Hamm)

Once again charged with steering a season’s difficult third episode after its titanic feature-length opener, Jon Hamm returns to the chair to direct ‘The Collaborators’, a sombre and increasingly murky follow-up to the heft of ‘The Doorway’ (s06/e01-2). Whereas his season five directorial debut – the rather languid ‘Tea Leaves’ (s05/e03) – had the task of re-introducing Don Draper’s contentious ex-wife Betty Francis (then labelled Fat Betty) into the narrative whilst simultaneously bringing in a hot-headed new character (the frantic genius Michael Ginsberg) to the SCDP offices, ‘The Collaborators’ is much more of a contemplative and disconcerting spike in what appears to be this season’s near-total exposure to the darker territories the show has hinted at earlier on. It also returns to a narrative and thematic thread largely expressed in the past (in episodes such as ‘Signal 30’ (s05/e05) and ‘Lady Lazarus’ (s05/e08)), which is Pete Campbell’s desperation to fit into a Don Draper-shaped mould that, unbeknownst to him, is continuing to shift between several permutations. It is also a model even its founder continues to be unsatisfied with.

‘The Collaborators’ is an episode that explores the several literal and rhetorical ramifications of infidelity, and is in itself teeming with it as it seeps in to all of the narrative strands on show. Hamm displays a strong knack for balancing storylines concerning, essentially, the show’s three main protagonists, who come in the form of Don, Pete and Peggy, and equally does a great job of finessing such unlikable material. As highlighted at the end of the previous episode, Don has indeed shirked his mission for absolute fidelity and begun cheating on Megan with his newfound friend’s wife Sylvia Rosen (excellently played by Linda Cardellini), who lives a few floors below. Don is fervent and voracious in his single-minded dedication to this latest affair, pursuing his latest muse like an illicitly charged predator hunting his prey. We’ve seen him in the throes of previous dalliances before, getting his kicks and scratching the persistent itch whilst his family sit at home watching the clock. Here, however, it is performed a lot closer to home than before (literally under Megan’s nose), and just like his liaisons with Bobbie Barrett and Sally’s school teacher in previous seasons, the truth will out eventually as his eye continues to be distracted. He’s told women he can’t stop thinking of them in the past, and here he literally wont leave Sylvia alone, guided as he is by incessant infatuation. The scene with them playing chicken at the dinner table that should have been shared by their respective partners is as sexually charged as anything the show has done.

Pete, on the other hand, has made no bones about expressing just how unfulfilled he is with his current lot in life. That Trudy kicks him to the curb after finding out his latest bout of adultery – with, like Don, a neighbour – creates a new dynamic to their surface-layer marriage: it gives him exactly what he wants without the freedom because, in true Trudy fashion, she refuses to be a failure and bow to a divorce.

The episode saw the return of flashbacks from Don’s childhood growing up in a whorehouse, which, although rather lazily dropped in (Weiner’s stressing there are still pages in Don’s legacy still unturned), creates an interesting linearity with the series’ current narrative. Prostitution is alluded to in Don’s gesture of – after intercourse – giving Sylvia money after overhearing her husband refusing to give her any before he goes to work. The subject is also echoed throughout the rest of the episode, particularly with the re-appearance of Herb from Jaguar, which causes Don to revisit the frustrations of not being able to prevent Joan’s actions to secure her future at the agency a year ago whilst simultaneously averting Herb’s grip over his staff. If season five was all about success and the financial sustenance of SCDP as they sought and won business with the likes of Heinz and Jaguar, then this episode (and potentially future ones) is about the preservation and maintenance of said accounts. This is something of a rarity on Mad Men; usually we see the creative pursuit and eventual attainment of business, but seldom is the aftermath of it conveyed.

‘The Collaborators’ shows that it isn’t all smiling faces and bootlicking, but bartering and the negotiating of ideas plays a strong role in the requisite housekeeping. Raymond returns and Weiner highlights exactly why he was so demanding and hard to please whilst Don et al pursued Heinz Baked Beans last season: he’s anxious about keeping ahead of the game now that he’s got a successful advertising campaign for his small-time section of the business. That he warns SCDP not to chase the newly available Ketchup division (“The Coca-Cola of condiments” says Ken in the episode’s best line) sparks in Don an atypical sense of loyalty toward his client, something he can’t, or won’t, bring home with him. Sometimes, he says, you gotta dance with the one who brung you. He may not go after Ketchup, but it wont stop his nemesis Ted Chaough over at CGC from cocking his Peggy-shaped gun after she lets slip about the fact Heinz is taking interviews. An inevitable showdown between Don Draper and Peggy Olsen, master and apprentice, may occur, which will bring about another notch on the fascinating relationship between a man lost in time and the only woman he refuses to cheat on.

Extra thoughts:

·        Buckling under the emotional weight of her recent miscarriage, Megan is seen wearing an all-encompassing house coat very similar to Betty’s in all but colour.

·        The standout scene belongs to Trudy, Pete and the final breakdown in their marriage, which is something very similar to Don and Betty in seasons 1-3. Pete, like Don, skulks through the kitchen, coat draped on arm, kisses his wife goodbye and goes to leave for work, only to be confronted. Trudy is the opposite of Betty in many ways; she’s the empowered and successful housewife who, when push came to shove, made no bones about stating her demands, something Betty took years to muster the courage to do.

·        A prostitute in one of the flashbacks says to a teenage Don: “Find your own sins”.

·        Oliver Muirhead, the consummate token Englishman, plays a Jaguar employee here. He delivered his lines like he’s lucky to be in such a prestigious show.

·        Great final images of Don, in flashback, peeping through the keyhole of his uncle bedding his mother, whilst Don in present tense sits exhausted outside his front door, unable to go through to the mess he continues to make inside. If half-hearted, the flashback sequences remind us that Weiner is still chiselling at the ice block that is Don Draper.

·       Credits song: Just a Gigolo – Bing Crosby

Review: Mad Men – Season 6 Episodes 1&2: ‘The Doorway’

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(Wri. Matthew Weiner, Dir. Scott Hornbacher)

The pertinent question “Are you alone?” – posed by a blonde temptress to a stoic Don Draper – was the bracing cliffhanger that rounded off the stunning, poetic fifth season of Matthew Weiner’s epic televisual novel, Mad Men, which makes a monumentally solemn return for a sixth and penultimate run. A close up of Draper’s face literally contemplating such a loaded inquiry before turning his tempted head sewed up a season that wove together the show’s standard intimations and concerns with death and the unappeasable pursuit of happiness but gave them a bleaker and more weighty angle, as each character from the robust ensemble individually mused about mortality and their positions in an ever-changing world. If season five highlighted and subsequently explored the awesome position mortality has in one’s self-identification, then ‘The Doorway’ carries across such hefty themes but exacerbates them, dealing unequivocally with death and loneliness whilst answering the aforementioned question regarding Don’s fidelity. It’s seamless and totally fitting that Weiner is fully confronting death on a more personable level now that his baby is reaching its looming demise, and it’s a subject that pervades a feature-length episode of a show already steeped in substantial visual and thematic metaphor.

The suicide of Lane Pryce late in season five formed a considerable shadow over its final episode ‘The Phantom’, which saw Don perusing the guilt he felt in playing a significant part in his colleague’s untimely death and, by extension, his brother Adam’s back in season one, who hung himself after Don refused to let him back into his new, fraudulent life. The climax of ‘The Phantom’ signalled a harbinger of doom as Don’s aching tooth was extracted (“It’s not your tooth that’s rotten”, intones Adam’s ghost) and his marriage to Megan – now a fully realised soap opera actress – hung in the balance. The episode opens with the Draper’s bathed in the Hawaiian sun, with Don – physically silent for a whole eight minutes – reading in voiceover a line from Dante’s ‘Inferno’: “Midway in our life’s journey I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood”; an image that will undoubtedly form as much of an integral resonance for the structure of the ensuing season as Frank O’Hara’s poetry volume ‘Meditations in an Emergency’ acted as a supplement to season two. It’s the tail end of 1967 and Don’s no closer to finding the proper means to scratch his anxious itch or finding the happiness that now seems completely unattainable. That he has indeed returned to cheating on his wife is indicative of his unchangeable persona; he is a man incapable of being – as a photographer taking profiles of the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce staff in their renovated, reefer-stenched office demands – himself, because he refuses to acknowledge who Don Draper/Dick Whitman is and who he wants to be.

The case of Don’s stolen identity continues to reverberate in several forms throughout the series, and now it stares him in the face once again in the form of PFC Dinkins’ lighter, a soldier on a break from Vietnam and whose marriage Don attends on Waikiki Beach. Still searching for the uneasy balance between business and pleasure, Don is on an assignment (not holiday) for latest client The Royal Hawaiian, for whom he constructs an ad campaign that evokes, to everyone else but him, a sense of foreboding and, explicitly, suicide. It depicts an office drone shedding his skin and engaging in “The jumping off point” provided by the experience of the hotel; wading through a transient ocean towards an unknowable oasis, a close example of life continuing to imitate art. Throughout the episode Don appears indifferent and unchanged, that patented sleek ad man adrift in a sea of shifting haircuts, bushy beards and marijuana smoke; that is until the almost dreamlike closing scenes where, on New Years Eve, he sees off new friend Dr. Arnold Rosen wading away through a thick blanket of snow before promptly sleeping with his wife Sylvia (Linda Cardellini), who leant him her copy of ‘Inferno’. Stationed in horizontal, post-coital compunction, Don is an image of self-loathing and inexorable remorse, answering his newest conquest’s question of what he wants for the New Year with a deflated “I want to stop doing this”, something he knows won’t be happening any time soon.

This is a stark indication of the potential tenor of the successive episodes, welcoming the audience and characters to 1968 with a gloomy foreshadowing of Don’s constant battle with his perpetual existential crisis, whilst offering an apposite delineation to what Dr. Rosen surmises: that “people will do anything to alleviate their anxiety”. A thoughtful and profoundly moving season premiere, “The Doorway” does a perfect job of balancing heavy material alongside the show’s multitude of characters both minor and major, and although it has become a beautifully shrewd and dense watch, it is nevertheless a pleasure to see the return of a show that takes pride in a drip-feed approach to rewarding the more discerning viewer.

Extra thoughts:

·         As much as “The Doorway” focuses on Mad Men’s chief protagonist Don Draper, it is also a four-pronged and competently structured story that catches up with Roger Sterling, Betty Francis and Peggy Olsen; one whose nuances – as always – rewards repeat viewings.

·         Roger, seen last year openly bankrolling the agency whilst embracing LSD, is now seeking answers in psychotherapy, musing about life with a doctor who refuses to laugh at his jokes. In an episode filled with strong moments (especially for Roger, whose sobbing over the one-two punch of the death of his mother and the building’s shoeshine clerk was raw and incredibly poignant), the scene where he openly engages with the episode’s title sees him unleashing a lengthy diatribe about his discontent. His analogy about the events in life being represented by a series of doors that ultimately lead to the same dissatisfaction and close behind you is a spikey summation for a man deeply unhappy with what he has. “Turns out the experiences are nothing. They’re just pennies you pick up off the floor, stick in your pocket, and you’re just going in a straight line to you-know-where”, he says, and it’ll be interesting to see if he manages to find the keys to a door that will lead him to the contentment he seemed to enjoy with courting Megan’s mother last season. Though, of course, Roger is all about living for the now and disregarding the future consequences.

·         Similarly restless is Betty, although she’s come a long way from the callous, childish woman she once was. Still “reducing” her weight (excellent prosthetics), she appears – in more screen time than January Jones had in season 5 put together – a woman struggling to deal with the echoes of her venomous demeanour and keep her newfound nuclear family stable. This isn’t to say she’s totally unlikable (her joke regarding her assistance in her husband’s raping of daughter Sally’s friend, asleep in the next room, nosedives her ostensibly softer edges, said with a sinister Stepford robot smile), but she goes some way to being a more sympathetic maternal figure, even though her attentions are totally guided in the wrong direction. That Sally addresses her as Betty speaks volumes about their chequered relationship.

·        Betty’s shift from icy bottled blonde, which is a response to her being accused of not liking her life, to Elizabeth Taylor-esque brunette has a sub-Freudian complex as she looks peculiarly similarly to her Henry’s mother, Pauline.

·         Finally, seen as her agency’s Don Draper figure, Peggy is thriving in her job at Cutler Gleason and Chaough, exemplifying how much the apprentice has become the master and how good she really is in a crisis.

·        Credits song: Elvis Presley – Hawaiian Wedding Song.