Mad Men and Mad Max

I attended two screenings in movie theaters so far this week. I thought I’d share them with you.

Mad Men Finale at the New Parkway

My wife and I have been following Mad Men for some years now–without cable or satellite. We binge-watched the first three seasons on disc, and season four on Netflix. We paid to see the last three seasons on Hulu, where each episode became available the day after its broadcast.

But we wanted something special for the big series finale on Sunday. So we went to the New Parkway, where they had been screening the last few episodes live for a paying audience. At $6 a head, it seemed like a bargain.

The presentation leaved a lot to be desired. The houselights stayed on for several minutes after the show started. They finally came down, but they went back up again before the show ended. And we had to sit through the commercials, which weren’t even muted.

On the other hand, the audience was wonderful. Some were costumed as Don, Betty, Joan, and Peggy. The crowd laughed and cheered at appropriate places, and called out encouragement for the characters on screen. That made the problems worthwhile.

So much has been written about the show and the finale that I don’t feel a need to discuss my reactions. But it did make me think about what real separates a happy ending from sad one. It’s all about where you stop telling the story.

Mad Max: Fury Road in 3D at Berkeley’s California Theater

After the San Francisco International Film Festival, I like to cleanse my palate with a big, Hollywood action movie. This year, it took me almost two weeks to get around to that ritual. But I waited for the right movie.

I caught the new Mad Max in the big, downstairs auditorium in Berkeley’s California Theatre. I had to skip out of work early to see it in 3D. For some odd reason, they were showing it flat version–in the same auditorium–for the prime-time 7:00 screening.

You have to understand three things about this movie:

  1. It’s basically one long motor vehicle chase broken up with a few dialog scenes.
  2. It’s surprisingly feminist for this sort of movie. It’s about a woman warrior rescuing a tyrant’s enslaved harem.
  3. Mad Max isn’t the main hero.

Charlize Theron plays the real hero–the woman warrior mentioned above. She’s strong, smart, determined, and ethical. She’s putting her life on the line and burning all of her bridges for a completely altruistic motive. She’s freeing slaves.

Max, by comparison, is just along for the ride. He’s the central character in the way that Dr. Watson is the central character in a Sherlock Holmes story–we see the story primarily through his point of view. Unlike Watson, he has to find his moral center. At first he cares only for his own survival. Slowly, he becomes a valuable part of the team bringing these women to freedom. But he never becomes the team’s leader.

Tom Hardy plays Max. I guess Mel Gibson is too old and too anti-Semitic.

But all of that moral and character stuff is just an appetizer. The main course is the chase, filled with crashes, weapons, hand-to-hand combat, acts of courage, close calls, and fatal errors. It’s fast, brutal, and for the most part very well-choreographed. The film makes effective use of 3D, and should be seen that way.

Occasionally, the action got repetitious, and even briefly tedious. Director/co-writer George Miller could have cut out 20 minutes and made a better movie for it.

Miller does a good job creating a dystopian future Australia (and yes, I know he’s done it before). He gives us a barren landscape presumably savaged by climate change, populated by a handful of desperate people living on shrinking resources and the remnants of a dead civilization.

But one thing bothered me about Miller’s vision. Whatever destroyed the environment apparently killed off everyone who wasn’t white. When you consider that Theron’s character seems based on Margaret Tubman, it would have been nice to cast a black woman in the role.

You’ve probably read about reactionary men’s groups objecting to the film. Think about the reaction if Zoe Saldana had Theron’s role.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road a B+.

On David Pogue, Piracy, and the Call for Making Movies Available Online Immediately

Last week, tech journalist David Pogue wrote a piece for the Scientific American calling for the Hollywood studios and the MPAA to make new movies available for streaming and downloads as soon as they open in theaters.

Streaming movies offers instant gratification: no waiting, no driving—plus great portability: you can watch on gadgets too small for a DVD drive, like phones, tablets and superthin laptops.

His basic argument is that people are forced to download illegal copies because they would otherwise have to wait a few months. Even worse, some movies are still not available online.

From an economic point of view, his argument might make sense, although I shudder to think of what that would do the already-struggling movie theaters. But as a lover of motion pictures, the argument makes no sense to me, at all.

If you need to see the latest blockbuster so badly that you can't wait for it come out online, why not spend a few dollars and see it properly? And by properly, I mean in a theater. A film isn't meant to be background noise, but an immersive experience–preferably a communal one with an audience.

Yes, I know: But you can't watch it on your phone! To which I reply: Why would you want to? That's not a movie. It's not even television. It's a peephole.

And if you really can't afford tickets, wait a few months and rent the DVD–or better yet, the Blu-ray. Nothing else you can watch at home matches the image and sound quality of a Blu-ray. Yes, I know that some PPV services offer Blu-ray's 1080p resolution; I've even tested them. And believe me, Blu-rays look better.

Okay, so you're a complete hermit, and you're determined to never leave your house again. So if you can't stream a movie, you can't watch it.

Guess what! Between Netflix and Hulu Plus, you've got an incredible collection of films. Hulu's Criterion channel alone has hundreds of the best motion pictures ever made, and unlike the rest of Hulu, there are no commercials. Netflix has a pretty impressive collection, too, and a more diverse one.

So don't complain that movies are too inconvenient to see. Give them a little respect, and the inconvenience will seem like a small price to pay.

Full Disclosure: Many years ago, David Pogue pirated three works of mine…accidentally, of course. Other people had pirated intentionally and he thought they were anonymously written when in fact I held the copyright. I long ago accepted his apology.

Quick Comments on the Oscars

About the awards

  • Third year in a row that a film shot digitally appeared to be a likely Best Picture winner, but lost to a film shot on film.
  • Early on I thought it was going to be a Hugo sweep, but it turned into a happy ending, after all. I liked them both, but The Artist really was the better show.
  • Surprised that neither silent movie tribute won a Best Screenplay award. Usually the Best Picture winner wins one of those awards.
  • Too bad Bridesmaids didn’t win in either category for which it was nominated. Comedy gets overlooked way too often.
  • Delighted about A Separation’s win for Best Foreign Film (even though it was the only one of the five I’d seen, and therefore really couldn’t judge).

About the show

  • I really, really hate the question “Who are you wearing?” I want some movie star to say “I don’t wear people, and I bought this dress at Woolworth.”
  • Billy Crystal’s pre-filmed opening show was pretty funny, up through Tom Cruise’s cameo. Then it ran out of steam.
  • His follow-up opening song about the nominees was lame. Face it Billy: That shtick was brilliant the first year you did it and lame every year after that.
  • Loved the sketch about focus groups and The Wizard of Oz. Did Christopher Guest direct that? It was certainly done by his brilliant rep company.
  • Why would a Hulu Plus commercial remind people that watching too much television is addictive and dehumanizing?
  • The mystery of Meryl Streep. She’s such a brilliant actor, but when she has to address an audience as herself, without pretending to be someone else, she comes off as a complete dork.
  • With two homages to silent films, and one specifically to Georges Méliès, couldn’t they have spared a few minutes to a tribute to the inventor of both special effects and (arguably) narrative cinema?

The Arrow Awards: The Best in British Television Commercials

The British make great television and have a great comedy tradition. But does that mean you should pay to see their television commercials?

C Collection of television commercials

If you’re like me, you probably mute or fast-forward through TV commercials. So why on earth would you go to a movie theater and buy a ticket to watch an hour’s worth of advertising intended for the "telly?"

One reason is that these are, at least in theory, the best–the commercials that have won the elite British Arrow Awards. For another reason, they’re British. Whatever we think of English dentistry and cooking, every PBS fan knows that they make great television. And the British tradition of off-the-wall humor stretches back from Gilbert and Sullivan through Beyond the Fringe and Monty Python to Wallace and Gromit. (Am I hitting enough stereotypes here?)

British Arrow Awards 2011 will screen Thursday through next Sunday at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. I did not screen these in time for last week’s newsletter.

Unfortunately, surprisingly few of these commercials are funny–intentionally or otherwise. To get to the laughs, you have to sit through a lot of technical whiz-bang, supposedly heart-warming slices of life, and two poetic odes to Macdonalds.

But the funny ones are excellent. What starts as a romantic war epic turns into a heroic tale of bakery delivery trucks. Two commercials introduce us to the small arrowawardsvillage where everyone seems exceptionally devoted to making wonderful cider. Impressive computer animation show us an exceptionally bad-ass way to manufacture a car, and creates a whimsical fantasy world that was so impressive I can’t recall what it was selling.

But the funniest commercial was probably one of the cheapest–a lesson in how to make your own low-budget Doritos commercial. A man addresses the camera as he explains the importance of such elements as conflict, suspense, and rolling your R’s. The lesson cuts frequently to variations of a pathetically bad little film that only gets worse with each "improvement."

I even liked a couple of non-funny commercials. One was an inspirational tale about a paraplegic athlete–which turned out to be hawking Johnny Walker. Another, which was a true public service announcement, warned of the dangers of Christmas tree fires.

One smartphone ad tried to be funny with three offensively stereotypical dumb blondes. Perhaps I found it particularly offensive because one blonde was named Maya and another one Brittany–the names of my youngest daughter and future daughter-in-law.

The program starts with the Bronze award winners, followed by those who took home the Silver, and ending with the "Best Commercial of the Year," which was not the best one on the program. Oddly, the Bronze collection contained most of the truly entertaining commercials. Perhaps the Arrow judges don’t use my criteria.

All told, I’d estimate that you’ll find about 20 minutes of great entertainment in this hour-long collection. For the rest, you may long for the fast-forward button.

The Wire

A few nights ago, I finished what may be one of the best motion pictures of the last decade. I say "finished" because I watched the 60+ hour film piece by piece over the course of several months.

Yes, I’m talking about a television series. The Wire ran for five seasons from 2002 through 2008 on HBO. There were 60 episodes in all, but it’s easy to think of The Wire as a single story, Dickensian in its sprawling complexity.

The Wire looks at ghetto dwellers earning a living and sometimes getting rich the only way available to them–by selling heroin. It’s also about a handful of dedicated police detectives trying to bring down the drug dealers while struggling within a bureaucracy that couldn’t care less.

That’s the main thread of the show, but others come up along the way. In the second season, we meet longshoremen and a corrupt union–corrupt because there is no thewirecrookshonest way to earn the money needed to buy political muscle. The third season brings in the obvious solution that no one will consider (legalizing drugs), and also studies city politics and a whole new level of corruption. In the fourth, we enter a public school system where the teachers and administrators have all but given up on actual teaching, and the students understand that they will have to choose between two life paths: gangster and addict. In the fifth season, the press enters the picture as the city editor of a struggling newspaper tries to do honest and meaningful work. His bosses, like those in the police department, are not interested.

In other words, it’s about urban decay, in American cities in general and Baltimore in particular. The show’s creator and (if I may use the term) auteur, David Simon, worked the Baltimore crime beat as a reporter for more than a decade before becoming a producer. He knows what he was writing about, and he knows Baltimore–The Wire’s main character.

The human characters are almost as compelling. You’ve got an idealistic and determined detective who is also an alcoholic womanizer, a gang leader’s second-in-command who happens to be a brilliant businessman, a union leader who tries to stay honest while dipping into crime for what he believes is the good of the union, a gay, swashbuckling thug who preys upon the drug lords, a cop who effectively legalizes drugs in his precinct, and a teenage boy pressured by his parents to start a life of crime. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

One rule that’s seldom spoken but which they all understand: Whether or not you can thewirecopsget away with murder depends largely on who you kill. Race is an obvious factor; even in a predominantly black city, the political pressure is greater to solve the murder of someone white. But that’s not the only rule. Black or white, you can’t kill someone with political power, and you can never kill a cop. But you’d have to drop an awful lot of black guys in the ‘hood to even get noticed…and even then you won’t be noticed long.

Simon and his collaborators aren’t interested in telling reassuring tales. Good deeds are often punished, and bad deeds rewarded. People you care about die in The Wire, sometimes suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere.

At the end of the fifth season, The Wire comes to a satisfying ending. For some characters, the ending is happy; for others, it’s tragic. For most, things will go on as they have before. The names and faces will change, but the same power structures guarantee that, for Baltimore as a whole, victories will be minor or temporary.

If you haven’t seen The Wire, I suggest you start renting the DVDs now.

Oscar Parties

The rule used to be that you watched movies in theaters and TV at home. Today, so many of us watch movies at home that we need to get out once in awhile to watch TV in the theater.

And why not do it with the biggest movie night on television: The Academy Awards? Comedy is usually better with an audience.

Here are the theaters playing the Oscars on their big screens Sunday night:

Balboa: Writer/performer Reed Kirk Rahlmann will host what the Balboa is promising to be the "most relaxed and fun Oscar® party in town." They’re giving away prizes for the best costume; I dare you to come as a Winter Bone.

Cerrito: I’ll be attending this one, so if you come, keep an eye out for me and say "Hello." The Cerrito probably has the best food of any local theater, and the most comfortable chairs, which makes it a good choice for a long show (other theaters are bringing in boxed gourmet dinners, but the Cerrito doesn’t have to bring them in; it has a real kitchen). Like the Balboa, they’re giving away prizes for costumes based on the movies;  I saw The Kids are All Right, Black Swan, and True Grit at the Cerrito, so maybe I should come as a lesbian gardener ballet dancer with an eye patch.

Lark: Food-wise, the Lark seems to be giving the Cerrito a run for its money. They’ve got quite a menu planned from various local eateries. And yes, a costume contest. The price is high, though: $55.

Rafael: For what it’s worth, this is the "Only official Bay Area Oscar night event sanctioned by the Academy." It includes a gourmet boxed dinner and a silent auction, but no costume contest. As I write this, the Rafael’s Oscar event is the only one I’ve attended–two years ago. Unfortunately, I can’t say I enjoyed it much. Despite my negative review, it’s already sold out.

Roxie: They’re calling this one "Up the Oscars!" which suggests that it might be the only unofficial Bay Area Oscar night event condemned by the Academy. They’re encouraging patrons to "bring your ill-tempered attitude and vent with an equally irascible ilk while we attempt to distract you with prizes and a variety of shenanigans…" These include (you guessed it) a costume contest, "all calculated to keep your blood from boiling as misconceived musical numbers are performed and unworthy winners are announced."

Movies, TV Shows, and Blu-ray Boxed Sets

I recently completed a Blu-ray boxed set gift guide for PC World. I looked at a lot of discs for that one. Not all of them contained movies.

With few exceptions, I’ve pretty much ignored series television for a very long time. In recent years I’ve heard and read raves about The Sopranos, Weeds, and other programs, but I just avoided the subject. I didn’t (and still don’t) subscribe to HBO or Showtime, so they were out of my realm.

Researching that article forced me to reconsider. I felt I needed to cover TV as well as movies, and that meant looking into shows I’d only heard of.

In the end, I didn’t include an adult-targeted television series in the article, but here are two I regretted leaving out:

Nurse Jackie

The moment I opened the Nurse Jackie Season One box, I knew I couldn’t use clip_image002it in the article. Two discs inside a conventional Blu-ray case doesn’t make a boxed set.

Which is too bad because the show is utterly hypnotic. Last night I sat down to watch one 30-minute episode (number 3; I’d already watched the first two). I ended up watching four. And none of them had cliff-hanger endings. I just wanted to learn more about these people and their environment.

Edie Falco stars as Jackie Peyton, a New York City emergency room nurse. She’s a wonderful nurse–knowledgeable, intelligent, and empathetic. But she’s falling apart. She’s hiding her back problems from co-workers, and has become addicted to the painkillers she needs to get through the day. She’s having an affair with the pharmacist who supplies her with the painkillers. They seem to really like each other, but you can’t help wondering if this is a sex-for-drugs exchange.

I can’t tell you any more about her, or the show, without giving too much away. The program runs on Showtime.

Mad Men

I came very close to recommending Mad Men Season Three in the article. With three discs in a standard case, it just barely qualifies as a boxed set. The problem was that I couldn’t justify recommending Season Three. If you’re new to a show, you should start at the beginning. If you already know it, you don’t need my recommendation.

In fact, as a viewer, I gave up on season three early and started, via Netflix, with season one.

Mad Men looks at ad men–specifically advertising executives working in New York at the beginning of the 1960s. And one thing this show is not is nostalgic. Shot mostly in muted colors, it gives us a world where men are all misogynists, women must be sex objects but not sluts, and casual racism and anti-Semitism crop up in people’s conversations. I suspect that a lot of these attitudes will change in future episodes. Season three Blu-ray extras include two documentaries on the civil rights movement.

In the three episodes I’ve seen so far, central character Don Draper (Jon Hamm) seems to be hiding something. I’m not sure what. He looks clip_image004perpetually worried as he studies ads in magazines and tries to come up with something better. He’s conducting one extramarital affair and may soon start another. His wife is a nervous wreck. A surprise run-in with an old army buddy terrified him. Like everyone on the show, he drinks and smokes constantly.

Mad Men runs on AMC, which used to be American Movie Classics.

Okay, so much for television. I’ll get back to movies in future posts–both theatrically and on Blu-ray. I promise.