2005 Project Batch 10: The Proposition, Three Times, and L’Enfant (The Child)

l'enfant
It took longer than I expected, but I expected it would. In any case, the 2005 Project has finally come to an end. This is the last batch of reviews. Next week, I’ll be on vacation at the beach, but don’t worry, I will come back a week from now with my Top Ten Movies of 2005, and since the semester’s over, the summer should allow for more writing than usual. In the meantime, here are my thoughts on three pretty good movies…

propositionposterThe Proposition (Directed by John Hillcoat)
John Hillcoat’s breakthrough movie is a violent and stylistically beautiful Australian western. And like any great western, ‘The Proposition’s depiction of the struggle to “civilize” the Australian outback is really an allegory for something deeper and grander. In this case, we are dealing with the conflict of inner judgment, and everyman’s division between pragmatic rationalism and emotional justice. The age of reason, and the law of savages.

Representing the side of reason is Captain Stanley (Ray Winstone). He is introduced to us as a villain, the “corrupt sheriff” type you could find in many westerns. As the movie goes on, however, his every move is revealed to be influenced by purely rational reasons. He presents himself as a tough guy in front of the outlaw Burns brothers because he knows that’s how he will get them to cooperate with him, and he wants to “civilize” the outback because that’s the only way his wife (Emily Watson) will survive in a world of ultraviolent men. It’s reason that drives him to strike a plan with the Burns clan, but the logical choice is rarely the most satisfying one, or the one that “feels right.” Reason doesn’t hold a candle in a world as passionate as this one.

Representing the thirst for emotional justice is Arthur Burns (Danny Houston), a fugitive bandit who is feared by both the British and the natives, who call him “dog man.” Arthur’s compass is purely based on passion. He lays at night looking at the stars and talking about how there’s nothing more valuable than love and family. He might sound like a Romantic hero, a lovable criminal, but he is a beast. A feral creature of pure instinct.

The most fascinating -and depressing- thing about ‘The Proposition’ is that here, the triumph of emotion over reason results in the most horrible outcomes. When Arthur and Stanley finally meet, Arthur doesn’t even have to try to beat Stanley into the ground. Passion is stronger, passion drives us, but passion also destroys us. Standing in the middle is Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce), the silent-cowboy type, trapped between doing what feels right, and what sounds logical. He is the man looking for redemption, his is the soul at stake in this bloody game. The answers aren’t easy, but ‘The Proposition’ is a hell of a ride.


threetimesposterThree Times 
(Directed by Hou Hsiao-Hsien)
Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s ‘Three Times’ is divided into three stories, each of them starring Chen Chang and Qi Shu as lovers. You’ll have to excuse my ignorance, but this is the first time I’ve seen a Hou movie. What I knew going in was that he is regarded as one of the key directors in the ‘slow cinema’ movement, and that his often impenetrable movies have generated ardent fans and many haters.

On the front of being slow, there is no denying that there is very little plot to ‘Three Times’. As for it being impenetrable, well, one has to get used to its rhythms, but it doesn’t mean that it is not a rewarding experience. In fact, I found the most kinetic of the chapters to be the dullest one. Anyway, let’s talk about said chapters: “A Time for Love” is set in 1966, as a young army recruit falls in love with a pool girl. “A Time for Freedom” is set in 1911, during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, and sees a concubine unable to act on her love for a radical student. “A Time for Youth” takes place in 2005 Taipei, as a self-destructive pop star cheats on her girlfriend and hooks up with a photographer.

Saying that one of the three chapters seems counter-intuitive, because the movie is clearly designed as a conversation between them. Each chapter has its merits, and is enjoyable in its own way, but they really gain a deeper resonance when taken as a whole. The beauty of having watched ‘Three Times’ is that one can start to throw around theses about what exactly Hou was trying to say with each segment.

But if we’re going to talk about favorites, “A Time for Love” was the most enjoyable one, which makes sense, since it’s the most optimistic and utterly romantic of the three. “A Time for Freedom” is the most formally audacious one -being a silent movie with inter-titles and everything- and adopts the kind of melancholy tone I’m a sucker for. It’s “A Time for Youth” that I’m not completely sold on. It’s in this segment that the lovers’ sexuality is the most explicit, but they’re simultaneously at their most disconnected. Is Hou trying to critique modern love? That would be reductive, and quite frankly, not that interesting. I think he is trying to say much more. What, exactly, I’m not quite sure.

‘Three Times’ can turn into a little bit of a tedious viewing experience, especially towards the end, but it is also often an overwhelmingly beautiful watch. Hou’s paused musicality, the way he moves his camera, and the way the characters interact on the frame without speaking, they say much more than most movies can say in a million words. I’m still not quite sure about that last segment, but Hou is a master of the craft, and I’ve been thinking so much about ‘Three Times’ greatest moments since watching it last night.

l'enfantposterL’Enfant (The Child) (Directed by Jean-Pierre Dardenne, and Luc Dardenne)
Since today was the closing ceremony of the 2015 Cannes Film Festiva, I decided it would be nice to finish my 2005 Project with a look at the movie that won the Palme D’Or ten years ago. ‘L’Enfant’ was the first Dardennes movie I ever saw, back in the late 2000s. Since then, the only other Dardennes I’ve seen is last year’s ‘Two Days, One Night’, which I really liked. As you might have inferred from my lack of devotion to the brothers’ career, I wasn’t exactly blown away by ‘L’Enfant’ back when I first saw it (although I liked it). I thought it was time for a second chance.

I hate to be anticlimactic, but I still think ‘L’Enfant’ is good, not great. It’s the story of a young couple Bruno (Jeremie Renier) and Sonia (Deborah François). Sonia has a baby. Bruno is the father. They’re both essentially kids. But while Sonia wants to do whatever she can to be a good mother, Bruno spends his life living off of petty crimes. Just as the “manchild” was starting to become a staple of American comedy, the Dardennes were making the ultimate “manchild” movie, only this wasn’t a comedic fantasy, it was an hyper-realistic drama.

But even if it’s fun to read it that way, ‘L’Enfant’ was not designed to be a response to America’s man-children. The Dardennes, from what I’ve gathered, are mostly interested in working-class parables influenced by Bresson and Italian Neorealism. As such, I’m not quite sure what to make of ‘L’Enfant’s themes and what the Dardennes are trying to say about class, need, and immaturity.

I will say this: I admire the Dardennes boldness to come up with such a tricky premise. Minor spoilers ahead, but the big plot point of the movie (which is otherwise light on plot) is that Bruno decides to sell the child. Sonia is understandably furious, and thus, begins Bruno’s quest to get back the child and gain back Sonia’s favor. Now, I don’t need to tell you that selling children is wrong. Neither do the Dardennes. They’re not trying to give us a circumstance in which such an action could be understandable, they’re trying to do something else… I just don’t know what it is.

When I first saw it, I took ‘L’Enfant’ at face value, and I thought it was a really well made movie. I still think it is. What’s more, now I think there’s something going in here thematically. I think the Dardennes had something to say with this story, and while I can’t help but invest in the lives of Sonia and Bruno, I don’t really know if the execution is giving me enough hints of the theme behind the movie. I understand that part of the Dardennes beauty is their love for the objective gaze on the face of moral dilemmas. I just don’t think the movie is giving me quite enough to fully engage with it.

Advertisements

Forwards, Backwards, and Forwards Again: The “Blockbuster Method” is Applied to Brad Bird’s ‘Tomorrowland’

Disney's TOMORROWLAND..Casey (Britt Robertson) ..Ph: Film Frame..?Disney 2015

One of the big struggles of my pop culture life has always been to understand the public’s relationship with the concept of “cool.” That is why, despite my interest in the subject, I’ve never been able to write coherently about music. Popular music, above all other arts and genres, seems to be harshly governed by a distinction between what is and isn’t cool. More often than not, I can identify what people will think is cool and what they will deem uncool. My problem is not recognizing what will people think about a piece of art, but not grasping why they think what they think about it. In my mind, there is no reason why liking Radiohead should be any less ridiculous than liking Taylor Swift (as a matter of fact, I prefer Swift immensely). Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let me tell you about Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland.

I’m pretty sure Tomorrowland is the definition of an “uncool” movie. Building off of ideas about progress and invention that could easily be described as old-fashioned, the movie is too optimistic and idealistic for its own good. It is a noble attempt to reach out to the remaining dreamers in an otherwise cynical world that has given up hope, and thus, the incredibly cynical community that is film criticism has dismissed Tomorrowland as sugar-coated cheesiness. That’s all right. Tomorrowland wasn’t made for those critics. It was made for children, and the biggest compliment I can give the movie is that, had I seen it when I was nine years old, I would have been absolutely inspired by it.

Now, it must be said that for all its noble intentions, there are in fact, a number of disappointing flaws in Tomorrowland, and there’s no better way to analyze them than to use our very own “Blockbuster Method“®…

THE PLOT

Tomorrowland is quite obviously gets its title from one of the sections of Disneyland, but the movie isn’t quite based on the theme park. It would be more accurate to say that the movie is based on Walt Disney’s ideas about the future. It’s well known that Disney, especially in his later years, had a fascination for the future possibilities of technological advancement. That is why Disneyland had a “Tomorrowland” in the first place, and why one of Disney’s biggest dreams was the creation of his “Experimental Prototype Community Of Tomorrow” (or Epcot), a utopian paradise that would feed the creativity of innovators and inspire amazing ideas. The community never came to be, but the idea behind it lives on in Tomorrowland. 

That is why the movie starts out at the New York World’s Fair of 1964, a time when -the movie tells us- the future was still brimming with possibility. Young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) is just a boy, but he has already managed to build a jet pack. His invention doesn’t make the cut, but a mysterious girl named Athena (Raffey Cassidy) gives him a special pin that allows Frank to be transported to Tomorrowland: a futuristic secret world where creative minds live side-by-side and everything’s possible.

It isn’t until that prologue is over and we’re transported to the present day that Tomorrowland really gets going. As a matter of fact, I wonder if that 1964 sequence was designed as a flashback for later in the movie and transported to the beginning after some sort of test screening, because it doesn’t really do much for the movie. If anything, it kind of spoils some of the plot’s secrets even before the movie has properly started. Anyway, that proper start is the moment we meet Casey Newton (Britt Robertson), a high schooler with a thirst for knowledge and invention that finds herself in the position of a magical pin that momentarily transports her to Tomorrowland.

Casey is fascinated by the incredible things the pin allows her to see, and so, she begins a quest to find a way to reach this amazing place of futuristic innovation. Her search brings her to team up with the adult Frank Walker (George Clooney) and the aforementioned Athena as they try to go back and safe a Tomorrowland that was once full of wonder, but has now fallen into uninspired decay. This sounds like a pretty cool premise for a movie, doesn’t it? Well, the problem with Tomorrowland is that by giving you this brief summary I’ve already given away roughly half of the movie.

From there, the movie goes to some interesting places. Casey’s journey is entertaining because it harkens back to the kind of old-fashioned but edgy children’s adventures that were popular in the eighties and early nineties. The kind in which typical American life is interrupted by the sudden and mysterious presence of a fantasy and science fiction element. But once we get to our destination, Tomorrowland doesn’t seem to have enough payoff to serve its own set-up. The movie’s third act provides us with thematic value, but with little wonder and less excitement than the middle section.

The screenplay for Tomorrowland –written by Bird and Damon Lindelof- is quite a mess. Too much time is spent on that ’64 flashback, and there are many aspects of the story (Casey’s family life, for example) that are not only under-explored, but treated with uninspiring laziness. That being said, Tomorrowland is far more ambitious in its themes and ideas than most of what passes for blockbuster entertainment nowadays. It certainly has its sight on a much more grandiose goal than anything Marvel has ever put out. It only manages to reach said goal sloppily, but that’s more than enough to be commended.

THE ACTION

Considering Brad Bird’s previous credits include The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible – Ghost ProtocolI couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by the fact that there isn’t anything as iconic as the Burj Khalifa scene or Dash’s run on water in Tomorrowland. We do get a couple of great action set pieces. One of them is quite prominent in the trailers. It takes place in George Clooney’s character’s house, and makes good use of the fact that he is an inventor, and thus, has filled his house with booby-traps. It’s a pretty cool scene, but the action stand-out comes earlier in the movie. The fight is set at a nerdy vintage store, and it involves little girl Athena kicking some serious ass.

As is usual with this type of movies, however, the big climactic battle is the least exciting of the action sequences. But this is in large part due to Tomorrowland not wanting to be an action movie as much as it wants to be a children’s science fiction movie. Despite the well-choreographed scenes that come before the finale, Tomorrowland‘s biggest successes are neither its plot nor its action, but its themes.

THE HEROES

The actors who play the three main heroes do a good job of working around the movie’s limitations. Britt Robertson does well considering how, despite being the lead of the movie, Casey has by far the least developed backstory of the characters. She is introduced to us a “special” genius, but we see relatively little of her intelligence, since it’s more about her having good ideas and being an optimist than about her *doing* stuff. She is a thinker, not an inventor. Similarly, most of her motivation comes from innate thirst for knowledge, which is really nice to see in a girl character, but is not enough for the filmmakers, who tag in a relationship with her father that ends up being more cliched than meaningful.

Meanwhile, George Clooney proves to be invaluably cast as Frank Walker. He has the looks of a classic matinee star (the kind that would have graced the screens of 1964), but he plays a cranky curmudgeon who has lost the ability to dream. Frank is more of a grandpa than a movie star, but by casting Clooney, we can imagine a future in which Frank is not an isolated pessimist, but a handsome hero. It works pretty nicely, and Clooney’s game delivery of the movie’s comedy certainly doesn’t hurt.

The clear standout among our heroes, however, is Raffey Cassidy as Athena. I already talked about the awesome action sequence at the shop, but Athena has so much more going for her than being a little girl with amazing fighting skills. She is the most original and exciting character in the film because she, rather surprisingly, has the most poignant backstory and the clearest emotional arc. Athena is also a triumph of casting. Cassidy is not only a very charismatic child actor, but she has the look and attitude of a young Angela Cartwright, which makes her completely believable as a product of the 60s.

THE VILLAINS

Hugh Laurie plays the bad guy, but he doesn’t get much to do. If we’re being completely honest, Tomorrowland‘s real villain is not a person but a mindset. The movie is trying to fight against the inertia that comes with the cynicism of thinking the world is doomed. This movie argues -rather validly- that we have come to just accept the fact that the earth is doomed. That the fear of the future has made us stop dreaming, and stop fighting to make it better. If anything, Tomorrowland is designed as a call to arms, as a form of inspiration for a generation of young children, telling them that they can -and should- try to make the world better.

THE THEMES

Tomorrowland has a noble message, no doubt about it. But how does the movie go on about spreading said message? Ever since The Incredibles came out, a lot has been said about Brad Bird perhaps being an objectivist. The idea of a fantastical land where great minds are free to do whatever they want surely sounds objectivist on paper, but while Bird’s vision clearly starts with a little of Ayn Rand, it goes into far more socialistic directions. The Incredibles, Ratatouille, and Tomorrowland all end with collaboration. With people not being able to do it alone, but with the world collaborating and doing their part in greatness. Such views might not be that popular in our inclusive age where every child gets a prize just by participating, but it is realistic. Some people are more exceptional than others, and that doesn’t mean that we don’t have our part to play.

This is a good place to point out how Tomorrowland‘s message can hinder the structure of the movie. By trying to be a movie about collaboration, Tomorrowland sacrifices the clarity of Casey’s hero’s journey. She is initially presented as “special”, as the one who will change the fate of Tomorrowland and the world. By the end, she has worked together with Frank and Athena to enact change, but she hasn’t been your typical chosen one. It’s an interesting discrepancy that is wrongly accentuated by the movie’s messy script. The movie could’ve done much better with Casey’s uniqueness being tossed out completely. Making her just one of many exceptional minds would’ve been the more coherent -and valuably original- way to go.

As for the movie’s ultimate message, many critics have decried the film’s sermonic approach and its hokey optimism. I find those qualities appropriately cheesy. This is, after all, a movie about caring. About taking things seriously, and about being an optimist. It’s quite telling that the movie harkens back to ’64, because while the sixties provided the culture with innumerable valuable social changes, they also ushered in decades of cynic coolness. Ever since I can remember, caring has always been uncool. Tomorrowland asks us to care. It asks us to be bright and shiny instead of dark and gritty.

The thing about Tomorrowland is that its message is far too ambitious to be perfectly supported by its execution. There is nothing particularly bad about the movie, but there is the feeling that such grandiose themes could have only worked within an equally superb product. At this point, it’s not worth it to think about what could have been. What we have, is a plucky, if imperfect, movie that spends all of its energy (and it has lots of it) trying to communicate with its audience. Tomorrowland is not only earnest, but it is proud of it. It might be old-fashioned, and it might be uncool, but its ambition is so big and its intentions so noble that I can’t help but admire it.

Grade: 7 out of 10

Racist Pitch: A Review of Elizabeth Banks’s ‘Pitch Perfect 2’

Pitch Perfect 2

The big Hollywood story of this week is the power of feminism. The top two spots of this weekend’s box office results belonged to movies with strong female protagonists, a delightful surprise that shouldn’t be the exception, but the rule (aren’t you tired of movies about white men? I am a white man and I am exhausted). But as in common in this life, major triumphs are often bittersweet. Who would’ve thought that Mad Max Fury Road -the fourth installment in an action franchise directed by a 70-year-old white male- would be a better and more nuanced feminist statement than Pitch Perfect 2, which is not only a movie about women, but was written by 30 Rock alum Kay Cannon and directed by Elizabeth Banks (who was an executive producer for the first film).

I don’t blame people for being excited about Pitch Perfect 2. It is the rare movie that presents not one, but a group of women succeeding at an incredibly nerdy thing (college a cappella). The collective experience element of the film is rare and valuable, but the movie’s concern for showing women’s success as being a collaborative effort means relatively little when its heroic collective’s success seems to be fueled by… hatred? Pitch Perfect 2 is not a very good movie. The first reason is that it’s not really that funny. It is yet another movie whose comedy is based largely on letting its actors improvise funny lines, and the results is an awkward parade of hacky jokes. But that is only the surface. The biggest problem in this movie is that it is racist as hell.

Before we get into the really bad stuff about the movie, I want to point out that not everything here is terrible. The movie does have Rebel Wilson as one of its protagonist. Wilson has proven to be an invaluable supporting presence in many movies, including the original Pitch Perfectwhich featured her breakout character of Fat Amy. This time around, Wilson proves to be one of the most gifted improvisers in the cast, and she is front and center in the movie’s stand-out sequence: an over the top romantic rendition of Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” that makes the best argument for Wilson’s talent as a performer.

That, I’m afraid, is the only truly exciting moment in all of Pitch Perfect 2. There are other funny sequences, but they more often than not go on for way too long and lose sight of their own comedy in the process. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The topic of Fat Amy is actually a good segway into the film’s problems. You see, the movie opens with our heroines, the Barden Bellas, performing at President Obama’s birthday. The performance gets off to a good start, but a technical malfunction rips Fat Amy’s pants, and leaves her flashing her vagina while hanging from the ceiling.

The incident, baptized “muffgate”, becomes a scandal that puts the future of the Bellas at stake. Now, it’s not hard to believe such a moment of public nudity (in front of the Obamas) would make national news. However, there is a difference between how America reacted to Janet Jackson’s nipple, and how the characters in Pitch Perfect 2 react to Fat Amy. It’s not just a matter of indecent exposure, there is an undercurrent of fat shaming in how disgusted everyone is by Amy’s body. This is fairly early in the movie, so I thought the movie might be setting itself to comment on societal sexism. Turns out I was setting myself up for disappointment.

That is the biggest problem of Pitch Perfect 2‘s humor. The movie wants to have its cake and eat it too, only it doesn’t provide a compelling reason for us to go along with its crass sense of humor. The best example of this is the announcer/podcaster characters played by John Michael Higgins and Banks herself. They provide commentary during the musical performances, which really means they make a bunch of sexist and racist jokes. The movie seems to asking us to laugh at this backwards duo, not my favorite comedic device, but one that can work in the right circumstances. Those circumstances, however, are not to be found in Pitch Perfect 2, which shows the same kind of bone-headed attitude as these characters.

It starts with the fact that the only Bellas who are “important” to the plot of the movie, i.e. the only ones who have characters arcs are the white ones. Anna Kendrick is the “cool one”, who is preparing for her future by getting an internship at a hip record label. Brittany Snow is the leader of the group, who is so afraid of her future outside of school and away from the Bellas that she is failing her classes on purpose. Hailee Steinfeld is a new addition to the team, a freshman who has dreamt of being a Bella for as long as she has remembered. And then there is Fat Amy, who is intended to empower, but is also white and blonde. All these characters -except Fat Amy- fall into the restrictive patriarchal mold my Gender Studies professor called FHALT (Feminine, Heterosexual, Able-bodied, Light-skinned, Thin).

There are also Bellas who are not white -three, to be exact- but they are not real characters. As supporting Bellas, they are only stereotypes. Lily (Hana Mae Lee) is Asian and very quiet, except when she whispers truly bizarre things. Cynthia Rose (Ester Dean) is a black lesbian, so she’s there to make jokes about how she’d like to bang her teammates. And then, we have Flo (Chrissie Fit), the group’s latina member, and the character most horribly served by the movie.

To witness: there is a scene late in the movie where the Bellas sit around a campfire and share their hopes and fears about their future. It’s an emotional moment that is supposed to pluck the heartstrings and get us pumped up for the grand finale. However, when it comes time for Flo to talk about her future, she says the something along the lines of “after I graduate I’ll probably be deported and will probably die at sea while trying to re-enter the country.” It’s a horrible, horrible line that is not only treated as a joke, but is met with a shrug -a shrug!- from her loving teammates. How do you expect me to root for these girls when none of them gives a shit about Flo dying? How dare you suggest I worry about Anna Kendrick’s stupid internship more than about this young woman’s future?!

It was baffling. It’s one thing to side-line your minoritized characters in favor of yet another bland story about white people, but it’s another to trivialize the plight of a whole social group by shrugging their deaths. I was expecting to have a fun, empowering time watching Pitch Perfect 2, I didn’t expect it to be an outright hateful movie.

Grade: 3 out of 10

Buy Myself a Coke: Mad Men’s Weird Finale Tells Us What the Show Was All About

madmenfinale

Where you confused with that bizarre ending? Who can blame you. What a way to end a show! Can’t say it’s surprising, since Matthew Weiner worked on the last season of The Sopranos, but it was extremely weird nonetheless. When the episode was done, I took a shower, and thinking about what those last images meant, it suddenly came to me. Turns out, this was a pretty amazing way to end the show. Mad Men is a show set in the past, and with this finale -titled “Person to Person”-, it revealed what it had been about all along: the past. More specifically, how the past is never too distant from us, how we can’t escape it, and how no matter what we do, it is part of who we are.

Consider the montage towards the end of the episode, and how we leave most of our main characters engaged in (mostly) happy endings that point at their future while simultaneously using imagery from their pasts:

We see Pete getting on an airplane, which makes us remember how his dad died in a plane crash in the beginning of season two. But unlike his father, Pete is boarding his plane with Trudy and their child. He is starting a new life, yet his baggage and form of transportation is his past.

We see Joan starting out “Holloway Harris”, a production company. She is finally going to have a job in which she doesn’t have to answer to any patriarchal pig. She has just started the business, so she is operating from home -which is the apartment she once shared with rapist Greg, but also makes us think of the last moments of “Shut the Door, Have a Seat”, when the clandestine new agency was operating out of a hotel room. The founding of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce was certainly the beginning of Joan’s empowerment.

We see Roger about to get married (or on a honeymoon?) with a woman who is actually as old as he is. I think that speaks for itself. What’s more, he is speaking french, which means he is bending the knee and actually trying to be better connected to his wife.

We see Peggy typing away, another long night working in the office (“The Suitcase”, anyone?). Only this time, she is not alone, she is accompanied by Stan, the great friend and newfound lover that was there all along. A little corny, maybe, but fan service goes a long way when it is thematically resonant.

We see Sally washing the dishes, and Betty smoking a cigarette even though she only has six months to live. It might be a conflicting message to send the youth, but by smoking that cigarette, Betty is owning up to her past, and if there is any character in this show that started out as a little girl and ended up a woman, it is surprisingly her. What’s more, even though they’re not talking, Betty and Sally are sharing the same space. Mother and daughter peacefully under the same roof.

The most bizarre -and perhaps least happy depending on how you look at it- of these journeys, is Don’s. When we last saw him at the end of last week’s episode, he was sitting on a bench in the middle of nowhere with big ol’ smile on his face. He was letting go. He was forgetting who he used to be. He was forgetting Dick Whitman (having been exonerated of his guilt earlier during the veteran’s rally) and he was forgetting Don Draper (symbolically, by giving out his car to the young man). For a moment, it seemed like Don was finally going to be happy, and all he had to do was get rid of everything he owned. He could finally be himself. Except that’s not possible. Not in the world of Mad Men. 

In the world of Mad Men, Don’s life catches up to him when he finds out about Betty’s terminal cancer. His initial reaction is to go back -no matter how happy he felt by leaving everything he knew behind. However, after being refused by Betty in a beautifully emotional scene, he decides to look for comfort in California. For the first few seasons of the show -before Megan, at the very least- California was synonymous with paradise to Don, because that’s where Anna Draper lived. Anna is, of course, no longer, so Don goes for the second bets thing: Anna’s niece Stephanie, who takes him on a retreat with a bunch of hippies.

Never mind the hippies, the important part is that Don is going back to his past. And right after he was *this close* to leaving it all behind and finally being free. Yeah, that’s what we tell ourselves, but the truth is Don was never going to be free. He can’t escape his past. Certainly not in this episode, which turns the struggle literal by stranding Don in the hippie commune. Once there, and surrounded by insufferably spiritual people, he can do nothing else but confront his past. He cries, he hugs a man, he finds peace within himself… When we see him doing yoga towards the end of the episode, we can only ask ourselves how is this the same Don Draper I’ve been watching for eight years?

Well, it’s the episode’s final minutes that answer this question. The crucial moment -the moment when Don is most vulnerable- is when he calls Peggy out of desperation. She tells him to come back home (whatever that means), that McCann will welcome him back, and that he will be working on a Coca-Cola campaign in no time. But Don can’t go back. He doesn’t have a car. He’s stranded, so might as well give in to this hippie lifestyle.

And for a while there, it seems as if group therapy and meditation are actually going to be the exercises that change Don Draper for good. For a while. Just when we thought we had lost Don to the art of yoga, life comes running back, Don smiles, and we see this:

Then the credits roll.

What is the meaning of this nonsense? Well, I guess it means whatever you want it to mean, but to me, it’s become pretty clear. Don Draper comes back to New York, and uses all this hippie bullshit that made him cry and hug a stranger to create this iconic ad that will make millions of dollars for a company that sells diabetes in a bottle. America.

It might seem like a strange way to end the show because it’s very different formally from what the show has done in the past, but it only makes sense from a thematic perspective. Time and time again the show has presented us with Don being on the verge of making a radical change only for something to go wrong. Because for Don, just like when he took his identity, making a change means destroying everything that came before and starting over from scratch. He tried to forget Dick Whitman ever happened, and his past caught up to him. He tried to leave Don Draper behind, and the past caught up even faster. Making Don Draper the creator of one of the most iconic television ads of all time means crystalizing what Mad Men had been about all along: you can only move forward if you recognize the road that lies behind.

A Long and Winding Review: The Blockbuster Method is Applied to ‘Mad Max Fury Road’

Mad Max Fury RoadBefore I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, I had only seen three George Miller movies in my life, and none of them belonged to the Mad Max series. In fact, domestic drama Lorenzo’s Oil, which features amazing performances by Susan Sarandon and Nick Nolte, it’s kind of the complete opposite of a Mad Max movie. In any case, the reasons I was unfamiliar with this franchise is the fact that Miller has spent the last ten years of his life dedicated to the dismal Happy Feet movies, the first of which inexplicably earned him an Academy Award despite being a very mediocre piece of family entertainment. The fact that his last two movies had been these penguin adventures had me very weary of the fact that, despite a pretty crazy trailer, Mad Max: Fury Road could be any good…

Then the reviews started coming out, and it was clear that the world -or at least the small percentage of the world that lives on the internet and obsesses over movies- had fallen in love with the fourth entry in Miller’s post-apocalyptic saga. Having seen the movie, I should have known better. This isn’t the George Miller that makes dancing cgi penguins, this is the George Miller that came with the expressionistic fantasy that is Babe: Pig in the City. The sequel to 1995’s Babe, which Miller produced, wasn’t very popular upon release, but must be revisited by any film-fan who appreciates a filmmaker with a crazy imagination.

Crazy imagination is only the appropriate way to refer to a movie like Mad Mad: Fury Road. How a movie as insane as this one got made in the first place is one of the great mysteries of our times. My guess is Miller used the fact that his movie was based on a pre-existing franchise to somehow get Warner Bros. to give him 150 million dollars to go crash cars and explode trucks in the Namibian desert. The origin might be dubious, but the result is invigorating. Mad Max doubles down on extreme weirdness, and runs over the CGI apes and comic-book properties of recent blockbusters. If this were a perfect world, Mad Max: Fury Road would usher a golden age of big-budget action filmmaking. In reality, it will probably end the weekend outgrossed by Pitch Perfect 2.

At the end of the day, it’s not a huge deal. No matter what happens in the future, we will always have this movie. But don’t just take my introductory word for it. Accepting Fury Road at face value might be fun, but what we -and action filmmakers- need to do, is understand why it is as good as it is. Well, since it seemed to work pretty well when I reviewed Age of Ultron, I’ve decided to apply the Blockbuster Method® (which is what I’ve decided to call the six-step analysis I developed to judge the merit of Hollywood blockbusters) to Mad Max: Fury Road. 

The Plot

A lot of people would say there isn’t much plot to Mad Max: Fury Road. And they’re kind of right. The movie is practically made up of one long, massive chase sequence, but while the particulars of the plot are not essential to one’s enjoyment of the film, the larger ideas behind the plot had me as excited for the existence of Fury Road as its wild action sequences. Now, “larger ideas” is not something you might have expected to find in Fury Road, and to be totally honest, said ideas are not all that complex. Which doesn’t mean they’re not exciting. Because if you get right down to the core of it, Miller has made one of the most badass feminist movies I’ve ever seen.

I’ll get more into the “themes” and “representation” of the movie later in this review. Right now, let us concentrate on the practical mechanics of the plot. Turns out Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy), although a constant and valued presence during most of the movie, isn’t really the protagonist. He is just trying to make it out of this ridiculous adventure in one piece. The real character arc belongs to Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a one-armed female warrior trying to lead a group of young concubines in an intricate plan to escape the oppressive regime that has developed in the wake of the apocalypse.

This new society is totalitarian, based on the scarcity of basic living resources and, of course, dominated by men. Most specifically, it is dominated by a grotesque warlord by the name of Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). The details aren’t fully explored, but from what I can infer, Joe is one of the few males that have the privilege to procreate, or at least, to engage in sexual activities indiscriminately. It’s also pretty clear that it’s really hard to bare healthy children in this dystopia. That is why Joe is particularly upset that one of the runaway concubines is pregnant with his child.

Under Joe’s rule, women, depending on their age and attractiveness, are either his concubines or used to harvest breastmilk out of their bodies. And that’s if you’re lucky. Women among the masses are just dirt poor malnourished beggars. The one exception seems to be Furiosa, the lone female that has somehow risen into the upper echelon of the warrior class. It’s understood that Furiosa has done some pretty terrible things in order to become an “Imperator”, and her escape plan to help the young maidens, is fueled by an inner search for redemption. Mad Max Fury Road

The Action

But enough about the plot, let’s talk about the action! Because, let’s face it, most people will go into Mad Max: Fury Road to see some death-defying stunts and explosions. Those people will not be disappointed. Case in point, when we got out of our screening, my girlfriend told me this was the first action movie in a long time that had earned raw emotional reactions from her. This was very illuminating for me in understanding the movie’s strengths. I agree with her. I last time I felt truly exhilarated by an action movie was last year’s Snowpiercerwhich shares a lot of similarities with Fury Road in the action department.

First of all, there is very little use (or at least noticeable use) of CG in the movie. You can be amazed by the sequences in Fury Road, because despite how batshit insane they are, you recognize that these are actual cars driving through the actual desert and performing actual stunts while surrounded by actual explosions. It is pure madness of a tactile variety that will actually make you feel the thrill of the chase. And the thrill of action is one of the most primal elements of cinema. It is a true illusion. It is why watching Buster Keaton driving a locomotive in The General will always be infinitely more thrilling than the CG-infused finale of any Marvel movie.

The second big aspect is in the stakes of the action. Both Fury Road and Snowpiercer can be very violent movies, but they are also movies that have a meaningful engagement with their action. Action in these movies isn’t airless and shiny as in most of Hollywood’s four-quadrant-blockbusters, even when it is overtly cartoonish and over-the-top, the violence is colored with an uncomfortable sense of dread. Missing limbs, gross scars, deformed people, they are all present to point out the nightmarish results of a system built around the exercise of violence.

And while we’re on the topic of color, we must talk about the aesthetics of the movie. Instead of the usual monochrome grey of most dystopian stories, Miller saturates his movie in a way that seems designed to parody recent action movies. You know how mainstream action movies tend to build their visual style around the juxtaposition of teal and orange? Well, Miller and cinematographer John Seale take it to the point where the color palette becomes ridiculous, with long stretches of the movie completely ignoring the rest of the color wheel. The result is not only cheeky, but highly effective. Seeing something green becomes a luxury.

As for the design elements, the movie seems deeply indebted to the spirit of the eighties, when two thirds of the original Mad Max movies were made. More specifically, though, Fury Road looks like a world designed by an eleven year-old who has just discovered crystal meth. Who else, in his right mind, would include a mutant guitarist hanging on wires and a wall of amps as part of the design of one of these battle cars? And this crazy design actually ends up being a thematic strength. It becomes part of Fury Road‘s feminist bend the moment it presents us with a group of women trying to escape the oppression of a world designed by a pubescent boy.

The Heroes

I said it before, and I’ll say it again: the star of this show is Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa. Not only does she own this movie, but she is perhaps the greatest female action hero of my lifetime (for context, I was born in ’92). With Furiosa, Miller and Theron have struck a beautiful balance in terms of how the phrase “strong female character” should be understood. Furiosa is not there to serve as the initially awesome, but ultimately secondary helper to the protagonist hero (think of Trinity in The Matrixor Wildstyle in The LEGO Movie), nor does she sacrifice emotional complexity for physical strength (it’s not he best example, but right now I can only think of Lucy).

The most pleasantly surprising thing about Furiosa, is that you can see how she has not been designed to satisfy men (as in male audiences). She has designed to be a great character. The movie might bare Max’s name, but it understands who the star of the show is. This doesn’t mean that Max is not a valuable part of the movie. In fact, Hardy’s performance as Max might be one of the best performances he has ever delivered, and a surprising one in that it reveals him as a truly gifted physical and comedic performer.

The beauty of Fury Road is that it is willing to share the wealth among its two heroes. If everyone’s talking about Furiosa coming out of the movie, it’s because her character is a unicorn; often impossible to find in mainstream entertainment, whereas we have seen a couple of Maxes before (I mean, he did headline three movies before this one). In praxis, they make a delightful duo. One of the movie’s biggest feminist statements is that Max and Furiosa are equals, as exemplified in an awesome moment when Max wants to shoot a distant enemy and hands the gun to Furiosa, knowing she will do a better job.

FURY ROADThe villains

But let’s talk about Fury Road‘s other, more subversive, feminist statements. Before we do, however, we will have to talk about the movie’s main villain, Immortan Joe, and how he plays into the movie’s themes. He is, after all, the man who has created this oppressive universe. And even though he derives his power from the possession of water and other resources, the real fuel of his world is testosterone. Joe’s is a deeply religious warrior society, primitively based on the idea that the strongest man must rule, and were fanaticism supplies the Immortan with an army of younger fighters willing to die for him, as expressed in their battle cry “I live, I die, I live again!”

What exactly is Miller’s critiquing through this depiction? Well, religion has been a historic oppressor of women’s rights, but I think the most important element of Miller’s critique is the dogmatic nature with which the people under Joe’s rule -especially the warriors- have bought into his discourse. These are all blood-thirsty men who have bought into Joe’s masculine ideals. He has presented them with an idea of what it means to be a man, and with a path that will let them live forever (not unlike the idea of righteous honor and legacy that fuels the military). Joe’s society is presented as oppressive and perverted, but it is closely based on some of the core ideals that men have turned into the pillars of our own.

THE representation and themes

In this case “Representation” and “Theme” go hand-in-hand, as Mad Max: Fury Road presents us with one of the most appealing and refreshing messages of any blockbuster in a long, long time. Miller presents us with a dystopian world created by the brute power of man, and argues that the way to fix such a twisted reality is to give the power to women. Very importantly, while Furiosa is the central and most powerful of the women, she is not alone in her fight. Other women fight beside her. Mad Max: Fury Road might very well be the best piece of publicity Hilary Clinton could’ve asked for.

If there is any representative element that made a little uncomfortable is the movie’s depiction of people with disabilities. If only because I am not quite sure how the movie feels about this. On the one hand (no pun intended), you have a character like Furiosa, who is a fearless military leader despite missing an arm. On the other, you have a number of characters among Joe’s allies that are presented as “deformed” (possibly inbred) grotesques. I would have to watch the movie again before making any conclusions about this aspect, but I think raising these types of flags about representation when talking about major mainstream pieces of media.

Putting that question aside, though, Mad Max: Fury Road is a fantastic and far more thoughtful experience than I was expecting from a movie about cool cars driving through the desert. It’s hard to imagine there will be a better, more exciting, and more thematically satisfying blockbuster coming out of Hollywood in the near future. And even if it never comes, we will always have Fury Road. 

Grade: 9 out of 10

2005 Project Batch 9: Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and Brick

Screen shot 2015-05-13 at 1.36.44 a.m.I’m sorry it took a while (I’ve been really busy with school), but the 2005 Project continues…

blockpartypostDave Chappelle’s Block Party (Directed by Michel Gondry)
The thing that makes ‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’ so good is that it doesn’t assume that the mystery Block Party organized by one of the biggest comedians of the last decade changed the world forever. That sort of self-important attitude is what makes a movie like ‘Woodstock’, for example, so unbearable to watch. Chappelle’s Block Party is a gift to the ‘hood, and Michel Gondry’s movie is not as much a documentation, as it is trying to capture the essence of why Chappelle decided to invest his time and money in such a gift.

On the surface, the answer is fun. Gather a bunch of exciting artists and get a lot of people to come together and have a good time. But if you look at it deeper, it is a love letter to working class neighborhoods and their communities. It’s a subtle attack on gentrification precisely because it doesn’t feel like an attack. The movie is so relaxed and casual that you can’t help but fall into its groove. The movie will make you have a great time, and thus, you will appreciate the greatness of people coming together and sharing something with each other.

Everything about ‘Block Party’ works in its favor. The improvised cinematography, Chappelle walking around telling jokes, the interviews with the many people in the neighborhood, the marching band kids and the old ladies from Ohio, the power of the musical acts, and the way Gondry and the editors juxtapose images to turn this fun day into a utopian experience. This is a truly democratic movie. It wants to be a good time, and it ends up being so much more.

kissbangpostKiss Kiss Bang Bang (Directed by Shane Black)
Fun, and funny, and meta. What else can I say about Shane Black’s ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’? Not much, I’m afraid, except that I really like it. 2005 seems like an interesting year in that we had two neo-noirs that have endured in popularity and estimation with cinephiles (the other is Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’). Black is a clever guy who likes writing clever dialogue, but does his movie transcend its surface pleasures? (the same question can be asked of Johnson’s ‘Brick’).

Black’s exploration of the meta-narrative and artificiality of the main character of a noir being the one that tells his own story is very funny, but doesn’t seem to want to comment on the artificiality of cinema beyond spicing up the movie with a playfully unreliable narrator. That is basically the thing that keeps me from outright loving ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’, the fact that, in the end, it is an incredibly solid movie, but doesn’t come through with the dark ending of something like Altman’s ‘The Player‘.

That being said, the movie is a lot of fun. This is the role with which Robert Downey Jr demonstrated he was ready to come back to stardom. After seeing ‘Age of Ultron’ and realizing how his schtick has reached Johnny-Depp-in-the-‘Pirate’-sequels levels of sleepwalking, I was so happy to be remembered of how fresh and exciting his resurrecting career once was. The same goes for Val Kilmer, an actor who most directors don’t seem to have any idea of how to use, but gives the best performance of his career as a gay private detective.

untitledBrick (Directed by Rian Johnson)
I admire Rian Johnson’s ‘Brick’ more than I like it. As a first film, it’s quite something. As an exercise on the functional understanding of cinematic genre, it is even more. The idea of taking the plot, feel, and aesthetics of a film noir and setting it in a contemporary high school sounds ridiculous, but there was something in the air ten years ago that gave us both ‘Veronica Mars‘ and this movie.

As far as a movie can be called effective, or well-constructed, or successful, ‘Brick’ is all of those things. Props must, and have been given extensively, to Johnson for being able to get away with having Joseph Gordon-Levitt and other high schoolers talk like hard-boiled detectives in a dead-serious movie. The guy knows how to tell a story, he knows where to place a camera, how to stage a scene, and how to cut it in order to make it sing. Why, then, does ‘Brick’ leave me feeling impressed, but also pretty cold?

Well, perfection can be alienating. I understand ‘Brick’, but I don’t feel ‘Brick’. I have little affection for the characters, which isn’t always a huge impediment to connecting with a movie. No, I think my big issue with ‘Brick’ is how difficult it is to make out the philosophy of its themes. What is the movie about? It’s a pretty cool movie, but what is it trying to say? What I’m saying is -and I feel like I’m repeating what I said about ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’- I can appreciate a well-made movie, but I can’t love a movie that doesn’t transcend into the world of meaning.

List of the Week: The Best Mad Men Episodes

MadMenEpisodes

I can’t imagine what this weekend’s series finale would have to do for Mad Men to not be my favorite television show of all time. I love it that much. It’s going to be a bittersweet departure, and if I’m being honest, I would be disappointed if it weren’t. What could be more Mad Men than being incredibly happy and incredibly sad at the same time?

Anyway, I knew I had to commemorate this historical occasion somehow. Last year, I thought I could make my way through all of Mad Men and write extensive reviews of every episode leading into the finale, but as it tends to happen with my projects, life happened and I couldn’t keep up. I did make it through the first two seasons, though, and you can find those reviews here.

In lieu that I didn’t make it through my original idea, I decided that, at the very list, I should share my list of the best episodes in the show’s history. I mean, if I’m going to argue that this is narrative television’s biggest achievement, I might as well provide some evidence, so her we go…

The 20 Best Episodes of Mad Men

(in chronological order)

1. Babylon (Season One, Episode Six)
The first episode of Mad Men, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”, does a wonderful job of establishing the world of the show and introducing us to its main players (thanks in no small part to director Alan Taylor), but I will contend that the show’s first truly great episode was “Babylon.” This is a true Mad Men episode of the first order, with three story-lines that connect thematically and color our understanding of the characters and the show going forward. This episode was the first to focus on the women of the show -one of the best thing about Mad Men is its female characters- and introduced us to the affair between Joan and Roger, one of the show’s defining relationships.

2. The Wheel (Season One, Episode Thirteen)
Perhaps Matthew Weiner’s biggest stroke of genius, and definitely the moment that announced Mad Men as a major contender for the pantheon of television’s greats, was how he chose to end the first season. Don’s pitch of Kodak’s carousel is so beautiful it’s almost impossible not to tear up every time I watch it, which makes the very last shot of the episode, set to Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” one of the show’s most poignant and iconic moments.

3. Maidenform (Season Two, Episode Six)
Is one of the most symbolism-heavy episodes of Mad Men, and one of the darkest episodes of television I have ever seen. It’s all about reflections, doppelgängers, and missed opportunities in an episode in which Don, Pete, Peggy, Joan, even Duck Phillips realize that they are failing at being the person they thought they could be. The last scene of the episode, with Sally watching her dad shave his beard is incredibly desolate, as the audience contemplates the futility of being human. The show didn’t end up being quite as dark in the long run, but “Maidenform” gifted the show with some deeply existential stakes.

4. Meditations in an Emergency (Season Two, Episode Thirteen)
The thing about the second season of Mad Men is that it is so uniformly great, it becomes almost impossible to point out to a stand-out episode. Even if the show hit its highest peaks in subsequent seasons, I truly believe there is not a single mediocre episode in this batch; and it all comes together beautifully in the season finale, during which the Cuban missile crisis brings the characters to reflect on their complicated pasts and their uncertain futures. Don triumphs with his power-play against Duck Phillips, Betty learns that she is pregnant, and Peggy has a heartbreaking conversation with Pete. Again, the last shot of the season has become iconic, building on the end of “The Wheel”, only this time Don sits next to his wife, not knowing how to deal with the times that are yet to come.

5. Guy Walks Into an Advertising Agency (Season Three, Episode Six)
By this point, we knew Mad Men could be dark, and we knew Mad Men could be funny, we just didn’t know it would be willing to mix those elements, and what a great result said mix would deliver. Otherwise known as “the lawnmower episode”, the British start their reign at Sterling Cooper with the wrong foot (pardon the pun), and we get an amazing scene between Don and Joan. Jon Hamm and Christina Hendricks have amazing chemistry, and the way the show has wisely restrained on pairing these two has turned their few interactions into a rare televisual aphrodisiac.

6. The Gypsy and the Hobo (Season Three, Episode Eleven)
The defining moment of the Draper marriage, as Betty discovers the truth about Don’s past. It was a confrontation a long time coming, and this episode delivers in, you guessed it, incredibly bittersweet fashion. Jon Hamm is amazing, and January Jones -not the best served actress in the show’s history- shines in what is arguably Betty Draper’s greatest moment (Ok, Betty shooting the pigeons might be better, but still, this is a great episode).

7. Shut the Door, Have a Seat (Season Three, Episode Thirteen)
People who’ve only seen a couple episodes of Mad Men think I’m being disingenuous when I say it is an exciting show. Well, the season three finale is exhibit A of my argument. This beautifully executed Ocean’s Eleven-style caper made the politics of the advertising business seem like a more life-and-death situation than the dismantling of an atomic bomb. The most fun the show has ever been? Maybe, but this pivotal moment turned out to be just the beginning of what the show had in store.

8. The Suitcase (Season Four, Episode Seven)
Probably the best hour of television the show ever produced, this one-on-one bottle episode quickly became the defining blueprint to understand the nature of one of the show’s most important relationships: Don and Peggy. The fact that Jon Hamm and Elisabeth Moss didn’t win Emmys for their performances in this episode is just the best argument for anyone who wants the discredit the value of the Television Academy.

9. The Beautiful Girls (Season Four, Episode Nine)
This episode features the show doing two of the things it does best. The first one is turning the spotlight on some of its wonderful female characters, with story-lines focusing on Joan, Peggy, Sally, and season four recurring guest Dr. Faye Miller. The other, is the show’s rare but always efficient dark sense of humor, as we bid farewell to Ida Blankenship, one of the show’s funniest characters, in appropriately hilarious fashion.

10. Signal 30 (Season Five, Episode Four)
Saying Pete Campbell is an unlikable character is an understatement. But while most people hate Pete, he is one of my favorite characters just because of how unique he is Being born at the precise moment where he is too young to reap the fruit of the all-american fifties lifestyle, but too old to be part of the sixties counter-culture, Pete is a truly fascinating character, dreaming of becoming a man that is about to become extinct. This is my favorite Pete-centric episode, because we waited five season for Pete to be punched in the face, and then “Signal 30” decides it can’t land said punch without making us feel a little sorry for the guy.

11. Far Away Places (Season Five, Episode Five)
Mad Men had played with tone and structure in the past, but “Far Away Places” took the experimentation to a whole new level. Build as a non-chronological triptych of stories focused on Peggy, Roger, and Don (and Megan), this episode not only had fun with the way the story was being told, but made the most out of it by featuring some of the show’s most memorable moments. Megan’s orange sherbet, Peggy’s handjob at the movie theater, and Roger’s first LSD trip are all classics.

12. The Other Woman (Season Five, Episode Ten)
Staying on the topic of structural experiments, “The Other Woman” is notable not only because it is a great Joan episode (that would re-define the character going into the show’s second half), but because it used structure both as a way to misdirect and surprise the audience, and the make the punchline an effectively hurtful one. Also, Don kisses Peggy’s hand, and it means so much on so many levels.

13. Commissions and Fees (Season Five, Episode Eleven)
Lane Pryce was as impenetrable as he was endearing. The endearing part is easy to grasp; when I say impenetrable, I mean it was hard to put myself in his shoes, considering his old-fashioned sense of honor and etiquette. In any case, our clearest link to Europe, aka the “old world”, couldn’t have stayed with us until the end of the show, and Lane makes his exit in appropriately spectacular fashion. Plus, I’m a sucker for a good Sally storyline, and this episode has one of the best (and most controversial) ones.

14. The Crash (Season Six, Episode Seven)
The ultimate example of Mad Men‘s willingness to experiment, in “The Crash”, the Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce are injected with a stimulant that is supposed to give them inspiration, but ends up sending them into a hazy hallucination of a weekend. It’s not easy to make sense of this episode, but it’s an achievement, and if nothing else, gave us this.

15. The Better Half (Season Six, Episode Eight)
On first glance, I thought this episode was a little too obvious on the way it connected its themes, focusing on the characters’ relationships and their “better halves.” However, as time has gone by, it has grown on me tremendously. Its biggest achievement is that after being the weakest link for two seasons, it gives Betty a much needed recovery. She was down in the pits for a while, but this episode had her emerge gloriously revamped.

16. In Care Of (Season Six, Episode Twelve)
It’s hard to beat “The Suitcase”, but if there is any other option for Jon Hamm’s finest hour, it’s got to be the season six finale. Don’s Hershey’s pitch is the most important development for the show going into the final round, and Hamm delivers. Also, the relationship between Don and Sally might be my favorite, and after putting it to the test, this season offers a more than satisfying resolution in the last moments of this finale…

17. A Day’s Work (Season Seven, Episode Two)
…And talking about the Don-Sally relationship, season seven picks up at a pivotal moment for the father and daughter. Don spends much of a day in which little work is done with his daughter, and their scene at the diner ends up becoming the most essential moment to understanding just how complicated and messed up their father-daughter relationship really is.

18. The Strategy (Season Seven, Episode Six)
I know I just said Don and Sally is my favorite relationship, but just thinking about the slow-dancing to Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” makes me think I was a fool for believing, even for a second, that there is anything that can top the complicated, destructive, hilarious, empowering relationship between Don and Peggy. With scenes that resembled many fans’ dreams as closely as the “My Way” dance, and the dinner at Burger Chef, it was just so gratifying, going into the last batch of episodes, to know that the show knew where its heart was.

19. Waterloo (Season Seven, Episode Seven)
Peggy has a huge moment of triumph! And after a dreadfully stressful season, Don does it again! Somehow, he manages to end up back on top. But, hey, wait a minute. What is that? The best things in life are free? A perfect farewell for Robert Morse, and an even more perfect set-up for the end of an amazing show.

20. Time & Life (Season Seven, Episode Eleven)
The last half-season of the show got off on a slow start, but by calling back to some of the most memorable moments in the show’s history, “Time & Life” was an exhilarating hour of television. The gang decides to stage one last coup, but the results are not what they expected. The end of an era indeed, now we just have to wait and see where our favorite characters land as the show wraps up this weekend.

And even then, this list means leaving out a number of fantastic episodes of television. “At the Codfish Bowl”, “For Immediate Release”, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword”, “Three Sundays” they could all be among the best episodes of any series. Hell, “My Old Kentucky Home” should be on this list based on one line alone. The fact they aren’t on this list only shows what a great show Mad Men has been. It will miss it, even if I know that if the show could talk, it would quote Trudy Campbell and say “I’m jealous of your ability to be sentimental about the past.”