Archive for 2012

Mad Men Recap: “The Flood” (Season 6, Episode 5) (4/30/13)

Sunday’s episode of Mad Men reminded us, as every season does at about this point, both where we are temporally and where our characters are developmentally. The United States was collectively shocked and awed repeatedly in the 1960s as political figures fell before their very eyes. In Sunday’s episode, which took place on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis. The world kept on keepin’ on, but it was tough going for a bit. As far as our characters’ developmental progress, this is the first episode this season to remind us just how awful most of these people actually are. The opportunistic, greedy nature of the ad business is what Mad Men is all about – but sometimes we manage to forget. Sunday’s episode is a stark reminder.

Peggy Olsen is nervously searching for an apartment of her very own. In the opening scene, she stands in the middle of an ugly, plain apartment on the Upper East Side. A realtor, a woman with a voice like a bored auctioneer, lists the stats: 1,290 square feet (let’s call it 1,300 with the balcony), two bedrooms, one and a half baths. Peggy, in her sunny yellow work suit, appears out of place and fidgety until Abe arrives, late as usual. When he complains about the doorman’s suspicion (not a lot of longhaired hippie types living on the Upper East Side in 1968), Peggy, not understanding his reticence, whispers excitedly, “We could have a doorman!” When the realtor turns to Abe, the man of the house, and asks whether they’ll buy, he shrugs and says, well, it’s certainly not up to him. “I’m more her trusted advisor.”

Mad Men Season 6 Sylvia and Arnold

Sylvia, wearing that crimson color that, in Don’s mind, belongs to ladies of the evening.

Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

The Drapers head out on the town, but in the lobby they run into Sylvia and Arnie, who are going on a short trip to Washington, D.C. As Sylvia and Don exchange uncomfortable glances over their spouses’ shoulders, Don makes an ass of himself repeating questions and explaining that Megan is up for a copywriting award. Sylvia looks every inch the good Italian Catholic in her crimson suit – it’s another costuming nod to her role in Don’s life. (Basically, red = hooker.)

Last episode we got a hefty dose of Joan Holloway (Harris? Has she changed her name back?), and in this episode we got a little more of Michael Ginsberg. Ginsberg, every bit the outspoken, talented ad man by day, still resides in a tenement with his father, who’s every bit the outspoken Jewish gentleman. When Ginsberg arrives home, he finds Pop has set him up on a nice date with Beverly Farber, Chaim Farber’s daughter. The fathers play chess together. It’s all very “old world,” as Ginsberg notes grumpily. Tricked into a date by your ole dad, that’s rough.

Mad Men Season 6 Megan and Peggy

It’s funny how the only women in Don’s life who have really earned his respect, who ever really stood up to him, complement each other. Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

At the advertising awards ceremony, Don avoids Peggy. Megan, chastising him gently, seeks out Don’s old protege and current rival. Peggy introduces Megan to Cutler (of Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough), played by none other than Harry Hamlin. Cutler, in a nose-wrinkling moment, tells Megan admiringly that “they didn’t make copywriters like you in my day.” Peggy, slightly embarrassed by this behavior, informs Megan conspiratorially, “He’s like Roger with bad breath.” Peggy and Megan make pleasing foils for one another – although they were rivals for Don’s attention in the office, they remain the two women he respects the most. They’re wearing dresses that shimmer with every movement, and Megan’s wealth and grace provides an interesting contrast to Peggy’s continuing awkwardness in dress and mannerism. Peggy still dresses ever so slightly like a teenage girl – you can still see her inner secretary cowering beneath the outwardly confident ad exec.

At Peggy’s table, Ted Chaough makes himself quite comfortable in Abe’s seat. Ted’s snarky wife repeats his name as he babbles excitedly at Peggy, until he gets up to let the longhair have his intended place at the table. Ted and Peggy exchange smiles over their own partners’ place settings. In this scene, Ted literally replaced Abe next to Peggy until his wife made him move. Foreshadowing of an affair, perhaps?

At the awards dinner, William Mapother is a creeper. (Then again, anyone releated to Tom Cruise just seems…off to me.) With distant eyes and a standoffish stance, he tells Don knowingly, “We’ve already met, and we’ve already had this meeting.” Don, needless to say, is confused. Roger takes it all in stride, as Roger is prone to do.

Paul Newman, the presenter at the advertising awards, gets political in his opening speech. Roger chuckles as Joan squints through her glasses and complains she needs binoculars. It’s a clever way to handle a scene filmed in 2013 that features a real actor as he would have looked in 1968. Everyone is uncomfortable with Newman’s political discourse. “I know Bobby Kennedy, but I’m supporting Gene McCarthy for president,” he says, and there’s awkward shifting and sparse claps. Commotion erupts as someone hollers that King was shot. As Abe yells indignantly, people trade stunned glances and Joan and Megan start to cry. Abe realizes this is a story – a good one – and takes off for Harlem in a tuxedo. It’s brave, I suppose…but more than anything else it’s opportunistic.

Abe’s only the first to show his true colors in this episode…and hardly the worst. Everyone’s a terrible person, more or less.

Mad Men Season 6 Ginsberg and Beverly

We’re finally getting a glimpse into Ginsberg’s life since last season. Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

Ginsberg can’t handle his shit on a date with a pretty girl, which is unsurprising. “I’ve never had sex, not even once,” he says, and continues to babble nervously. I just wanted to reach through the screen and pat his head. In a clever sequence, the din of the diner slowly fades from the soundtrack as the sound of a news announcer grows louder until the crash of a dish signals the fact of King’s assassination. It compounds the idea that, truly, the whole world stopped for a moment.

In the ‘burbs, the Draper kids are worrisome little creatures. Bobby is peeling off the blue wallpaper in his bedroom. When Betty catches him, she becomes truly distraught. “Why are you destroying this house!?” she cries. Once a child, always a child. As usual, when the kids are annoying her, she hands them to Don…even when it’s probably dangerous to do so. Don, along with most of New York City, is drinking and watching the riots in D.C. on the TV. You can see his anxiety, his worry for Sylvia, that woman he “can’t fall in love” with. Betty calls on the phone to accuse him of using King’s assassination as an excuse not to see his kids. “She’s a piece of work,” says Megan…and she certainly is. Don begrudgingly puts down his whiskey (!) and drives his very young children through downtown New York as riots threaten to erupt.

Mad Men Season 6 Don and Roger

The Old Guard. Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

The greatest national tragedy in the last few decades was, by far, the 9/11 attacks. Everyone in America who was old enough to understand remembers that day; what you were doing, how you found out, how you responded. It was a terrifying violation, and the whole country paused to watch as further tragedy unfolded. More importantly, though, when something so earth-shaking happens, something that seems to tear at the very fabric of America, people need to connect with one another. Don wants to see his kids, even if he isn’t aware of it at first. Pete Campbell, rightfully forced out of his comfortable home in the suburbs by his cuckolded wife, also wants to see his daughter. Trudy understandably wants nothing to do with Pete anymore, and although she has tears in her eyes, she tells him she’ll handle everything on her own. You lost your chance, Pete.

The whole episode is permeated with sirens, flashing lights, and blaring radios and televisions. Megan, with no kids of her own, calls her horrible parents, and tearfully tells her father repeatedly in French that she doesn’t agree with him. Hanging up, she incredulously, angrily tells Don, “He applauded the ‘escalation of decay.’ I’m so sick of that Marxist bullshit. He hides behind his intellect. He doesn’t want to feel any emotions.” Megan dear, are you beginning to realize that in some ways you actually married your dear father?

From a shot of Megan’s purse and belongings, plopped carelessly on the couch upon entering the apartment, we find out Megan won the copywriting award, for what it’s worth. Which isn’t much.

While Megan takes Sally and Gene to a vigil in the park, Don first tries to reach Sylvia by calling for Arnold in D.C. A tragedy truly does cause one to reach out – but the stupidity of this move is very un-Don-Draper. Trying to contact his mistress by calling her husband with no real reason for it? What’s happening in his head? Did he fall in love when he shouldn’t have?

In the office of Cutler, Gleason, and Chaough the next morning, Peggy comforts her secretary despite not exactly knowing how to do so. “It’s not gonna stop anything,” says Peggy’s girl. “And these fools running in the streets, it’s exactly what he didn’t want.” It’s prescient and graceful. Peggy tells her to go home because “none of us should be working.”

Meanwhile at SCDP, two assholes are screaming at each other (surprise!). Harry Crane is a truly terrible person, and even Pete Campbell calls him out on it. Harry somehow thinks it’s appropriate to bitch about losing ad money because the channels are interrupting regularly scheduled programming to report on King’s assasssination. “How dare you?” asks Pete, his face a mask of complete disgust. “This cannot be made good! It’s shameful. It’s a shameful day!” Harry, momentarily ruffled, tries to recover some dignity – but Pete only responds by calling him a pig. “We’re in the presence of a bona fide racist!” Pete yells. Bert Cooper, SCDP’s benevolent father figure, tells them to shake and make up. The two men, both of them deplorable humans, wear variations on this season’s color scheme of blue and green. Their argument is gorgeously shot, meticulously framed and beautifully symmetrical. The office, almost always bustling, is nearly empty because as Peggy said, “none of us should be working.”

However, Dawn arrives late, looking worse for the wear. She’s distraught and upset, tired and anxious…and one can’t help but wonder what Harlem looks like, even in the daylight. When Joan and Don try to send her home, she says repeatedly, with wide eyes, “I’d really rather be here today.” Her mom told her to go into work, one assumes to protect her safety. Mirroring Peggy’s interaction with her own secretary, Joan puts a very awkward set of arms around Dawn and tells her how sorry she is. Dawn has no idea what to do with that. These bougie Manhattan Caucasians don’t have any idea how the other half live – and they can’t see that Dawn feels unsafe in her own home right now, because they all live far away, or far above, the chaos and commotion. A day of mourning, for them, is likely a day of riots, fires, and looting where Dawn lives.

Peggy, of course, stays in the empty office, fielding her own calls in lieu of her secretary. Her realtor phones to suggest that they take advantage of this national tragedy to score Peggy’s dream home under cost (of course she does). By virtue of silence, Peggy agrees, allowing her hope to get the better of her despite the fact that there are riots surrounding the likely purchase.

Don, Roger, Stan, and Ginsberg also remain in the SCDP offices to meet with Creeper McGee, the gentleman Don met at the awards dinner. He, of course, also offers an opportunistic deal. Let’s hit the American public while they’re feeling vulnerable – yes, that’s just brilliant. He tells them softly, “I was visited by the spirit of Dr. King last night…he said I should question the whole property thing, man.” Don, for once an actual upstanding citizen, tells him it’s in poor taste. “The heavens are telling us to change,” he says. Well, on that point you are correct, sir. Nonetheless, Don refuses the business.

Because of his wallpaper peeling habit, Bobby is grounded from the television for a week. When he feigns a sick stomach to avoid a vigil in the park, Megan takes Gene and Sally while Don takes Bobby to see Planet of the Apes instead. He tells Don he’s being punished “because the wallpaper didn’t line up.” A little liar, he is – however, Betty is exactly the type to punish her child for some perceived offense, and this explanation makes total sense to Don. In the iconic final scene of Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston screams in the surf, and the camera pans out to the Statue of Liberty buried in eons of sand. Bobby turns to Don and asks him for confirmation on the movie’s apocalyptic ending. “The humans blew up New York?” “All of America.” “So he came back to here?” “The future.” Don, amused at his son’s quiet exclamation of “Jesus,” leans back to watch Planet of the Apes again with his son. Between shows (how interesting, the differences between theaters in 1968 and 2013), Bobby says to the black usher sweeping the floor, “Everybody likes to go to the movies when they’re sad.” This is absolutely the truth – and part of the reason I chose to write about them – but Bobby doesn’t understand the privilege of being able to go to the movies because you’re sad. He also doesn’t catch the slightly hurt and confused look on the usher’s face as he turns away.

Peggy finds out she lost the apartment to someone else in the hustle – more New Yorkers taking advantage of a national tragedy to further themselves. Abe can’t really muster much sadness over Peggy’s failure to obtain status quo. “I don’t feel right expressing an opinion,” he says, sitting down to finish his article. When she presses him, he says, “I saw us raising our kids in a place with more different kinds of people.” In the West 80s, maybe. Peggy, for what it’s worth, breathes a sigh of relief and kisses him softly. She wants to provide. Abe is, perhaps, her anchor, her reminder that she doesn’t have to be part of the establishment. Unfortunately, Peggy is becoming increasingly establishment as Abe draws away from her. This also, perhaps, foreshadows an affair and Peggy’s eventual acceptance of her role in the world.

Meanwhile, back in the suburbs, Henry Francis is having an existential crisis. He’d have handled all of this better, of course, and as a result he’s going to run for a Senate seat. “I can’t wait for people to meet you. You know? Really meet you.” And he leans into Betty and kisses her passionately. Yet another person who uses a national tragedy to further himself.

Mad Men Season 6 Megan and Don

Despite Don’s debauchery, Draper duo destined for favorable future? Photo credit Michael Yarish/AMC.

In another beautifully arranged shot, we get a last glimpse at the new Mr. and Mrs. Draper. Megan clutches herself in the doorway as, in a mirror behind her, a sweaty, downtrodden Don clutches a drink on their bed. She’s intensely angry with him for not trying to be a father to his children in their time of need – which we also realize is Megan’s time of need. She has an unnerving tendency to project her daddy issues onto her husband…but then again, her husband has an unnerving tendency to project his mommy issues onto, well, every woman ever. In this case, though, Don actually opens himself to her. He has never really loved his children. “Especially if you had a difficult childhood, you want to love them but you…don’t. And the fact that you’re faking that feeling makes you wonder if your own father had the same problem.” Then suddenly, as when Bobby exclaimed, “Jesus!” about Planet of the Apes, “you feel…that feeling you were pretending to have…It feels like your heart is going to explode.” Megan can’t resist Don’s sad tale, told because he’s drunk and missing his secret mistress. Other bloggers are certain their marriage is now doomed. I’m not so sure. I think Megan, more than almost anyone else in Don’s life besides maybe Peggy, knew exactly what she was getting with him. Only the future will tell.

The end of the episode features the few characters who were unable to or didn’t want to make connections. Pete tries to have a conversation with the Chinese deliveryman, but the language barrier prevents it. He’s very lonely, sequestered in his dingy little bachelor pad. He did it to himself, but nonetheless it’s the first time I’ve felt sorry for Pete in a few seasons. Betty Francis examines herself in the mirror, her appearance so utterly different from when she was married to Don. She’s still chubby and newly brunette. The idea of “really meeting” people is terrifying to her. Unsurprisingly, I don’t feel sorry for Betty Francis. Her son, though, evokes some sympathy. With those parents, the kid is basically doomed. As of now, he’s scared. When Don tries to comfort him, Bobby says exactly the wrong thing. “I just keep thinking, what if somebody shoots Henry?” Don, who’d just confessed to loving his son for the first time ever, takes that blow as gracefully as he can. “That won’t happen,” he says, tight-lipped. “Henry’s not that important.” As they often do, the episode ends with an intoxicated Don Draper, all by himself, unable to truly connect with anyone.

Harry complained about losing money; Betty accused Don of using King’s assassination for personal gain; Peggy tried to use the tragedy to acquire a new apartment; Pete tried to use it to get in good with his wife again; the William Mapother character strove to use it to make himself some more cash; Henry used it as an excuse to run for Senate, thus empowering himself and Betty. Everyone tried to connect, and almost no one succeeded. It was a sad and ugly episode, the kind that’ll make you want to yell at the screen. One hopes we get a pick-me-up next week, but the world of Mad Men is marching on, leaving its out-of-touch Manhattanites in the dust.

What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Movie Review: West of Memphis (12/27/12)

Movie Poster: West of Memphis

West of Memphis

Directed by Amy Berg
Writers: Billy McMillin, Amy Berg

Jessie Misskelley, Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin

How long is West of Memphis? 147 minutes.
What is West of Memphis rated? R for disturbing violent content and some language.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie still: West of Memphis

Photo: Olivia Fougeirol

In May of 1994, in West Memphis, Arkansas, three 8-year-old boys were brutally murdered and dumped in a river. Their tiny bodies were hog-tied with shoelaces and apparently sexually mutilated. It was a vicious, unspeakable crime, and one that called for action. Indeed, the citizens of West Memphis, the parents of the murdered children, and most devastatingly, the Arkansas law enforcement and judicial system took action. Eighteen-year-old Damien Echols, sixteen-year-old Jason Baldwin, and seventeen-year-old Jessie Misskelley were convicted of the crimes based on Misskelley’s confession. Echols, the only one over eighteen, was sentenced to death. Our essential, human urge to compartmentalize, to make sense of the insensible, resulted in a disastrous witch hunt.

Damien Echols was a “strange” young man. His long hair was dyed jet black, contrasting with his pallid skin and piercing eyes. He wore black and scribbled childish graffiti under overpasses, some of it punctuated with pentagrams. Echols considered himself Pagan. He and Baldwin kept journals, wrote obscure poetry, sketched grotesque imagery across the blue lines. They listened to Metallica. They didn’t have many friends. These things made them odd, pegged them as weirdoes. In the eyes of the public, it also made them murderers.

In 1995, an episode of “The X-Files” (“Die Hand die Verletzt”) tackled the zeitgeist of that time: regression therapy, devil worship, and murderous Satanic cults. Cautionary literature and videos circulated to law enforcement across the country, decrying a pandemic of Satanism. Outside Mulder and Scully’s exploits, though, there is virtually no evidence of any rash of Satanic cults; not a thing to indicate that teenagers across America were engaging in ritual sex and murder. But the West Memphis Three’s gothic affectation and lack of love for Jesus Christ made them simple scapegoats. Weird clothes and the depressive journaling of a miserable teen allowed a flawed justice system to pin the horrific crimes on three innocent kids.

In 1996, HBO aired a documentary based on the case, Paradise Lost: The Child Murders at Robin Hood Hills. Filmmakers revealed vital truths in the 2000 and 2011 follow-up films, truths the Arkansas justice system refused to examine. The first kicker of many was that the boy who confessed to the crime, Jessie Misskelley, was (and is) borderline mentally handicapped. When his confession leaked, it became clear his interrogation was leading and coercive. As more persons of interest came out of the woodwork, mugging for the cameras and putting on a show, the case drew national attention. In particular, John Mark Byers, the adoptive father of victim Chris Byers, staged effigies of the convicted and stated his baby had been sacrificed to Satan. For the first few years after the conviction, it appeared Byers, a theatrical, dramatically vengeful man, had committed the crime and elaborately exaggerated his intense grief and rage for the sake of the cameras. The films garnered a response from some very important people. Johnny Depp, Eddie Vedder, Metallica (whose music is featured in all of the movies, though they’re notoriously prickly about music rights and have prosecuted fans for illegal downloading), Patti Smith, The Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, Henry Rollins, Peter Jackson, and Jackson’s wife Fran Walsh took up the cause.

In 2011, Echols, Baldwin, and Misskelley were released from prison after spending half their lives behind bars. This year, Jackson’s Wingnut Films released West of Memphis, which will probably be the final film about the case. I’ve been putting off writing the review for West of Memphis, which I saw at the Virginia Film Festival in early November, because the subject matter surrounding the West Memphis Three case and trial is harrowing. Frankly, in the wake of recent events, I’d rather not spend too much time thinking about little dead kids and strange teenage murderers.

West of Memphis reflects Jackson’s involvement in the case; he and Fran Walsh wrote to Echols in prison beginning in 2005 and contributed heavily to legal costs. Jackson also claims he helped to obtain the services of the FBI’s most famed profiler, John Douglas, upon whom The Silence of the Lambs’ character Jack Crawford was based. (It was Douglas whose encyclopedic knowledge of criminal minds eventually exonerated John Mark Byers in the eyes of the public. Byers, who in the years between 2000 and 2011 changed his tune completely about the identity of the killers, wasn’t interviewed by the crew for West of Memphis.) Jackson, a savvy and well-rounded filmmaker, also recognized the inherent value in the first docs. What happened, over the course of seventeen years, is basically a crowd-sourced criminal investigation. The Paradise Lost films are a beacon, a concrete example of the way film interacts with the world around it and vice-versa. Had it not been for the filmmakers’ concise depiction of the case’s mishandling, Echols would be dead and the other two still in prison. The WM3 case is extremely important for both justice (organizations like The Innocence Project have thrived – the WM3 prove it isn’t always criminals behind bars) and film culture (film as art, film as tool, film as message – the four movies about WM3 are all of the above). Most important, it is one way in which We the People have made a tangible difference; one way, with the help of the filmic medium, we’ve helped to stage a small revolt against an inherently flawed system.

West of Memphis is strident and defamatory (which isn’t a bad thing). Director Amy Berg (whose brilliant Deliver Us From Evil was nominated for an Oscar in 2010) sat a variety of people from all across the spectrum in front of her camera. Charismatic musicians like Rollins stare straight out of the screen, telling you matter-of-factly that the handling of this case was total bullshit. Jackson himself shows up in a number of scenes, in one of which he speaks earnestly about people in power crapping on those who don’t have any. Echols, whose countenance in the Paradise Lost movies was nearly saintly, is finally allowed to say, with a hint of vicious anger in his voice, that lead West Memphis investigator Gary Gitchell put them in prison as a political power move.

The film doesn’t offer a lot of new evidence – Paradise Lost 3 covers most of the basics: the police never really interviewed Michael Moore’s stepfather Terry Hobbs, a man who was known to beat his stepson and his wife; they failed to interview multiple neighbors who had seen Hobbs with the boys shortly before they died; they failed to account for the fact that his alibis on the night of the murder just plain don’t stand up. Pam Hobbs, Moore’s mother, was interviewed exclusively for West of Memphis, bringing forth terrifying stories of her husband’s rages. In one of the film’s most memorable scenes, investigators mention while practically rolling their eyes that the wounds found on the bodies were made post-mortem, almost surely by turtles. A snapping turtle wrangler allows a turtle to bite him onscreen, and the wound leaves a mark identical to those found on the boys. (This scene is jarring and sensational, but probably the best way to make the point.) Amanda Hobbs, Terry Hobbs’s daughter and Michael Moore’s sister, appears in a series of uncomfortable therapy visits. She’s still a teenager, she no longer has custody of her kids, and she has a very obvious drug problem. It’s discouraging, to say the least, to imagine that the filmmakers probably paid her to vent her issues (sexual abuse at the hands of her father, a fear of him that caused her to start doing drugs) on camera.

The filmmakers clashed with HBO and the crew behind Paradise Lost 3 – according to a New York Times piece, Wingnut decreed that Pam Hobbs was not legally permitted to talk to the PL3 crew. Some money changed hands for the sake of a good movie – and the credits of Paradise Lost 3 also note that some participants were offered honoraria for their involvement. The people of West Memphis are what Echols refers to repeatedly over the course of the movies as “poor white trash.” Many of them have criminal records, some of them have nearly indecipherable accents, and most of them are extremely poor. Of course the participants would accept honoraria. It’s par for the course – but unfortunate and sadly sketchy nonetheless.

The West Memphis 3 were released in 2011 because the state accepted the Alford Plea, which is an official admission of guilt while maintaining innocence. (What? You ask. Here’s the Wikipedia.) Basically, the state of Arkansas refuses to admit it convicted innocent boys of horrendous crimes, but deigned, after seventeen years, to let the supposed killers out to roam the streets. (The real killer, by all accounts, is also free.) Echols and his wife Lorri Davis (they were married in a Buddhist ceremony at the prison in 1999 while Echols was still on death row) lived in New York City at the time of filming and “never plan to return to Arkansas.”

West of Memphis is a clamorous, sometimes upbeat (at least, as upbeat as you can be about this case) finale. Jackson’s Hollywood connections make for a different, crisper, bigger-budget film experience than the previous films. Berg is a great director, totally unafraid to stick her nose in uncomfortable spaces and probe at open wounds (her works aren’t as prickly as documentarian Michael Moore’s, but I imagine the two of them would get along well). The end result is pleasing, sad, horrifying, and ultimately satisfying.

We’re living in strange times (she wrote, knowing we’re always living in strange times). A few weeks ago, a 20-year old man, a well-to-do, intelligent, “odd” kid walked into an elementary school and shot 20 children and 6 adults before taking his own life. He was, by all accounts, troubled and overlooked. His style of dress and interactions ran toward the other end of the high school spectrum from Damien Echols – he wore a pocket protector, carried a briefcase, and attended LAN parties. Since he also murdered his mother – from all accounts the only person in close contact with him recently – we’ll never know why he committed this inhuman, unspeakable act. And in the end it doesn’t matter.

Shortly after the shootings, a mother of a child with mental issues posted a heartbreaking blog entry about dealing with her violent son. After Gawker picked it up, the story went viral and people began avidly demonizing the previously unknown mother’s parenting skills, disparaging our society’s disinterest in dealing with mental health problems, and calling for immediate alteration of gun laws. Had Adam Lanza lived, had he not murdered his mother, had he been able to make a statement about why, would we be satisfied by his incarceration? Would we feel more restful knowing his ostensible reasons for committing this act of evil? Would we be able to look at the face of a murderer in a courtroom, as we did with the Aurora shooter, and take heart that he’s completely insane? Could we rest easier knowing the system was now responsible for him? Watching the judicial system at work, knowing we have ways to deal with those who commit crimes against humanity, is powerfully alluring.

In the aftermath of an unspeakable tragedy, we struggled to make sense of it as immediately as possible – and many media outlets pegged the wrong kid as the murderer on the afternoon of the shootings. As the police and the media revealed more evidence, people popped out of the woodwork, sneering that Lanza had been a “weird kid” for as long as his classmates could remember; that this wasn’t his first rodeo with “odd behavior.” Most damning, I think, was the notion, whether explicit or implicit, that Lanza was autistic, had Aspberger’s, or was afflicted with a personality disorder. It’s one more set of stigma to apply to that weird kid in the hallway, the one scuttling anxiously or striding defiantly between classes, avoiding or provoking peers’ wrath.

The West Memphis 3 case and its subsequent documentaries offer a powerful message to us in the aftermath of a massive tragedy that aches like a national wound. Hysteria, rage, and grief are a poisonous combination. Our legal system and political system are inextricably linked, and change can only come from the ground up. The Paradise Lost movies crowd sourced a criminal investigation against the wishes of the federal government. Likewise, a change to our flawed system, the one that financially connects the NRA to corrupt politicians, the one that offers a staggering 20 beds in mental wards to every 100,000 Americans, is in our hands. Jackson, Berg, and the HBO filmmakers have a single message for us, and it feels particularly significant as we look back on 2012: don’t just sit there and watch, don’t stew in your fear and anger. We all have the power to change lives, and to save them. Three innocent men are free because of it – and as we mourn the victims of Newtown (and we are still mourning, albeit loudly and angrily), we can take heart in the fact that we’re capable of fashioning a sea change in a faulty system, and perhaps preventing another heart-rending crime like this. (Just how best to do so, though, is a topic for another article.)

The Walking Dead Recap: “Made to Suffer” (Season 3, Episode 8) (12/3/12)

Last night’s midseason finale of The Walking Dead brought yet more new faces, pitted brother against brother and sister against sister, and ended with a fabulous cliffhanger. Smoke and mirrors keep our characters from seeing one another’s true nature, and from seeing the overarching truth…until it’s too late. Dear writers: You’re doing it right.

Walking Dead Tyreese

Tyreese is here to shake things up. Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

In the opening scenes, we meet another group of survivors led by Tyreese (Chad Coleman), the hammer-wielding badass readers of the books will recognize. They’re struggling to exist in the same cruel world in which Rick’s group has grown grudgingly complacent. After one of their own is bitten, they carry her atop their shoulders, just like Rick’s group would have in the months preceding. (Now? Not so much.) They enter the prison through a blown-out part of the fence, coming perilously close to where Carl, Beth, Hershel, Axel, and Carole are waiting like lame ducks.

Andrea is also, unbeknownst to her, a lame duck. The Governor is taking very great pains to keep Glenn and Maggie hidden from her. She smiles into the mirror at him, reverently telling him that all the people he brought together, they’re not just surviving – they’re helping each other through this mess. Indeed they are – but helping Dr. Mamet cremate a body is different from helping the Governor kill her old friends, as she’s shortly to understand.

Walking Dead Governor Penny Season 3

Family portrait. Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

The Governor is teetering on the very edge of madness, but hiding it well. In the room behind his apartment, surrounded by fish tanks full of zombie heads, he struggles to train his undead little girl. Every unsuccessful encounter fuels the spark of insanity behind his eyes. In his infinite wisdom, the Governor tells Merle they have no choice but to take out the group at the prison – “We’ll white-flag ’em just like the National Guard,” he says with a modicum of glee. Meanwhile, the group at the prison is already inside.

Walking Dead Glenn Maggie

What to do now? Photo credit Tina Rowden/AMC.

Glenn and Maggie, still trapped in Woodbury, prepare to make a stand against the inevitable execution. Glenn’s resourcefulness leads him to the only available weapon: the walker’s radius and ulna (note to anyone who hasn’t watched yet: don’t watch while eating). With this grotesque weaponry, Maggie is able to overpower Merle’s accomplice when the executioners come. Unfortunately, Glenn isn’t able to overpower Merle in his weakened state.

Throughout this battle, Rick, Michonne, Daryl, and Oscar creep closer to where Maggie and Glenn are being held; once they are on the other side of the wall, it’s bombs away. As the room fills with choking fog, Daryl and Merle are only feet apart, but no one can see through the thick veil of self-imposed smoke. Suddenly the two POWs are back in safe hands. When Glenn gets a moment to catch his breath, he tells Daryl who’s responsible for his terrible beating. “I gotta work something out, I gotta talk to Merle,” Daryl pleads with Rick. His face, so harsh and stoic throughout season one and into season two, now betrays his emotions. His heart is on his sleeve more often than not, and in my opinion that’s because Merle hasn’t been there to torture him. (Speaking of torture at the hands of your brother, at one point during the shootout Rick is certain he’s seeing Shane, ghostly in the smoke, and shoots his best friend again only to realize it wasn’t Shane after all, couldn’t have been.)

Walking Dead Woodbury attack

Bombs away! Photo credit Tina Rowden/AMC.

Back in the prison, Carl takes up the mantle and investigates the shrieks coming from Tyreese’s group a few cell blocks over. Carl does exactly the right thing – and exactly what Rick would do – by saving as many as he can, leading them to relative safety, offering to do the heinous deed of shooting a woman before she can come back (shades of Lori), and then locking them behind bars. As if to pound the point home that this child, well, isn’t a child, Tyreese instructs his friend to “let the man go.” Carl is the man now. “We’re in his house.” Perhaps the Carl of the show won’t turn down the same dark path as the Carl of the books.

Carole notices Axel paying lecherous attention to Beth, and tells him, no dude, not cool. Axel, to be fair, has been locked up for ages and just wants to get laid. He doesn’t strike me as the type who’d go about it by force, but who knows? In this world, no one is completely innocent. Carole shakes her head as she tells him she’s not a lesbian (“But you have the short hair!” cries Axel, confused), and no, she won’t sleep with him either. Even in the midst of these epic battles, humans are always concerned with sex…and one has to admit, in the zombie apocalypse, somebody better be having it, or else humans are in serious trouble.

Walking Dead Daryl

Daryl in pensive mode. Photo credit Tina Rowden/AMC.

The preceding episodes sailed our characters perilously close to one another, then let them drift apart again. Michonne didn’t tell Rick’s group about Andrea, or Daryl about Merle, not because she wanted to keep them secret, but because she just didn’t know. This episode uses literal smoke and mirrors to keep Daryl and Merle apart, to keep the Governor’s true goals hidden, and to keep Andrea from seeing the truth. In a firefight in the street, you’ll wait for her to catch a glimpse of a familiar face – but instead, she only sees Oscar, whom she’d have no reason to recognize. The writers have done a brilliant job of intertwining the actions and activities of two independent – but completely dependent – groups of people.

Walking Dead Governor Michonne

An immovable force meets an unstoppable object…(Governor and Michonne). Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

Once Glenn and Maggie are (relatively) safe again, Michonne splinters off to take revenge on the Governor. With sweat beading on her forehead, she yanks out her katana (that satisfying “whish!” noise is becoming synonymous with her character) and waits. In the waiting, she of course discovers the fish tanks, and then poor, undead Penny, dressed in her clean clothes and hooded like a bird. Before she can end it for Penny, the Governor catches her. Danai Gurira is the essence of perfection in this scene; Michonne so rarely speaks, her expressions tell you everything. As she sees the Governor’s genuine desperation, she understands him. And in the next moment, you watch the veil of cruelty slide back into place. “You f*$& with me,” that expression says, “I f$&% with you.”

Walking Dead Governor dies

Jack of Hearts. Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

She starts a war by slicing through Penny’s head. Writhing around on the floor with the Governor in a sea of broken glass, waiting for the heads in various stages of decay to bite her, she grabs hold of the only thing available – a shard of fish tank, the last shred of the Governor’s failed experiments. Into the Governor’s eye it goes. Before she can end his life, who should show up, but Andrea? Sister is pitted against sister, gun against katana. After a long, stressful pause, Andrea lets her go.

Walking Dead Michonne Andrea

Showdown (Michonne and Andrea). Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

In the aftermath, Daryl is lost in the fray, but not lost to all. The Governor calls all of Woodbury out of their hidey holes to address them, and suddenly the people of Woodbury don’t look so clean anymore, don’t look so flawless and summery. Subtle shifts in costuming and makeup cause them to appear dark, ugly, barbaric in the firelight. Mercenaries point guns into the darkness. The “terrorists,” the Governor says, his eye patch bleeding through, “want what we have, want to destroy us.” He tells the good people of Woodbury Merle led the “terrorists” here and let them in…which is true, but not really. It was his lie that left Michonne alive, certainly. But Merle had no idea Daryl was among the interlopers. It could be his end.

The episode cuts off with the Dixon brothers staring helplessly at each other in the center of a gladiatorial arena, surrounded by shrieking demons who want their heads on pikes. What a magnificent way to lead us right up to the edge without dropping us over. Michonne has set off a chain of events that will change the entire show, and Daryl and Merle are in a bit of a spot. And now we wait through the darkest depths of winter for the rest of the season in February.

What are your thoughts? Why did Michonne do what she did? Why did Andrea let her go? Do you think Merle will see the light? Share in the comments!

The Walking Dead Recap: “When the Dead Come Knocking” (Season 3, Episode 7) (11/26/12)

It seems that while The Walking Dead suffered in the wake of Frank Darabont’s unceremonious departure (hence the slog of last season), writers, composers, and actors have seriously stepped up their game for season three. Last night’s episode was one of the best acted, most nerve-wracking, suspenseful episodes of the series thus far. It’s remarkable (and actually plausible) just how small this post-apocalyptic world is.

Walking Dead Glenn Walker

Here we go! Photo credit Gene Page/AMC.

In the establishing shot, Merle’s stump, armed with his favorite knife, pounds onto the table in front of Glenn, who stonily gazes ahead. Merle has separated him from Maggie and is interrogating him to find out where the prison crew is. Maggie, on the other side of a thin wall, can hear each and every punch as it hits Glenn’s face. The focus here is not on the violence done to Glenn (at least not yet), but on Maggie’s anguished expression, her flinches – it’s a brilliant way to get such a brutal scene past the TV censors and still make a gigantic impact.

Walking Dead Carl Rick

Carl to the rescue? Photo credit Blake Tyers/AMC.

At the prison, we pick up with Michonne as she leans against the chain link, staring at Rick. The walkers, for some reason, begin to sense her, and just as she’s overtaken, Carl rushes in to save the day. Upon waking from her swoon, Michonne first grabs for her sword, her security. Rick scoots it away and gently tells her she’s not in danger. She stares at him for a barely comfortable length of time; we’re left wondering what, exactly, she sees there. Rick isn’t the same person anymore, but does she see someone inherently good?
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Movie Review: Silver Linings Playbook (11/21/12)

Movie Poster: Silver Linings Playbook

Silver Linings Playbook

Directed by David O. Russell
Screenplay by David O. Russell

Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Jacki Weaver, Anupam Kher, Julia Stiles, Chris Tucker

How long is Silver Linings Playbook? 122 minutes.
What is Silver Linings Playbook rated? R for language and some sexual content/nudity.

CLR Rating: 4/5 stars

Movie still: Silver Linings Playbook

Photo: JoJo Whilden/©Weinstein Company

The Virginia Film Festival added Silver Linings Playbook to the lineup as its Centerpiece Film at the last minute. David O. Russell’s dramedy had been gently building buzz as it toured the major festivals, attracting the attention of critics with each screening. The VFF is a small festival even after twenty-five years, mainly due to the fact that Virginia, well, isn’t a movie state (though the organizers would have you know, parts of Lincoln were filmed here in the Commonwealth, so there). People travel from all across the state to attend the Festival, and often enough, they have no idea what they’re in for. (This year, a lady in line for Silver Linings Playbook thought she was seeing The Merchant of Venice for some reason. “My husband and I just noticed there were movies playing all weekend!” she said dreamily, “and I love the theater!” I traded glances with the people behind me in line, holding up my ticket to make sure I was in the right place. Silver Linings Playbook had been sold out for weeks. When I saw Black Swan a few years ago under stringent security, most of the older audience was pretty sure it was seeing a movie about the artistry of ballet. That was an entertaining screening.)

Aside from the clueless lady in line, the audience for Silver Linings Playbook is aware. There’s chatter about Russell’s directorial style: he is known to be prickly; there is a series of YouTube videos floating around of the director and actress Lily Tomlin shouting profanities at each other on the set of I Heart Huckabees while a weary and distraught Jason Schwartzman and Dustin Hoffman wander around in the background. There are excited murmurings about the next Hunger Games movie: these, more than Jennifer Lawrence’s heart-rending turn in Winter’s Bone, will now be her claim to fame. People are excited for Silver Linings Playbook, really thrilled to be in the Paramount (which, by the way, is one of the most beautiful theaters I’ve ever seen).

I went in knowing next to nothing about the plot, which is for the better. The plot of Silver Linings Playbook is kind of inane. Matthew Quick’s book, one guesses, is able to neatly tie up loose ends without going overboard. Narrative style is more fluid in a novel, and authors pad trite plot devices with character development and lively prose (see also: Yann Martel’s Life of Pi). Much of the time, a movie just can’t offer the sort of character depth and development a book does. It’s totally implausible that a man recently released from a psychiatric hospital would find himself with the weight of his family’s livelihood on his shoulders as he performs in a dance competition with a recently widowed, slightly nymphomaniac young woman. These characters, from the superstitious, obsessive-compulsive father figure, to the Eagles-loving Indian psychiatrist, are not your average Philadelphians. They’re larger than life. What’s really interesting about Silver Linings Playbook is that Russell adapted a silly plot and over-the-top characters into a movie that absolutely does offer the kind of character development you want, and does, somehow or other, create a totally plausible, mostly enjoyable yarn.

Pat Solatano (Bradley Cooper) allows his long-suffering mother Dolores (Jacki Weaver) to pull him out of inpatient psychiatric care the moment the courts allow (and against doctors’ recommendations). At home, Pat Sr. (Robert De Niro) isn’t sure how to accept his son again – he can’t quit repositioning the remote controls during football games on which he bets, and he can’t look Pat in the eye. Pat Jr. goes on morning runs wrapped in a trash bag so he can win back his ex-wife Nikki with a sexy new body. Unfortunately, Nikki has a restraining order against him. As the whole story comes into view piece by piece, it becomes clear that Pat needs all the help he can get to rebuild his life. His best friend’s deplorable wife (Julia Stiles) sets him up on an ill-fated date with her younger sister Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence). Tiffany lost her husband recently and uses sex to dull the pain. The two of them make a deal: if Tiffany communicates Pat’s undying love to Nikki, he’ll perform in a dance competition with her. Somewhere along the line, Pat Sr. decides to bet the family’s business on the dance competition. (Like I said, it’s a wee bit farfetched.)

Russell translated Quick’s small-time yet exaggerated story into a believable, smart, and sweet film, certainly, but what makes Silver Linings Playbook a work of genius is its brilliant performances. Russell, in spite of (or perhaps because of) his alleged asshole tendencies behind the scenes, squeezes every last drop out of his actors. Cooper, previously known almost entirely in comedies (though he was good in Limitless), somehow imbues a troubled, violent person with gentle kindness veiled by abrasive potshots. De Niro doles out one of his best performances in years; the man looks nothing short of elderly these days, and his fragility is gorgeously vivid. Lawrence puts a hard, ugly face on pain. She’s a woman who hurts so badly she tortures herself and everyone around her to make it easier. Two very broken people swirl around each other, each basking in the other’s palpable anguish, and eventually realize their respective hurts can combine to put them back together streaming movie Power Rangers

Watching Lawrence verbally spar against Robert De Niro, you remember that she’s a force to be reckoned with. Her chemistry with Cooper is odd and off-putting, but beneath the antagonism, both characters recognize foils of themselves. Russell took utmost care to give all the characters dynamic personalities; from Dr. Cliff Patel (Anupam Kher) to the police officer in charge of Pat’s restraining order (Dash Mihok), no one is two-dimensional. Nikki, who in some ways is the catalyst behind the entire series of events, is more of a mythical figure than anything else; though it would have been simple to make her an evil, conniving witch, Russell refused. The film’s cinematography and color scheme are pleasantly low-key, reflecting the chill of autumn and winter in Pennsylvania in a muted palette. These blue-collar people live unglamorous lives, and they’re proud of them.

The story isn’t particularly a happy one, and it’s uncomfortable to the point of cringing at times – but quite frankly, what love story goes according to plan? What profoundly broken person doesn’t make you want to laugh and cry at the same time? All you can ever hope for, according to that quote attributed to Dr. Seuss, is to fall in mutual weirdness with someone. Watching these two do just that is totally gratifying.

Silver Linings Playbook is generating Oscar buzz already, and its three leads deserve their nods. Russell, whose films are hit-or-miss, has himself a hit. It isn’t exactly a feel-good holiday romp, but for people like me, suckers for quirk and angst, it’s the perfect antidote to the usual rom-com. If you ever get enough of turkey and beer and football, do yourself a favor and check it out this season. You won’t regret a minute.