Critics' Picks

What you need to see, read, do this week: A "Mad Men" bad boy, a vampire movie with bite, a succulent summer pop song.

Published July 26, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

Vincent Kartheiser as Pete Campbell in "Mad Men"
There are plenty of reasons to look forward to the second season of AMC's acclaimed drama series "Mad Men" (premieres 10 p.m. EDT Sunday). But while relishing scenes between Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his wife, Betty (January Jones), or Draper and his cad of a boss, Roger Sterling (John Slattery), this season I find myself most drawn to scenes that feature Draper's ambitious underling Peter Campbell. Vincent Kartheiser does a great job with Campbell's sometimes awkward, sometimes smooth, sometimes downright pathetic antics, revealing his dark urges, vulnerable turns and outright confusion with stunning authenticity. Kartheiser's flexibility as an actor is on particularly fine display in the second episode of the season, when Campbell's desperate search for some guidance during a crisis is utterly heartbreaking. -- Heather Havrilesky

Daft Punk's "Electroma" on DVD
Circa 2001, the French electronica duo Daft Punk, from whom Kanye West cribbed last year's huge smash "Stronger," decided that they were robots. At all public appearances, D.P. members Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo wore chrome helmets with opaque glass where the eyes should go, and sometimes, incongruously, animal masks that went over their entire heads. In 2006, they made an 82-minute feature film, "Electroma," about two androids -- stand-ins for Bangalter and de Homem-Christo -- on a quest to become human. Unlike most films featuring musicians, the glacially paced, Tarkovsky-meets-Kubrick road movie features none of the band's own songs (though there's some Curtis Mayfield, Chopin and Brian Eno), no dancing and no dialogue. The film, now out on DVD, does include a host of striking, unsettling images -- slow pans of American towns populated by robot families, all clad in Daft Punk helmets; a scene worthy of oddball photographer Ralph Eugene Meatyard in which the androids' human masks, made of latex, melt in the sun; a sequence of gorgeous shots of the two traversing a desert, Gus Van Sant-style, as the landscape seamlessly morphs into a nude; and a robot-assisted suicide. Bangalter, happy that "Electroma" has become a "midnight movie," claims the film "does not require your brain to function." It may, however, fry some of your circuitry. -- James Hannaham

"Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth" by Xiaolu Guo
In this slim but beautifully detailed novel, a peasant girl leaves her small farming village in China to make it big as a film extra -- or maybe even a screenwriter -- in Beijing. This is the second English-language book by Xiaolu Guo (she was herself born in a fishing village in China, and now lives in London and Beijing), and it's a marvelous example of how to pack layers of emotional richness into a surprisingly small number of pages. Xiaolu originally wrote "Twenty Fragments" 10 years ago, revising it slightly upon its translation into English, partly to acknowledge (as she notes in the book's afterword) that China and Beijing have changed so much in the intervening years. Regardless, this is a work of fiction that's both fresh and timeless. -- Stephanie Zacharek

Carl Theodor Dreyer's "Vampyr" on DVD
One viewing of Carl Theodor Dreyer's 1932 "Vampyr" definitely isn't enough; whether you want to call it a seminal erotic-horror film or a formalist avant-garde dreamscape (and it's both), this nonnarrative shadow play set in a haunted village is likely to leave contemporary spectators dazzled but almost completely baffled. Fortunately, with the Criterion Collection's new two-disc DVD edition -- based on a 1998 restoration of this nearly lost and much-damaged oddity, far from perfect but the best we're likely to see -- you can bone up with critical essays by Mark Le Fanu and Kim Newman, peruse Jørgen Roos' 1966 Dreyer documentary, and then watch the damn thing again. Although he's a canonical figure in cinema history, Dreyer is rarely seen and poorly understood by modern filmgoers (myself included). His reputation rests largely on his 1928 silent masterwork "The Passion of Joan of Arc" and his 1955 Christ allegory "Ordet," but "Vampyr" -- not quite a sound film and not quite a silent, not quite a vampire film and not quite an exercise in Freudian-Jungian symbology -- is now revealed as a work of technical wizardry and exquisite strangeness. -- Andrew O'Hehir

Sugarland's "All I Want to Do"
When I want to get my family singing from the same page, I just put on Sugarland's new single, "All I Want to Do": My kids will "doo-oo-oo-oo-oo" till dawn. Hell, I will, too. Oh, sure, by the 29th go-round, it'll be annoying -- really annoying, like the Crash Test Dummies' "Mmm-mmm-mmm-mmm" -- but for now it's succulent summer pop, with just enough twang to sweeten the bang. No point in stopping there, either. Sugarland's new album, "Love on the Inside," offers fattening slices of anthem rock ("Take Me as I Am"), honky-tonk ("It Happens") and heartbreak ballad ("What I'd Give"), not to mention a shout-out to alt-country legend Steve Earle -- all caramelized by Jennifer Nettles' blistering vocals. Want me some Sugarland in my bowl. -- Louis Bayard

The return of "Burn Notice" on USA
Bliss is returning from vacation to find two new episodes of "Burn Notice" (Thursdays at 10 p.m. EDT), a comedic drama about a yogurt-noshing former spy, queued up on your TiVo. This season proves to be even sharper and fresher than the first, especially a scene in which the hero, Michael (Jeffrey Donovan), gets guilted into a family therapy session by his mom and takes to it like a fish to water -- much to the chagrin of his mom, who realizes she's not as keen on "communication" as she thought. -- Laura Miller


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