Thursday, April 23, 2015

Locke: A Review



LOCKE

Despite The Dark Knight Rises, I am not convinced that Tom Hardy is a real actor.   I know many people love his performance as Bane and think it among the greatest in film history.  However, I also think those people are excessively fanatical about anything involving Christopher Nolan's take on the Batman mythos.  Apart from a breakout role in Inception, Hardy has been in bad films (This Means War, Lawless, Star Trek: Nemesis) and been bad in them, mistaking monotone and moroseness for introspection.  Locke is his stab at serious, straightforward, deep acting: him performing with no one else on-screen, acting to various voices he speaks to (and speaking to himself).  It is actually a pretty good performance.  Pity it comes in a film too self-consciously gimmicky. 

All performers save Hardy are heard, since as stated Hardy is the only person on-screen throughout Locke.

Ivan Locke (Hardy) leaves his job site, where he is suppose to be overseeing the largest concrete pour in British history not involving a nuclear plant or military installation and which he's devoted years to.  He does this without authorization, essentially abandoning his job.  It isn't to go see the football match on TV with his two sons and his wife Katrina (Ruth Wilson), who finally wore the team jersey.  Instead, it is because Bethan (Olivia Coleman), a very mentally fragile 43-year-old with whom he had his only one-night-stand, is about to give birth to his child two months prematurely.  Locke decides the right thing to do is to be by her side as she births his bastard.  There's a reason for this as we go through this long drive from Birmingham to London (which if I understand it is a little more than an hour or hour and a half's drive). 

Ivan Locke himself is illegitimate, his father abandoning him early on.  Ivan will not let history repeat itself.  However, this does mean abandoning his job (from which he is fired), telling Katrina (which gets him kicked out of the house) and basically breaking his older son Eddie's heart (Tom Holland).  It's a long drive, and when he isn't on the hands-free phone to his family or to his various colleagues (who are basically enraged with him) he has a chat with his invisible and dead father, whom he imagines in the back seat.  Almost near the hospital, he hears the cries of his newborn daughter on the phone. 


As I've said, I was surprised that Hardy gave a solid performance.  You see him working to be serious without being the usual Tom Hardy: morose, downbeat, a working-class bloke with too much on his shoulder.  Adopting a Welsh accent from what I understand, Hardy carries this odd mix of world-weariness and straightforward honesty that can be brutal.  Whenever the slightly hysterical Bethan calls, she keeps asking if Locke loves her.  "How could I love you?", he replies, making it clear that while he sees their drunken one-night-stand as a mistake, he, unlike his father, will be responsible. 

Even if it means being irresponsible in every other aspect: throwing his nearly ten years with his company away (where he was seen as highly respected and efficient) and on the very night that his pet project was about to be finalized.  It also means not just telling his wife about his indiscretion, but having to be a bit shady to his two sons Eddie and Sean (Bill Milner), who love their father as they love their football team.

This certainly is a slightly different Hardy than I'm use to, someone who is really working to give a serious performance that is about character and not how stoic and beefy he can be.  Bless Tom Hardy: in Locke, he gives one of his best performances because he tries to act.

Does that mean that I think Tom Hardy is a real actor?  Sadly no, one self-conscious performance in a self-conscious film doth not a new Olivier make.  I think it shows that Hardy has great promise and potential (and is certainly much better than some of his contemporaries like Theo James or Gerard Butler) but he has yet to show he can be on the same level as his contemporaries James McAvoy or Michael Fassbender.  Hardy, at least in Locke, shows he can do good work, but it doesn't show he can make it as interesting as the film thinks it is.

For me, the issue with Locke isn't Hardy.  It's the scenario.  It seems a lot is going on in this fateful night, perhaps too much in writer/director Steven Knight's mind to believe.  A major part of Locke is that all sorts of issues arise while Locke is on the road involving this project (which itself is a bit too heavy-handed in its symbolism: the major construction sight about to fall apart as his life has).  The film is saying that because he wasn't there to ensure that all the I's were dotted and T's crossed the permits which would have had to have been secured months ago all suddenly were no longer active and the inspections were not done.

It seems a bit far-fetched that so many problems would arise so quickly without Ivan to oversee them.

I also found it hard to believe that his 43-year-old fling would go into premature labor JUST AT THAT MOMENT, and that it would also be at the same time as this football match the family was eager to watch.  That brings to mind something that Knight may not have thought of: his family was expecting Ivan that night, so he would not have been at the job site at a certain point.  Therefore, Ivan wouldn't have been there to physically oversee everything, at least for a few hours, so why everyone was freaking out due to his absence seems a bit outlandish.

Are people that inept that they have to leave everything on this billion-dollar-project to one man? 


It also wasn't just the premise I wasn't buying.  It was the gimmick of the one-person-on-screen bit.  I think that for something to work, it has to be believable.  I also think it has to work in another way.  With Locke, I asked myself, would this work apart from the very conscious decision to make it a one-man show?  If this were real life, would I believe this premise?  If it were removed from the car, and Locke had to present himself to his wife and tell her the truth, and went to the hospital (as a side note, do they let people use phones in the maternity wards in the UK?  Their health care certainly is different than ours I guess), would it play as real?

My answer is no.  It all seems a little too convenient, too showy, too 'artistic'.  In short, the entire 'long drive with one person on screen' thing seems to be done just to be pseudo-creative, drawing too much attention to itself.

For that, I give Locke a mild reprimand.  It isn't Hardy's fault.  Like I said, bless Tom Hardy for stretching himself as an actor and working to get away from his usually growly tough guy (ever since he beefed up for Bane, he seems to have little to no sense of humor).  He didn't chuckle in Locke, but at least he wasn't the monotone his roles usually are.  I think the voice actors were pretty good, especially Holland as the disappointed son (Andrew Scott's hysterical Donal continues to show he can't not do camp in all his roles). 

On the whole, good try Tom Hardy.  You may prove the actor you think you are yet. Pity the film is a bit more self-conscious about things than you are.    



DECISION: C-

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Password Is "MOTHER", All in Caps.



BATES MOTEL: THE DEAL

Well, I've always said Norma Bates needed to see a psychiatrist.  I just didn't mean, socially.  The Deal is yet another excellent Bates Motel episode, defying us to not admire, respect, maybe even love Norma Bates, who up to now has been seen as a sexually-repressed/crazed woman.  Bates Motel's Norma Bates is instead a good but deeply flawed and troubled woman, who has been beaten down, beaten up, and who for once will take advantage of an opportunity and be as shady and corrupt as everyone else in White Pine Bay (which is now overtaken Twin Peaks as THE Pacific Northwest's craziest town, making the cuddly eccentrics of Portlandia look downright rational). 

Someone is targeting Norma Bates (Vera Farmiga).  It is Bob Paris (Kevin Rahm), who knows that despite her protests, Norma has what he is desperate for.  It is the flashdrive Annika gave her.  No one believes she doesn't have it, not even Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell).  She still can't open it though, so her son Dylan (Max Thieriot) keeps it hidden while they attempt to break into it.  To everyone's surprise, it is opened...by Gunner (Keenan Tracey), who had a hidden skill as a pirated movie master.  It contains financial records that implicates major White Pine Bay players.  Despite and over Romero's loud objections, Norma for once will take advantage of things and be just as corrupt as everyone else.  She and Romero go to a disbelieving Paris, offering to not release the flashdrive in exchange for an exit to be placed on the new bypass that will lead straight to the Bates Motel.  Nothing more, with a firm promise to never ask for anything again.  Paris, either with more nefarious ideas or pleased with her chutzpah, agrees.

Things appear to be finally going Norma's way.  She now has the upper hand, and she seems to be starting a relationship with local professor James Finnegan (Joshua Leonard).  She even has a strong relationship with Dylan, and for once it seems her other son Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) finds himself frozen out.  He doesn't like this, but he isn't exactly all there either.  He thinks he tells Norma about Dylan keeping his father Caleb (Kenny Johnson) at the cabin, but his early morning mumblings are too confused.  He starts making a very creepy connection between comfort and his favorite dress of Norma's.  In short, Norman is now just plain bonkers.  However, while he is slowly not telling Norma, it is Dylan who tells her.  Exactly why I'm not sure.  Perhaps it is because he wants to be honest with her.  Perhaps he does really think Caleb wants to be forgiven.  Perhaps it is to undercut Norman.  He tells her the truth, and the once happy Norma, finally successful and with both her sons with her, goes into a part-silent, part-violent rage.  She hurriedly packs and flees, telling Norman that Dylan will now watch him.


I find that Bates Motel is a truly emotional show.  Each time we see Norma finally getting somewhere, with someone, something undercuts her so violently that it seems that she is almost doomed never to find peace.  Now we find that at her moment of triumph, her sons have driven her away.  Farmiga continues to make Norma Bates one of the most fascinating characters on television.  She is almost coy and sweet with Leonard.  Norma asks the good professor if he is attracted to her.  When he tells her yes, she seems to be quite happy, pleased that she still has it.

In fact, throughout The Deal, we see Farmiga make Norma a fascinating figure.  With Finnegan, she is a cross of flirtatious and flattered.  With Paris, she seems almost bizarrely naïve about what kind of man he is.  Paris is an extremely dangerous man, and yet here she is, presenting her very short list of demands with the confidence of someone who thinks Paris can be trusted. 

Rahm in his scenes with Farmiga is her equal, his expression unreadable.  Is he genuinely pleased at this?  Is he planning more?  Is he just in near-total shock that his smile is the only thing to keep him from either laughing out loud or screaming in disbelief?  The inscrutable nature in this Judgment of Paris is simply great in how both Rahm and Farmiga handle it.

What really impressed me about The Deal is Thieriot, who has become the soul of Bates Motel.  We see him as this very tortured figure, who yearns to do the right thing and thinks long and hard about it.  As a character, Dylan has grown on me.  Straight from the beginning, when we see him hung over outside a bar, obviously drinking to forget the devastation he fears his brother has caused for his mother.  Dylan is a tortured soul, and Thieriot, in his quiet manner, shows the wounded boy beneath the exterior.

Another fine highlight is Highmore, who has grown more repulsive as Norman.  I find Norman to be slipping from his hurt, vulnerable, and confused start to someone growing cold, manipulative, and monstrous.  His evolution to the Norman Bates we know is slowly building, and Highmore is excellent in showing the evolution.  His scene with Norman's favorite dress is downright creepy in a show that pretty much is creepy from the get-go.   I like that Highmore is working to make Norman more unlikable, but still within him a very frightened little boy.  He at the end is in near-hysterics when Norma storms off, and while part of me feels he deserved it (since this would have happened if he had told Norma as he planned to), part of me feels sad that he is being abandoned.

Carbonell continues to be the moral core of White Pine Bay (or at least one who does want to pursue the law to the upmost of his abilities).  He even lends The Deal a slight touch of humor, his moral uprightness leading to Paris calling him a "Drama King". 

As a side note, the idea of Gunner, this nearly-always baked figure, cracking the flashdrive is amusing. 

The story itself holds up very well, and the subplots like Caleb's encounter with the creepy neighbor and Dr. Finnegan's courting of Norma add to the enjoyment.  "I'm going right near where you live.  Where do you live?" Finnegan tells Norma when he finds her at the bus stop.  What could come across as almost stalker-like with Leonard comes across as almost endearing. 

The Deal is a brilliant episode.  As is now the norm, it has some amazing acting by Farmiga and standout performances by Highmore and Thieriot.  It has a touch of humor and romance, and pushes the narrative forward. 

Finally, the idea that to gain the Bates Motel Wi-Fi, you need the password of "MOTHER", all in caps, is too rich to be anything other than amusing and a nice nod to just how dominant Norma Bates (and Vera Farmiga) are on the show.

It's about time Norma Bates started
seeing a psychiatrist.


9/10

Next Episode: Norma Louise

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Americans: Dimebag Review



THE AMERICANS: DIMEBAG

It's all about relationships and marriages on The Americans' episode of Dimebag: marriages falling apart, marriages already apart, and marriages troubled by such things like children.  More than any episode that I've seen so far, Dimebag starts exploring the moral complexities of 'doing the right thing'.  Even something as baptism, the ritual washing of sins to become new, seem almost dangerous and calculated.

Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) is now being tasked to cultivate Kimberly Breland (Julia Garner), daughter of a CIA Afghan Group member.  He integrates with her group, even going so far as to get them fake IDs.  It's clear that Kimberly is developing the hots for Philip's false identity, and Philip senses this.  That, and the fact that Kimmie is around Paige's age, must play on his conscious. 

Not playing on the conscious of Elizabeth (Keri Russell) is the idea that Paige be recruited to join the family business.  They have a fierce argument involving Paige's birthday gift.  Philip, getting an informal tip from Kimberly and her friends, gets Paige the newest album (it IS 1982) from Yazoo (see previous note).  Elizabeth thought they'd agreed to a necklace.  Philip snaps that the album wasn't a birthday gift, but it really is just the catalyst for another blowup as Philip seethes against the idea of Paige being turned, which Elizabeth is now actively supporting.  As it stands, Paige (Holly Taylor) wants only one thing: to have her hippy/liberal pastor Tim (Kelly AuCoin) and his wife over to dinner.  There, Paige drops a bomb of her own: she wants to get baptized. 

This obviously thrills her Communist parents.


Meanwhile, both FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and his former lover Nina (Annet Mahendru) face problems of their own.  Beeman is growing suspicious of Soviet defector Zinaida (Svetlana Efremova) of being a double agent.  He has nothing but his suspicions towards the Milky Way-loving intellectual, but he can't shake the idea that Zinaida is really dangerous.  He faces more trouble on the home front: finally confessing to his soon-to-be ex-wife Sandra (Susan Misner) of his affair and finding the EST business all nonsense.  Not finding Stan nonsense is Tori (Callie Thorne), a fellow EST attender who obviously has the hots for Stan.  Even Philip, who joins Stan at EST, tells him as much. 

Nina for her part has been told that if she can get information out of her cellmate Evi Sneijder (Katja Herbers), the Soviet state may find a way to reduce her sentence from death.  Slowly, Nina opens up to Evi in a calculated plan to have her open up.  It's a desperate gamble to save her life.

Dimebag hits all these great points about morality and family.  Is it moral: for Nina to cultivate an unsuspecting Evi?  For Philip seriously planning a teenage girl's seduction to get her to spy on her own father?  For Elizabeth to turn her own daughter into a KGB operative?  Each character has his/her own reasons for doing/not doing what they think they should, driven by things outside their work.  It's a thrilling thing to see.

It's particularly good of Dimebag to showcase two actors who rarely take the spotlight: Emmerich and Mahendru.  Both of them gave absolutely brilliant performances.  Mahendru's greatest moment in the episode is when she is opening up to Evi.  We figure it's because she sees this as an opportunity to save herself, but Mahendru shows us a deeply wounded vulnerability in Nina, someone who has been beaten up all around and is desperate to survive.  Maybe she is opening up to get Evi's trust, but maybe she's opening up because she needs an outlet.

Emmerich is simply great throughout Dimebag.  When he tells the EST instructor that the entire thing is bull****, he taps into Stan's rage, hurt, confusion, and inability to be vulnerable so openly.  The fact that he gets applause from the cuckoo group lends it a touch of comedy.  He also is excellent when quietly turning down Toni (which I think is a mistake) and when he opens up to Sandra, it just about breaks your heart. 

Emmerich even has gets a few funny moments.  We have his EST blowup, but also when he goes after hours to search the diner bathroom for clues about Zinaida's activities.  Earlier, he asks the waitress about the burgers.  "How are the burgers here?", he asks, to which the waitress replies, "Beer."

"That's not a ringing endorsement," he says.

"You want a ringing endorsement or you want to know how the burgers are?", she cracks. 

Obviously, I'd avoid the burgers at this joint.   

When he does go in to investigate, we get that Stan is intense, but we also get that he is also a bit clumsy.



One of the highlights is how The Americans uses even the most apparently innocuous of period music to heighten the scene.  It did this last season when it used Golden Earring's Twilight Zone in Season Two's finale Echo to great and intense effect.  Who knew they could do something similar with Yazoo's Don't Go?   You'd think this New Wave number would be pretty tame, but not in the hands of The Americans, who make it an intense battle of wills between Elizabeth and Philip for their daughter's future (especially since Philip is an unabashed fan of country music, as deeply Reaganesque as a genre can get). 

It works because we can imagine that the music is coming from Paige's album, but it fits within the entire scene of Stan in his desperate hunt for evidence against Zinaida.  It's so brilliant and tense.

As I make my effort to catch up with all The Americans episodes, I found Dimebag continues the excellent quality the series has created.  Truly, The Americans is one of the best shows on television, its combination of action, espionage, and human tragedy creating a fascinating story that draws you in and causes you to almost empathize with two Soviet agents.

Almost.  I DO remember Ronald Reagan, you know...



9/10

Next Episode: Salang Pass

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Freetown: A Review


FREETOWN

Real-life stories, particularly ones of recent events, can be tricky.  You have to stick close to facts while allowed a certain dramatic license.  Freetown, the newest feature film in the annals of serious Mormon cinema, does a respectable job of showing the horrors of the Liberian civil war through civilian eyes.  LDS members will find a lot to admire in its tale of missionaries who continue to share the faith despite the brutality going on around them.  Non-Mormons (like myself) at least can admire the sincerity within Freetown.  The film does drag a bit as the missionaries go on their flight to safety, but one at least admires, even respects, the strides Mormon cinema is making (which puts many Christian films to shame). 

Liberia, 1989.  The country founded by former American slaves has descended into chaos and a brutal civil war.  The rebels, who believe that the Krahn community (I am loath to use the term 'tribe') has been unfairly favored, is now on a mass killing spree, killing any Krahn they can find.  They suspect a lonely driver, Abubakar (Henry Adofo) to be Krahn, but he is not.  He is, however, a Mormon, one of a small LDS community that is growing among the Liberian people. 

As tight, sincere, and devoted as the Elders are, they are not blind to the dangers around them.  One of them, Elder Gaye (Philip Adekunde Michael) is in great danger.  He is the only Krahn among the other Liberian Elders, which puts not just him but all the Elders at risk.  Despite Abubakar's objections, the other Elders will not leave Gaye to run the risk of getting killed.  They decide to flee to nearby Sierra Leone, taking what they can for the journey from Monrovia to Freetown.

From there, Freetown becomes an adventure story, with the Elders and a very cynical Abubakar taking dangerous terrain and risks for their fellow Elder.  At each point when something comes close to bringing them death, some great circumstance comes to their rescue.  As they travel through the country, the Elders never lose faith (and even have moments of levity within the insanity), as one of the rebels continues his search for the Krahn that got away, with a little help from another rebel who happens to be a Mormon (at least that's what I understood, a strange turn of events even in a real-life story).  Will they make it, even after one final obstacle comes close to destroying all they've worked for?


In many ways, Freetown is quite a good film.  Certainly a tale where there is a 'race against time' and one based on a true story lends itself to a potentially great film.

Director Garrett Batty does have some wonderful moments within it.  Of particular note is when Elder Gaye, who had scratched off his name to avoid being recognized as Krahn, is lined up with his missionary partner and a group of civilians interrogated on the spot, all being asked if they are Krahn.  Some deny it, some admit it.  An old woman admits she is Krahn, adding that there is no shame to it.  She is promptly shot.

However, given that this is a Mormon feature film, we were not going to get the graphic violence, and I would argue that Batty dropped the ball a bit when he opted to give us some but not all of the horror.  I don't say that it was bad, merely a bit clumsy, as if part of him wanted to show the true nightmare of the civil war, part of him knew it would not pass muster with his target audience.

Batty also seems to have a bit of a fixation with overhead shots, perhaps showing off his budget.  We got perhaps one too many images of us looking down on the proceedings, which soon became monotonous.

If Freetown has a flaw, it is that despite the scenario lending itself naturally to action, I found it a bit slow.  I sadly confess that at times I was nodding off and trying to stay awake through the screener.  

Another aspect that I found a mixed bag was when Batty's script (which he co-wrote with Melissa Leilani Larson) did have the Elders touch on the LDS' tortured history with Africans.  One commented about the history of the church and how the LDS did not have black priests until late in the 20th Century.  He figures that the divisions within the LDS Church are like those between Krahn and non-Krahn, and that now with the other Elders choosing to save and protect their fellow Krahn missionary, they somehow will show how human divisions can be overcome.

However, no amount of action, adventure, or sincerity will make the tortured history between blacks and the LDS Church any easier to reconcile.  While I admire Freetown actually discussing the Mormon history with Africans (and African-Americans), I cannot help wondering whether a deeper exploration needs to occur.

After all, Freetown, for whatever its virtues, is geared towards a particular market (and it isn't the general one).  It is suppose to reinforce Mormon outlooks, and despite itself the idea that Freetown may be perceived as pro-Mormon virtual propaganda cannot be entirely dismissed.  This isn't like a Kirby Heyborne film where the viewer gets the jokes (and which I didn't) Films like The R.M. and The Best Four Years, both of which I did like, had to be explained to while I watched. 

In a similar vein, I wonder whether I, as a Gentile who found much to admire in his trip to Salt Lake City but was wary about the Mormon theology, similarly 'missed something' about Freetown.  I also wonder whether this movie is more Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration than The Hiding Place.  In short, will a non-LDS audience find Freetown a gripping story or subtle propaganda?  I think on a personal level that it's a little bit of both (though the actual flight from danger, with some good moments, was a bit slow).   



It certainly lends itself to such charges when one of the Elders tells Abubakar what could be Freetown's theme, "Revelation doesn't come when we are living in the shadows".  This is used as rationale for continuing to preach despite the danger (and for the Elders not taking the option to change clothes that would make them less conspicuous.  Even some Jews attempting to flee Nazis had the sense to rip the Star of David off their clothes.  Is there something in Mormonism that stopped the Elders from doing as much?  Again, one wonders what as a non-LDS I missed).

We have that problem of having someone like Abubakar as one of our major characters, but why he is not as devout in his faith that God will get them through versus the Elders is something we are not given any clues or answers to.  We don't see the Elders doubt or even worry much.  I think Batty missed a bit of an opportunity to make his characters more complex and complicated. 

That isn't to say there is all bad.  One great aspect of Freetown was Robert Allen Elliott's score, which was tense but minimal.  I found the music to be a highlight of the film and excellently rendered.  I also found the interaction among the youthful Elders and the more weary Abubakar to be realistic.  One particularly amusing moment is when they escape past a checkpoint.  Abubakar wonders how it was done.  The Elders then bring out the machine gun clips, telling him they'll give them to someone in need.

It's just like the young to find humor in the darkest of places.

Freetown is sincere.  I give it that.  It has a much more professional look than something created by either the Christiano or Kendrick Brothers (whom I have a love-hate relationship with).  However, for good or ill, one moment in Freetown captures what the film is all about and how it goes about it.  When they are being held at a checkpoint by the rebels, the Elders begin sharing their Good News about the Restoration through the Prophet Joseph Smith.  The rebels appear so bored with it that they wave them by rather than continue listening to them. 

It's almost like an accidental spoof of Star Wars. One expected them to say, "This isn't the Elder you're looking for".  An OK film, but one that with its pedigree, still makes me a little wary.

That, and I simply prefer Kirby Heyborne goofiness over somewhat gripping drama...


DECISION: C+  

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Americans: Open House Review



THE AMERICANS: OPEN HOUSE

Open House contains what I think will be known to The Americans' fans (a suggestion: Rezidenturians?) as THE SCENE.  It's one that even before viewing had become pretty well-known (and which I'll talk about later).  I'll get into what I think is a point of logic as well, but in terms of acting and overall story, Open House keeps building on what truly is not just one of the best series on television, but one that is shockingly not as well-known as it should be.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell), along with their mentor Gabriel (Frank Langella) are looking for the weakest link in the CIA Afghan Group.  They zero in on Ted Paaswell (David Furr).  He is facing financial difficulties due to a divorce, having lowered the sales price on his house twice.  The Jennings take advantage of an open house to plant a bug, but from this a whole night of terror comes.

The CIA has been keeping tabs on things, and one night the Jennings discover to their shock that they are themselves being tailed.  Philip manages to roll out of the car, but Elizabeth can't shake them off.  It requires a lot of skill and coordination to get the CIA off their tail.  Elizabeth is also finally ready to do something about her painful tooth, which has been causing problems since she faced down the FBI.  She can't go to the dentist, fearing they will tip off the FBI.  Instead, in good American tradition, it is do-it-yourself (THE SCENE).

The FBI wanted desperately to get the figures the CIA had been following, but lack of cooperation prevented that.  One FBI Agent, Agent Aderholt (Brandon J. Dirden), who had been beaten up by Elizabeth, wants them captured.  He also flirts with Martha (Alison Wright), who signals to her husband 'Clark' that she, unlike he, wants children, at the very least a foster child.  Philip has his own child problem: the Center wants desperately to have Paige (Holly Taylor) join the Program, but unlike Elizabeth, Philip is adamantly opposed to the idea, period.  He does not want Paige, at fourteen, have her entire life altered, knowing this will be a shock to her system. 

At the end, the Jennings find that Isaac Breland, the head of the Afghan Group, has a daughter who is babysitting Paaswell's kids...and who is flirting with the recent divorcee. 


When it comes to THE SCENE, I am of two minds.  On the one hand, I think it is absolutely brilliant.  AMAZING credit should be given to the editing, among the best of the series and I think that I have seen on television.  The intercutting between Russell's eyes and Rhys' eyes reveals so much between Elizabeth and Philip.  We see trust, we see fear, we see perhaps revenge (I kept getting the sense that Philip was getting back at Elizabeth for her insistence on Paige becoming a second-generation spy over his loud objections).  It's quite gruesome and intense, and with THE SCENE alone Russell and Rhys prove a brilliant combination.

ON THE OTHER HAND, I kept wondering why Elizabeth simply didn't contact the Rezidentura and say, "I need a dentist desperately", and have some willing quack come pay a visit to the travel agency and do a little on-site work.  Maybe there was a reason Mrs. Jennings didn't tell the Center the extent of her injuries, but one thinks that if they were so capable of engineering a distraction through a car accident to get the CIA off their trail, they could similarly get a Red or Pink DDS for such a time as this. 

Just a thought.

Rhys and Russell are still hitting it out of the park.  Her genuine terror after escaping the CIA is silent, but her face expresses so much.  Rhys' silent joy at her returning is equally brilliant.

Regarding other aspects, Open House is still the top-level episode that has become the rule for The Americans.  Guest star Langella continues to be effective as Gabriel, always a calm figure even with Rhys' Philip is raging against the Center for attempting his daughter's 'seduction'.  The fact that Gabriel is always so calm I think makes him more dangerous.  We get what is going on in the opening, when Gabriel and Philip are playing Scrabble.  Gabriel provides the word "Stygian" (related to the River Styx).  It is the river of the Underworld, the dead, meaning extremely gloomy, dark, and forbidding. 

Oh, the subtle undertones of what is being said.  Thank you, The Americans, for trusting my intelligence to get it...

We're also getting nice, subtle nods to future stories, such as Elizabeth's new protégé, Hans (Peter Mark Kendall), a German kid who takes a shine to his mentor, the Aderholt/Martha story, the Martha as Mother story, and the Svetlana story.  In fact, when we hear the Soviet defector tell her William F. Buckley-type interviewer (who is secretly working with the Soviets) about how the Soviets are wasting time, treasure, and lives in Afghanistan.  She might just as well have expressed a view on American involvement in Afghanistan and/or Iraq.

The using of the past to speak about the present is a benefit of period pieces, and The Americans takes full advantage. 

I still wonder whether THE SCENE made since in a strict sense.  Still, the overall effect is one that lingers, which will be remembered by The Americans fans for as long as the series continues (it's already been renewed for a fourth season...will they get to the fall of the Soviet Union?).  This is simply a brilliant, brilliant television series, and while not for family viewing, The Americans is simply too good to remain in the shadows.

8/10

Next Episode: Dimebag

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bates On A Rampage



BATES MOTEL: UNBREAK-ABLE

One has a genuine sadness for both Dylan Massett and his mother, Norma Bates.  You see in Unbreak-Able that they are genuinely good people inside, who just happen to find themselves in shady circumstances.  They are also stuck with Norman Bates, who is about two houses short of a full deck.  Unbreak-Able is another showcase for Vera Farmiga (who in a just world would already have two Emmys), Freddie Highmore (who genuinely makes us forget Henry Thomas once played a young Norman Bates in Psycho IV: The Beginning, which I always thought a curious title, but I digress), and Max Thieriot (who keeps scratching at our hearts with his role as Dylan).

Picking up from last time, Norma Bates (Farmiga) continues to do her best to shield Norman (Highmore) from all the craziness around them.  She also has to protect him from the growing suspicions of Sheriff Alex Romero (Nestor Carbonell), who dryly observes that chaos seems to surround her.  If he only knew that she had what he and shady businessman Bob Paris (Kevin Rahm) want: the USB Annika left in her hands. 

Norma desperately wants to know what the flashdrive has, but it has a password that is unbreakable (how inconsiderate of Annika not to tell her what it was).   Eventually, she turns to Dylan (Thieriot) for help, and he reluctantly agrees.  Dylan also has reluctantly agreed to help his uncle/father Caleb (Kenny Johnson) and take help from him, but he's enraged when he learns that Caleb went to town, where Norma could have seen him.  As they argue Caleb falls from the unfinished roof and has a massive gash.  Caleb won't go to hospital: he has a warrant out for him.  Dylan, being the good guy that he is, agrees and does a little patch-up job on the spot.

Oh, but Norman has been causing chaos of his own.  His picnic with Emma brings a fight with Norma, who tells him he shouldn't sleep with her.  Norma's reasons for issuing this edict are a little vague: a genuine concern for Emma mixed with perhaps a possessiveness of her son (who I should point out, has slept with three women already...kind of a slut our Normie is).  At that picnic, he tells Emma what Norma thinks, angering Emma.  "I didn't think your mother was on our date," she huffs. Norman is becoming more aggressive, and when he overhears Dylan and Norma discussing something, he goes up to Dylan's cottage where he discovers Caleb.  Dylan pleads with Norman to not tell their mother, but Norman, out for blood against the brother he thinks is now Norma's new favorite, will show no mercy.  "You've already destroyed (Norma's trust)," he tells him.  "You've betrayed Mother, and she needs to know".  With that, he drives away from a pleading and terrified Dylan.

For his part, Romero's investigation shows that the two dead girls are connected: Annika had become Paris' favorite call girl, and had done a threesome with the other dead girl before both ended up dead.


For me, it is how Bates Motel, despite all the craziness, manages to keep itself grounded in a version of reality that makes it such a good show apart from its Psycho roots.   At the top of the list of Bates Motel's greatness is the cast.  Oh, Vera...how I love thee as Norma Bates.  This is a suffering woman, doing her best and constantly finding herself in insane situations.

Some of her problems are of her own making; perhaps, just this once, she could have done the right thing and handed the USB over to Romero and washed her hands of everything.  Whether it was her curiosity or an attempt to extract herself from the financial cliff she finds herself in that led her to keep this very dangerous object.  Whatever it was, you know this can't be good.

However, Farmiga makes Norma almost innocent in her dealings.  She sees nothing wrong with approaching a total stranger who appears handy with the computer to help her crack the password.  She also has a wonderful, quiet moment with Psychology professor James Finnegan (Joshua Leonard), who gives her an impromptu therapy session.  Farmiga makes Norma here so painfully vulnerable, so despairing, so lost, that part of you wants to reach out and hug her. 

Then she turns it around and makes you wonder whether she is much more narcissistic than we give her credit (or blame) for.  Earlier, when Norman is telling her about his picnic plans, there is something almost creepy in Norma assuming the picnic was for her.  The idea that her son would want to do something apart from her apparently never entered her mind.  Is she angry because of his relationship with Emma (she did catch them kissing, though Norman did so deliberately) or is she angry over something else?  Farmiga makes Norma such an enigmatic, mysterious character, even perhaps to Norma herself. 

This is the genius of Vera Farmiga as Norma Bates.  She never makes her evil or crazy.  She makes her troubled, sometimes unpleasant, but also vulnerable, kind, and well-meaning.  It's such an extraordinarily brilliant performance that I simply cannot help but wonder why she hasn't become as iconic as she should be.

I can't forget Highmore, who is really pushing the creepy factor with Norman.  He is shedding his innocent and perhaps perplexed persona and turning into someone darker, more sinister and dangerous.  Moreover,  Norman appears to realize this, perhaps even relish it all.  That makes him more dangerous, and it's an amazing performance.  Even then, Highmore shows a little vulnerability.  "Do you still like me?" he asks his mother. 

However, Unbreak-Able has to be Thieriot's finest hour as Dylan Massett.  I don't think I've ever felt such genuine sadness and heartbreak for someone on this show (with the exception of Norma).  This guy...he's really a really good and caring and compassionate guy, trying to do what is right but finding that his parents (as horrible as the circumstances are) are blocking him.  Sometimes unintentionally (Norma's total trust in her older son is moving though putting him in danger) sometimes intentionally (you always suspect that Caleb is up to something, willing to take advantage of his own son/nephew and not caring how it will affect him).  We see just how the relationship has grown between Dylan and Norma, for in a rare turn, he calls her "Mom" rather than his dismissive "Norma" when pleading with Norman to not tell her about Caleb. 

It just about breaks my heart, and I see how well Thieriot is in the part.

Cooke is also wonderful as Emma, who is being both used and who is able to stand up for herself.  She's right: it is up to her what she can and can't endure.  Rohm and Leonard add a yin and yang to the proceedings: Paris' evil to Finnegan's kindness.  You know the Professor is taking more than a professional interest in Norma, and one hopes that both become part of the greater storyline.

Speaking of storylines, I'm glad that not only is Romero an effective investigator, but that we are getting logic within the investigation into the double homicides. 

I also have to compliment Kenny Johnson's stunt double.  It was one of the most shocking falls I've seen.  I expected Caleb to take a tumble, but the visual was thoroughly shocking, so much so that I literally gasped at how brutal it looked. 

Unbreak-Able is simply a brilliant episode, and I'm now completely excited for next week.  What will Norman do?  Will he truly betray Dylan?  Will Norma break the password to find what is inside the USB?

If I had a complaint, it would be that Norma really should fix that bumper.  That is very repairable.  When it comes to other things, we find they are harder to mend, like Dylan's heart...



10/10

Next Episode: The Deal

Friday, April 3, 2015

Every Day Should Be A Doris Day



Today, April 3, 2015, is Doris Day's 91st birthday.

She is a true Icon: a woman with beauty, with class, and with real genuine talent.

Her voice lifted her to film stardom, but when she wasn't required to sing (or sing little), she managed to hold her own against people like James Stewart, Rex Harrison, and Cary Grant.

Even now, her generosity continues, being a champion of animal rights and welfare.

Sadly, her talent was never recognized, perhaps not even by her.  In her career, she received only one Academy Award nomination (for Pillow Talk), and has yet to be so much as recognized with an Honorary or Humanitarian Oscar. 

Maybe if she'd played a wheelchair-bound real life figure....

I love Doris Day.  I'm a little in love with Doris Day, even now.   Her life hasn't been all sunshine and lollipops, despite her image.  She's been beaten down, beaten up, but she still remains the optimist.

This is a brief statement, but it deserves to be said.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY DORIS DAY!  May I call you 'Academy Award winner' this time next year.