Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Star Trek: Insurrection. A Review (Review #524)


Sub Prime Directive...

Star Trek Insurrection is not a terrible film.  It just isn't an interesting one.  It isn't even an accurate one: there was no Insurrection in Star Trek Insurrection.  What Insurrection was a series of ideas in search of a story, where the destination didn't end up being anywhere as interesting as the possibilities it might have had if they had decided to pursue them.  In short, while Insurrection was not hideous, it was on the whole a bad experience.

We first see Ba'ku, a bucolic world where the Ba'ku people are living in peace and beauty, but then something shocking happens: androids which up to now had been invisible go on a rampage.  We find that in that rampage is Data (Brent Spiner), and he appears to be the machine gone mad, going so far as to unmask himself before a horrified populace and turning to attack the Federation delegation sent to study this world incognito.

Has Data gone mad...or rogue?  Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), away on a diplomatic mission, requests Starfleet to allow him to find Data and bring him in.  Captain Picard and Worf (Michael Dorn) do manage to bring Data in (with a little help from, of all things, Gilbert & Sullivan's H.M.S. Pinafore) and discover Data has merely malfunctioned.   Still, Data's mere appearance has upset the delicate balance of the Ba'ku, since they have rejected technology and seeing an android was highly traumatizing.

Still that is nothing compared to the machinations going on around the Enterprise.  Federation Admiral Dougherty (Anthony Zerbe) and his newest allies/Federation members, the Son'a, headed by Ru'afu (F. Murray Abraham) seem very interested in Ba'ku.  No surprise: the Enterprise crew discover the planet is a regenerative one, where the 600 inhabitants are centuries old and are in great health.  It's a perfect planet for the decrepit Son'a (who constantly need plastic surgery to maintain even the thinnest of health) and Dougherty sees a way to benefit himself.  However, it requires them to force the Ba'ku out and interfere with the evolution of a planet...a violation of the Federation's Prime Directive.  As Dougherty and his minions all but order the Enterprise to not interfere in their own interference, they mount an 'insurrection', consisting of helping the Ba'ku flee to the mountains while they attempt to get more Federation forces to their side...I think.

We discover that Picard's romance with Ba'ku woman Anij (Donna Murphy) meets a sad end, that the regenerative powers of Ba'ku are affecting the Enterprise crew (more on that later) and that the Son'a and Ba'ku are connected in a surprising way. 

That hat, not with
that uniform...
Insurrection I don't think is a terrible film.  What it is a remarkably boring film with no sense of danger or menace from anyone.  As much as Michael Piller's screenplay (with a story by Piller and Rick Berman) wants us to think, 'this is a violation of the Prime Directive, the Enterprise has to go against the Federation to keep true to its goals', what we end up getting is basically a very boring people in a one-sided dispute with an equally boring people. 

It just had nothing for us to get excited over.  The Ba'ku (whom I keep imagining are really lost Azerbaijanis) confuse a lack of technology with a lack of personality.  They are all so bland and placid that one almost WANTS them to be thrown off merely because it would give them something to do.  It also makes them incredibly dim: I did wonder why it never occurred to them that perhaps given the restorative powers on Ba'ku no one would ever want to take advantage of it.  Granted, I know they live in isolation but then again given they themselves were refugees and given that they had a breakaway group who might want to come back (hint, hint), why the Ba'ku never thought things out is a great mystery.

Oddly, Insurrection actually started out well when Data ran amok.  It might even had led us to some wonderful roads: the android who wishes to be more human either being manipulated or willing himself to give in to the darker aspects of human nature (greed, lust for power).  However, once Insurrection decided to introduce comedy into the proceedings, there really was no way for Insurrection to survive.  We'd already had some bad laughs when Picard is forced to wear some headpiece as part of a Federation reception, but when Picard and Data do a duet from an operetta it was all beginning to fall apart. 

There are two reasons for it.  First, when Picard asks Worf if he knows Gilbert & Sullivan, the Klingon's response of "No sir, I have not had time to meet all the new crew members since I've been back," is not funny.  I'd argue it is a perfectly logical response to the Captain's query (to borrow from the Vulcans).  Second, after seeing Data go psycho and shoot all who come across him, the sight of Picard and Data belting out A British Tar is borderline idiotic.  Piller, Berman, and director/co-star Jonathan Frakes must have known that once we had a rousing musical number we'd lose the tension and suspense of whether Data was now evil or merely malfunctioning.

In fact, I would argue that Insurrection is a bit top-heavy with comedy, from a little light opera to Data attempting to figure out the concept of 'playtime' to Frakes' Riker and Marina Sirtis' Troi indulging in a little hot bubble bath sexy-time.  While seeing Geordi (LeVar Burton) regain his eyesight is a plus, seeing poor Worf being made to look foolish by experiencing Klingon acne is just embarrassing.  However, it's not as bad as seeing Troi or Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden) discuss how their boobs are firmer on Ba'ku (or seeing Data attempt the same conversation with Worf).  The nadir of course is the brief moment of Picard doing a little mambo.  It's become a brief but notorious moment, and to be honest I did not make the connection between their actions and the rejuvenating powers of Ba'ku.

In regards to the actual heroes and villains, neither are interesting.  Abraham did what he could to make Ru'afo a menacing threat, but he came across as just a nasty landlord who is cross than murderous.  When we get the 'twist' involving the Son'a, I'd argue it wimps them out, as if they were less a major threat to the peaceful Ba'ku and more like whiny kids.

Of course, this is not to say I was rooting for the Ba'ku, a greater collection of wimps and dimwits I've encountered in these voyages of the Enterprise.  Their pacifism is confused with passivity, as they appear adamant in not doing anything to help themselves.  It is hard to be sympathetic to people who speak softly, behave as though everything is rather bland, and do nothing for themselves.  Brings to mind what Orson Welles' Harry Lime said about the Swiss in The Third Man...they are basically cuckoo.  How else to explain why the child Artim (Michael Welch) would actually run back for his SLUG when they are fleeing from a collapsing cave (as if we all didn't know he'd go back to his slug).  I though of the Ba'ku as basically cooler Amish: no technology, no fighting, but more boring.  Particularly bad was Sojef (Daniel Hugh Kelly) the Ba'ku leader/Artim's father.  He was so soft-spoken one almost was hoping the Son'a (who at times looked like Brazil rejects when having their faces stretched out) would win, if only to give A.) either side something to do, and B.) to knock these obnoxious twits out of the galaxy.

We're so boring...
There were other things that didn't work in Insurrection.  The menace (oh, the Ba'ku are going to get thrown out...big deal: they don't seem to be too concerned with their fate) didn't work.  The 'romance' between Picard and Ba'ku Anij (Donna Murphy) didn't work.  When Data informs Picard and Anij when exploring the hologram world they would have been taken up to if the Federation/Son'a scheme had worked, "I work as a flotation device," I truly didn't know whether it was MEANT to be funny or idiotic.  Even the special-effects looked a little on the cheap side: I don't think I was suppose to notice it was all computer-generated, was I?

Having seen Insurrection its major flaw is that it is boring.  We don't really end up caring one way or another who wins control of the planet.  There is nothing in Insurrection that one can rally around.  The villains were boring.  The heroes were boring.  The story was boring.  The plot was boring (especially after what would have been a fascinating story where Data of all creatures could have turned out to be the villain).

While Star Trek Insurrection attempted to answer what were to happen if the Enterprise ever came across the dilemma of whether to obey orders or the Prime Directive, what it ended up doing was violating an older and more vital Directive...do not be boring.

Guess which one of us 
looks stupider?


Next Star Trek Film: Star Trek Nemesis

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Superman and the Mole-Men: A Review


Superman Vs. The Enemy Within...

While Superman and the Mole-Men is not the greatest Superman film, it is in its own way a very intelligent picture, one shockingly provocative for the 1950s.  Using the Man of Steel and the science-fiction elements within its story, Superman and the Mole-Men has a powerful message of tolerance and anti-prejudice within its short running time.   It is very much a product of its time (particularly with a primary element in Mole-Men) but as a whole, despite its obvious low budget, the film is something rare: an intelligent use of sci-fi/comic book elements to serve as allegory.

In the town of Silby (home of the World's Deepest Oil Well) come Metropolis Daily Planet reports Clark Kent (George Reeves) and Lois Lane (Phyllis Coates).  They've been brought by the company P.R. man to bring publicity, but the foreman has been instructed to not only stop drilling but also to bury all the equipment used, some quite expensive.  Kent and Lane believe there is a story here, and soon the story grows to include death.  While going to visit the watchman, they discover him dead, the victim of an apparent heart attack.  Lane though not Clark also sees something frightening: two little 'mole-men' peering at her who scurry when she screams.

The two visitors from below the deep well are now running through the outskirts of Silby, and a mob led by Luke Benson (Jeff Corey) set out to deal with them by shooting first asking questions later.  Meanwhile, a little girl innocently invites the 'mole-men' into her room and begins playing with them, fascinated by how they made her ball glow.  The posse, alarmed by the girl's mother's screams, begins a mad hunt for the mole-men.  Kent first attempts to stop the mob, warning them that the creatures may be radioactive and more importantly, have not harmed anyone.  Ignoring his pleas for calm, it is up to Superman to finally step in and attempt to stop them.  The mob shoots one, but the other escapes.  Superman is occupied by bringing the injured mole-man to the hospital, and the other escaped the burning shack to flee into the earth.

Believing them dead, the mob is angered to learn the mole-man is alive and being treated in the hospital, and they form a lynch mob, leading a coup against the sheriff.   Now the mole-men have themselves returned, this time with a weapon of their own.  Superman disarms the mob and even saves Luke from the mole-men's weapon.  He brings their injured companion to them and they take him back to the earth.  In the end, the 'radiation' turns out to be harmless phosphorescent and the well is destroyed from within the earth, the mole-men determined to keep the terrestrials out.

One thing about Superman & The Mole-Men that one must keep in mind while watching: there is virtually no budget.  The locations don't shift far and in some of the shots the visual effects and animation make it clear things were shot on the cheap side.  Partly noticeable is when Superman rescues the shot mole-man (the string holding the latter up is almost visible) and the animation of Superman flying is obvious.  However, director Lee Sholem should be congratulated for making the budgetary limitations work for Superman & The Mole-Men

For example, when we 'see' Superman flying over the mob on the way to the little girl's house, we get it from his point-of-view.  In other words, we are looking over the mob as we hear a whooshing sound (which is suppose to be Superman overhead).   It's an imaginative shot and a well-rendered one.

Moreover, what really sells Superman & The Mole-Men is that everyone is taking the premise seriously.  Despite its low budget the performers and the story are concentrating on the story, and if one focuses on the story you'll see that it does two things.

The first is that the film is cut from the same cloth as other 1950s sci-fi features in its fears of 'nuclear radiation'.  Certainly Superman & The Mole-Men did not attempt to break new ground in its 58 minutes and understood that radiation, the terrible threat of nuclear fallout, is something the audience would react to and accept as a cause of fear.

The second and more important thing is that Superman & The Mole-Men serves as allegory to the fear and paranoia underlying the placid world of post-World War II America.  It is very open about how the fear of the 'unknown', particularly that which is different, makes men do irrational even evil things against those who had done them no harm. 

I can't help thinking to other allegorical films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Day the Earth Stood Still or even High Noon when I think of Superman & The Mole-Men.  Now let me set this straight: I'm not saying that it is in the same league as any of those films.  However, by tackling in a subtle way the issues of bigotry, fear, and suspicion of that which is different, Superman & The Mole-Men can be appreciated by adults who can read between the lines.  Superman and Clark Kent both are very much opposed to mob violence.  One of Superman's lines is "It's men like you (meaning Benson) that make it difficult for people to understand one another".  This is almost revolutionary at a time when conformity was desired and institutional racism was still very much in effect.  The scenes of how the Head Doctor wanted the 'mole-man' removed from the hospital because he was 'different' could easily be read to be substitutions for when white hospitals would turn away black patients based solely on the color of their skin.  The heroes were the ones who did not strike first but who wanted to approach the 'mole-men' as equals, not monsters, while the villains were clearly the ones leading the mob and who played on the fears of the citizens to pursue their own agendas.  As I said, High Noon touches on similar territory of the lone man facing down danger, only this time the citizens are actively (if manipulated) into being more dangerous than the outside danger.  The Mole-Men's response of using violence when having violence visited on them similarly almost foreshadowed the militancy of the Nation of Islam and other groups.

It's also curious that in terms of performances, Reeves' Clark Kent is not in any way a bumbler.  Instead, Reeves plays him as less a mild-mannered reporter than as an intelligent reporter, one with his own courage.  Coates also does a strong job showing the evolution of Lane as one who is similarly frightened of the 'mole-men' to knowing that in the end they just wanted to live in peace and be left alone.  Again, there was no winking at the audience except perhaps for one scene where "Clark Kent" almost spills the beans as to his true identity.  No matter how good Richard Fielding's (the nom de plume of Robert Maxwell) script was, there is no getting away from the fact that Lois rarely questions how Superman and Clark Kent are never at the same place at the same time. 

As far as Canon goes, the budget made it clear why some characters, like my favorite (Jimmy Olsen) were left behind.  One thing that did puzzle me was that LOIS was somehow made to be the photographer, which I thought was odd. 

On the whole, however, Superman and the Mole-Men was a highly intelligent story told quickly and with great moments of allegory as to the dangers of mob violence and the fear and paranoia the unknown can strike at people.  There are certain scenes that even with some clunky editing are actually quite tense (such as when the besieged mole-man is desperate to get out of the burning shack).  The actual mole-men themselves are portrayed rather sympathetically, and Reeves and Coates worked well together, making Lois and Clark (and Lois and Superman) a good team who took their roles seriously.   If it weren't for the B-Movie trappings, Superman and the Mole-Men I imagine would be taken more seriously.

I can hope that the rehabilitation of a well-made and intelligent B-Picture and legacy to the Man of Steel's film career will start soon. 


Thursday, April 25, 2013

Annette Funicello: A Personal Remembrance

Annette Funicello

Who's The Girl You Can't Forget?

It was at the beginning of my self-imposed hiatus that Annette Funicello died.  I was desperate to return and break my fast, but decided that my works really required more time.  Now that I've returned to my blog postings, I figured it was time to pay tribute to Funicello.

Annette Funicello was not the best actress in the world, nor the best dancer, nor the best singer.  She would have freely confessed that herself.  While Funicello was none of those things, she was also something else: a pretty girl who was also just a nice person, and for many, Funicello was the ideal girlfriend, a girl who was smarter than the dippy boyfriend she ended up with but who always saw him through whatever nonsense he ended up in thanks to her shrewd mind and gentle heart.

The appeal of the Frankie & Annette Beach movies even now, fifty years onwards, is not in the quality of the stories or the performances or songs.  Apart from Beach Blanket Bingo, what songs can one remember from all the Beach films (if one can remember that at all)?  Avalon and Funicello (whom I would mark among the screen's great pairings alongside Mickey & Judy, Tracy & Hepburn, and Powell & Loy) had the appeal of being 'one of us', just two good kids who liked each other and despite one party's occasional foolishness, always found love and laughs among the sand and surf.  It was an uncomplicated romance between the Frankie and Annette characters: he was always a good but dumb guy and she was the wise but long-suffering girl. 

This isn't to say she tolerated being passed over graciously or quietly.  She was nobody's fool and was more than willing to fight for her man.  It was the mix of intelligence and patience what made them (or Annette with another boob boyfriend, whether it was a Dwayne Hickman or her Merlin Jones co-star Tommy Kirk) so wonderful.  The Annette character was never dumb; she just had the misfortune to love someone who was and who almost inevitably needed to be rescued. Still, she did it, because despite it all she still loved the guy.

If only so many of US had girlfriends like that...

If one thinks on it, it is almost impossible to NOT think of Frankie & Annette when one thinks of California dreams of good times while dancing on the sunny seashore.  If the Beach films are dated, square, even camp, so be it: they were unafraid to be innocent, harmless, good times.  Certainly she knew enough that this film franchise was ripe for spoofing, and she was so good-natured she spoofed her own persona in Back to the Beach and still came out looking like she was not only in on the joke but really loved the joke as well.

I don't think it was the innocence of the times that has kept a warm glow on the memories of the Beach films.  It is that there was a genuine sincerity to them: to those who were Funicello's age at the time, that these were 'their' films, the promise of a blissful time with one person who will see you through no matter what.  To their parents, the Beach films showed them that the kids really were all right.  Frankie & Annette weren't going to burn down the house...they were too busy dancing in front of the bonfire by the sea to give anything else much attention.    

If one sees the Beach films (and I hope to as part of a larger Great Duos Retrospective),  one can't help but smile to think at how a brunette with a tame one-piece swimsuit could inspire such desire, not for a quickie but for long-term relationship.  I think the larger appeal was that in the Annette character: there was no maliciousness, no danger, no threat.  It is interesting that in a time of buxom blondes her dark bouffant stood out among the reigning goddesses of the screen.  Perhaps that is why Annette Funicello still has a hold on the American consciousness so long after she willingly left the stage.  She wasn't a 'goddess', unapproachable and remote.  Instead, she was what she appeared to be: a good Italian girl who loved life and wanted to be a good wife and mother.

She was perfectly content to let celebrity pass by, using her notoriety only as a pitchwoman for Skippy Peanut Butter and an occasional television film or concert appearance.  In fact, if it were not for a cruel turn in her life, Funicello would have perhaps been best remembered as one of the models for a child star; along with Shirley Temple, Funicello is one of the few child performers (and certainly one of the few from the Disney factory) to which no scandal was ever attached.  No arrests, no convictions, no wild nights and deranged public behavior.

Sadly, it was terrible rumors of public drunkenness due to her increasingly apparent unsteady gait that forced a revelation: America's Sweetheart had multiple sclerosis.  She faced this diagnosis like she face all her life: with grace and courage, using it for good.  Still, to think that someone who was discovered as a ballet dancer, who loved the joy and freedom dance provided, was to end her last twenty years totally immobile is one of the most damnable fates that could strike anyone, let alone a genuinely kind person who never harmed anyone.

It is true: Annette Funicello will never come up in a list of great actresses, or great singers, or great dancers. There will always be glamour girls and bathing beauties, and she may not be on those lists either.   However, if they compile a list of people who exude sweetness, kindness, who are really pretty inside and out, you will find Annette Funicello's name there. If the thought of her dancing away at the beach makes you smile, then she has earned her place if not in film history, then in the hearts of filmgoers, and that immortality, love, and genuine affection for Annette Funicello no disease can rob her of. 

Dance, Annette, Dance...


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Elementary: Snow Angels Review


Look Holmesward, Angel...

At long last we have an Elementary episode where Dr. Joan Watson (Lucy Liu) lets slip her frustration at not being able to be as quick to solve things as her former client now partner in crime-solving Sherlock Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) directly to him.  We also get one of the oddest (or cleverest) nods to one of the Canon's most memorable characters that did throw me off a bit.  Finally, in Snow Angels we get less of a murder mystery (though we do get a murder in the beginning) and more of a highly clever heist that made it a wild puzzle to solve.

As a massive snowstorm is heading towards New York City, Captain Gregson (Aidan Quinn) alerts Holmes to a murder.  A guard at a building that holds an iPod-type store has been gunned down and the phones all stolen.  Holmes is convinced this simple robbery-gone-wrong can be solved within an hour (if memory serves right).  He might even have time left over to help Miss Hudson (Candis Cayne), a former acquaintance to Holmes in London who has come to his home seeking emotional refuge after her latest breakup.  Watson isn't too thrilled to have this stranger in their midst, but she isn't about to kick her out either.

In any case, as the storm is a'brewin' and a'comin', Holmes soon finds that this isn't a case about stolen phones.  Instead, the entire robbery is really just a front for a larger crime.  In the same building where the phones were being held is an architectural firm, one that had blueprints for a Federal Reserves branch in East Rutherford, New Jersey.  In short, Holmes realizes that they weren't after phones, they were after millions in cash. 

The storm has already shut down the city, and with a little help from Pam (Becky Ann Baker), a woman working for the city as a snowplow driver, they rush to the Fed.  Holmes deduces that the storm will be the ideal time to steal the money by switching out the currency thought to be discarded for useless counterfeit.  Meanwhile, on the original case, Detective Bell (Jon Michael Hill) realizes that a woman brought in for a stabbing, an Alysa Darvin, is really there to cover up getting shot from a botched robbery where the security guard managed to fire a shot before dying.  Darvin is Elle Bastiene (Jill Flint), the brains behind the robbery but who won't crack.

At the E.R.O.C. Holmes deduces how they managed their escape, and here Watson comes up with outrageous deductions of her own (one of them has a lazy eye, she snaps).  She finally tells him to tell her how he came to the conclusions.  With a little guidance, Watson puts the information together to come to the same conclusion as Holmes, but we get a strange twist: despite all his plans the ambulance used as a cover managed to evade the checkpoints put for the storm.  They couldn't just be wished away...or could they?

Using a ruse, Bastiene and her accomplice are unmasked, and Miss Hudson all this time manages to clean the brownstone, with her coming back to be the housekeeper every so often.

I kind of feel like the Holmesian who went to Reichenbach Falls and failed to realize he was in the same area where Sherlock Holmes met his 'end' in The Final Problem.  As I watched Snow Angels the character of Miss Hudson just stood before me but I failed to fully appreciate that she was a take-off of Mrs. Hudson, the landlady at 221 B Baker Street.

Perhaps my primary disassociation had to do with the fact that Miss Hudson is a transgendered woman.  She also doesn't start off as a housekeeper, but as a 'muse' a figure that inspires artists to create.  Miss Hudson also has been a mistress to several men, and it is the last breakup with a client that brings her to Holmes. 

I think it is because it isn't until near the halfway point in Snow Angels that I got the sense that this was THE Miss/Mrs. Hudson, since it was here that Holmes and Watson are astounded to come home to a remarkably clean place.  Finally, our thoughts on Miss Hudson are confirmed when Holmes hires her to be the housekeeper, so I do hope that means Miss Hudson will return for more appearances. 

Cayne's sexual identity is moot throughout Snow Angels, and she is a delightful addition to the dynamic of Elementary.  She and Liu have a wonderful moment of 'girl-talk' that doesn't slow down the crime (especially since the snowstorm forces them sometimes indoors).  Miss Hudson is neither sensationalized or ridiculed, instead, she is a lovely but lonely woman, apt to make bad decisions with men.  Somehow, I figure there are women and a few men who could relate.

In terms of the crime, I thought it was wildly clever up to when we find who the accomplice is.  It should not have been a surprise as to who was in charge of all this but given that we were barely introduced to this character it almost strikes me as a form of cheating.  How are we suppose to really think this person is the main villain if we've seen them maybe once or twice.  In fact, I hardly remember this person even speaking in Snow Angels.  That to me is a big problem, which pushes the episode down a bit. 

However, this one flaw (although one that can't be ignored) is made up for by some wonderful performances.  Already having noted Cayne's delightful turn, we also get Baker's light comic touch as Pam the Plow Driver.   Pam (who I also hope makes a return appearance) has great rapport with Miller and Liu, and is about the only person we've seen on Elementary who is neither impressed or pleased with Holmes' demeanor.  Her shock at being told by this guy to drive to East Rutherford on basically his own authority is only matched by both her telling HIM to stay quiet (while being fond of Watson, who is more human than Holmes) along with her enthusiasm at having something to do and something to do with cracking a major case. 

It was also a great idea to give Hill's Bell more to do, in particular with him realizing that the stab victim was really the perpetrator of the murder.  Earlier we were told that the killer had to have a wig, and when Bell, calmly and rationally, begins to put things together in Darvin/Bastiene's hospital room (complete with wig fibers) we see that Bell and Gregson are highly intelligent people.

The best part for me with Snow Angels is that we not only got to see Sherlock Holmes being brilliant but also constantly being almost mocked or at least reprimanded for rushing ahead of everyone and not bothering to help those who want to help him.  "You see the shadow?" Holmes tells Bell and Watson when examining a clue on his phone.  "Yeah, it looks like a shadow," Bell sarcastically remarks.  The early scenes with Holmes and Pam are also a nice touch to slightly deflate Holmes' inability to stop and behave as most of us would.

However, it's in that brief moment when Watson expresses her anger at seeing how Holmes can come to conclusions that she can't and his patient walking-her through his deductions that lifts Snow Angels to a strong episode.

Snow Angels has moments of comedy, moments of action, and many moments of intelligence.  If it weren't for the fact that the actual mastermind turned out to be almost a footnote to the whole story, it would have been a highpoint.  However, as it stands Elementary has become one of my favorite shows and one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes adaptations (though nothing could take the place of the Jeremy Brett Granada Television series).   I won't let one slip (although a heavy one) take that away from me. 

Let the Snow Angels sing out...       



Next Story: Dead Man's Switch 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

42: A Review


When one is making a biopic, it is very tempting to do one of two things. They can either elevate the subject to where he/she is almost divine (example, Gandhi) or they can uncover the 'real' figure behind the subject to where he/she is almost insane (example, W.).   42, the story of Jackie Robinson, leans closer to the former than to the latter.  However, given that Robinson A.) broke the color barrier in baseball, being a pioneer in African-American advancement, and B.) was never involved in any scandal public or private, it is hard to portray him in anything close to a negative light. 42 therefore doesn't dig deep into his private life.  Instead, we are given an inspirational story of a most inspirational man.

Dodger owner Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) senses there's money to be made by integrating baseball at a time when Major League Baseball was a whites-only affair and black players were relegated to the Negro League.  He's looking for a black player: one with talent, who hates discrimination, but who can also keep his cool under intense pressure off and on the field.  All those qualities are in Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman).  Robinson is both thrilled and trepidatious about entering into the no-(black)-man's land of white baseball, but Rickey has confidence it will pay off.

With his new wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) by his side, Robinson first goes to the Dodger's affiliated minor league team of the Montreal Royals, where he faces some discrimination and hostility.  However, that was just the opening act for what comes when he makes it onto the Brooklyn Dodgers' roster in 1947.

His fellow Dodgers at first circulate a petition stating they will not play with a black player, with only Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) refusing to sign (as a man with a wife and newborn child, he does not want to risk his family's financial future and fails to see why Robinson can't play if he is good enough to do so).  The Dodgers' manager, Leo Durocher (Christopher Meloni) makes it clear: play or leave.  Almost all the Dodgers quickly fall in line.  As the season continues, Robinson is not greeted warmly by baseball fans, convinced this is a white man's game.  Still, things inside and outside the dugout are tense.

Philadelphia (the City of Brotherly Love) has no love for the black man.  The Dodgers' regular hotel rescinds their booking rather than have a black man stay.  The Phillies' manager, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk) uses the most vulgar taunts against Robinson while the latter's at bat. (He rationalizes his behavior by stating that he makes anti-Jewish remarks to Hank Greenberg and Italian slurs at Joe DiMaggio when they're playing...hence, he's an equal-opportunity idiot).  Slowly, steadily, most of the Dodgers began standing with their teammate.  In particular was Reese, a man with Southern roots (and the accent to prove it), but who publicly stood alongside Robinson in front of his hometown crowd of St. Louis because it was the right thing to do.

42 tells Robinson's inspirational and courageous story, and writer/director Brian Helgeland set out to do just that, nothing more, nothing less.  As such, I cannot fault the film for adding to Robinson's legacy as a man of grace and courage under intense pressure to both deliver the goods as a baseball player (already a difficult thing for any pro) but also survive the ugliness of racism he faced during his first season.  He could have gone really strong on just how hard it all must have been for Robinson, but the imageries and language we were given, while just a taste of what it must have been like, was enough to give us what we needed to know.

In terms of performances Boseman acquitted himself well as Robinson.  He wasn't given a great deal to work with in regards to the man behind the myth but he did well in quiet moments.  When he is looking at his newborn, we get a short monologue about how unlike his own father, Jackie was going to be part of his child's life, make him proud.  In another scene early in 42, he makes his displeasure at not being allowed to use the restroom because it's forbidden by the owner (I can't recall if there was a 'Whites Only' on the door, but my memory says there wasn't, thus there was nothing officially preventing Robinson from using it).  Those moments, those when we see Robinson's outrage at discrimination and the importance of his family, were good but sadly too few.

Ford clearly loved playing Rickey, giving the crafty Dodgers owner a gruff voice that is different from what we usually see in a Harrison Ford performance.  I thought it the strongest performance from Ford in a long time: we got to see the character of Branch Rickey, someone who has a mixture of shrewd business acumen and moral outrage to his decision to integrate Major League Baseball. 

In smaller parts Meloni's somewhat libertine Durocher gave 42 bits of humor (when Rickey, over the phone, tells Durocher that the Bible has a few things about adultery, he replies that he's sure it probably does).  Tudyk's Chapman is more the main figure of the bigotry Robinson faced in that crucial 1947 season (one is aghast at how casual Chapman's bigotry is, with his rationale that shouting out slurs at blacks, Jews, and Italians is all part of the game).  However, the important thing here is that Chapman is made to be the idiot he was, which makes Robinson's professionalism and more importantly, talent, all that much better revenge.

Of particular note is Lucas' Pee Wee Reese.  Lucas is just so likeable as the shortstop, one who doesn't have any bigotry himself and who believes if one has the talent then one should be given the chance regardless of background.  In another of those quiet scenes, Reese walks into Rickey's office to talk about a letter he's received about someone objecting to him playing with a black man.  Reese worries about his safety and that of his family, but Rickey almost dismissively draws his attention to the mountains of letters Robinson has received.  When he is told that Robinson is perfectly aware of the letters, we can see Reese realizing that his one note is chump change to what his teammate (whom he seems to truly like) has been quietly enduring. Reese's own courage in standing so publicly aside his beleaguered teammate is well-done, with both Lucas and Boseman making it a good, solid moment that speaks to both their acting abilities and the character of their characters.

There are a few negative things in 42.  Beharie's Rachel Robinson is given the somewhat thankless task of being merely the supportive wife (though in a scene where she dares to go into a Whites Only Women's Restroom notes her own courage), and we have to have typically stirring music when Robinson hits a home run (courtesy of Mark Isham).  We also have some clunky editing at the beginning: we shift from the search for the perfect black player to Robinson's Negro League team arriving at the gas station then BACK to the search only to find the search ended at the exact time the Kansas City Monarchs were filling up.  A little confusing.  The voice-over narration and subplot of black sportswriter Wendell Smith (Andre Holland), while not bad, was at times distracting (longtime readers know what I think of voice-overs...).  Finally, wouldn't it have been great to have seen that little white boy that Rickey told Robinson about actually attempting to imitate a black man rather than being told about him?  A lost opportunity.

However, 42 is meant to be an inspirational film about an extraordinary athlete and man whose character on and off the field (as well as his remarkable ability to steal bases) earned him a place in the hearts of Americans.  It might be safe and respectable, but since the film was meant to be that, one appreciates both 42 and Number 42.



Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Last Son of Krypton Also Rises


Superman, the comic book character created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, has been around for seventy-five years since Action Comics #1 was published.  In those three-quarters of a century the Man of Steel has become a true American Icon.  In many ways, he represents the promise of America: a son of immigrants, he appears weak but is in reality a tower of strength, one who uses his abilities to better his adopted home-world.  He could easily conquer and enslave humanity, but instead Kal-El works to save us.  There is a nobility in him, and Superman is not afraid to fight for "truth, justice, and the American way"... most of the time. 

Given his popularity, it's not surprising that in his time he has been a fixture in popular entertainment (radio, film, television).   However, I find that having a Superman-based film has proven quite difficult.  The time between Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Superman Returns was almost two decades, between Superman Returns and Man of Steel seven (which, given that the former was suppose to launch a franchise, shows how they basically had to reboot the reboot).  I count only seven feature-length films, which is one less than his DC rival Batman.  However, in fairness Batman has had only two television series that I can think of where the Caped Crusader was the lead (one an animated version), while Superman has been in some form on television from the 1950s right down to the Twenty-First Century.

In terms of this Superman Retrospective I have chosen to stick to the feature-length films (sorry Dean and Tom...perhaps your days will come, though frankly I prefer Lois & Clark over Smallville).  This of course means that the Superman serial series will, at least for now, be ignored, but perhaps in the future I will revisit the early screen appearances of the Last Son of Krypton.


We first start in 1951 with Superman and the Mole-Men.  George Reeves was not the first person to portray Superman, or even the most well-known at the time he took the role.  However, once Reeves donned the cape for a generation of viewers, he WAS Superman.  Superman and the Mole-Men was in many ways a theatrical pilot for the Adventures of Superman television series, but it was released as a single feature-length film (not a serial), thus it gets first crack at being part of the Superman Retrospective.  It is at least from what I remember actually a good movie, giving us an allegory on tolerance quite radical for the early 1950s.  However, we'd have to see it again before making up our minds.


There will never be a Superman like Christopher Reeve, at least for myself and the generation that grew up with him as THE Superman.  He never winked at the audience, pretended that the whole thing was ridiculous.  Instead, Reeve played the part straight...most of the time.  Yes, Superman: The Movie had jokes, had light moments, but Reeve was not spoofing the Man of Steel.  In fact, when he played Kal-El, he made it an epic emotional story.  Later on one can argue that the franchise collapsed under its own weight and good intentions, but for now it is safe to say that even now, nearly a decade since Reeve's untimely death, for many (myself included) Christopher Reeve is the face we see when we think...SUPERMAN!  The pluses and minuses of the four Christopher Reeve Superman films (Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Superman III, and Superman IV: The Quest for Peace) will be covered extensively. 

Born 1979

WHAT THE HELL WENT WRONG?  Superman Returns, coming almost twenty years (!) after Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, was suppose to reignite the franchise, introducing a new generation to the Man of Steel.  However, while the film was highly praised (though not by me when it premiered), Superman Returns fell flat.  The reasons for that are myriad, and which I'll get into at another time.  I at the time didn't hold Brandon Routh to blame for Superman Returns' failure, though having seen him in another failed franchise-starter (Dylan Dog: Dead of Night), that is now something I'm rethinking.  For the moment, the most I'll say is that Superman Returns failed because it tried too hard to be serious, and it also didn't know whether it was reboot or prequel to what had come before.  As good as Routh might have been in the part (and a second viewing might settle that for me), I doubt his face will be the one thought of as the Last Son of Krypton.

Born 1983

It's a SCANDAL!  The being who fights for Truth, Justice, and the American Way is...British!  I'm not going to go into fits of righteous fury over the casting.  When British beauty Vivien Leigh was cast as Scarlett O'Hara, the epitome of a Southern belle, in Gone With the Wind, my Southern ancestors were right: better an English girl than a Yankee.  Likewise, I say better an English boy than Nicolas Cage. 

As Henry Cavill takes his turn as Superman, there is anticipation mixed with trepidation.  I've been pumped up before over the Man of Steel's comeback...and I got Superman Returns.   Will Cavill similarly bomb on screen?  That of course, for the moment, remains to be seen, as Man of Steel (which sadly is NOT the Joseph Stalin Story) will be the final film for the Superman Retrospective.

I certainly won't be swayed by what others think: Superman Returns got glowing reviews but I found it shockingly lifeless, almost morose, and at the end laughable.  Even if it turns out well, one has to remember that Superman: The Movie eventually begat Superman IV: The Quest for Peace (a movie so bad even a friend of mine who LOVED Batman & Robin declared the final Superman-Christopher Reeve film a disaster of nuclear proportions...hint, hint).  Man of Steel will have to wait until it is presented to us before one can say whether Cavill will rival Christopher Reeve's iconic turn...or whether he will be relegated to ranking behind Tom Welling (who has always acted as he has modeled...lifelessly). 

Starting from 1951 and Superman and the Mole-Men, through 1979 with the release of Superman: The Movie and its three sequels (including the Richard Donner version of Superman II, a film he had started but did not finish), right down to 2008's Superman Returns, and ending with 2003's The Man of Steel, this retrospective for the cinematic journeys of The Last Son of Krypton will be a short one.  As I've said, while he has been interpreted by quite a few actors, for the purposes of this retrospective we'll stick to the film versions, which would be George Reeves, Christopher Reeve, Brandon Routh, and Henry Cavill.

An Icon...A Legend...A Hero...

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Doctor Who Story 018: Galaxy 4


A Lost Galaxy Rediscovered...

Until 2011, Galaxy 4 was one of the completely lost Doctor Who stories, with only a few clips being known in existence.  However, Air Lock, Episode Three of Galaxy 4, has been rediscovered, and as a result we now have one less story that has no complete episodes to look at.   The discovery of any lost Doctor Who story is always great news, and with the hour-long reconstruction of Galaxy 4 available, we can now get a glimpse of a unique Doctor Who story, one sadly done in by a failed effort to come up with a monster that just now looks comical, right down to its name.  Minus the 'creatures', Galaxy 4 is a surprisingly strong and solid story that has more pluses than minuses.

The Doctor (William Hartnell) and his Companions Vicki (Maureen O'Brien) and Steven Taylor (Peter Purves) arrive on a seemingly deserted planet.  However, as it stands, it is not deserted.  Instead, they first encounter little round robotic beings Vicki nicknames "Chumblies" (due to their clunky movement).  Believing them to be hostile, the Doctor and Companions escape the TARDIS, only to find themselves taking forced refuge with the Drahvins, a collection of women warriors headed by Maaga (Stephanie Bidmead). 

She believes the Chumblies and their masters, the Rills, are hostile.  According to her, the Drahvins crashed on the planet at the same time as the Rills, and ever since then the Drahvins have been attacking the Chumblies whenever they approach.  Maaga and her minions, robotic females, ignore the Chumblies messages that offer them passage on the Rills spaceship, which they have managed to repair, while the Drahvins' ship has not.  They believe that in fourteen dawns time, the planet will be destroyed (hence making escape vital).  The Doctor, however, realizes they really have two days before the planet is evaporated.

Maaga has come up with the idea of seizing the Rills ship, conveniently killing the Rills off and making their escape that way.  Believing the Chumblies and Rills dangerous, Maaga uses Steven as a hostage and forces the Doctor and Vicki go to capture it.  However, we discover the Rills (who yes, are rather frightening to humanoids) are actually a peaceful group.  They created the Chumblies to help them as the air is poisonous to them, and their efforts to bring the Drahvins with them are sincere.  However, the Drahvins are a warrior group, determined to conquer the galaxies.  The Doctor and Vicki now join the Rills to help their ship take off before the planet explodes.

First, however, they have to rescue Steven, who is nearly killed by Maaga when she won't let him enter from the airlock unless he surrenders.  The Drahvin, infuriated at the travelers escape, pursue them, but it is too late: the Rills have made their escape, and the TARDIS is defended by a Chumblie long enough to escape themselves.  The Drahvin are left to their fate, and the three space travelers ponder at what is going on in another world, one where a man tells himself he must kill...  

The Chumblies are not the first, nor would they be the last, 'monster' that might have looked good on paper but ended up coming across as a bit of a joke.  For whatever reason the First Doctor's tenure was plagued with weak imitations of the Daleks (like the Chumblies or the Mechanoids), and the Second Doctor's reaching a nadir with the Quarks in The Dominators.  It doesn't help matters that starting from Vicki, no one appears to take the Chumblies seriously as a threat (with the exception of the Drahvins).   For the record the creatures are never given an actual name, and it is only until The Exploding Planet (Episode Four) that the Rills use the phrase "Chumblies".  For the rest of Galaxy 4, they are almost always referred to as 'the creatures'.

The Chumblies sadly are the things that push Galaxy 4 down a bit, but despite their comical/cuddly mix the reconstructed episode is actually a good one.  First, I should compliment the editing work done on the restoration.  Using primarily telesnaps (photos taken directly from the screen when initially broadcast), one can sometimes see how it doesn't quite fit, but the did manage to integrate what was thought of as the only surviving footage (a seven minute clip of Episode One: Four Hundred Dawns) so well I hardly even noticed the transition.  Once we got the rediscovered Episode Three, again it flowed smoothly that it was never jarring, and when we returned to telesnaps for Episode Four: The Exploding World, it all fit in rather well. 

I don't want to give a wrong impression: it wasn't perfect.  It was obvious that sometimes the same photos were being used, but given the circumstances on the whole the effect on the viewing of Galaxy 4 made one focus on the story itself rather than on how there's only one episode left. 

Find Me...

As one watches Galaxy 4 one appreciates certain qualities in William Emms' story.  First, it is not often that the Doctor first encounters the villains and begins to take their side.  Galaxy 4 thus reverses the idea that what at first appears good and what appears dangerous really is not perhaps the truth.  Even in NuWho we have almost always had the Doctor and the Companion come across those in need FIRST, then the villains.  Galaxy 4 therefore, is one of the handful (and perhaps one of the few) to reverse that process, making it one with great twists and turns that are above all else, logical.

Second, in another Doctor Who rarity (certainly in the Classic Era) we get an on-camera flashback sequence.  Most of the time, even now, whenever a character talks about the past on Doctor Who, we just hear him/her describe what happened.  In the newly-discovered Episode Three: Airlock, we actually hear the Rills' version of events while watching it at the same time. Most of the time I find this rather distracting, but in Galaxy 4 I found it actually added to the story, primarily because it was so well-filmed.  Given that, it is a terrible shame that the other three episodes are not around to appreciate.  One imagines that Derek Martinus (with an uncredited Mervyn Pinfield) created some wonderful visuals.

They also brought great performances out of the guest stars.  Galaxy 4 is a sparely populated story (you have four Drahvins and hear the voice of one Rill), but the main weight is carried by Bidmead and Robert Cartland as the voice of the Rills.  Bidmead at first comes across as a strong and firm military mind but one who has cause to be hostile to the Rills and Chumblies, but by the end we see her as the villain, and a credit to her performance that she makes the transitional natural.  Cartland's impressive voice carries the rather frightening look of the Rills (which given their look would be nearly impossible to move about without looking strange at best, idiotic at worst).

One thing that is highly impressive is that the core group has great chemistry with each other.  I was very much taken by this exchange between Maaga and the Doctor.  When Maaga asks for them to help the Drahvins kill the Chumblies and Rills, the Doctor flat-out refuses.  "In the first place, Madam, I never kill anything.  Neither do my friends," he angry comments.

What a difference nearly fifty years makes...from a Doctor who says he never kills (and also one who in a future story, Inferno, states he isn't in the habit of telling lies), to a Companion who not only kills with glee but one whom he is supposed to be "passionately in love" with and a Doctor who has Rule Number One: The Doctor Lies.  Given how wildly Doctor Who has spun out of control, Galaxy 4 is a reminder, even in its incomplete state, of when the series took things seriously and has as its lead a man of intelligence and peace, not a nitwit who gave himself over to a psychopath. 

Yet I digress.

The Chumblies are sadly another failed marketing ploy, and their roly-poly appearance (not unlike James Corden) makes them more comical than menacing.  They are the answer to anyone who thought the Daleks were silly-looking.  Minus them, Galaxy 4 is a well-down story with good (and logical) twists and turns

I've faced down pepper pots.
Think I'll be afraid of a trash can?


Next Story: Mission to the Unknown

Next Available Story: The Daleks' Master Plan

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

I Have Plenty To Say

Like a bad penny, I couldn't stay away.

That might be mixing my metaphors, but roll with me.

I have done lots of work, good work I think, on my fiction writing, and as I come to the end of my sabbatical I will resume my work on my sites, though perhaps at a less hectic pace.  I will work to keep writing for my review sites, but also for my own work, hopefully keeping both on an even level.

What I learned these two weeks was to make some effort at equilibrium, not let one (the writing or the reviews) dominate the other.  Hopefully my new schedule will allow me to give both my work and my blog equal time.

My Superman Retrospective will proceed as scheduled, and I also want to give a belated tribute to Annette Funicello (all forthcoming). 

However, if I need to I will pull back.  I hope to learn from my mistakes and to make both my own creative writing as well as my nonfiction work something both enjoyable and professional.

Simply put, I just love writing reviews, and am so glad to be doing so.  However, I also rediscovered my love for writing, and will do more of that as well.

So now send forth the news to friend and foe alike...

Rick Is Back!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A Short Sabbatical

Dear Readers,

As you know, I love writing Rick's Café Texan as well as my spin-off sites Gallifrey Exile (Doctor Who reviews) and The Index of Forbidden Books (book reviews).

However, it has become apparent that because I spend so much time writing for my sites I have neglected my own fiction writing for far too long.  Having a computer that is starting to show its age by going painfully slow does not help matters.

For too long I have avoided tackling my writing assignments, always hoping that I could find time for them.  However, I always found time to review films, television programs, and books, and those hours could have been devoted to turning in my assignments on time.  That isn't to say I could not have balanced my time better then, but I'm not one to see the point of 'could of would of should of''.  What's done is done, no point of crying over the mistakes of the past.  The fact was I either could not or would not balance the reviews with the writing.

Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that the sites are taking far too much time away from my own non-review creative efforts.  With that, I am going on a two-week sabbatical from all three sites, using that time to finally force myself to devote those hours I spend here and there to shaping the story I should have turned in well over half a year ago.

This short period, from April 7 to April 21, is surprisingly painful to me since I derive great pleasure out of discussing film, television, and literature.  However, if I am to ever get my own work done, something's got to give.

Now, let me be clear (as our President is fond of saying): I am by no means retiring from or quitting my reviews.  Two Sundays from now, I will reevaluate where I stand on my works.  If I think I need more time, I will extend it another two weeks.  If not (the ideal scenario), I will return a'blazin' and with a song in my heart.

Also, I will not stop watching films or television programs.  I will continue to make notes on the television shows I watch (Bates Motel, Golden Boy, Elementary, Doctor Who) in preparation for my comeback...no, return! (If you get the reference, then you're on my team).  Same goes for the movies. 

I do hope to return to you quickly, as I have scheduled a Superman retrospective to coincide with the Man of Steel release set for June.  Even that was scheduled to be at a leisurely pace: a film a week starting with Superman & The Mole-Men, an unofficial theatrical 'pilot' for the George Reeves Superman television series.

If by some miracle I find that I can finish my assignments before the two weeks are up, I will jump in with wild abandon.  However, I must force myself to stay away from the sites, because once I get distracted by them, I all but forget my writings. 

As it stands, I know that I have to pull back from my reviews to give time to my writings.  Until I learn to balance my schedule to where it will allow me to do more, I have to do less.

Until April 21, hopefully...



Saturday, April 6, 2013

Bates Motel: What's Wrong With Norman? Review


Bates Set To Go Off...

The growing mental break within Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), where a mixing of sexual desire and repression are blending with murder and emotional confusion are growing, which leads one to ask What's Wrong With Norman, our third episode of Bates MotelWhat's Wrong With Norman mixes the inner conflict within our main character with the odder goings-on in his new home of White Pine Bay.

Norman's half-brother Dylan (Max Thieriot) has found himself with a new job: guarding the pot fields discovered by Norman and Emma (Olivia Cooke), where a shed nearby might hold the key to a white slavery ring.  Norman, however, along with his mother Norma (Vera Farmiga) have problems of their own.  First, Norman is having erotic fixations based on the bondage drawings in that journal he found, fixations that cause him to black out in class.  Second, after the obsessed Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) follows through on his threat to get a search warrant to search the Bates Motel and house, Norman confesses that he kept Keith Summer's tool belt, as a souvenir he says.  Finally, when Dylan returns to the house, he is shocked and/or confused that Norman tells him he has no memory of ever trying to kill his older half-brother.

While Norma uses her feminine wiles with Deputy Shelby (Max Vogel) to get information on that belt (which Shelby found but has not turned in to the department), Norman becomes obsessed with retrieving it (he also isn't too pleased with the idea of Shelby and Mother Bates, suggesting that they might become beholden to Shelby but the subtext suggesting something more insidious).  Eventually, Norman begins to crack completely: he imagines a conversation with his mother, where she now agrees with him that the belt must be retrieved.  Norman breaks into Shelby's home, where he makes a horrifying discovery: the Deputy is a sex slaver, holding that Chinese girl prisoner in his basement, and worse, at the end, Deputy Shelby has just arrived home...

Now with What's Wrong With Norman, we get the beginnings of the dark side of Norman and Norma Bates, two of the most twisting characters on television.  I say 'twisting' rather than 'twisted' because in Bates Motel, they are both slowly and surely evolving into horrifying creatures. 

Mrs. Bates is someone who loves her son but who is also committed to control him, either unaware or uninterested in what it does to him.  She is completely unsympathetic when he tearfully tells her he kept the belt, but not above attempting to seduce the deputy (which does result in some success) to protect them both.  Even stranger is Mrs. Bates' inability to see that someone holding on to a souvenir of a killing is a hallmark of serial killers. 

The strange undercurrent of an unhealthy relationship between is openly stated by Dylan, the most rational of the three (even if he is no pillar of the community).  In the opening scene, he addresses his mother and half-brother who are having breakfast together as "Mr. and Mrs. Bates".  It is technically correct but the underlying and unspoken suggestion that they are more like a married couple than a mother/son is there, obvious to Dylan but almost oblivious to both Norma and her namesake.

If anything, What's Wrong With Norman is Highmore's showcase where he mixes a certain innocence and naivete to something darker, uglier, even evil.  Highmore's Norman knows there is something wrong within him (at one point he plainly asks himself, "What's wrong with me?"), and now the sexual desires all seventeen-year-old boys have are becoming confused in his mind with a strong sense of impropriety.  In the opening, he imagines his teacher being bound like the drawings that he has become both fascinated and appalled by, and in a 'blink-and-you-miss-it' you see that Mother Bates is quickly seen as also blending into his erotic fantasies.  This confusion about his desires causes his fainting spell. 

The other aspects, such as casually insisting that he never attacked Dylan or his 'dream' of seeing Norma come to his room to talk about the Shelby situation is laying the groundwork for the darkness that is slowly taking over Norman.  Highmore continues to make this shy, soft-spoken individual both a growing menace to himself and others and yet almost sympathetic, someone who is slowly being taken over by impulses he does not understand and cannot control.

Farmiga for her part is still oddly compelling as Mother Bates: caring mother, shrewd and manipulative when she needs to.   Alluring yet dangerous when needed, determined to meet her goals but also to control things (and people), her performance makes for compelling viewing.  We watch as this woman continues to attempt to fix things for her favored son while also attempting to keep him within her grasps.  Farmiga does not make Norma evil, but she is clearly a woman who doesn't shrink from doing what she thinks needs doing to protect herself and her interests.

Oddly, it is Thieriot who is almost lost in the dynamics of the two other main characters.  I don't hold Thieriot in particular to blame: his character still strikes me as the clichéd 'bad boy', and just exactly what is the interest of seeing two people sit around the forest on what looks like a camping trip (even if it is to watch a marijuana field)?  I hope that Dylan will not become a distraction in Bates Motel (it would be deadly to focus the stories on him rather than on the actual Bateses).  However, the exchange between Norman and Dylan where the former sincerely denies ever coming close to trying to kill the latter is a fascinating exchange. 

It does come with the established idea from Psycho and its sequels that Norman suffers from black-outs.  By introducing this element (whether Norman genuinely believes he didn't come at Dylan with a meat cleaver or whether he is attempting to cover it up), I believe Bates Motel is laying the groundwork for how Norman Bates will turn out to be the madman he ends up becoming.

Another standout is Cooke, who with Emma makes her the voice of sanity in a town clearly bonkers.  The 'oddity' of her illness is all but forgotten because now we can see that her mind is the most powerful weapon, and Cooke is an excellent actress in her efforts to make us see beyond Emma's cystic fibrosis and into her genuine heart and mind.  In fact, she blows the other secondary characters out of the way (the gruff Romero, the duped deputy, and especially the hesitant but attractive Bradley, who comes across as pretty but flat...and with simply hideous pants that she should burn.  Seriously, those are some UGLY pants).

If anything in What's Wrong With Norman, the Jeff Wadlow script does two or three things.  First, it continues building shocking twists in the story (who could imagine that the slightly dippy deputy was part of a white slavery ring?).  Two, it starts building the characters along with the growing nature of the corruption of souls (theirs and the town's).  Three, it still has those Twin Peaks elements (weird town, weirder denizens).  It's a good thing I liked Twin Peaks (at least for a season and a half, until it got too silly even for me). 

Bates Motel is becoming a strong series, with excellent and gripping performances and a storyline that is both true to the original source material and its own creation.    

Master Bates is clearly more than a troubled young man: he is a man coming into a slow and deadly break from reality.        


Next Episode: Trust Me

Friday, April 5, 2013

Bates Motel: Nice Town You Picked, Norma...Review


The Bates Will Fit Right In...

Nice Town You Picked, Norma has some pluses and minuses.  It builds up the mysterious our fair village of White Pine Bay has for the Bateses, but it also brings in new characters that are a little clichéd, particularly the newest addition to the Bates family, one Dylan Massett (Max Thieriot).

Dylan is Norma's son by a previous relationship and thus, Norman's half-brother.  He's also your traditional 'bad boy' (five o'clock shadow, serious attitude).  He doesn't care for Norma (whom he identifies as "The Whore" on his cell phone) and is disgusted by how close she and Norman are, convinced she is a control freak domineering his half-brother.  Dylan also doesn't shrink from being involved in criminal activities, which in White Pine Bay are abundant.

The criminal underbelly beneath the small-town veneer is known to nearly everyone, including Deputy Shelby (Mike Vogel).  Shelby, who is attracted to Norma, basically tells her that crime keeps the town going.  If only he knew that the man he and Sheriff Romero (Nestor Carbonell) are searching for is the same one his newest gal-pal bumped off...

Norman, meanwhile, finds himself in a series of terrible situations.  His erotic fascination with the mysterious journal he found comes in conflict with both his growing attraction to Bradley Martin (Nicola Peltz), whose father was set afire, and the attraction felt for him by Emma (Olivia Cooke), the girl with cystic fibrosis.  Discovering his journal, Emma comes to a shocking conclusion: it is the journal of a Chinese girl who is kept as a sex slave.  Emma believes she can find the shack where according to the journal a girl was buried.

As Norman and Emma search for the shack, they find a huge marijuana field.  They manage to flee the men guarding it, but they also find the shack.   That, however, is tame to what Norma encounters at the end...as she drives through town, there is a literal man on fire, the sight of a burning flesh drawing the town's attention.   

As I said, the introduction of Dylan is something that divides me.  On the one hand, we might need someone who will bring the criminal netherworld into the already twisted lives of Mother and Master Bates.  However, Thieriot's take on Dylan appears to be a typical young hood.  Even the name 'Dylan' appears to signal that our fellow will be bad news.  However, now that we have a viewpoint of someone who knows our two main characters and can stand somewhat apart from them gives Bates Motel a new perspective.  Dylan knows Norma's secrets (intimating to her that he knows his stepfather did not meet a natural end), and he is the only one who can see that the relationship between Norma and Norman is peculiar.

Now the struggle between Dylan's overt hostility to Norma and Norman's passionate devotion to his mother will be driving so much of series.  In one particularly brutal and shocking scene the brothers fight.  Being older and stronger than the thin Norman, Dylan is quickly able to take him down, warning him not to fight him or he will kill him.  Not dissuaded, Norman picks up a meat cleaver and attempts to strike Dylan down.  Dylan, however, probably saw Norman's reflection and dodged him, then knocked him down.

This scene is vitally important because it shows so much about their relationship and behavior.  Dylan hates his mother, while Norman defends her with passion.  One is the child conceived by a teenager who dumped the father quickly, while the other is the highly-favored son who has an intensely close relationship with the mother. Dylan and Norman, more importantly, both have murderous tendencies: one motivated by hate, the other by love.

We also see that Norma and Norman have a strong but strange relationship.  Norma is dressing in front of her son, which embarrasses him but brings a frustration in the mother only in what she sees as his prudishness.  "Does this top look like I'm trying too hard?" she asks.  "That depends on what you're trying," he replies. 

The performances, including new lead Thieriot, are all strong.  Thieriot may be the 'bad boy', the one who is always up to trouble, but he also is the conscious of the family he finds himself in.  He sees that the relationship between his sibling and parent is not normal, far too attached and with "The Whore" domineering and controlling his impressionable half-brother. 

Vera Farmiga continues to make Norma a fascinating character, one who is not evil but not good either. Her interrogation of Emma over her illness shows a mixture of caring, curiosity, and suspicion.  Even someone who is seen as not remotely a threat to the Norma/Norman relationship, a girl who does not have a long lifespan without a lung transplant, is met by Norma with barely concealed hostility.

Cooke is also becoming a strong character, both with her intelligence and her humanity.  She is open about her attraction to Norman, but she is also someone who appears to not be corrupted by all the evil overtaking White Pine Bay.

Highmore plays the growing insecurity and confusion of the young man.  The excitement of discovering such things as bondage along with his curiosity over both Bradley and Emma is coming into conflict with his loyalty to Norma, loyalty that confuses the love one has for one's mother into one that submits to her will, drowning himself into the idea that there is them, and then there is the rest of the world, where no one, not even her other son, can enter.

Bates Motel, however, continues to keep the Twin Peaks style going: odd characters, a small town filled with secrets beneath the pleasant veneer, the constant intrusion of dark desires.  What can one say about a town where white slavery, illegal narcotics, and murder are what goes on BEFORE the main characters kill someone?

Also, like another David Lynch creation, Blue Velvet, Bobby Vinton's music is used to make someone oddly creepy.  The gentle confrontation between Norma and Dylan is underscored by This Guy's In Love With You, a most curious song selection for him, even if it was from the previous owner.

Bates Motel is growing to a strong show serving up murder and mayhem, building up the Norman Bates story while expanding his world to where he's pretty much average in a town filled with killing, a slave ring, and pot growing: all the things that make a good home.  

My Mother, My Son, Oh My...


Next Episode: What's Wrong With Norman