Thursday, July 31, 2014

Sherlock: The Empty Hearse Review


Hearse So Bad...


Of all the things I was looking forward to in regards to The Empty Hearse, Sherlock's Season/Series Three debut, it was seeing John Watson faint.  This is in keeping with Canon's The Empty House (on which Mark Gatiss based this story on, or at least the title).  After finding a disguised Sherlock Holmes standing before him, Watson reports that this was the first and only time he fainted in his life.

Truth be told, not seeing John Watson faint at the sight of a previously dead man fully alive before him (as if Steven Moffat would ever be involved with a story where the dead person is found to be alive) is the least of The Empty Hearse's problems.   The story was illogical (even by Sherlock's shockingly low yet overpraised standards), it felt endlessly stretched out (not justifying its 90 minute running time) and despite all promises, it never answered properly and definitively the questions The Reichenbach Fall asked (namely, how Sherlock Holmes faked his death).  Fortunately, Sherlockians don't really want an answer to how it was all done.  They are too busy celebrating that he's back to care how he went about it. 

It's been two years since Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) leaped to his death.  A thorough investigation has absolved him of being a fake, pinning this massive frame-up to Jim Moriarty (Andrew Scott), who is also dead.  In those years, those around Sherlock have moved on...mostly.  Detective Anderson (Jonathan Aris) has grown obsessed over Holmes, believing he faked his death somehow, coming up with more elaborate scenarios and even forming a group of like-minded fans, The Empty Hearse, where they share their ideas and their mantra, "I Believe in Sherlock Holmes". 

We learn that Sherlock has instead been going around the world dismantling Moriarty's network, and now his brother Mycroft (Mark Gatiss) has brought him home.  Despite Mycroft's warning, Sherlock believes that things can go back to the way he left them, right down to having his 'friend' John Watson (Martin Freeman) basically waiting for him at 221 B Baker Street.  However, Watson hasn't been waiting around (though he does pine a bit for Sherlock).  Instead, he's grown a mustache and is about to propose to his girl, Mary Morstan (Amanda Abbington).  Sherlock, convinced that Watson will be thrilled to see him alive again, goes into the restaurant where Watson is going to propose, dons a fake mustache and French accent and bizarrely pretends to be a difficult waiter to his unwitting friend.

Hilarity ensues...well, actually a good punch to the nose. 

Of COURSE I'm not dead!
Steven Moffat's the producer!

Well, Holmes gets some shocks and good smacking (I should probably elevate The Empty Hearse a few points just for that), but something along the lines of investigations should be going on.  There's the case involving the supposed diary of Jack the Ripper, which with aid of Molly (Louise Brealey), the medical examiner always in swoon for the obviously disinterested Sherlock.  Then Watson, despite himself, finds himself working with Holmes.  It's important that he does, since Holmes saved his life when he and Mary worked out clues to stop Watson from being burned alive in a bonfire for Guy Fawkes Day. 

The primary case involves the attempted bombing of Parliament on Guy Fawkes Day (Pleased to remember the Fifth of November) involving an Underground train car right under Parliament, placed there by a Lord Moran, who secretly works for the North Koreans.  As the bomb is about to go off because there is 'off' switch, the crisis forces Watson to admit that he admires Holmes and has missed him terribly.  This sets Holmes to start giggling, then laughing.  Yes, there IS an 'off' switch, and yes, he did call the police.  Thus ends a very long and elaborate 'joke' to get Watson to tell the megamaniacal Holmes that he thinks highly of our egotist.

Oh, and as for how Holmes survived this giant plunge?

We start with what turns out to be Anderson's theory.  It involves a bungee cord, the real Holmes crashing through a window (stopping by to kiss Molly, who is helping him), then using Moriarty's corpse and slip on a Sherlock Holmes death mask to pass that off as Sherlock Holmes.  Oh, and Watson was apparently hypnotized by illusionist Darren Brown.

As the movie Clue might have said, "That's how it could have happened.  But how about this?".

The second alternative has Sherlock and Moriarty giggling like schoolgirls on the roof, while an obviously fake dummy takes the plunge, after which Sherlock and Moriarty share an intimate moment.  Anderson, who is in charge of the Sherlock fan group The Empty Hearse, immediately dismisses this theory as absolute nonsense, to which the fangirl (a fat, I'd say unattractive girl who wears a knit cap), retorts that it's just as logical as anything Anderson has come up with.

As the movie Clue observes, "But here's what really happened."

We now get Sherlock's 'official' explanation for how he faked his death, which he explained to Anderson earlier but was shown between when the 'bomb' was about to go off and we find that it wasn't.  Using his network of homeless spies (the Irregulars), he had a landing mattress (conveniently hidden by a dump truck...and there's more than symbolism there I imagine) where he landed, then rolled over, applied make-up to him, and with a squash ball under his arm he temporarily stopped his heartbeat and thus, managed to fool a medical doctor of his death. 

Anderson offers that 'that's not how he would have done it', and when he starts point out flaws in this explanation (for example, how Holmes could possibly control whether Watson moved), Holmes has by now disappeared.

To quote John Watson, "I don't care how you faked it, Sherlock.  I want to know why."  That pretty much sums up for me what the average Sherlockian thinks, and why my fellow critics, who have been bewitched by Cumberbatch's luxurious baritone and the Gruesome Twosome of Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, seem uninterested in things like logic or even heart.  Like Holmes walking away from a clearly deranged Anderson, Sherlockians don't want answers.  They never have.  Their own way-out wacky theories, no matter how idiotic, would please them, so no answer would truly satisfy them.

I offer that there really is no answer because no answer is possible or even plausible, but that I believe is for another time.  For the moment, I think we should stick with what I thought of The Empty Hearse itself.

What is both amusing and sad is that Sherlock in general and The Empty Hearse in particular goes out of its way to mock the very fanbase that worships this Holmes adaptation and its fixation with Sherlock and Sherlock.  Even more sad (and less amusing) is how Sherlockians are either apparently not in on the joke (the joke being themselves) or are and find being so brazenly ridiculed all the more joyful, almost endearing.

The Empty Hearse Club, from the brief clip I saw, apparently sits around in their Sherlock regalia and come up with bizarre theories and 'shipping' ideas.  There isn't an ounce of intelligence about them.  I could make the same argument about NuWhovians who don't question plot holes or continuity errors with Doctor Who, dismissing them with a 'wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey'.  Some Sherlockians thought that the nods to the 'shipping' the Sherlock fanbase creates and the beyond bonkers theories The Empty Hearse Club creates were fun, clever, and amusing.   That is their right.

I found it mean-spirited, condescending, even vicious.  Perhaps another time I could ask why Anderson in particular turned from a hater to a passionate Believer, or how this group of like-minded people came together, but again, I digress.

I actually thought Gatiss was borrowing a bit from Clue: The Movie. Do you remember Clue?  One of the best board-game movie adaptations, it was shrewd enough to know its own silliness and everyone from those in front of and behind the camera to the viewers were all in on the joke.  We were shown three different scenarios as to how the murders were committed, two with a variation of "This is how it could have happened," (emphasis mine), the third with "but here's what really happened."  Somehow, despite the naked invitations to parody, The Empty Hearse took the exact same route, down to the three scenarios (minus the funny music).  In the former it was all meant as a spoof, in the latter it just turned into one. 

In many ways, The Empty Hearse wasn't about 'solving' the unsolvable mystery of Holmes' faked death.  It wasn't about the mystery of the Parliament bombing plot (which seemed almost like an afterthought).  It wasn't even about the mysterious figure watching footage of Watson about to be burned alive, which we saw at the end of the story.  Instead, it was about Watson and Holmes' relationship, and to be frank I wonder why they have one at all. 

We saw John Watson tortured physically (almost be roasted) and psychologically (Watson's terror at being blown up dismissed by a giggling Holmes).  That's not even counting the 'humorous' moment when Holmes reveals himself, which was so out-of-character for the Sherlock Holmes we've been presented as a remarkably cold and humorless man.  Is comedy Sherlock or Holmes' strong suit?  Granted, I can only react as myself if I had been placed in similar situations, but if my 'friend' had made me think I was about to get blown up, that as a result of my association with him someone tried to turn me into The Wicker Man, and just popped up in front of me after I mourned him all these years, I'd do more than punch him.  I'd probably kill him, not almost casually brush it off as mere 'oh, that's just good ole' Sherlock'. 

It's not suppose to make sense.

There's just so much bad in The Empty Hearse.  We know Gatiss is gay, but does that give him license to keep this idiocy of having poor Mrs. Hudson keep thinking Holmes and Watson are/were lovers?  Does the fact that Gatiss is homosexual give him a pass for that nonsense?  You knew that when Watson was telling her he'd found someone, she was going to think it was a man.  To my mind, there was no story because one mystery (the attempted Parliament bombing) was solved quickly and proved (like the bomb) a dud, and the other (Sherlock's survival) was never solved. 

The only thing worth anything in this overpraised fiasco were Cumberbatch and Martin.  I do confess that Martin's perpetually perplexed and befuddled schtick has gotten old.  You can look like an idiot only so long before one wonders whether he IS an idiot.  Still, they work together really well, and part of me cheering Watson on every time he walloped Sherlock (which oddly, I never wanted to see in any other Sherlock Holmes adaptation).

As I look bad with sadness on The Empty Hearse, I realize this is a review I did not want to write.  I have struggled so long with writing it because so many insist The Empty Hearse is some kind of minor miracle of television, one of the Greatest Moments in All Television.  I found it rubbish from start to finish.  The story is both boring and nonsensical, the situations absurd, the almost God-like powers Holmes has of deduction (how exactly DID Holmes know the maitre'd was an expectant father?) elevated to an insane level.

It's not just the hearse that's empty.  It's the production and fanbase's brains too.  "You know for a genius you can be remarkably thick," Watson tells Holmes after he stops Sherlock from giving all thirteen scenarios allowing for his 'resurrection'.  I wonder if Mark Gatiss was thinking of himself or Steven Moffat when he wrote that...

I'd LOVE to...


Next Episode: The Sign of Three

Oh my God!  They killed Rory...
I mean Sherlock...
I mean Kenny!

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Franklin & Bash: Pilot Review


The Frat Is Now In Session...

With Season Four (!) of Franklin & Bash quickly coming upon us, I realized I never got around to reviewing Season One.  The most I did was just an overall review of Season One, and a brief talk about how with both Franklin & Bash and Teen Wolf I was going to expand my television viewing beyond what I normally gravitate to.  The latter has been receiving raves and on a personal note, I met Teen Wolf star Crystal Reed...and she was both very pretty and very nice to the fans, even if she did arrive late to the panel though it wasn't her fault.  She was taken to lunch at a restaurant by the EPCON staff that was far too far from the convention center and with distance and traffic Reed nearly missed the entire presentation.  I got shy and regret not asking her who would win in an archery contest: her Allison Largent or Katniss Everdeen. 

Yet I digress.

Franklin & Bash has never been 'Emmy-worthy' material and I think it would freely cop to being a fluffy show.  I remember liking the first season, even listing it as one of my favorite programs on my OFCS profile.  It wasn't until the second season that I turned violently against it: the whimsy turning into idiocy on a massive scale, the characters regressing, and whole episodes being insulting to my intelligence.  It got to a point where I openly wondered WHY I ever liked this show.  However, let us go back to when I first loved the antics of Jared Franklin and Peter Bash.

Oddly, I remembered nothing about the Pilot*, to where I think the first show I actually watched (or at least remembered) was the second episode, She Came Upstairs to Kill Me.  As such, I could go into Pilot without any baggage of either my memories or the horror Franklin & Bash has become to me.  At least I thought until I rewatched Pilot, and remembered much more than I did.

Jared Franklin (Breckin Meyer) and Peter Bash (Mark-Paul Gosselaar) are two street-smart lawyers (or as street-smart as two wealthy white guys can be).  Despite their legal prowess they take on the wackiest and lowest of low-rent cases because they love their freedom.  One of those cases involves Annie (Melissa Ponzio), accused of being a hooker.  Peter's contention is that she is a dominatrix whose client was in love with her, and since there was love and no cash exchanged, ergo she's not a hooker.  Assistant D.A. Janie Ross (Claire Coffee), whom Peter is still in love with (constantly singing I'm Not in Love to convince himself otherwise), disagrees.

The other involves a car accident where the boys claim that a billboard of a scantily-clad woman was simply too distracting for men and that rather than blame the driver, they should blame the ad.  Representing the bed company whose ad is in dispute is Damien Karp (Reed Diamond) of the prestigious law firm of Stanton Infeld.  He's as stuffy as they come, but the boys have a great strategy: Jared, the more outrageous of the two, has the ad model while on the stand take her blouse off.  Immediately held in contempt, he is taken out, but Peter in taking over questioning asks the judge, the jury, Karp, and even the court reporter to give back her testimony.  None can, because they were all distracted.

Thus, he proves his case.

Watching all this is a mysterious old man.  That man is none other than Stanton Infeld (Malcolm McDowell), a legal legend and head of Stanton Infeld (and for plot reasons, Damien's uncle).  Infeld offers Franklin & Bash a job at Stanton Infeld in order to shake up the firm, and they agree with the agreement that they can still take on the cases they like.  Infeld must also agree to bring their team: former convict/investigator Carmen (Dana Davis) and panphobic lawyer Pindar Singh (Kumail Nanjiani).  Damien is appalled that these two nutters are part of the firm and doesn't think they'll stay long.  Another partner, Hanna Linden (Gabrielle Beauvais), seems attracted to Jared.

Now comes the big case: that of Tommy Donegan (Mike Pniewski), a pilot accused of causing a crash due to his joining the 'mile-high club'.  Despite landing the plane safely, passengers are still suing over the accident.  Donegan, who like the boys likes a good time, insists he was professional on board.  The CEO of the company, Neal Bryant (Joe Knezevich) thinks he'd better cut his losses.  Donegan is staying with the boys in their man-cave: a centerpoint for loose women, boozing, and general carousing.  As Hanna and Jared get intimate, Pindar comes in with big news: he's just overheard Damien and Bryant deciding to throw Donegan under the bus to save the company.  Unfortunately, all they have is the testimony of Pindar, who is so terrified of everything he can't leave the house to tell what he heard.

Eventually, all three cases are resolved: despite some setbacks Annie is proven not a hooker, the bed case was settled prior to the boys joining the firm, and with a lot of pressure on Pindar, he goes and is about to reveal to stockholders what was about to go down when Bryant agrees to clear Donegan's name.

Now, perhaps I am taking a far too harsh view of Franklin & Bash in retrospect given how much I ended up hating just about everyone on the show, but as I look at it now I see that the charm has worn off.  At this point, there is still some whimsy to seeing these two himbo wannabes get the results they want.  I do think that having a woman take her top off while on the stand would not work out the way they thought it would: if I were Karp I would have insisted that the judge instruct the jury to disregard that stunt. 

Also, creators Bill Chais and Kevin Falls made things a little too easy by having Pindar come upon the videolink to the Stanton Infeld boardroom just as Karp and Bryant were planning out this dastardly scheme.  The party at the man-cave was probably going on late into the night, so really what were the chances of Karp and Bryant being at the office this late, or of them meeting in the boardroom?  Wouldn't Karp's office be a better location for this nefarious planning? 

Well, it would, but if we did that then we wouldn't have a story now, would we?

Still, I'm not about to throw out the baby with the bathwater.  It's clear that Pilot was not meant to be taken all that seriously.  Instead, it does what it set out to do: introduce our wacky leads and put their bon vivant personalities within the confines of the stuffy law firm.

I thought the performances were quite good for the material.  Gosselaar's Bash appears to be the more sensible of the two, balancing out Meyer's deliberately obnoxious and arrogant Franklin.  He is also given a more textured inner life, his conflict over his feelings for Janie showing that underneath the unabashed player that he is (one who thinks nothing of appearing nude before strangers), he does have a soul.  That is more than can be said of Jared, as shallow a character as we've come across.  The only thing making anything close to a character flaw is that he is the scion of a brilliant attorney (mentioned quickly but obviously something that will play out in future shows). 

McDowell was asked to do nothing but be eccentric to the point of dementia, and he did that well.  Diamond's Karp, set up as the villain, is a bit sleazy and arrogant but he also appears to be the only really sane one in this group.

I personally didn't care for Nanjiani's comedy, but then again I don't care for his stand-up either, so I take it with a grain of salt.  However, Nanjiani wins the prize for making the first gay joke about Franklin & Bash, suggesting that they were like his two gay dads.  This 'gay humor' would grow as the show progressed to where I genuinely suspect Jared Franklin is a homosexual in denial (his romp with Hanna notwithstanding). 

The Pilot in retrospect has its good points and not-good points.  It's interesting to see how now, as much as I detest Franklin & Bash to where I don't think I want to see it anymore (except perhaps as a train wreck), the show (like the leads) didn't take itself seriously.  Yes, one could say that is still the case, but one would have expected Jared and Peter to either mature a bit (Gosselaar and Meyer, both now at 40, are starting to look far too old for the perpetual fratboy schtick) or do what they were suppose to do (loosen up the Infeld Stanton firm). 

Still, while not terrible it isn't all that intelligent or memorable: like the boys themselves.      

Franklin & Bash:
We Got Your Back...indeed!


Next Episode: She Came Upstairs to Kill Me

* Yes, I am aware that the name of the episode is not Pilot, but I figure why not pretend it is.

Should the ACE Be Restored?

We have the new Emmy nominations, and like last year, I didn't see a single nominee in either Outstanding Drama or Comedy series.  In the case of the former, it would be pretty difficult to, given I don't have HBO and rarely watch much on cable/satellite.  Out of the six nominees for Best Drama, only ONE is broadcast on non-pay television (PBS' Downton Abbey).   The others are all cable programs: Breaking Bad and Mad Men (AMC, once known as American Movie Classics...which kind of went by the wayside, hasn't it), Game of Thrones and True Detective (HBO, a premium cable/satellite channel, which has a separate subscription fee from that of regular cable/satellite subscriptions), and House of Cards (Netflix, which isn't even an actual channel but a video rental service that now has original programming). 

In the Comedy series, only two (The Big Bang Theory and Modern Family) are available to all.  The others (Veep, Louis, Silicon Valley, and Orange is the New Black) are all available only to those who have cable/satellite or Netflix subscriptions.

For those of us who don't have HBO or Netflix, why should we care about the nominees, let alone the winners?

Now, I am not saying that none of these shows or their nominees aren't worthy of nominations.  They may be great programming.  However, I am now wondering whether Cable/Satellite, once basically banished from Emmy consideration, has now so dominated the awards that regular network programming has been pushed out.

I look for example, at Elementary.  Despite excellent work from its leads (Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu) along with excellent guest starring performances from Natalie Dormer, the show has earned only two nominations in minor categories (Outstanding Main Title Design and Main Title Theme in 2013, losing both to Da Vinci's Demons, which is on Starz).  If we look at the Outstanding Lead Drama Actor nominees, not one is from a network television program.  In the Comedy side, only one Lead Actor is from a network series (The Big Bang Theory's Jim Parsons), received a nod.  Seriously, who watched Derek

Lead Actress in Comedy and drama has more a more even split between network and subscription with two in Comedy (Melissa McCarthy in Mike & Molly and Amy Poehler in Parks & Recreation) while Drama has three (Scandal, The Good Wife, and Downton Abbey).    However, neither The Good Wife or Scandal, despite their praise and popularity, are in the running for Series, and that goes for Mike & Molly and Parks & Recreation too.  Does this mean the performances in the shows are good, but the shows themselves not? 

Compare to a mere ten years ago, when the Lead Actress and Actor: Drama had only ONE non-network nominee each (Edie Falco and James Gandolfini in The Sopranos, with the winner being Allison Janney on The West Wing and James Spader in Boston Legal, both network) and the Drama Series having one non-network nominee (The Sopranos, which was that year's winner).  Comedy had three non-network actors/actresses (Lead Actress winner Sarah Jessica Parker for Sex & The City and nominees Larry David for Curb Your Enthusiasm and Tony Shalhoub for Monk), and two series (Curb Your Enthusiasm and Sex & The City, which both lost to FOX's Arrested Development).   

How to explain the rise of Cable/Satellite and the fall of Network?  I don't think network programming has gotten worse or even that cable/satellite has gotten better (anyone seen last season's Franklin & Bash?). 

I would argue that there is a wild disconnect between popular shows and shows that win Emmys.  NCIS, a perennial Top Ten show, has in its eleven seasons received a total of FOUR nominations, and only one for acting (a Guest Actor nomination for Charles Durning).  Under the Dome, a freshman hit, received none this year (though perhaps it aired too late to qualify).  Blue Bloods, another highly successful and popular show, has in four years received one nomination, again in a minor category (Stunt Coordination I believe). 

On the other hand, shows like HBO's Girls, which has 12 nominations and one win in its three years (one year less than Blue Bloods), has far fewer viewers* (800,000 for Girls, 11.52 million for Blue Bloods).  Elementary has a total viewership of 8.79 million viewers.  Breaking Bad (4.32 million), Mad Men (2.49 million), True Detective (2.4 million).  Is there something in the Television Academy that makes it gravitate towards shows few people watch while ignoring the popular ones?

I feel I've wandered off a bit from my original subject, so let's go back to it.

The rather clumsily titled Cable ACE Awards (or Award for Cable Excellence, making it officially the Cable Award for Cable Excellence Awards) ran from 1978 to 1997 as cable's answer to the Emmy Awards, which stubbornly refused to allow cable shows to be nominated until 1988.  Since then, cable/satellite and now Netflix (which I wonder, does it count as a network of any kind?) have now so dominated the awards show circuit that network programs are now getting squeezed out.

I now make a Modest Proposal.

It may be time to have TWO Emmy Award presentations: one for Network Programming, one for Non-Network Programming.  My reasoning is that because there is such a fight for few slots, opening up the categories to separate network from non-network will allow for greater recognition of programs.  If we slip all the Lead Actors in Drama to their Non-Network Programming Category, it will allow for other actors in the network programs to be allowed a chance (Bryan Cranston tends to bust all comers, even perennial loser Jon Hamm).  In the same way, with three non-network Lead Actresses, Bates Motel's Vera Farmiga (who scored that show's only nomination last year) gets shut out in the furious race for few places.  I can't find an argument that says Farmiga couldn't have taken the place of Claire Danes in Homeland or first-time nominee Lizzy Caplan for Masters of Sex (and ironically, while Caplan got a nod, the Masters to her Johnson, Michael Sheen, didn't get nominated.  I guess her Johnson was better than his...). 

We have, in my view, gone from one extreme (leaving out all cable programming) to another (thinking only cable programming is worthy of recognition).  It is time for parity between the two.  It might be time to have separate Cable/Non-Cable Categories, so as to recognize quality work in these two distinct areas without having to struggle to give both sides an even shake.

Either that, or just bring back the Cable ACE Award and let the Emmys go to judging only network programs.

I wrap this up with this.  The Tony Awards are still being broadcast on CBS, but it's a safe bet few people watch.  Why would someone who hasn't been to New York, let alone Broadway, care about the winners for Best Revival of a Musical?   Once they did, because they were exposed to Broadway hits on The Ed Sullivan Show.  Now, with no point of reference, the Tonys are nice but almost irrelevant to almost all America.  The Tonys thought that by bringing in major stars they would get higher ratings and more ticket sales.  They didn't. 

Same with the Emmys.  There is a hard-core group that worships Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, but I think more people care about what the Reagans on Blue Bloods are doing than on which of the Lannisters in Game of Thrones has murdered, been murdered, or committed incest.  

It's either splitting the two, or watching fewer and fewer people care about the Emmys.

* Numbers courtesy of TV Series and Nielsen.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Americans: Comrades Review


Spywork Is No Family Affair...

After the great success that was the first season of The Americans, one wonders how they could possibly bring the complicated lives of KGB sleeper agents Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) into more complicated and brilliant stories.  Leave it to Comrades, the second season debut story, to give us one of the most thrilling, shocking, tense, and tragic hours I have seen so far on this series. 

Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) has recovered from her injuries and is home, just in time for her son Henry's (Keidrich Sellati) birthday.  Her daughter, Paige (Holly Taylor) is equally thrilled to see her mother back, as is Philip (Matthew Rhys).  Elizabeth and Philip appear to have reconciled, and while Henry might not be thrilled to hear that they are going on a date, Paige finds the prospect of her parents getting back together a joyful matter. 

Of course, Elizabeth and Philip didn't go on a date, well, one might call it a double date.  More spywork, this time with Emmett and Leanne Connors (Jeremy Davison and Natalie Gold), fellow sleeper KGB agents who are about the closest thing to social friends the Jennings have.  They not only can mix Socialism with socializing but can talk about their kids and the difficulties of raising them. 

As the Jennings start healing (and Paige finds that her parents really are back together, in 69 ways), things appear to be getting better.  As both a treat for Henry and Paige, as well as to do more work with the Connors, Philip and Elizabeth take the family to an amusement park in Virginia.  As everyone is having a good time, Emmett gets notice that some information is being delivered to them.  He can't do it, so he asks Philip to take it from someone passing by, but with a catch.  Philip has to be accompanied by Henry.  Philip at first immediately says no, telling Emmett the children, neither his or the Connors, are ever used for work under any circumstances.  However, there's no time and Philip is immediately dragged into this, and he in turn drags an unwitting Henry.

Things appear to go OK, until Philip and Elizabeth make a horrifying discovery when dropping off the material at the Connors' hotel room.

They go inside to find that not only Emmett and Leann have been shot point-blank in the head, but their daughter Amelia (Gracie Bea Lawrence) has been killed with them.  Only the Connors' son Jared (Owen Campbell), who had gone for a swim, manages to escape the family slaughter.  Philip and Elizabeth are stunned and horrified by what they see, and immediately both panic.  If someone was willing to kill Amelia, both Paige and Henry were also in immediate danger.  Elizabeth races back to the park in a desperate search for their children, while Philip quickly gathers what he needs from the room and leaves, passing an unsuspecting Jared, who comes in to this horror.

Elizabeth quickly finds Henry but Paige has wandered off.  Her panic growing more frantic, she is relieved to find that Paige is alive.  In what must have been a ghastly vision for her, Paige had her face painted in the same way Amelia had been painted when she was killed.  Elizabeth does not reproach Philip for having involved Henry, realizing that he didn't have time to think.  However, both of them are now fully aware that their children are vulnerable to danger.

Meanwhile, their unwitting nemesis, FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) has problems of his own.  His marriage is hanging on by tenderhooks, while his mole/mistress Nina (Annet Mahendru) is still playing him in a game of her own making.  He tries to please Nina by getting a pirated video cassette (which I imagine some viewers have never heard of) of The French Lieutenant's Woman, but she finds the main character stupid.  As Stan does appear to try to make his marriage to Sandra (Susan Misner) work, she invites him to join her friends for a movie.  Guess what movie she picks? 

As Stan watches the Meryl Street/Jeremy Irons feature, he too finds himself oddly moved by it all.

Comrades keeps the metaphors down to one.  In the opening, Elizabeth nearly runs down a family of deer, and they do have that deer in the headlights look.  Here, I think we see what the season will involve: more danger coming out of nowhere, which may leave them paralyzed.   Joel Fields and The Americans creator Joseph Weisberg give us all the elements that make a great action drama (the opening with Philip masquerading as a Texan who kills mujahedeen representatives fighting the Soviets at a restaurant in the States is exciting).  However, Comrades also has a great deal of heart.

When Elizabeth and Philip are sharing a tender moment, I can honestly report that I was really happy for them.  It's almost as if these two, despite themselves and their cover, have become what so many people fail to be: a happily married couple.  Seeing them share an extremely intimate moment, with Paige as the unwitting witness, was both slightly amusing and shocking.  However, not as shocking as what would come right after.

We also see that they are parents above all else.  Seeing the horror of seeing their 'friends' killed along with their unknowing daughter must have not just come as a shock, but must have stunned them into the realization that their children, whom they genuinely care about, were also in great risk. 

Again, I don't think viewers of The Americans will ever really get over the shock of seeing Amelia shot through the head, her face paint still on her, or what must have been the horror of Jared coming upon this nightmarish scene.  We don't see Jared go into the room, but remembering what we had seen, we can only imagine the horror of Jared coming from a happy holiday to see his father, mother, and sister all killed, and worse, with neither Jared or Amelia ever knowing the real reason for the killings.

While it was unspoken, the impact and almost cruel irony of Elizabeth coming upon Paige with the same face paint she had just seen Amelia with must have shaken Elizabeth to the very core of her being.  The twisted irony of seeing her happy and unwitting daughter almost dressed up like the innocent dead girl must have pained the hard Elizabeth in ways unimaginable.

In this hour, I don't think I have been as moved, as shocked, and as involved as I was watching the Jennings at work and play.  With now both Paige and Henry getting slowly drawn into the dangerous work Philip and Elizabeth are in, the question becomes will Philip and Elizabeth be parents first, or agents?  Are they willing to pay the high price the Connors paid? 

We are on tenderhooks to find out...


Next Episode: Cardinal

Snowpiercer: A Review (Review #654)


It's a Snow Train Coming...

I was persuaded to watch Snowpiercer thanks to wildly positive word of mouth.  Longtime readers know that I have a particular antithesis to Chris Evans, whom I find to be a terrible actor except in one role (yep, he makes a good Captain America).  Snowpiercer may be some of his best work where he goes for a full-fledged performance, and he is much better than someone like Channing Tatum (who doesn't even have a career-defining role like the Cap to fall back on). 

To combat global warming, nations released a chemical CW-7 to reduce the Earth's temperature.  As usual in cases when the cure is worse than the disease, the world went from global warming to global freezing.  The entire planet was turned into a block of ice, killing billions of people almost instantly and making the world inhospitable for living.  The only survivors are aboard a special train that is perpetually in motion, circling the globe all year round.

Seventeen years later, in 2031, the train is segregated by class (or rather, by one's ticket).  First Class ticket holders have plush living areas, while those in the back of the train live in squalor and eat manufactured protein bars that make Soylent Green look like caviar.  Among those living in this misery are Curtis (Evans), the de facto leader of the train's 99 Percent, the wise old leader Gilliam (John Hurt), and Curtis' little buddy Edgar (Billy Elliot, I mean, Jamie Bell, and BTW, that was not a Jamie Bell short joke).  The train's One Percent, embodied in the form of Minister Mason (Tilda Swinton, looking eerily like Ayn Rand) tells them that it is the natural order of things that some be at the top, while others on the bottom.  Having this scum at the head of the train is like having a shoe on top of their heads.

However, the people will no longer, after all these years, put up with this injustice of living in perpetual squalor and darkness.  Curtis launches a revolution to take the train and meet its engineer, the mysterious Wilford.  They have to cross train car after train car, where in the course of the film, they capture Mason, we see many die, and when Curtis, aided along the way by a drugged up locksmith they revived named Namgoon (Kang-go Song) and his daughter Yona (Ah-sun Ko), reaches the engine, where Curtis reveals horrifying secrets of his life and learns the truth about the train.  In the end though, Namgoon causes an explosion that derails the train, but Yona and a child taken from the back, Timmy (Marcanthonee Jon Reis) venture into what was thought was an uninhabitable world, to see a polar bear and thus, a sign of life.

And Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand so far away...

I could argue that Snowpiercer has a lot of logic problems (apart from the idea of a perpetually moving train around the world, though the film did provide an answer to how that was possible).  I find it difficult if not impossible to believe that in seventeen years, in a train car(s) where people are living in poverty, things like births and deaths wouldn't be noticed by those in the 'upper' cars. Children would need food other than protein bars to keep going (which somehow is important to the higher-ups) but from what I saw those bars were the only things going. 

Furthermore, given that in these seventeen years the First Class (and maybe Second Class, because I think that was mentioned) passengers, who supposedly had never seen Steerage, didn't really give a second look or react with any sense of panic that 'the hordes are invading' is similarly ridiculous. 

However, I don't think that was the point of Snowpiercer: to be 'logical'.  It is an allegory about economic equality, on how there are those who have so much and who are keeping it from those with so little.  IF you look at Snowpiercer as a form of allegory or fantasy, where we accept the fantasy world we're given (even if it doesn't strictly make much sense), then Snowpiercer can be quite entertaining and visually arresting.

The action scenes whenever Curtis and his group are taking the train car by car are well-shot and build to a strong tense feel.  Sometimes the action scenes did appear to be a bit silly (the school car being where I laughed at the machine-totting sweet teacher) but I also thought that it was meant more for representation about ideas than to be taken literally (the symbolism of the Wilford worship and crediting him for everything was more a mockery of the cult of the Kim Family Dictatorship of North Korea).

In regards to the action and story, Snowpiercer has done better than most in terms of both showing (and in one scene, not showing) violence and in using allegory to present a viewpoint. 

In terms of the acting, there isn't much negative in it.  Bell was the only one I didn't care for, finding his Edgar hopelessly annoying.  However, perhaps his ever-chatty Cockney was suppose to be that way, so I'll grant a little leeway.  The others made this rather madcap world believable.  Evans in particular did his best work: his monologue about his actions in the early days of the train showing he's at least trying to develop as an actor.  I don't think he is quite there yet, but I respect him making the effort.  Swinton, the oddest actor working today, was brittle and curt as Mason, in turns whimpering and malevolent. 

On the whole Snowpiercer is not as intelligent as it thinks, and the allegory of a 'people's revolution on a train' isn't as clever as it thinks either.  However, as entertainment trying to do something, as a visual ride (no pun intended) and one where one is interested in what happens, Snowpiercer does an admirable job. 


Monday, July 28, 2014

Lucy: A Review


Lucy is silly, sometimes flat-out laughable, but by goodness is it never dull.  Did I enjoy it?  If I didn't think much on it.  Is it a good film? 


Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) is a party girl in Taiwan who is pushed by her latest one-night (or one-week) stand, Richard (Pilou Asbaek) into delivering a package to a mysterious Mr. Jang (Min-Sik Choi).  Richard is immediately killed, and Lucy is forced into being a drug mule, who along with three other unwilling mules, has CPH4, a new drug, inserted into their bodies to smuggle to Europe.  One hitch in the plan, though.  A thug who wanted to rape Lucy instead beat her, breaking the package inside her and releasing it into her bloodstream.  As a result, the CPH4 is now making her use more than the 10% of the brain people use (which is an urban myth, but go along with it).  As her mental powers increase, she becomes more and more powerful, having the ability to control objects mutant-like, even the ability to change her physical appearance a la Mystique.

Meanwhile, in Paris, Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman) is lecturing about the possibilities of expanding mind power to use more and more of our brains.  What would happen if a person reached full 100% mental capacity?  He admits he has no idea.  Lucy, using her growing powers, manages to manipulate electronics from Taiwan to Paris and tells Professor Norman she's heading to Paris for his help.  She also contacts French detective Pierre Del Rio (Amr Waked), telling him who the other mules are and to capture them so he can give her the CPH4 they're carrying. 

The Taiwanese mobsters are not pleased by all this, so now they race to Paris, where the mules have been brought together after two arrive in Berlin and Rome to recapture the mules and take the drugs from them.  In almost every turn, Lucy, along with a slightly befuddled Del Rio, stop them through remarkably supernatural means.  It ends with Lucy going to full 100%, which if I understand makes her almost God-like, being able to travel through all time and space, even pausing to meet "Lucy", the first human.

As Lucy goes on, it does become more and more outlandish.   It isn't helped by director/writer Luc Besson's somewhat heavy-handed style (as Lucy is about to be taken, the scene is intercut with footage of cheetahs hunting down gazelles).  Why exactly he opted to put in all these visual metaphors instead of trusting we would 'get it' is beyond me.

Other parts, such as having Mozart's Requiem play as Lucy, in full bad-ass mode, is about to take down the Taiwanese thugs who put the drug in her, might be playing to Besson's strengths in the visuals department, but it does become more bizarre (apparently, the more brainpower one has, the greater physical abilities you have, like Lucy being able to perform a Vulcan mind-meld to find out who the other mules are). 

Still, on the whole, while Lucy is silly, it is by no means terrible.  It helps to have someone like Johansson (who is now a full-on star thanks to this of all things) anchor the project.  She is purposefully robotic as she gains more and more mutant-like powers (she can alter her appearance!  she can levitate thugs!).  At a certain point, while she is sipping champagne, she sees that she is physically deteriorating.  While this plot point isn't followed through (how she got out of this is pretty much left to the imagination), her panic makes the scene appear as real as it possibly can be.

As for everyone else, they pretty much are there for either information-dumping (Freeman) or as some sort of thwarted love interest (Waked, who is obviously Arab but is made into this bizarre Franco-Spanish mix of "Pierre Del Rio").  The movie even has Lucy comment on this when she kisses Del Rio.  When asked why, she says it's to remind her of humanity, or something like that.

There are a few good things in Lucy.  Johansson takes all this seriously, which at least adds some kind of realism to all this nonsense, and some of the visuals are intriguing (though I confess to laughing out loud when the CPH4 is entering her bloodstream).  It's a strange irony that while we are asked to take this seriously, as some sort of meditation on the power of the human mind, it soon slips into more and more ridiculousness. 

Still, if one goes into all this with a certain sense of humor and can laugh not mean-spiritedly so, one can love Lucy.

She was funnier...


Sunday, July 27, 2014

Whoever Has Jeff Ears, Them Them Hear

Longtime readers know that I am a proud season ticket holder for the El Paso AAA Baseball Team.  Longtime readers also know that I detest the name of the El Paso AAA Baseball Team.  So great is my loathing for that name that I have refused to say it.  It is so strong that even when I look up information online, I will type "El Paso Baseball" or "El Paso Baseball Team" rather than the name.  My brother Gabe has kept a count of the number of times I have slipped and uttered the name, and I'm up to four.

However, for full disclosure I have warmed up to the EP Baseball Team Mascot, Chico. 

In any case, I can say that I am a fan, even though I'm not the most well-versed baseball fan.  I couldn't keep track of all the statistics of who does what and when.  Therefore, I can't answer in-depth questions about all the players.

However, there are many players that I like and like watching.  There's Jake Lemmerman, who got an amazing walk-on grand slam, bottom of the ninth and whose jersey I was desperate to win in an auction (I didn't, since even I wasn't about to spend $200+.  Budgets and all..).  There's Cody Decker, bon vivant and Whovian who has done the impossible and made being Jewish even cooler than it already is (and who is unafraid to color-coordinate his wardrobe, down to the bow ties, because bow ties are, well, you know...).  There's Reymond Fuentes, who I think has the best walk-out song (even if no one seems to know what it actually is).  There's Jonathan Galvez, who made it to the Minor League All-Star Game.  All great ballplayers. 

Then there is Jeff Francoeur, lovingly known as Frenchy. 

Now, Frenchy has incredible skills (though Gabe is right in saying that he is trigger-happy when on bat, with a bad tendency to swing instead of measuring whether he can hit that particular pitch).  Francoeur has been called back up to the San Diego Padres, and while I and all of El Paso are sad to see him go, I and all of El Paso are also glad to see him go (if that makes sense). 

Jeff Francoeur was the subject of an epic prank by his teammate Cody Decker.  Decker, along with other EP Baseball players, managed to convince Francoeur that another teammate, Jorge Reyes, was deaf.  Somehow, they kept this going to an oblivious Francoeur for a whole month.  The experiment was filmed and we now have On Jeff Ears.

Personally, far from thinking less of Francoeur, On Jeff Ears makes me love him more.  Granted, Francoeur's obliviousness to how Reyes wasn't deaf is funny and does make him look a bit dim.  However, I also have to look at how Francoeur went out of his way to welcome Reyes.  Frenchy spoke openly about his admiration for his deaf teammate, and while the prank is funny, I think it reveals something about Jeff Francoeur.

Jeff Francoeur is a really nice guy. 

He may be a great baseball player and I wish him all the best, but beyond that, he's also a real nice guy.  Maybe not the brightest bulb, but I think his character really came across in On Jeff Ears: that of an earnest, sincere fellow who works well with his teammates and embraces all those whom he thinks are different.

In fact, of all the interviews I have seen from his teammates, I don't think I have heard anyone say anything negative about Francoeur as a person, or a player (apart from the trigger-happy bit, with which I concur on Francoeur). 

Learning that Francoeur is also an unabashed born-again Christian (if Wikipedia is to be believed) to me, solidifies my view that Frenchy lives the life he proclaims.  There are many people who claim Christianity but whose lives give little evidence of it.  Francoeur, though clueless about how Reyes obviously was not deaf, showed that he indeed is one who does.

A great ballplayer.  A great person.  A bit dim.  A real good guy.

On Jeff Ears, therefore, should not be seen as making Jeff Francoeur look as if he were completely stupid (and I don't think Decker or anyone else thinks that).  The fact that Francoeur can laugh about it too shows that while he wasn't in on the joke, he at least is good enough to appreciate it. 

Truth be told, I love Francouer and Decker.  Who couldn't love two great ball players, one of whom can laugh at himself, and one who recognizes the genius of Doctor Who (though sorry, Marshall, your views on Gone With the Wind are completely wrong: it ISN'T a KKK recruitment film, but the Citizen Kane of Epic Films.  You may love movies and knock them out of the park, but I'M the film critic in EP). 

On Jeff Ears, if I were to rate it, would earn a B- from me.  It's funny and endearing too.  However, it's no Gone With the Wind, that's for sure...  

Cody Marshall Decker, you've been a naughty boy...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Americans: Season One Overview


Portrait of An American Marriage Via the Soviet Union...

It took a while, but The Americans Season One has been completed.  All I can say is that few television shows have built a world that is nostalgic, exciting, a bit comic, and above all else, a story about a marriage. 

The story of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings is not just about KGB agents on their various assignments (though certainly it is about that).  It is also about balancing work and family, those issues that in any era, but especially so in the booming 1980s, was becoming more and more relevant.  Philip and Elizabeth work together as both spies and as their cover of travel agents, and the KGB has assigned them to be a married couple, so they dutifully produced two children: Paige and Henry.  As such, we can imagine they spent almost all the time together.  Any relationship that has become so insular, with few if any actual contacts on the outside, must be extremely difficult for them.

They are not American, and in fact they should be working to bring America down.  However, like in all good relationship stories, their individual views sometimes collide.  Philip is more in tune with America, and in the twenty-some odd years of being 'Philip' he has grown comfortable and even pleased by what he sees.  He is still loyal to the Soviet Union, but right from the start we see that Philip also enjoys a little impromptu dance with new boots at the mall, embarrassing Paige.  We see that Philip is the one who is not above killing people, but who come to understand Americans in a way Elizabeth hasn't. 

Take one of the best episodes, In Control.  Here, the chaos of Reagan's attempted assassination convinces Elizabeth that there has been a coup.  It is Philip who tells her that despite all their years of living and studying Americans, she still doesn't get who 'these people' are.   Americans, he basically tells her, don't do 'coups'. 

Philip and Elizabeth are also interesting in a different way.  They are parents, ones who despite themselves sometimes lose sight of what is suppose to be their 'covers' and react to protect their children above all other concerns.  When an older man makes advances on Paige, Philip appears to take the meek solution (soft verbal confrontation), but that guy didn't realize he was messing with a trained killer.  Philip's violent take-down of that man almost leaves one cheering, for one expects any father to lay the smackdown on someone who would go after his little girl. 

Elizabeth for her part, being the harder and more emotionally restrained of the two, has a harder time bonding with her children as opposed to the more easy-going Philip.  After all, when they tell Paige and Henry that they are temporarily separating, Paige especially is angry at Elizabeth, and while Philip is more openly affectionate towards them, Elizabeth's struggle to be a good mom (she is but not as good as her own standards will let her) is one of the issues The Americans presents.

In short, Philip and Elizabeth are good spies who also want to be good parents.  That balance, and the struggle to maintain that balance, is one of the best parts of the series.

We grow to like Philip and Elizabeth, even as their actions are brutal.  They kill, they hurt, they deceive others with more false identities.  The struggles to be true to themselves, to figure out who they really are and what they really are working for (home or Country), along with some really wild adventures, makes The Americans such a fantastic program. 

We also have to complement some extremely brilliant performances.  There are Rhys and Russell of course, who bring these complicated, conflicted, ruthless, efficient, and lovelorn characters to life.  There's Noah Emmerich as their unwitting frenemy Stan Beeman, Annet Mahendru as Nina, the FBI mole in the Rezidentura who is playing a complicated game that even she isn't sure about.  Above all else, there is Margo Martindale's Emmy-nominated performance as the Jennings' KGB minder Claudia, aka Grannie.  As this outwardly sweet old dear, Martindale revels in the darkness, even evil, lurking beneath the endearing exterior.  Only she would have a KGB's innocent and unsuspecting widow murdered and steal her baby to give to the KGB operative's parents, or enact brutal revenge on the man who ordered her once-lover's assassination. 

Seeing Martindale and Russell battle it out (sometimes literally, as when an enraged Elizabeth beats the living crap out of Grannie for torturing them when they suspected the Jennings were a mole) has been a personal highlight.

Now, as always we have the countdown of The Americans Season One episodes from best to worst.

Safe House: 10/10
In Control: 10/10
The Colonel: 10/10
Gregory: 9/10
Mutually Assured Destruction: 9/10
Only You: 9/10
Trust Me: 8/10
The Clock: 8/10
The Oath: 8/10
COMINT: 8/10
Pilot: 8/10
Covert War: 7/10
Duty and Honor: 7/10

Average Score: 8.5

That's higher than what I've given Sherlock so far (a show that is fiercely and fanatically loved by critics and Sherlockians, but which I, try as I do, cannot find worth all the praise). 

The Americans is about spies.  It's about family.  It's about how work and family conflict.  Yes, it's also about the bad wigs the Jennings are forced to don (which adds to the charm of the show).

It's also one of the best shows on television, one that simply needs to be watched.  With Breaking Bad and Mad Men ending, perhaps it's time to look over not one but two anti-heroes whom we hate to love. 

Next Episode: Comrades

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Americans: The Colonel Review


True Spies...

As we close out The Americans Season One with The Colonel, we have stories tied up, some great final hurrahs, and an emotional and heartfelt reunions.  We got some brilliant twists and turns and at the end, when so many other programs would leave us with a cliffhanger, The Colonel leaves us with resolution.

The frosty relationship between Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell), both of whom are really KGB spies, has soften a bit.  While still not on the best of terms, we see that they do love their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati).  One person they don't care for is Claudia, whom they nicknamed Grannie (Margo Martindale), their minder who has been reassigned.  However, she has to see their latest mission through: that of getting the colonel Elizabeth's operative Sanford (Tim Hopper) to meet with them and provide important papers on the Strategic Defense Initiative (which was later dubbed 'Star Wars' by the press). Elizabeth is still convinced that all this is a trap, especially since Sanford is in prison and the FBI holding him.  FBI agents Beeman (Noah Emmerich) and Gaad (Richard Thomas) have him, but they have a bigger trap set for the couple they are looking for. 

Using the bug they now know about, they intent to have some hot information for them, and wait until someone comes to pick it up.  Despite Elizabeth and Philip's misgivings on the Colonel, they make plans in case it is a trap.  One of them will flee with the children to Canada, while the other faces the music.  After a lot of discussion Elizabeth makes it Philip has to be the one to flee, while she will meet with the colonel.

Grannie meanwhile has her own scores to settle, but not with Elizabeth for once.  Posing as a slightly muddled sweet old lady, she manages to get CIA Director for Soviet Planning Richard Patterson to let her into his apartment.  After all, what harm could a little old lady do, right?  To Patterson's total shock, she paralyzes him and coldly informs Patterson that she and Zhukov had been lovers, having met in Stalingrad during the war, before coldly slitting his throat. 

A woman is not to be denied.

Despite Elizabeth's plans Philip has left early and left a note telling her she should leave with the children while he takes the meeting with the Colonel.  In turn, Elizabeth will collect the information from the Weinberger bug.  Nina (Annet Mahendru), who will be kept on in the Rezidentura, alerts the Soviets that the FBI knows something, but thinking it involves the Colonel, they send an urgent message to abort the meeting.  However, when Claudia gets the signal and interrupts, both she and Philip are puzzled as to why the FBI hasn't already come out after them.  Immediately they realize this isn't the trap, but that it's the one Elizabeth is going to.  Philip races to stop her, collecting her as she is within sight of Beeman, who while immediately realizing this is the same couple that kidnapped Patterson is completely unaware they are his neighbors/friends.  The FBI attempts furiously to stop them, but Philip's insane driving has them escape.  Elizabeth, however, is hit and is rushed to a safe house.  As she hovers between life and death, Elizabeth finally breaks down, telling Philip in Russian, "Come home".  Philip gives Paige and Henry (who have been staying with the Beemans while waiting for their parents) a cover story about Elizabeth having to care for an aunt who has taken a hard fall and staying with her while she recovers.

At long last with The Colonel we find that Philip and Elizabeth Jennings have indeed formed a bond that neither of them intended.  We see in Russell's performance just how much she loves Philip, for in those simple words Elizabeth says so much.  The fact that she reverted to their native language and the fact that she meant it gives this such a powerful undertone of love and forgiveness. 

I also have to hold up Martindale for her performance.  She uses Grannie as a more complex figure, who is in many ways like Elizabeth: devoted to The Cause but who in this one case, like her frenemy, opts to enact a cruel revenge for her lost love.  She still is outwardly the pleasant figure of innocence, but within her is a cold and ruthless persona.  Elizabeth and Claudia are so much alike, with the exception that Grannie does not have children or a husband to bond with (as far as we know and certainly not in America). 

The Colonel is also thrilling in that it is completely cat-and-mouse, and Joel Fields and The Americans creator Joe Weisberg put the viewer one step ahead of the characters.  WE know what they don't, and the pleasure comes from the tension of when THEY will learn.  There is action (Elizabeth's rescue in particular being a highpoint), but within all that there is a true human core to all the proceedings, which makes both The Colonel and The Americans such a great experience.

The Colonel balances the emotions, particularly with regards to parental feelings over children, with the thrills of a good espionage story.  As a season finale, it closes a lot of storylines, gives us a few more (Paige's growing suspicion about her parents in particular) and has a great mix of action and emotion.


Season One Overview

The Americans: The Oath Review


The Bride Cries, The Groom Spies...

It's every girl's dream to be married (except the girls I send messages to on Match or Christian Mingle: they are in their own words, 'selective', yet wonder why they are alone, but I digress).  It's almost sad, though, seeing the wedding at the center of The Oath, given not only that it is built on lies, but that love will tear them apart (to quote a great 80s band, the late-and-still-missed Joy Division). 

Martha (Alison Wright), the unwitting mole of KGB agent Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys), who has fallen in love with Philip's cover of 'Clark', now finds herself Clark's blushing bride.  He has proposed to her as part of a plan to plant a bug in Agent Gaad's (Richard Thomas) office to find out if they are being set up.  One of Elizabeth's (Keri Russell) recruits, who has a gambling problem, claims that he has turned a high-up military official in the Reagan Administration.  Both Philip and Elizabeth smell a rat, but after they hand over the documents her mole gave her to Claudia aka Grannie (Margo Martindale), Claudia tells them the information is too sensitive to be part of a trap and orders them to proceed.  Elizabeth, already hating Grannie for all she's put her through, wants her out.  A lovestruck Martha, who believes 'Clark' is working for the U.S. counterintelligence, agrees to plant the bug as a pen in Gaad's office.

Meanwhile, Viola (Tonye Patano), the Weinbergers' housekeeper who was forced to plant the bug in the Secretary's office, has been feeling guilty over her actions.  A sermon has convinced her to disclose her information to both Gaad and Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich).  Her description of the couple who forced her to plant the bug appear to match the description they have of Richard Patterson's kidnappers from the previous episode.  Now with this information, the FBI plans their own trap.  Elizabeth goes into a mild panic when her mole Sanford Prince (Tim Hopper) is arrested, but quickly learns it is for failure to pay child support.  She still thinks this is the trap, with everyone unaware the FBI knows about the Weinberger bug.  In a shocking turn, Nina (Annet Mahendru), convinced Stan either knows who killed Vlad or that Stan himself did it, goes to her boss and confesses her treason, offering to become a double agent.

The Oath has a pathos at its center with the wedding of Martha and 'Clark' (surprisingly not surnamed 'Kent').  Martha loves 'Clark' and wants to make a life with him.  'Clark'/Philip/Misha would have the opportunity to have what he has wanted from Elizabeth (a wife, a real wife), yet he still harbors something for Elizabeth.  As Elizabeth, masquerading as 'Clark's sister', she wonders during and after the ceremony if saying the words, if having a wedding ceremony would have affected how their relationship turned out.  It's clear that Elizabeth and Philip, despite themselves, still harbor feelings for the other that reflect marriage. 

There is also something both comical and tragic in having Claudia and Elizabeth pretend to be 'Clark's' family.  In a certain sense, they are his family, as they are the only connection to his roots. 

However, The Oath doesn't skimp on other aspects, particularly the FBI investigation as it is coming to a conclusion as The Americans has one more episode this season.  Story threads that were almost forgotten (such as the spy clock we haven't seen in a while) are now roaring back to the forefront.  How the tangled personal lives of the Jennings' or how they will get away with things will make the finale either a great success or a disaster.


Next Episode: The Colonel

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Americans: Covert War Review


Vengeance Is Mine, Saith The Spies...

As much as I love The Americans as a show, the escalating nature of revenge killings is slowly starting to wear me down.  Covert War dwells on retribution, a tit-for-tat in the Cold War, but eventually the storylines will have to move away from all that.

General Zhukov (Olek Krupa), friend and mentor to Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) has been assassinated in Moscow by orders of FBI head Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas).  Upon learning this from Grannie/Claudia (Margo Martindale), along with the man who ordered the hit, CIA Director of Soviet Planning Richard Patterson (Paul Fitzgerald), Elizabeth swears she will kill Patterson.  Both Grannie and Elizabeth's estranged husband Philip (Matthew Rhys) insist that she not do this, but at the moment she is too blinded by rage to think clearly.

She does have enough foresight to play to Patterson's weak spot: beautiful women who are one-night stands, so she abducts him, intent on torture and execution.  Philip reluctantly agrees to help her take him.  However, Patterson is more than a match for Elizabeth, for he targets her own weak point.  He points out that no one who has been killed is 'innocent', then asks if there is anyone she has ever loved or cared about.  Despite herself, the conflicting emotions of both Zhukov and Philip overwhelm her, forcing her to leave the room before she breaks down in front of Patterson.  Philip urges her to not go with her plan and comforts his distraught wife. 

Agreeing to that, she and Philip return Patterson alive.  However, Elizabeth and Grannie now all but declare war on each other.  Elizabeth is convinced Grannie told her about Patterson in order to have an excuse to get rid of her, and doesn't believe that Grannie and Zhukov had been lovers.  Elizabeth tells Grannie, "This isn't going to end well for you, old lady."

In a subplot, Nina (Annet Mahendru) who is the FBI's mole, has found herself promoted.  While she still doesn't believe that her operative/lover Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) didn't have a hand in the murder of her friend Vlad, she does learn about the bug that was placed in Secretary Weinberger's office.  Philip, for his part, now must go through the awful ritual of meeting the parents of Martha (Alison Wright), his unwitting mole. 

I love how well Martindale and Russell work together.  These two loath each other but also see that the other is a formidable foe not to be underestimated.  Both have similarities that they'd rather not admit to: that of being women who find their devotion to duty conflicts with their own passions.  Russell in particular again showcases her range and that Felicity is now far from memory.  Her angsty freshman now has become a cold, calculating operative.

However, Russell shows us the cracks of her conflicted life.  She genuinely wants Philip as a person to return home, her disappointment about him moving to an apartment instead of back home almost well-hidden.  When she does crumble at Patterson's interrogation, we see that she now is being confronted by the fact that as devoted as she is to The State, she cannot deny her own human frailties.  Similarly, we see with Matthew Rhys the issues that get to Philip.  He is shown with their children, and he is openly affectionate and protective of them, as if he were the more maternal of the pair.  He also shows his discomfort when meeting Martha's parents.  It goes beyond merely 'meeting the parents' to in some vague way, moving past Elizabeth (which he isn't prepared to do).

We even get moments of lightness and comedy, such as when Elizabeth and Sandra Beeman (Susan Misner) go to the 1980s version of clubbing (a disco) and when Stan is surprised to see his son Matthew (Danny Flaherty) in drag, unaware of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and briefly fearing his son may be gay.

Therefore, with everything going for Covert War, why was I not as enthused as I was with other episodes?  I think again all the "I'll kill one, you kill one" business is starting to wear me down, not emotionally but story-wise.  Eventually we are going to have to turn away from all this, and we are getting hints of this with the discovery of the bug from long ago.  That to me shows that like Claudia, The Americans is playing a long game, which is good. 

Covert War was a solid episode and much better in hindsight.  Hopefully though, we'll put a stop to the cycle of violence that is starting to become old hat.


Next Episode: The Oath