Saturday, January 31, 2015

A Brief Retrospective of the African-American Experience Via Cinema

As we enter Black History Month, I will take every Monday this February to examine four films that explore the African-American experience in film.

Granted, my perspective is limited in that I am not African-American.  Thus, I cannot bring a personal perspective as to whether the films are true to how African-Americans see themselves or their history.  However, my perspective is that of someone who loves cinema and who sees in it an excellent way of seeing the changes that have occurred in society.  Sometimes an outsider's vantage point is just as good as those from the inside.

We got in this year's retrospective films that go from the days of slavery right down to a burgeoning black middle-class.  In the four hundred years since the first Africans were brought to the Americas to the election of the first black President, few communities have faced greater adversity and simultaneously enriched the land they found themselves in, becoming a full part of America in its glory and its failures.  The African-American community has grown from being placed in the worst position in America to having major influences in politics, religion, science, business, and the arts.

Before the end of segregation, we had extraordinary figures like Booker T. Washington, Madam C.J. Walker, and George Washington Carver.  We've gone from blacks being forbidden an education to the founding of Howard University, Spelman College, and the rise of respected professors like Henry Louis Gates.  Despite all the bigotry and legalized oppression, African-Americans managed to thrive, survive, and contribute to the American experience.

Film was no exception, from the pioneering work of Oscar Micheaux to the dual images of contemporary black life presented by Spike Lee and Tyler Perry.  Film and its imagery influence how we see the world and others whether we recognize it or not.

Non African-Americans may be given a negative idea about black lives today, that it's all Mike Brown and/or Michael Oher pre-Blind Side, one that is desperate, crime-ridden, and perhaps uneducated.    The idea of the 'thug' may be the reason people fear young black men, and it is up to the viewer if those who make these images through film and music contribute to the irrational fears and negative stereotypes or reflect reality.  African-Americans themselves may think that one cannot be a certain way because it means 'acting white'.  What does that mean?  Are African-Americans responding to how they really are, or on the images of themselves presented to them?

For this retrospective, however, at least this year, those heavy questions will be left for later.  I will concentrate on the films themselves, and hopefully at the end of the month I can concentrate on whether the films do reflect the African-American experience as I understand it.  It's a fascinating subject, one I hope to explore and bring a positive perspective to it.

With that, I begin my African-American Cinema Retrospective of 2015.

Two Image Makers of Black Cinema.
Is it farce, is it real, or is it a combination?

Friday, January 30, 2015

The Librarians: And the Complete First Season Review


History: the 900 Section, FYI.

The Librarians has proven itself a hit thanks to its strong cast, a solid self-awareness, and a strong mix of action, fantasy, and comedy.  In its ten episodes, we have a show that doesn't take itself too seriously, has successfully spun its own mythology and is above all things, just really, really fun.

One of the things I've enjoyed about The Librarians is that the viewer doesn't have to know anything about the three television movies that spawned the series.  I deliberately avoided Quest for the Spear, Return to King Solomon's Mines, and Curse of the Judas Chalice specifically to see if someone needed to know what had come before to understand what was happening.  For full disclosure, I do plan on seeing them now that the season has ended. 

Noah Wyle, who originated the role of Librarian Flynn Carsen, did appear in the two-part series premiere And the Crown of King Arthur/And the Sword in the Stone to tie things together.  However, since he was given a self-appointed mission of recovering The Library lost in the pilot, he appeared sporadically, appearing in four of the ten episodes.  My thinking is that Wyle had more to do as an executive producer on The Librarians, so while Flynn didn't play a large part of the show, Wyle did have a major role on the show.

I think this was a good move on The Librarians part.  It would have been easy to throw Flynn into a series, and it wasn't as if Flynn didn't play a part.  However, by making Flynn's role smaller, it allowed us to embrace the new cast of characters, giving them room to breathe and spinning their own origin stories without having to worry about how they would fit into Flynn's story.

One of the best qualities of The Librarians is that the characters are so varied.  Flynn is a bit of a nebbish, but I imagine for the films this mix of bumbling and brilliance made for a fun character.  Wyle's appearances tie things together, and he still has a wonderful way with making Flynn funny and clever.  However, each of the characters shows that The Librarians is a much stronger show with them working together than as merely aides to Flynn.

For me, The Librarians really is one of the best-cast shows because it seems that each actor is simply perfect in their role.

I like each of the actors and characters, who work so well they make watching The Librarians into a fun experience.  However, there are a few standouts.  One of them is John Larroquette as Jenkins, the cranky, cantankerous caretaker of The Annex.  In turns droll and sarcastic but with almost an innocent streak, you can't help liking how Jenkins is apparently dragged into things.  Larroquette is a master of playing things totally straight.  Aware that the situations sometimes lend themselves to silliness, Larroquette never winks to the audience.  Instead, his Jenkins is one whose humor comes from the fact that he really doesn't go out much.  He makes things funny thanks to his delivery and by not being broad.  Instead, by keeping Jenkins more clueless than obnoxious. 

Jenkins is never mean or cruel.  Sure, he may be sarcastic with the Librarians, but he is sometimes rather endearing in his unaware manner.  It's no surprise that Larroquette, a multiple Emmy Award winner in both comedy and drama, is able to handle the fantastical material as well as he does.  Now that we have a wider storyline with Jenkins being the legendary Sir Galahad, the idea that Larroquette will be a greater figure in The Librarians is a most exciting prospect.

The second standout, and one who has become extremely popular here at Rick's Café Texan, is Christian Kane as Jacob Stone.  I can say what I like about Kane's portrayal of Jake is that he is someone who in a lot of ways, reminds me of me.  Granted, I don't think I can rock the hat and buckle as well as he can, but Stone, like me, is someone who appreciates art and history but who is also unapologetically country. 

Stone, like Jenkins, is an endearing character.  He is obviously extremely bright but not afraid of a brawl.  In fact, he's pretty eager for one (a big difference between Stone and myself).  Kane balances the believability of a roughneck who secretly writes papers on 19th Century French Impressionists.  I think Stone is one of the most fascinating characters on The Librarians because unlike Jenkins, Flynn, or Cassandra (more about her in a bit), Stone has a bit of a dual identity.  They all can celebrate or be celebrated for being highly intelligent.  Jake, on the other hand, feels compelled to hide his gift, and finds in this group a chance to be his whole self: the redneck and the intellectual.  Like Larroquette, Kane has a strong comedic gift.  One of my favorite moments was in And Santa's Midnight Run, when Stone is genuinely puzzled as to why no one appreciates architecture (art we live in, he calls it), and when he flings himself to save a rare Asian figure.  This guy who thinks Christmas should have bar fights also cannot bear the idea of something so rare and fine be lost forever, especially due to his own hand.

I've seen and heard some bashing towards Lindy Booth as Cassandra Cillian, the 'sweet' character.  The fact that she is the opposite of Rebecca Romijn's tough Colonel Eve Baird might put Booth at a slight disadvantage.  However, I think some of Booth's best moments are when she is allowed to play against her image of the innocent.  The moment in And the Apple of Discord when she turned into a power-mad sex kitten let us in on a secret: Cassandra and Booth could be dangerous and yet funny at the same time. 

There are some issues with Cassandra.  The subplot of her originally betraying the group comes and goes a lot.  She also is sometimes relegated to just being the 'sweet' one, a bit of Rose Nylund from The Golden Girls.  Then again, I do have a bit of a soft spot for her since on a quiz, I tested as a 'Rose'.   While I expect there to be a Season Two, I hope we'll see Cassandra not relegated to 'being protected' and has a more expanded role on the show.

Same can be said for John Kim's Ezekiel Jones.  Sometimes he appears to be the outlier, as Jones is the only one who doesn't appear to have any interest in actual learning but in using any wits to make a fast buck.  Sometimes he almost comes across as an idiot, as when in And the Apple of Discord he kept digging himself further into a mess by his stubborn refusal to listen to Jenkins.  However, Kim has shown that Jones can, on occasion, do the right thing.  He can even be noble, and in And the Fables of Doom we saw that in his own way, Jones can be quite caring towards others without any profit motivation.

Finally, there is Rebecca Romijn as Eve Baird, the Librarians' Guardian.  Briefly, I'm glad she is softening, not in terms of strength, but in inability to accept magic as real.  I'm glad we have her to fill in the role of the muscle, and that Romijn plays well with the conventions of the tough colonel.  She has a strong sense of comedy whenever Eve is made the joke, but at least she's good enough to never overplay the 'Eve's dumb or not as bright as Flynn or Jenkins' bit.  She is a bit like the mother hen to the group, and Romijn hopefully will put a few things together in any upcoming season. 

The most fascinating thing to me is how The Librarians has become a family show. I don't know if that is how The Librarians was meant to be, but I'm glad it has become a family-friendly show.  There are many shows I like that I think are for adults.  Certainly The Americans and Bates Motel are things I could never watch with my kids.  Even Gotham is a bit iffy.  When it comes to The Librarians, though, I don't worry.  The mix of fun and fantasy allow me to take in the show without feeling excluded or the need to shield my parents or children from the screen.    

Many of the comments I've read, and the surveys I've filed out, emphasize that The Librarians is thought of as a show that everyone can enjoy together.  Children enjoy the fantasy aspects, teens have action, adults have comfort in that nothing on The Librarians is either too scary or tawdry (apart from a few 's-hits' thrown at us).  There is violence, but it's a fantasy-centered violence that isn't graphic (plus, it is in self-defense or defense of others).  There's no graphic sex or nudity on the show, and the romance we see between Flynn and Eve is sweet and extremely clean.  The Librarians is clean, but clean does not equal boring.  It's fun, goofy, irreverent, but it embraces all that, which makes it all the more fun, goofy, and irreverent.

A survey question asks me if The Librarians fits into the TNT brand.  Odd given that TNT just ended (mercifully) the merry hijinks of a couple of men-children who reveled in booze and broads.  In the Franklin & Bash pilot, we saw Mark-Paul Gosselaar's ass spread before us in all its glory.  In The Librarians pilot, we had Noah Wyle playing with Excalibur with the enthusiasm of a twelve-year-old. 

For me, one who works at an actual library, I love the fact that The Librarians celebrates knowledge.  It plays with the idea that librarians are stern, meek, and just interested in the Dewey Decimal System.  It makes intelligence and teamwork central to having a fun and fantastic life.  The Librarians is a great mix of witty and whimsy, one that knows what it is and embraces it.  It's a fun frolic, where magic is real, the characters individually strong but perfect in unity, played by a strong cast that makes each character unique and interesting.  The scripts are fun and logical (at least for the world of The Librarians) and in the final analysis, The Librarians is a romp, a lark, and just a really good time.

Here's to a highly successful First Season, and hoping Season Two will be equally successful.

Storytime?  I've got your Storytime.
Seriously, it's on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays at 11.
Cookies and punch served after.

Next Episode: And the Drowned Book

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Librarians: And the Loom of Fate Review


"Seems we just got started and before you know it/Comes the time we have to say, 'So Long'..."

The lyrics to The Carol Burnett Show came to me after watching And the Loom of Fate because they fit so well.  It seems that The Librarians premiered not that long ago and now, it's over.  And the Loom of Fate gave us a very interesting 'what if?' scenario that gave the main cast a chance to show different range to them as actors and left us with an interesting suggestion that next season (and I think TNT would be bonkers not to renew a show that has been a hit critically and especially with families when family-friendly fare is so rare) we may have specific Librarian-centered stories.

Colonel Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn) finds herself bleeding, and then we slip into what appears to be her memories.  The Guardian and the Librarians, Jake Stone (Christian Kane), Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth), and Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) are fighting mummies in ancient Egypt as they work to find an object the Main Librarian, Flynn Carsen (Noah Wyle), has sent them to find.  Flynn is back, telling them that he might have found a way to bring the Library back.  Once they come together, a doorway to another dimension can be opened that can bring the Library back.  Fortunately for Flynn and the others, all the objects that have been recovered, working in tandem, can be used to bring the Library back.

Only one hiccup, when the door opens, it's Duloque (Matt Frewer) appears at the Annex, with his loyal henchwoman, Lamia (Leslie Anne-Brandt).  He will now take over, and all he needs is human blood.  As he stands over Flynn, Duloque stabs Lamia, shocking everyone.  With his blood sacrifice, he races through the door, with Flynn and Eve giving chase.  They find themselves at The River of Time, with the Loom of Fate on its bank.  Before they can stop him, Duloque cuts the loom at a particular point, right before Camelot fell. 

At this point, all heck breaks loose.  Eve finds herself in an alternate world, where Flynn Carsen was never The Librarian.  Instead, Flynn was what he was prior to his first Librarians adventure: highly intelligent but a bit of a bumbler, insecure, and unsteady.  He also does not believe in magic and is puzzled as to what Eve is doing here. 

Eve quickly figures out that she has slipped into another world, and soon she and Flynn are world-hopping, finding a different main Librarian at every stop.  In the first world, Jacob Stone is THE Librarian, all kick-ass with a bit of romance going on between him and Eve, who was his Guardian.  Operate word 'was', as he tells Eve that she was killed ten years ago.  Stone, while competent, was not able to get the math right...because that isn't his specialty.  Flynn, however, was able, and thus save the day.

Flynn and Eve bounce again, this time to the world of Team Jones, where Ezekiel is THE Librarian.  For good or bad, this Jones tells Eve he didn't see her as a lover.  For good or bad, he saw her as a mother!  Eve is also unhappy to learn that...ten years ago in this world, she died too.  Jones is able to handle all sorts of technology, but was unable to remove a zombie-like effect after his team fixed the haunted house....because he is a tech/security expert, not history.  Flynn was able fix the situation and they bounce to a third world.

By now you should know who managed to be THE Librarian in this world.  Cassandra lives up to her name, as she has become something of a sorceress and protégé of Morgan LeFay, a Witch Librarian.   Cassandra can summon the spirits through her math skills but cannot save the world...because she has no help in controlling her powers.  Cassandra realizes why the Flynn/Eve team is floating through various timelines: Duloque in his eagerness to restore Camelot has cut the Loom of Fate but not reweaved it, thus leaving a gap in time.  She tells them that the Loom has to be mended to restore all things, but it must come from material close to the Loom's original creation.  The thread from the Labyrinth is good enough, but it only exists in the Flynn-centered world.  Using her magic, Cassandra summons the other alternate Librarians and they manage to get to Eve's world.  Instructing them to go to right before Duloque cut the thread, Flynn realizes that if they do, these alternate Librarians will cease to exist.  They however, agree to sacrifice themselves.

They find themselves back to that moment, and just as they are about to find success, Duloque manages to stab Eve.  While Flynn is restored to THE Librarian, he finds he's no match for the sword of Duloque, who is really Sir Lancelot Du Loc (Jerry O'Connell).  There is only one who can, and it's JENKINS!  We get confirmation of what we thought: Jenkins is really Sir Galahad!  He makes quick defeat of Du Loc but Eve is still dying.  Flynn will not let her die, but there is hope.  With the Library restored, he rushes to find the Elixir that restores her to life.  Jenkins gives each Librarian in Training a mini version of the Clippings Book to allow them to seek out their own missions.  Cassandra opens hers to find a mission in Lima.  As it so happens, Jones knows an excellent place to get coffee in Lima, and Stone's always wanted to go to Machu Picchu.  For their part, Eve and Flynn decide to take the door to other dimensions, for an adventure of their own.

I Want This Suit!

And the Loom of Fate ties a lot up (no pun intended).  It brings in all the other objects that the various Librarians have brought together and use them for one purpose, almost as if it were fate... Granted, we get strong indication that all this was basically pre-planned, but it is I think handled extremely well.  I don't think any Librarians fan imagined that the various objects found would somehow find their way back to being part of the season finale.

We also get a fascinating revelation involving Jenkins.  Once Morgana (who I'm hoping and expecting to make a return appearance in the Second Season, which hopefully will be announced soon) referred to Jenkins as 'Galeas', we knew that he had a deeper mystery.  We also knew that, if one did a quick search, what his identity really was.  We also got this through the name Duloque, which frankly was a bit more obvious.   I'm not too surprised we had this unmasking, but it is nice to have it confirmed: Jenkins, the stuffy, cantankerous Librarian, is really the legendary Sir Galahad, who had the strength of ten because his heart is pure.

As a side note, Jenkins could be the Galahad of tradition, someone who thinks on a different level and who seeks the Ultimate Magic Object: The Holy Grail itself.  Will we ever have this most mystical and venerated of objects appear on The Librarians?  That remains to be seen.  Larroquette is still for me one of my favorite Librarian actors: he is wonderful in the comic moments as the somewhat crabby, fussy Jenkins who'd rather not leave the Annex for any reason, but he also surprises when he has to duel Du Loc, whom I thought was Sir Galahad's father. 

It was surprising to see O'Connell (who just happens to be Romijn's husband) pop up, and his appearance as the younger Du Loc was far too quick, which is a shame because I think it would have made things more interesting if O'Connell had had a bit more to do. 

We also had some simply great moments with Romijn and Wyle as they jumped from world to world.  Wyle's Flynn Carsen I imagine was in the original Librarian movies to be a little bit humorous, and in And the Loom of Fate we see Wyle can be extremely funny in his bumbling manner.  Romijn too does well, expressing her frustration that in every world, Eve dies.  They make a great comic pair, especially in the Jones sequence where she doesn't want to admit that she can be old enough to be Jones' mother, with Flynn obliviously telling her she could. 

Another simply hilarious moment was when they entered the first Alternate World and terrorists told them to 'turn around'.  Following orders, they opposite directions.  This bit of physical comedy was handled straight, making it more hilarious. 

Another highlight to And the Loom of Fate was that we did see that each Librarian in Training showed that they work much better as a team than as individuals.  This not only gives us a chance to see what the world would be like with them working alone but a chance for each of the actors to have their particular moment.  Kane was excellent as the action lead who can think, Kim showed excellent range as the somewhat more responsible Jones, and Booth was quietly elegant as the Sorceress.  "Quiet, I'm doing math," she tells all of them in a gentle voice.  Her quiet command of the situation was equally a highlight.

I'm glad to see The Librarians open the door to potentially having some episodes centered around a specific Librarian.  I'm not opposed to it, but I think the show works so well because each character compliments the other and as a team...everything is awesome (sorry, couldn't resist). 

Sadly, I'm knocking two points from And the Loom of Fate for two reasons.  One, I thought the Du Loc situation wrapped up a little too fast (and does leave us wandering whether our favorite Arthurian bad guy will come back...hopefully with Mordred).  Two, I wanted more of the duel with Jenkins.  I wanted a full-on sword fight and didn't get it.

Granted, those are a bit silly, but like the show itself, I have self-awareness that all this is meant to be fun, funny, and a shameless lark.  Standout performances by John Larroquette and Noah Wyle, continued excellent teamwork from Kane, Booth, Kim, and Romijn, a few wild twists and turns, some great scenarios make And the Loom of Fate an excellent season-ending story. 



The Complete First Season

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Librarians: And the City of Light Review


And the City of Light brings us a touch of Somewhere in Time in a storyline, along with an interesting concept: what if Rebecca Romijn's Colonel Eve Baird wasn't there?  We get a less magical-centered story and a more science-fiction centered one, but that doesn't take away from having And the City of Light continue The Librarians' strong balance of whimsy and self-awareness.

UFOs are at the center of And the City of Light, as the Librarians begin investigating the disappearance of an alien hunter in upstate New York.  Jenkins (John Larroquette), the Library Annex's cranky caretaker, insists there are no such things as aliens, though one of the Librarians in Training, Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) insists there are.  It's off to Collins Falls, where Norman (John J. Joseph), said alien hunter, has disappeared.  The other L.I.Ts soon notice curious things.  Jacob Stone (Christian Kane) notices that the lampposts are rather old-fashioned, as if they were meant to evoke Paris (THE City of Light).  He also strikes up a curious romance with Mabel Collins (Haley Webb), town archivist and who, like Stone, yearns to leave her hometown.  Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth) knows the lampposts and the town itself is somehow off, but it isn't until the Librarian's Guardian, Eve, disappears in front of a stunned Jones that we see that Collins Falls is much more than meets the eye.

Much to Jenkins' chagrin (commenting that only these Librarians could lose their Guardian), we come across the town secrets.  First, the town is not really Collins Falls.  It is Wardenclyffe Falls, and that the lights people have been mistaken for aliens are really energy bursts that allow the citizens of Wardenclyffe/Collins Falls to inhabit other people's bodies.  It may not be aliens from outer space, but it is an Invasion of Body Snatchers.  This was done back in 1915 through the work of one Nikola Tesla, who back then had done an experiment that trapped the citizens in something like a parallel universe.  Tesla managed to stabilize them, but they are essentially trapped, and the only way to deal with the present-day world is through 'body snatching', though the actual snatching is for a brief period of time.  Victor Finch, though, has been held onto by one of the town's citizens, Norman, far longer than usual.  Mabel, thanks to Tesla, is the stabilizing force that keeps things in check.

Jones does not want to help the town, finding it horrifying that they could justify taking other people's bodies, even temporarily.  However, with Eve still trapped in that world, and with a chance to rescue the people who through no fault of their own are as trapped as Eve, the Librarians decide to help attempt a rescue by finishing up Tesla's work before the mechanisms become totally useless.  Doing the calculations, Cassandra realizes that the danger is simply too great and that the experiment has a high percentage of bringing more destruction.  Norman/Finch, however, has basically gone mad, determined to escape his prison.  He will not be denied and is determined to see the experiment go through.  The danger they face makes things difficult for Stone, who has fallen in love with Mabel (a feeling that is reciprocated) and Stone knows that this could mean Mabel could disappear from his life forever. 

In the end, though, the danger must be faced, and the Librarians are forced to shut down the experiment.  They do rescue Eve and the present-day people but the citizens of Collins/Wardenclyffe Falls are lost forever.  The Librarians, and Eve in particular, are devastated that they could not help.  Sometimes you just lose, Eve tells them.  Jenkins, however, offers a glimmer of hope: reminding Eve that it will take a century to try again, he gives her an 'appointment book', where she details all the information for future Librarians to give it a second try.  While Jones and Cassandra go out for drinks, Stone declines, saying he has somewhere to go.  He opens the portal to go to Paris, deciding on his own that he will explore the world the way Mabel so desperately wanted to but was not able to.

Again, what is curious about And the City of Light is that it is not based on magic.  Tesla has become this embodiment of either a mad scientist or futuristic genius who could do all sorts of impossible things, and the episode builds on Tesla's popular reputation as this brilliant technical visionary to create its tale.  It does bring back to mind the idea that technology can be mistaken for magic, and the myth of Tesla (versus the actual scientist himself) is what ground And the City of Light.  This is, to my mind, the first Librarians episode not built on magic or having very little to do with magic if at all.

That isn't a negative.  It's nice to hear Tesla come up with something pretty outlandish yet plausible (at least coming from his perspective).  And the City of Light had a lot going for it.  It has a fun adventure story, a villain, and a few new touches.  Romijn was not a large part of And the City of Light, and I think this was interesting because it does give us an idea of how the other Librarians can work if not independent of their Guardian, at least without her protecting them.  Of course, the important thing to remember is that there was no real external threat to the Librarians save for Finch/Norman, who was disposed of when, though Tesla's work, Eve took over Ezekiel's body. 

We had the great bits of comedy as well, and most were brought to us by Larroquette, who has been one of the big standouts of The Librarians.  Whether it's his droll and crabby manner with these young'uns (such as when he expresses astonishment/irritation they would lose their protector) or when the joke's on him, Larroquette really excels. To get their attention, Cassandra sends out a 'mosquito tone', a frequency only young people can hear (which is why Jones is the only one who heard it).  "Sorry, Jenkins," Cassandra says, and Larroquette's expression is brilliant (though as a side note, does this mean the 40-year-old Kane/Stone is now 'old'?  Perish the thought!).

What we also got that we haven't was a bit of romance with Mabel/Stone.  Both of them share a common bond in their desire to leave their hometown but with a sense of obligation holding them back (physically and mentally).  We see a softer side to Stone thanks to Kane, another breakout from the show.  It's nice to see that we can have a touch of a love story that allows characters to have something like lives/interests outside the Library (although it isn't surprising that this particular romance ends suddenly and tragically). 

Here, I do wonder whether it was a good idea to eliminate any possibility of Mabel's return.  It does kind of take away from giving the characters a chance to have something beyond the Library to be involved with.  I also do wonder if things got a bit rushed, but on that point I won't be too harsh given that this episode, like all the others is only an hour long.  There is only so much one can fit in.

And the City of Light gives us a somewhat more science-fiction based story, and a bit of a downer with Mabel being lost and gone forever (dreadful sorry...).  Stone goes to Paris, and while we are happy that he has decided to live his life, a little part of us is genuinely sad that he will not be able to share it with Mabel (apart from keeping her memory with him).   

Lead, Kindly Light...



Next Episode: And the Loom of Fate

Friday, January 23, 2015

The Imitation Game: A Review (Review #691)


It is extremely, extremely tempting to look on The Imitation Game as the British answer to A Beautiful Mind (except they actually, albeit gingerly, suggest a non-traditional sexual orientation for the lead character).  Alan Turing, like John Nash, was generally anti-social, unaware of the niceties of social interaction, and a brilliant, brilliant man who did great work for the world.  It is also tempting to look on The Imitation Game as Benedict Cumberbatch trying his hand at both a variation of his Sherlock Holmes from Sherlock while trying to add an Oscar to his Emmy for Sherlock.  The Imitation Game was respectable, almost inoffensive, and well-made.  However, it's a curious thing that for a film about someone who suffered emotionally and physically as a result of his homosexuality, Turing's private life was frankly irrelevant to The Imitation Game.

Bouncing back and forth from 1951, when a break-in at the home of Professor Alan Turing (Cumberbatch) leads into an investigation that outs Turing as a homosexual rather than a Soviet spy, to 1927 when he experiences bullying and the first stirrings of love for the only classmate who shows him any kindness, The Imitation Game stays mostly in the 1940s, where Turing is part of a secret group that is tasked with breaking Enigma, the 'unbreakable' Nazi code.  Turing is one of those maladjusted geniuses: literal to the point of insanity, unable to understand the nuances of social graces, and not able to work or play well with others.  Brought in, with the greatest reluctance, to work on Enigma, Turing is both irritating and uncooperative with the other cryptologists assigned to the project.  Project head Hugh Alexander (Matthew Goode), along with John Cairncross (Allen Leech) and Peter Hilton (Matthew Beard) find themselves working on their own while Turing tinkers with his massive machine, which he calls Christopher.

Christopher is not doing as well as Turing believes it should, and Commander Denniston (Charles Dance) can't wait to get rid of the irritating Turing.  However, Turing has some unofficial help from Joan Clarke (Keira Knightley), who admires Turing's genius and is quite bright on her own.  The fact that she is a woman keeps her stuck in the secretarial pool of the project, but Turing constantly seeks out a mind after his own heart.  He does propose marriage, she does accept, but it won't work because he is gay, with only Cairncross figuring it out.  A Eureka moment allows for a major breakthrough that breaks Enigma, but Turing is suspected of being a spy.  Only the help of Stuart Menzies (Mark Strong), MI6 official, keeps Turing from being totally dismissed.  The war is done, the group splits up, and then we find in the end that Turing committed suicide after finishing forced treatment that left him chemically castrated after being convicted for gross indecency.

In many ways, The Imitation Game has a bit of an identity crisis.  Its focus on Turing working to break Enigma is such that when we jump in and out to Turing's pre or post-war activities (his thwarted romance with Christopher or his arrest), it seems to just wander in with little need to be there.  The film itself could have been satisfactory with just the 'break Enigma' story or it could have been acceptable if it had been about an unjustly persecuted man.  Instead, The Imitation Game wants it both ways and shortchanges both.

We see this regarding Turing's relationship with Clarke.  The way director Morten Tyldum presents us, it does seem to be something almost genuinely romantic.  We should know Turing is gay and that if Turing has any feelings for Clarke, it is one of actual respect (something he doesn't have for anyone really).  However, as presented to us, if we had little to no knowledge of Turing's private life, the audience would be none the wiser.  Same goes for his early fixation with Christopher.  As presented to us, young Turing could merely have grown obsessed with someone who shows him genuine kindness and whatever suggestion of romance there might be is remarkably shrouded; it is almost as if there were any actual romantic or even erotic feeling within Turing, it comes from Turing's imagination.  We don't get a hint that Christopher feels the same way, and his off-screen death takes away whether Christopher felt the same way about the oddball Turing. 

I say 'oddball' because as both child and adult, Alan Turing comes across as more than unlikeable.  He comes across as genuinely creepy, a 'low functioning sociopath' if you will.  With a voice that sounds as if he has a stuffed nose and all sorts of quirks and tics, Benedict Cumberbatch's Alan Turing is a variation of his Sherlock Holmes (and no, he isn't the greatest Sherlock Holmes ever...VIVA JEREMY BRETT!). He's prickly, arrogant, and genuinely unaware of how to work with people.  In some ways, it is almost amusing to see how bizarre Cumberbatch can make Turing. 

Take when he presents the team he's worked hard to isolate himself from apples as a gesture.  Why apples?  Well, because he likes apples, and Joan told him he should give the team a gift they'd enjoy.  He then tries to tell a joke in his halting, hesitant manner, though I think he genuinely doesn't understand the punchline. 

As a side note, whether it is in good taste to have Turing present the team apples when his suicide involved eating a cyanide-laced apple is up to the audience.  Those none the wiser might not think much of it.  Those who either know or discover this (as I did) may wonder whether Graham Moore (adapting Andrew Hodges' biography, Alan Turing: The Enigma) is trying to be too clever and 'inside' with these little touches. 

Cumberbatch is fine I suppose, effective but calculated as Turing.  There is to me something mannered and precise in Cumberbatch's performance, where you can figure he is working to act rather than working to be.  Granted, it is nowhere as mannered and calculated as his Oscar rival Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything, but it is deliberate nonetheless.  Since Cumberbatch is so dominant to The Imitation Game, everyone else is really there to bounce off him.

Goode has one emotion (perpetual frustration at Turing), Branson the chauffeur on Downton Abbey (who looked a bit tubby to me) was just there to provide a subplot about blackmail and espionage.  Knightley has a more expanded role due to the fact that Clarke has Turing's respect and the only man who treats her as an equal, finding the mind more important than the gender.

I actually thought a film about her would have been more interesting than the film about him.

Knightley did well, but nothing that warrants the lavish praise she's earned.  Still, it's good to see an actress lying about there.

One real highlight is Alexandre Desplat's score, which fit into the mathematical center of the film.

On the whole, The Imitation Game is respectable, efficient, a bit misguided because it loses focus and interest when it moves away from the central story of breaking Enigma to Turing's pre/post war life.  I find The Imitation Game would work well on Masterpiece Theater, which is OK. In the end, it was good not great.



Thursday, January 22, 2015

Divergent: A Review (Review #690)


Is it me, or do all Young Adult literary series share some similarities, such as being unnecessarily and extremely long, insisting that our characters live in dystopia, and be really, really dumb?  I'm no fan of The Hunger Games series, finding it puzzling that after 75 years of brutality from the Capital, a somewhat surly teenage girl is the lynchpin to revolution.  After watching Divergent, I find not only no desire to return to the series, but wondering why it has to be THREE books long (and four films, with the third part of the trilogy. Allegiant, like Hunger Games' Mockingjay, being broken up to two films) when the first story/film was not only dull but pretty much appears to have ended the story?  

Chicago, the not-too-distant-future.  Society has been divided into five factions: Erudite (the intellectuals), Candor (the honest), Amity (the friendly farmers), Abnegation (the selfless) and Dauntless (the muscle).  There is another group, called Factionless, who are the homeless of Chicagoland, because they don't belong to a group. 

Already all I keep thinking is, 'Veronica Roth, the series' author, is laying on the 'life as high school' metaphor really, really thick'. 

Beatrice Prior (Shailene Woodley) is the daughter of Abnegation, who finds she doesn't fit in to her specific group.  Her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) appears to be a better fit for self-sacrifice.  For about one hundred years Abnegation, being the noble group that they are, have been in charge of the government for all this time.  However, there are stirrings of coups, with Erudite chomping at the bit to be the government.  At age 16, all citizens are given a test to see what group they will go to.  Beatrice's tests are...shockingly, inconclusive.  She is a divergent, one who fits more than one group.  This must be kept completely quiet, as all divergents are being exterminated with extreme prejudice.

In what I think is a bizarre turn, while all children are tested to see where they will fit in, they still get to choose what group they will go to (begging the question, if they get to choose, why test them in the first place?).  To the shock of their parents Natalie (Ashley Judd) and Andrew (Tony Goldwyn), Caleb chooses Erudite, and Beatrice chooses Dauntless.  Immediately they are thrown into training.  We skip Caleb's because book-learning should be rather boring, while jumping off trains and shooting things is more exciting.

New transfers include the now-rechristened Tris' new friend Christina (Zoe Kravitz), Will (Ben Lloyd-Hughes), Al (Christian Madsen), and Peter (Miles Teller).  They are trained by the enigmatic Four (Theo James) and Eric (Jai Courtney).  We get a lot of training where Tris shows improving skills, with some secret help from Four.  She also is facing great threats from inside and outside, with her divergent identity still haunting her.  Tris and Four stumble into a conspiracy involving Jeanine (Kate Winslet), an Erudite who plans on taking over the world.  She uses drugs to control Dauntless and use them as a private army to exterminate Abnegation, including killing her parents.  She and Four attempt to stop the controlled Dauntless, and it costs the lives of both her parents.  Fortunately, Caleb has turned against Erudite, and Four and Tris defeat Jeanine and take the A train to go outside the walls of Chicago.

Often during the screening of Divergent, I stopped the DVD to do other things: read, check my e-mail, bake a cake.  I did this to relive the boredom that Divergent was if nothing else, terribly terribly boring.  Must all dystopian worlds be so humorless? 

One of my chief complaints about Divergent is that pesky question of logic.  Again, why test in the first place if you get to choose what group you want? 

As a side note, Roth at the very least was inspired by The Giver, for the stories share similarities (our lead not 'fitting in' within their sealed-off world after a devastating war, a ceremony to select what group/duty each teen will be given for life, a rebellion of sorts against the system and desperate efforts by the leadership to keep things as they are for the population's own good of course).  With The Hunger Games, it shares a female lead, a warrior-type who is not a natural fighter but rises to the occasion to take on the dangerous leadership (President Snow or Erudite head Jeanine). 


Then there is the 'factionless' group.  My goodness what a pathetic bunch.  So the deal is if you fail at the tests/training for a particular group, you are expelled from the group and not allowed to return to your original group (hence, 'factionless').  What I didn't understand is why didn't the 'factionless' themselves lead a revolution to take over or at least give the other factions endless trouble?  Are they that pathetic and hopeless.  Why would they be so willing to go along with things?  If by some odd chance you were born into Factionless, could you still test at all?

Again, what was up with the testing?  I didn't understand how one could possibly score 100 on any particular scale.  100 years would not be enough time to eliminate total honest from every human, or personal courage, or intellect, so by 'logic', every person should have shown traits of all factions and thus be 'divergent' in some way.  So, if one was a totally honest Dauntless-born, would you honestly fail to be totally honest with Candor and thus become 'factionless'?

Look, it isn't as if I don't understand what Roth was going for: some overt allegory of the high school experience where people divide themselves into cliques.  The fact I understand something, however, doesn't mean I have to say it makes sense in the world Roth created.  It doesn't.  I know that when you're a teen, you can feel as if being/not being in a particular group is the end of the world, but I simply couldn't accept the reality of this Chicagoland Dystopia thrown at me.

Even the sheer illogic to stupid plot, perhaps, I could go along with, if there was something of interest.  However, everyone in Divergent appears so bored or uninterested in the project.  It isn't as if at least on screen, some of them don't show how much contempt they have for the film that pays them thousands if not millions of dollars.  Miles Teller, someone I genuinely admire, does himself no favors in Divergent, being merely a quip-spouting machine in a kind of role and performance he could do in his sleep (and judging from the final project, might actually have been).  Elgort, someone I don't genuinely admire, didn't do badly as Caleb, but he too looked a bit bored with it all.

Same goes for Courtney's crabby Eric, one note short of one note as he just snapped at people everywhere.  James, someone who is physically correct as the romantic lead, similarly looks dead, showing no emotion either in the romance with Tris or when he has to train anyone.

The women fared slightly better, even if Judd had nothing to do but look fretful (Goldwyn being a black figure).  Woodley and Kravitz at least conveyed that Tris and Christina had a genuine friendship, and maybe if we'd have more focus on that we might have had a more interesting movie.  Winslet had to be a villain, and I figure she did well because it was pretty obvious she was a villain.

Finally, here is where I again wonder about all this.  Divergent ends with Tris and Four defeating Jeanine's wicked scheme and Jeanine running off.  Tris and Four, along with some others, jump the train that goes into the Great Unknown, but from my vantage point, they could have ended the series (let alone the book) with the villain being beaten and Tris and Four leading a new truly factionless world.  Why keep it going, seeing as how boring it was?

Seriously, we have to sit through three more movies like this?   


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Ring Them Bells, For School's Back In

Well, we're back to schoolbooks.

It's the first day of Spring 2015 at UNT, and thus, it will cut back considerably in terms of postings, hence my mad rush to publish as much as I could before now.

Like last year, I will be posting, but it will not be as frenetic as it has been in the past few weeks.   Some semesters have been relatively easy.  Some have been extremely tough.  I have no idea which one I will have.

Personally, I dislike going through all this.  School gets in the way of more important things (J/K).  I hope to be able to put in a few, but for anyone keeping up with Rick's Café Texan or my sister site Gallifrey Exile, I may be silent for a few days or even weeks. 

I shall be back, but I think it's fair to let people know the truth rather than think I'll be gone.

Hope to be back very, very soon. 

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

The Librarians: And the Heart of Darkness Review


And the Heart of Darkness was a good mixture of spooky and serious with a hint of humor that balanced things out when it would get too creepy. 

The Librarians: Jake Stone (Christian Kane), Ezekiel Jones (John Kim), and Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth), along with their Guardian, Eve Baird (Rebecca Romijn), come across a frightened young girl in Slovakia.  Katie Bender (Lea Zawada) is covered in blood, and running to see help.  Up in a house, she and three of her friends were staying as they hiked across the Continent, and they are all in mortal danger.  Eve takes Jake and Ezekiel up to the house, while leaving Cassandra to watch Kate.  Cassandra is extremely displeased at being left behind, almost to being a nanny because in Eve's eyes she can't be action-oriented.

Both Stone and Jones realize that the house is not normal: it's an American pioneer home in the middle of Slovakia, and too many things are going 'bump in the night'.  Jones is all for leaving the house, but like the guy in the movies as he says, no one listens to Ezekiel.  Jenkins (John Larroquette) tells them that there are six houses which they might have stumbled into, picking the Shadow Box as the most likely candidate.  These are the original 'haunted houses', and it is always dangerous.  They have to find and destroy the dark force behind it by midnight or be killed or trapped inside (much to Jones and Stone's irritation, who wonder why it always has to be midnight).

The house is full of foreboding and danger, and one by one the Librarians save Cassandra get trapped in what appears to be a dollhouse.  Jones is pretty stoked about being there, for the dollhouse grants wishes, but Stone and Eve are desperate to get out.  They also observe a series of photographs that serve as a clue.  Cassandra, who is with Katie, soon discovers that Katie literally came with the house.  She is part of the machinations, for Katie wishes to be the Angel of Death.  Cassandra, for her part, wishes to save her friends.  It's a battle to see who will win out, and Cassandra ends up saying the day.   The house, Cassandra informs the others, is really The House of Refuge, which is there to grant wishes.  The Bloody Benders, a group of serial killers who disappeared from history, had wandered into the house long ago, and with Katie's wish to be a master murderess, the house did as it was told.  Now, it was free to be the pleasant shelter it was always meant to be.

And the Heart of Darkness is a bit more gruesome that most Librarians episodes, dealing with traditional horror elements (a shadowy figure throwing axes around, creepy children songs playing on an old-style phonograph bringing up memories of something like Insidious).  However, the episode balances the more creepy elements with a certain strong level of humor.  Jones appears almost innocent when he tells Stone that the house they're in might be the Star Trek transporter or even the TARDIS.  He's still mostly a self-centered figure, but in his delivery of how he could believe things like Star Trek or Doctor Who to be real is hilarious.  Kim even has a great moment with Kane during his monologue about taking advantage of the house, when he tells Stone he could ask for 'whomever backwoods country people' think are hot. 

It's also good to have the issue of how Eve sees Cassandra addressed.  It might be that because Cassandra is a woman and not trained to fight like either Jake or Ezekiel and is generally gentle, Eve may think she isn't strong enough in any way to tackle dangers.  However, Booth proved to be both strong and intelligent and brave in how she handled the situation and Katie in particular.  The twist of having Katie be evil isn't a big twist.  The twist of having her be part of the Bloody Benders was.  The twist of the haunted house be really the House of Refuge puts the best twist on the story itself.

As the guest star, Zawada was excellent, having to play a sympathetic and villainous character within a short span.  Again, it wasn't a big twist to know Katie was the one behind the mayhem, but Zawada played both parts extremely well without overdoing either. 

We also got light moments in the episode, thanks to the always reliable Larroquette, who is so fun with his at-times clueless Jenkins.  He is perfectly willing to go through a catalogue of homes without being aware that the group is in danger, only to be cut off by Eve, who snaps, "I don't need the real estate ad from Hell". 

It's nice to see the cast of The Librarians work so well together and keep things exciting and entertaining without being too frightening.  The fact we have a happy ending makes And the Heart of Darkness not as light as previous episodes, but still a good one. 



Next Episode: And the City of Light

The Librarians: And the Rule of Three Review


And the Rule of Three is I think the best Librarians episode so far.  It has a wonderful combination of humor, adventure, and heart.  It also builds up a mystery that I'm sure will be integrated into future stories, as well as a guest star who I'm glad will be returning to be a foil to our intrepid investigators.

The Librarians: art expert Jake Stone (Christian Kane), mathematic genius Cassandra Cillian (Lindy Booth), and master thief Ezekiel Jones (John Kim) along with their Guardian Eve Laird (Rebecca Romijn) go to a STEM Fair (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).  This is right up Cassandra's street, as she loves science fairs, and all the others go with varying degrees of enthusiasm.  The mistress of ceremonies, a Miss Lucinda McCabe, confuses the Librarians for judges from the County Library.  The Librarians save for Cassandra are a bit bored by all this, but also a bit puzzled.  The STEM Fair is suppose to have the most intricate science projects around, and there are some, like that of Amy Meyer (Bex Taylor-Klaus).  However, for something as intricate as STEM, there are also baking soda volcano exhibits. 

Leonard (Maxwell Chase), creator of said exploding volcano (which somehow manages to have real lava) tells Jake and Eve (whom he has developed a bit of a crush on) that he wasn't even meant to be at this STEM Fair, but that those higher on the list kept having to drop out due to bizarre circumstances.  Jenkins (John Larroquette) suspects there's something odd in all this, and soon we find out what that is.  In this case, there literally is an app for it!

We find that what is suppose to be an app for brain games instead disguises a wish-fulfilment spell.  What all the participants and their stage parents want of course, is to win and defeat the other contestants.  These science students are playing with dangerous magic, which will bounce back to them in ever more dangerous ways, returned to them threefold to follow the rule of three. 

The Librarians first believe that a trio of Goth-like students are behind this coven, but we soon find that the leader of this 'coven', Dashiell (Jacob Bean-Watson) really is a very sweet kid, whose only interest is in asking Amy to Prom with the help of his friends.  It didn't go well because Amy's mom (Amy Farrington) is putting too much pressure on Amy to win and keep winning.

The Librarians Stone and Cassandra take turns offering advise to our star-crossed lovers: Jake telling Dashiell that he shouldn't hide behind a costume as he did when Jake was Dashiell's age (hiding his love for Romantic poetry and art behind a jock exterior), and Cassandra telling Amy that science should not be a hindrance to living a teenage life (sharing how what had made her brilliant is also close to killing her, with her parents having thrown out all her trophies in a misguided effort to protect her).

Thanks to the spell on the app the students and parents have created an accidental supercoven, and in the middle of all this mayhem is none other than Miss McCabe, whom we discover is none other than Morgan LeFay (Alicia Witt), a powerful witch from Arthurian legend.  She prefers 'sorceress', as 'witch' has too much gender baggage.  Jenkins orders Eve to kill Morgan, who has wandered into the Annex, surprising all three of them.  However, Morgan manages to walk out unharmed, and addresses Jenkins in an oddly familiar tone, calling him Galeas.  It takes the work of all the Librarians to stop Morgan from unleashing the full force of the spell, with a little help from Amy (who never used the app herself, thus never had any magic come her way).  While everyone appears happy (such as Amy and Dashiell, who might have a future), Morgan escapes, angering Jenkins.  Eve then gives Jenkins the message Morgan gave her to give him, which translates from Latin to "Do not fear the villain.  Fear the hero."

What I really enjoyed about And the Power of Three was that it has wonderful moments of comedy, of action, and even of romance.  John Larroquette continues to be a simply great asset to The Librarians as the stuffy, fussy Jenkins, but now we get a new twist with his character.  Instead of being a plot exposition device, we are given strong hints as to a new and until now unsuspected identity.  A simple search for 'Galeas' will reveal who Jenkins really is (and by the time you read this, the season finale will have made that revelation official).  However, this doesn't take away from the fact that it's an interesting twist that appears to come out of nowhere. 

It also doesn't take away from Larroquette's wonderful manner to Jenkins, one who is still a bit of a fuss-bucket.  He is now one of the best characters on the show.

We also have two wonderful moments with Kane and Booth as Stone and Cassandra respectively.  Kane's ability to roll off Keats' poetry is wonderful, as is his scene with Bean-Watson.  Here, we get to see Jake be almost a mentor to the lovestruck Goth teen, who is actually a very sweet and gentle boy rather than a frightening witch-figure.  In fact, one of the positive aspects of And the Power of Three is how the episode plays with conventions.  The Goth teen really being a sensitive soul (a touch emo I imagine), the roughneck who loves poetry and literature but felt compelled to hide it, the math genius who finds that her teen years were a bit lost and the teen who finds the pressure of perfection blocking a desire to be with her peers.  There is a great balance between Jake, Cassandra, and those two kids whom they see as being younger versions of themselves. 

These quiet moments are a highlight of And the Power of Three, giving us a really heartwarming set and a chance to show a gentle, mentoring side to Jake and Cassandra.  We even get a nice moment when John Kim's Ezekiel Jones gives Cassandra the STEM Trophy for saving everyone's lives.  Granted, how he came to it is best left unasked, but it's a nice moment between characters.

It's clear that Witt will return as Morgan LeFay, and I for one am looking forward to it, as she was excellent as the sorceress.  She was wicked but shrewd, calm and aware of her own power.  She was never over-the-top evil but was not sympathetic either, keeping a strong balance between wicked and smart.

And the Power of Three had wonderful moments of comedy in spoofing STEM Fairs (which at the library we do deal with, sometimes having to tailor programs to fit into STEM, and as a digression, I like when real-life is brought into fantasy shows, making it more realistic...or as realistic as something like The Librarians can get).  We also have a great moment with Witt, Romijn, and Larroquette when they face each other.  "Oh, you're a Guardian," she tells Eve.  "In that case, I'll try to talk slower".  Romijn's reaction is wonderful.  We also get a great moment when we find whom the Librarians chose as the fair's winner (here's a hint: think 'mountains'). 

A strong mixture of heart, humor, wit and Witt pushes And the Power of Three into being a fun, exciting, and pleasant experience, with hints about the upcoming season finale and new storylines coming.  Another delightful episode of The Librarians

Here's hoping we get invited to the Dashiell-Amy wedding...


Next Episode: And the Heart of Darkness

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Americans: Season Two Overview


The Americans is the most emotionally conflicting show on television.  It asks us to identify with people who kill and commit acts of war against our country, and it almost always succeeds because we find it hard to dislike them as individuals.  Philip and Elizabeth Jennings are not just Soviet spies, but devoted parents trying to raise two kids and in their own way, shield them from danger.

That danger of course being slightly different than most dangers, like trained assassins willing to kill children.

It's interesting that a lot of the thrust for Season Two involves Philip and Elizabeth's fierce protection of Paige and Henry.  The most obvious one involves how their fellow agents Emmett and Leann Connors were killed along with their daughter Amelia, with Jared being 'miraculously' spared.  This triggered a greater determination to ensure that no harm come to Paige and Henry.  However, by season's end they see that the danger to them is coming from all fronts, as The Centre now has determined that Paige should be integrated into working for the Soviet Union.

Here, we see what will be one of the great conflicts of Season Three.  It seemed that both Philip and Elizabeth were dead-set against getting the kids involved in their shady business.  In fact, in the season opener Comrades, Philip was extremely opposed to using Henry as a prop to signal that he was the one who would be receiving information meant for Emmett and does so with intense opposition.  Now Philip finds that despite all his work, the Centre, to whom he's given so much of, wants the one thing he is unwilling to give.

Elizabeth, on the other hand, seems to be wavering, not in her devotion to the State, but in her willingness to bring Paige into her world.  Paige's embrace of religion horrifies Elizabeth, a fierce Soviet-style atheist.  However, she begins to think that perhaps Paige is looking for something to motivate her life and sees a lot of herself in her daughter.  Elizabeth now sees Paige's religious fervor as being merely a sign of looking in the wrong place. 

Isn't that a great conflict when it comes to parenting?  We want our children to be happy, but there are so many ways about it.  Will they be happy if they follow their own path or if they follow their parent's footsteps?  Apart from the spying and killing, is Elizabeth's growing idea that Paige should do what she does any different than seeing Peyton and Eli Manning make their careers out of what their father Archie did?  I'm sure the senior Manning would have been happy if his middle and youngest son had made different choices, but they had such skills from birth and Archie was extremely adept at having them play football. 

There's also a greater conflict between Elizabeth and Philip in their worldviews.  Elizabeth is the one who is more loyal to the State.  "It's nicer here.  It's easier here.  It's not better here," she tells her husband when he asks her if she enjoys anything about America.  Philip, for his part, while not completely willing to defect is one who is more able to appreciate the joys of Yankee living.  Elizabeth and Philip are in a lot of ways, the two types of parents.  Philip is the more permissive part (he would send Paige to Youth Camp), Elizabeth the stricter disciplinarian (she won't hear of it, believing it is a way to indoctrinate her daughter to the ways of the decadent West). 

However, they can be at times a bit of the reverse.  Elizabeth agrees to let Paige go to a church-sponsored protest,  Philip will not tolerate Paige lying to him or looking into what they do.  Still, on the whole we see in The Americans an interesting portrait of a marriage and family as well as some really intense and exciting espionage work.

At this point,  let's look at the performances.  Matthew Rhys is simply brilliant as Philip Jennings, a really gentle man who does evil things.  While he is efficient in his spy work, we also see that Philip is one haunted by his acts, especially when he has to kill an innocent bystander.  He's had to kill many not involved in his actions (in the opening, when he has to kill a dishwasher, and in ARPANET, when he has to kill a computer student who stumbled into Philip, and those are just two).  These things play on him, and he finds it if not harder to do, at least harder to deal with.  When he unleashes on his daughter in Martial Eagle, we see that within Philip is an extremely tortured being. 

We know if Philip loves anything, it's his children.  He however has been carrying a lot of guilt over having to have one of the few times he managed to get Elizabeth show mercy go wrong when a driver he didn't kill die of hypothermia.  Now it was Paige's donation of $600 that was the trigger to let him unleash his rage.  Like many parents, you know he took out his anger about something else on his daughter, but seeing Rhys so explode is intense and frightening.  Really, Matthew Rhys kept giving such a complex and layered performance that it is simply fascinating to see him work.

Keri Russell similarly creates in Elizabeth someone who is adept at her job but struggling as a mother.  It isn't as if she doesn't love Paige and Henry, but she does not know how to fully connect with them.   She manages to slip so easily into the various disguises she is required to use, but we also see that she too is a bit wounded that her husband cannot be as emotionally open to her as he appears to be with his other wife, Martha.  When she sees that side of 'Clark', she seems more emotionally hurt than anything else, and that makes her tears all the more sad.  Expecting a wild sex romp, she instead receives pain physical and emotional.

We also have to complement other people's work.  Annet Mahendru really is the unsung Americans cast member as Nina, one who is doing all she can to stay alive.  Does she really love FBI Agent Stan Beeman?  Does she really love her KGB coworker Oleg?  Is she sleeping with both as a way to protect herself?  We feel so much for Nina, and I think ARPANET was her finest hour as an actress.  Mahendru communicates so much when she confronts Beeman while on the polygraph test and answers that 'Yes' to if she knows who killed her friend Vlad. 

A guest star that should be mentioned is Lee Tergensen as Andrew Larrick, the closeted Navy captain the Connors' were blackmailing to get information.  There was always a suspicion that Larrick killed them, and he proved himself a chilling and frightening adversary.   Tergensen made Larrick into someone dangerous not just because he was efficient in killing, but because he was also slow, methodical, and determined.  He could be a reflection of the Jennings, and while he is American and we should perhaps be cheering for him to win, we too become frightened for the Jennings and their children because he is also ruthless. 

We like Philip and Elizabeth Jennings.  Thus, we don't want them hurt.  Odd given they want to hurt us.

If there is something I would be concerned about is that The Americans took a wild turn when they had Jared be his family's killer.  I still never quite bought that.  I understand why it was done, but that doesn't mean I believed it.  I also hope they don't end next season with a 'the kids are in danger let's get them out of the way' business.  Still, that remains to be seen, and I hope that The Americans continue to keep up the high standards they have set as a series. 

One shudders what Elizabeth and Philip Jennings would do if they ever had a Take Our Children to Work Day...     

There are Legacies...

...and then there are legacies.

Next Episode: EST Men

The Americans: Echo Review


Slaughter Of The Innocents...

The season finale of The Americans continues the simply brilliant structure of keeping the balance between the private and professional lives of our leads, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys).  Echo also has the great Americans double meaning to their titles, where we not only refer to the object at hand, but also to how our own echoes (within and without) can be our greatest threats.

With Larrick on the loose and out of control, the Jennings spirit their children Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati) to a surprise vacation to the mountains in the middle of the night.  Paige is uninterested in going, but Henry's more enthusiastic.  They are doing this to get the kids to some safety as the Centre attempts to capture the loose cannon.  However, Andrew Larrick (Lee Tergensen) is not to be denied.  He manages to track down both Elizabeth and Jared Connors (Owen Campbell), whom the Centre hopes to spirit away to safety.  Prior to that, Larrick had taken Philip (which in turn allowed him to take Elizabeth and Jared unawares).  Larrick now wants revenge for the killing of his 'brothers', and no longer cares about being arrested or outed.

To everyone's genuine shock and surprise, Jared pulls out a gun while Larrick is handcuffing Elizabeth and gets one shot before a stunned Larrick fires back.  Larrick is hit in the shoulder but Jared is hit in the neck.  In the confusion Elizabeth uses her legs to strike at Larrick, who fights back but is hit hard enough to stumble onto the trunk where Philip is trapped.  Philip manages to get hold of Elizabeth's gun which Larrick put in his pant back and fires behind him, finally finishing off with the danger.  As Philip and Elizabeth attempt to save Jared's life, he tells them he is the one who killed his parents and sister. 

Jared had become Kate's lover after she told him the truth about his parents.  Kate had also recruited him to join the KGB, and Emmett, Leann, and Amelia were killed because the parents had objected loudly over Jared joining the Soviets.  Amelia was becoming hysterical in the fighting at the hotel, and had to be executed.  He tells them he showered, went to the pool for an acceptable alibi, and then returned.  His final thoughts were of Kate, with him unaware that she is dead.

Meanwhile, the pressure on Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) to betray his country to save his mole/mistress Nina (Annet Mahendru) is growing.   The Soviets give him assurances that Nina will be allowed to leave if Beeman gives them information about Echo, but he doesn't trust them.  He also genuinely loves America, and does not want to be a traitor.  He struggles in his dilemma, but in the end, he slips this meesage to  Arkady (Lev Gorn), which he in turns gives to  Nina, "Tell Nina I'm sorry".  With that, Nina is sent away from the Rezidentura to meet her fate, with her other lover Oleg (Costa Ronin) unable to help her.

You'd think that with the Rezidentura now in possession of the paint through samples collected by shoe soles would be happy.  So what if their operative Fred (John Carroll Lynch) is killed over the shoes.  You'd think that with Larrick dead the Jennings would have some peace and not worry for their children.  You'd be terribly wrong.  Claudia aka Granny (Margo Martindale) has one more surprise waiting for them.  She tells them of the Second Generation Illegals plan.

Jared had been recruited to spy for the Soviet Union because the Centre realized that their original agents did not have all-American backgrounds, but the children of their agents did.  Thus, they could rise higher in agencies like the CIA or FBI.  Granny tells them that if she'd known about the program she would have opposed it and that she knew nothing about Jared's recruitment.  However, she also says that the Centre's mistake was in doing it behind Emmett and Leann's back.  Now the Centre has decided that Paige is next on their list to join the family business.

Philip and Elizabeth immediately say they will not allow Paige to become part of the KGB or reveal their true identities.  Granny in turn lays down the law.  "Paige is your daughter, but she's not just yours.  She belongs to the Cause and to the world we all do."  It looks like the Jennings are absolutely dead-set against allowing their children involved in all this, Philip going so far as to covertly get to Arkady and coldly tell him that if they go after Paige both Philip and Elizabeth will leave the KGB.  However, by the end, Elizabeth is warming to the idea, with Philip being horrified by even the vague prospect of seeing Paige involved on any level in their acts.

In many respects, Echo is still the brilliant Americans episode we've come to expect from them.  In others, I found it bizarre if not downright nonsensical.  Of particular note is the Larrick standoff.  Part of me simply rejects the idea that Andrew Larrick, this skilled killing machine, would not have searched both Elizabeth and Jared.  He had been observing Jared for some time, and at least knew that he was with the Soviets.  I just had a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that Larrick would have looked on Jared as not a threat when he saw just about everyone as a threat. 

I also wasn't too thrilled with the 'twist' of having Jared be the murderer.  I wondered how no one else in the hotel heard the argument that came prior to the killings.  The bullets yes, with silencers you could hide the shots.  However, the killings look like they were done by an expert marksman (which is why the Jennings insisted on thinking Larrick or someone with his skill was the culprit).  Jared Connors, however, didn't look like an expert marksman, at least with how he handled Larrick. 

Finally, the whole 'horrified' reaction to finding his parents and sister dead appears to now be a bit too convenient for everyone.  It's almost as if Jared knew the Jennings were going to stumble upon the crime and did this whole schtick for their benefit.  For this scene to work now, given what we know, it would have required there to be all these witnesses to Jared's horrified reaction.  

To me, it still feels like a bit of a cheat, and it robs us of some of the sadness and horror of the scene.  Oh, so the seduced boy who perhaps quickly and with little conflict went along with betraying what he had up to his first sexual experience thought was his country could easily kill his parents and sister.  I'm just not quite buying it.

I kept thinking the Centre took a terrible gamble with all this.  What if Jared Connors were a variation of Alex P. Keaton: a Reagan-loving Republican?  Alex P. Keaton was never thrilled with his parent's liberalism, but he loved them nonetheless.  If he'd been told that his parents were really Soviet agents, you'd think he would have at the very least, flipped out and rejected the whole idea.  He probably would have turned them in.  Now I'm suppose to believe Jared Connors pretty much went along with this nutty scheme?  Again, I'm having a real hard time believing/accepting it.

Fortunately, a lot of Echo works because we now see that what the Jennings had feared has come to pass.  In Stealth, Elizabeth had worried about Paige, thinking that the Church would indoctrinate her when she's young.  Now she finds that the Centre wants to do what she feared the Church would.  However, what was once a forbidden zone for both of them is up for debate, and not just because the Centre has given orders.

Elizabeth, the more devoted to the Cause of the two, sees in Paige something of herself, and thinks that joining the Cause will direct her away from religion and put her on a steady path.  Philip, the more Americanized of the two, is terrified of what this will do to Paige.  In many ways, the greatest conflicts in The Americans revolve around not espionage, but family matters.  It is reflective of the questions all parents have, whether their children should follow in their footsteps or chart their own independent course.  Here, it is being played out on a more exaggerated level, but at its core the struggle Elizabeth and Philip face is one of how to raise their children.

We also have in Echo another layer, as Emmerich's conflicted Beeman must not only make some serious decisions but also has echoes of his past come to literally haunt his dreams.  He dreams of going to the office (and we're tricked into believing it's reality when we see Martha slip files into her purse almost openly) and finds that instead of Martha at her desk, she's turned into Vlad, the man he killed in cold blood as vengeance for his friend Amador.  Stepping into Gaad's office to escape, he sees his wife Sandra in the midst of having sex with another man.  It's a shocking and well-crafted sequence, and we really are left wondering until the end what Beeman will do.

Emmerich really does a standout job in Echo.  Mahendru similarly does so much with no dialogue, but only her face to tell us of her fears as she is led away from the Rezidentura.  There is a lot of quiet and beautiful moments throughout Echo, which in a certain way is ironic. 

If it weren't for the "Jared is a KGB agent too" bit, I think Echo really would have been a truly brilliant episode as so much was packed within its running time.  I just have such a stumbling block to the revelation of the Connors family killer that for me, it killed some of the momentum.  However, the episode was helped by some excellent work by the cast.  It also had some great pacing; the opening sequence with a dying Fred and a mad scramble to get the shoes set to Golden Earring's Twilight Zone, works so brilliantly in being true to the time, amping up the tension, and being descriptive of the chaotic lives personal and professional of everyone.

Again, that whole resolution just seemed oddly odd, but it did leave the door open to what will be a fascinating Season Three, to wonder if the Jennings really will turn the Paige...


Season Two Overview