Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Gotham: Under the Knife Review


In the hour Under the Knife ran, we got tender moments, funny moments, heartbreaking moments, psychotic moments, and flat-out creepy moments.  Gotham, which has pretty much wandered away from its genesis of the Wayne murders, has decided to throw so much at us in the first of its last three episodes we wonder whether a.) we'll ever get that crime solved and b.) what they were doing with poor Fish Mooney (who I figure is recovering somewhere from that shot to her abdomen). 

Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) fears for his new love, Dr. Leslie Thompkins (Monica Baccarin), since his investigation of Jason Lennon aka The Ogre (Milo Ventimiglia) puts his loved ones at risk.  However, Thompkins knows that Gordon won't be denied (even though she is more than capable of defending herself).  With that, Gordon does what no other GCPD officer does: go to the press to announce the serial killer.  That's enough to put everyone connected to Gordon at risk.  However, the Ogre doesn't target Thompkins.  He goes after Barbara Kean (Erin Andrews), who is so bonkers herself that Lennon in his odd manner believes is THE one for him (or at least one that will be the perfect rouse to get at his most menacing threat).  He romances her, including snagging an invite to the Wayne Enterprises Charity Ball (as a member of high society, Barbara gets an automatic invite). 

At long, the Ogre's true story is revealed.  He is not from a wealthy family himself.  Instead, we learn that growing up, Jason thought he was the son of a wealthy woman, Constance Van Groot.  When he learned that he wasn't and that Van Groot was playing a long joke on the kid (who had asked to carry her name and be in the will), he snaps and kills her.  His father, Jacob Scalinsky (Daniel Davis), the family butler, hides her murder by not telling anyone she's dead, with the bonus of having Jason have access to her vast wealth.  However, Gordon and his partner Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) come in just when Jacob is attempting suicide, the whole plot beginning to unravel.  Jacob has one more surprise for them: that Jason is really physically deformed, with an Elephant Man-type face!

Obviously, he's had a little work done, but that's the clue that ties him in to the first murder of a young girl (who worked at the plastic surgeon's office who reshaped his face).   However, that's the point where the hunt is on for Jason Lennon.  It may be too late for Barbara, who we see is introduced to Jason's own "Grey Room of Pain".

We then have three other plots going on.  The first is young Master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) still coming to grips with his frenemy Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova) killing Reggie.  He struggles with the morality of killing, but Alfred (Sean Pertwee) without knowing it tells him that killing in war is justified. Alfred believes this comes from Bruce having overheard his and Reggie's conversation of their time in the service.  Alfred also believes that Bruce inviting Selina to be his companion to the Wayne Ball is a sign of romantic interest rather than for her mastery at pickpocketing.  Truth be told, Bruce himself isn't sure.  Selina, who is still crashing at Barbara's pad, reluctantly dons a dress (and steals the show), leaving both Barbara and Bruce stunned into silence.  Selina proves her worth by being able to successfully pick the pocket of Sid Bunderslaw (Michael Potts), the Wayne Enterprises Board member who had sent Reggie on his investigation.

We then get Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor) plotting the death of Don Maroni (David Zayas), but there's a slight wrinkle.  Maroni crashes Oswald's club, warming up to Oswald's mother Gertrude Kapelput (Carol Kane).  As he literally wines and dines Mama Kapelput, he flat-out asks her if she is all an act or really is this stupid in not knowing what Ozzie is up to.  A horrified Gertrude is told that Oswald is a psycho killer, leaving her in shock to where faints.  Oswald, who is very protective of his mother, swears he will pay.  At home, Gertrude tells Ozzie that she will love him no matter what, but asks him if he has he been doing things he shouldn't be.  Oswald tells her he is just a nightclub owner, and Gertrude leaves the room in tears.  Oswald himself is in tears, but when a flower delivery man comes with some roses from Sal Maroni, he is enraged to where he tells the delivery guy that Maroni is a dead man.  He then smashes the vase and stabs the guy, telling Gertrude he's going to take the trash out.

Finally (seriously, all this was going on in ONE episode), Edward Nygma (Cory Michael Smith) catches Miss Kringle (Chelsea Spack) with Officer Tom Dougherty (Zachary Spicer), who has nicknamed him "Riddle Man".  Edward learns that Dougherty has been abusing Miss Kringle (and that Edward is still a virgin).  Outside Kringle's apartment, Edward confronts Dougherty, telling him to leave her alone.  Dougherty responds by punching Nygma.  Nygma responds by pulling a knife.

Here is where it gets tricky: the first time Dougherty is stabbed, we can say it was justifiable self-defense (Dougherty had struck first and had basically rushed him).  The second time could be accidental (it looked like Dougherty fell on the knife).  All the other times it was clear Nygma was stabbing him repeatedly, both enjoying and horrified by it simultaneously.  He laughs at this but also keeps repeating, "Oh dear", a sign that for him, Dougherty's death is both a release and a nightmare.

All that is a lot to pack into one episode, but Under the Knife manages an excellent balance between all the stories to where none of them feel overwhelmed by the other.  The bulk of the episode is for the Ogre storyline, and there is an almost cinematic nature to it all: the way Jason sweeps Barbara off her feet at the ball, the introduction to his own version of Fifty Shades of Grey, even Jason's own odd idea of sympathy (he stops from flat-out stabbing her in the back when she talks about how if she died, no one would notice, perhaps finding in the screwed-up Babs someone more bonkers than him).  The sheer brilliance of Under the Knife comes in how the episode folded the Ogre storyline to the Selina/Bruce storyline at the ball without them needing to crash into each other.

Here you have two things going on simultaneously: Jason plotting to get at Gordon and the future Batman and Catwoman joining forces to investigate their own case, yet we don't see either pair connecting at the ball.  The closest is when Bruce shows up at Barbara's to pick Selina up.  Everything in Under the Knife works well, each story getting its moment without overwhelming the other.

We also have simply some of the best acting around.  Of particular note is when Carol Kane's Gertrude and Robin Lord Taylor's Oswald go back to her place.  Their last scene together is truly heartbreaking as both of them realize that the truth is very ugly.  I was so emotionally moved by both of them: the mother who learns the truth, the son who keeps pretending that he is something he isn't. 

Miss Kane, Mr. Taylor, please submit this episode for Emmy consideration as Outstanding Guest Actress and Supporting Actor in a Drama respectively. 

Perhaps I'm reading too much into this scene, but it plays like an allegory of someone not being able to come out of the closet to their parent, who already knows their son/daughter is gay.  Maroni (the jilted lover) has revealed the truth to Gertrude: that her son is a monster and a killer (her son is gay).  Gertrude tells Oswald that he is her son and will love him no matter what (read what you will), but then asks if he's been doing bad things (if he's gay).  He tells her he's just a nightclub owner (he's straight), but Gertrude is heartbroken to hear this, excusing herself and leaving in tears (he isn't straight or straight with her and both know it).  Oswald, this master criminal, sobs like a baby for being deceitful to perhaps the only woman he loves, but when Maroni (the jilted lover) sends a token to taunt her, it causes him to explode.  Gertrude asking about who was at the door and pretty much going along with his explanation of having to help the neighbor throw the trash might be that Gertrude will go along with the lie because it's much more comforting than the truth.

Yes, perhaps I am reading too much into all that, but that scene was one highlight for me in terms of acting and story.  Another was Cory Michael Smith as Nygma.  For the longest time, Ed was just an odd figure in the GCPD, a little quirky but not dangerous.  Under the Knife shows that he is now at a total break from morals.  He is in love (or at least infatuated) with Kringle, and the thought of someone hurting her is too much for him.  Add to that the fact that Dougherty mocks "Riddle Man" down to getting him to admit Nygma's never been with a woman and it's a recipe for disaster.  The simultaneous thrill and horror as Nygma repeatedly stabs Dougherty, almost as a compulsion and not something he himself wants, was an astonishing performance.  CMS' E. Nygma, who both laughs and keeps repeating "Oh dear" in an almost innocent way, gave us I think his best turn as the future Riddler. 

As I've said, there was something extremely cinematic about this Gotham episode.  Perhaps at other times, the visual style in Dougherty's death (the backlight, the rumbling of the elevated subway) might have been a bit much, but here it worked.  The almost Gothic horror style when Gordon and Bullock enter the Van Groot home to find the snooty butler from The Nanny about to hang himself (and the Norma Bates-like corpse of Ms. Van Groot to boot) are also very cinematic, elevating an already well-written and well-acted episode to something far greater. 

Let's not leave out Mazouz and Bicondova, who prove an excellent double-act.  His hesitancy about both the repercussions of Reggie's death and potential interest in romance with her world-weariness (I could see Bicondova playing Marlene Dietrich in the future) are a great combination.  Individually they are wonderful, together they are virtual perfection.

Finally, in the great duos department, there's the upright Gordon and not-as-upright Bullock.  Logue has so grown on me as the sarcastic, shady, but not completely unredeemable mentor to the moral protégé.  Both give excellent performances as their characters, to where Gordon's sometimes irritating rectitude is softened by a genuine love for Dr. Thompkins.

As I've said, there are all kinds of great moments, even a touch of comedy (when Alfred hears Bruce wants to take Miss Kyle to the ball, he understands why Master Bruce would be attracted to her, somewhat; "She's a very pretty young girl with a penchant for wearing a little too much leather". Given the bondage that Jason practices, there is so much wit within the episode it makes one's head spin).  I laughed out loud when Thompkins whacks Gordon with her phone when he inadvertently sneaks up on her.  He should know better than to walk quietly behind a threatened woman.  When Selina complains that people are staring at them, her partner calmly replies, "Well, I AM Bruce Wayne."

More hilarity ensues.

The more I reflect on Under the Knife, the more I think what a fantastic episode it was.  All the storylines were going on without them overwhelming the other, each story had its moment, all the acting was top-notch.  Gotham has done wonders as a great show without going too far one way or the other, and it stands not just as a good Batman prequel but as its own entity.

We just wonder how it will all end.


Next Episode: The Anvil or the Hammer

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Gotham: Beasts of Prey Review


It's been far too long since Gotham graced our screens.  How long: four weeks?  In any case, we are about to wrap up the first season of the Batman prequel (a second season already having been confirmed).  It looks like Beasts of Prey is the first of a continuing story arc that will make use of a new villain and guest star Milo Ventimiglia (late of Heroes, where the first season was the only one worth anything before the show collapsed on its own hubris). 

The main plot involves the newest case Detective Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) takes at the request of a rookie officer, who says there are some newbies loyal to him.  It is a murder case, a young woman whose case has gone cold.  Gordon's partner, Harvey Bullock (Donal Logue) has no interest in this case, but as always goes along with Jim's investigation (especially if it means hitting bars).  Here, the investigation takes a sharp turn, as they learn that the victim they are investigating may be connected to the Gotham City Police Department's dirty little secret (which given how corrupt the GCPD is, is quite shocking in and of itself).  She is one of the many victims of a serial killer the force sometimes calls the Don Juan Killer, but is generally known as The Ogre.  The police don't have much on him: he appears to be wealthy, extremely good-looking, and leaves a calling card on his victims.  It's a drawing of a broken heart.

He also targets the loved ones of any officer investigating the case, usually killing the female closest to said officer.  This is why the Ogre's activities have never been publicized and all these killings are cold cases.  Gordon, being Gordon, won't let this go.  He will pursue both this case and Commissioner Loeb (Peter Scolari) who put up the young officer to the task fully aware that a.) the Ogre would target Gordon's loved ones, and b.) Gordon, being Gordon, wouldn't let this go.

We do get flashbacks to the crimes of the Ogre (Milo Ventimiglia), a charming, good-looking but highly possessive serial killer who is searching for unconditional love.  The women he keeps holding prisoner just don't measure up, so he has to kill them. 

Back on the Island of Misfit Body Parts, our favorite mob princess Fish Mooney (Jada Pinkett Smith) plots to escape the clutches of Dr. Dulmacher (Colm Feore).  She's created an elaborate plan but which face complications thanks to The Catcher (P.J. Griffith), who shoots anyone who steps outside the clinic.  Mooney, being Mooney, hams up feigning ignorance, but she does appear to drop her mask slightly when confronting the bad doctor, suggesting that of all the people she's faced up against, he is the only one to genuinely terrify her.  She does escape, double-crossing a group of thugs to serve as a distraction while she and her group, including her loyal aide Kelly (Dashiell Eaves), but she does pay a price.

We also see young Master Bruce Wayne (David Mazouz) is beginning his hunt for Reggie Payne (David O'Hara), the man who stabbed Alfred (Sean Pertwee).  For that, he needs the help of Selina Kyle (Camren Bicondova).  Truth be told, Bruce needs all the help he can get, given that he takes Alfred's mention of finding Reggie in a 'shooting gallery' literally (him going to gun ranges).  Bruce and Selina do find Reggie, who tells them about being hired by a member of the Wayne Enterprises' Board to find out what Bruce knows.  Bruce has an opportunity to push Reggie out the window (Selina having dropped his drugs on a ledge), but he couldn't bring himself to.  Selina has no such hang-ups, and Bruce looks out to Reggie's body, wondering what the situations are.

There were two aspects of Beasts of Prey that I don't think worked.  The first was the flashbacks to detail how the Ogre killed the particular victim Gordon and Bullock are investigating.   It starts with a bartendress telling them of the 'hot guy' the victim was with, but then we get more information than everyone else could have had.  I figure it had to be done this way to tell us the viewer about the Ogre, but I wasn't convinced it worked.

The second was the Mooney storyline.  I know many Gothamites (or "Citizens" as the fans are I think called) hate both the character and JPS' rather camp take on it all.  Now, I'm not particularly bothered by either: I always figured that Mooney was a little camp because that was the front she was putting up for the world.  I also know that we had to have a Fish Mooney-type to get the ball rolling with Oswald Cobblepot (Robin Lord Taylor), who provided the really creepy moments (more on those later).  However, this time it all felt like a major distraction.  One wouldn't be blamed for thinking that somehow someone had switched the channel to watch another show altogether.

And as a side note, not killing off Dulmacher would have been wrong if we want to think on the Dollmaker's future role in the Batman mythos. 

However, Beasts of Prey was lifted up by all the other aspects.  We had such great pairings, particularly between Mazouz and Bicondova, who clearly have done wonders in creating a wonderful dynamic between the future frenemies Batman and Catwoman.   Mazouz' Bruce is taking his first steps to being the detective we know he will be, though he still has the naïve and almost innocent way to an upper-crust orphan.  When he heard Reggie would be in a 'shooting gallery', the concept of a drug den never entered his mind.  Instead, he went to all the gun ranges (and Citizens had a nice shout-out to the future when at one of them, Penguin walked right behind him, then got an inexplicable shiver).  It takes a Catwoman to show young Master Bruce the ways of the world. 

They were wonderful together.  When Bruce finally finds Selina, she tells him she could have dropped a brick on him.  "Why would you want to do that?", he replies in a wonderfully innocent way.  As far as he's concerned, Selina is his friend, and friends don't drop bricks on friends. 

However, when we see Bruce coming close to murder, we see in Mazouz's performance the moral conflict within him: the rage at the man who nearly killed his guardian and his own need to stop Reggie from spilling the beans versus Bruce's morality coming to play.  That Selina has no such qualms, and could push someone to their deaths, gives us so many insights into both Bruce and Selina, and both Mazouz and Bicondova are so good they do honor to the characters.

We also get the standard "Robin Lord Taylor is brilliant" performance as Oswald Cobblepot.  Seriously, why is his name not mentioned for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Emmy?  He never falters as the calculating Penguin, who here plots the murder of Don Maroni by becoming a silent partner in a bar Maroni frequents.  If it means torturing a poor musician whom the bar owner's mother doesn't approve for her daughter, so be it.   Birds of Prey is really quite violent for a prime-time network television show, going as far as one can go while keeping to Standards and Practices.  It's certain that if Gotham were a pay channel or Netflix-type show, it would be much more gruesome.  We see in RLT's performance the excellent combination of seeming weakness and manipulativeness.   "Madam, she will be home for Sunday Mass," Oswald assures Lydia the bar owner (Barbara Rosenbat).  Sunday Mass never sounded so threatening.  When Oswald tells his henchman Gabe (Alex Corrado), "Don't shoot them.  Lose them," when referring to the guitarist's fingers, we see just how cold Penguin is.

As the guest star, Ventimiglia (who could pass for Harvey Dent/Nicholas D'Agosto's brother) is perfectly cast as the suave but deadly villain.  It's clear his story will be a major one as we wind down Gotham's first season, and the cool but evil charm he exudes, how he doesn't go all psycho is an excellent performance: quiet but cold. 

The other team of Logue's Bullock and McKenzie's Gordon continue to play well against each other, and it's fun to see how despite Bullock's jadedness he still goes along with Gordon's almost Dudley Do-Right's policing.   
On the whole, Beasts of Prey is a pretty strong episode, though with a few hiccups.  We're going to see more of the Ogre (who I figure will wrap up the season) and slowly the pieces are being put into place: Penguin's plotting against Maroni, Bruce's investigation of the goings-on at Wayne Enterprises, and Gordon and Bullock's final case of the season.

Gotham, for all its seediness, is looking particularly ugly, and that's a great thing.


Next Episode: Under the Knife

Monday, April 27, 2015

Boyhood: A Review (Review #710)


This Boy's Long And Boring Life...

A little praise can be a dangerous thing. 

Sometimes something is built up to such an extent that one is led to an inevitable letdown.  It can make something unapproachable, remote, something to admire but not something to touch you emotionally.  Citizen Kane has that albatross around its neck of being called "the greatest film ever made", which makes some people consider it a vegetable of cinema (good for you but with a bad taste).  Boyhood has found itself in similar circumstances: a film lauded as one of the most groundbreaking pieces of art in the history of all mankind. 

The preceding sentence I should note will be the first, last, and only time I compare Citizen Kane with Boyhood.  The former was not just a landmark in film, but also highly entertaining.  The latter, twelve years in the making, is navel-gazing pseudo-artistic indulgence, an exercise in filmmaking whose artifice is the selling point. 

Boyhood consists of brief moments in the life of Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane).  He has a father, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) whom he sees from time to time, as MJ (as Dad calls him) lives with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette, woefully underpaid) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater).  In the course of Mason Jr.'s life, he goes through two stepfathers (both of whom end up bullying drunks Olivia has to leave), moving to first Houston and then San Marcos as Olivia gets her Masters and begins teaching at the university (which I figure is UTSM).  It's as a student of psychology that she meets her second husband Bill (Marco Perella) and as a professor of psychology that she meets her third and final (so far) husband Jim (Brad Hawkins).

It seems that Olivia, despite her education, has poor choosing skills and unaware of her own psychology.

Mason, Jr. turns into a moody, emo-like kid whose hair is always too long and who is too cool for everything.  A great talent in photography, he figures he really does not need to do much schoolwork himself and when he does, he does his own take on it.  Prime example: when he's ordered to take pictures of a football game.  Rather than take shots of what is going on out on the field, he takes pictures of the kicker's net to capture his unique vision (much to the professor's displeasure).  He gets drunk, smokes some pot, finally loses his virginity somewhere along the line, breaks up with his girlfriend, and decides to move as far from San Marcos while still going to an in-state university per an agreement with Dad.  We end Boyhood with Mason, Jr. off to Sul Ross University in Alpine, TX, where he meets Nicole (Jessi Melcher), a potential love interest.

I would like to point out to Mr. Linklater, who in Boyhood featured OUR beloved state of Texas, that Sul Ross in Alpine is 343.74 miles from San Marcos.  The University of Texas at El Paso (my hometown) is 584.3 miles from San Marcos.  Therefore, technically speaking, Mason, Jr. DID NOT pick the university furthest away from San Marcos while remaining inside Texas.

Then again, Linklater, like all East Texans, genuinely think Texas ends somewhere in the Big Bend area and that The EP is either in New Mexico or old Mexico itself and that somehow El Paso doesn't actually count as "Texas" (too many Mexicans, perhaps?). 

I approached Boyhood with much trepidation.  I knew that many of my fellow critics were enraptured by it all, and that there were more than a few of them (and a few regular viewers) who held it as an unimpeachable masterwork, something that will be listed among the Greatest Films Ever Made.  I however, worried that I would be stuck watching 18 hours of a boy's life, where all of Hour Four would be taken up by him learning to tie his shoes.  It wasn't as bad as all that, but Boyhood for me was not really about this family.  It was about the process, about how Linklater got the same people to play the same part for 12 years.  That's all well and good, but I found the almost three hour journey with them hard to endure.

I couldn't fathom wanting to spend 12 years with them.

At its core, Boyhood is pretty hollow.  The little bits that Mason lives through aren't just rather routine (who hasn't gone bowling with their weekend father) but almost never affect Mason on a personal level (all claims to the contrary).  Mason has been the victim of terrible violence by at least one stepfather (Bill, who slipped into barely functional alcoholism) and the other stepfather Jim being a cliché (the tough ex-military who gets a civilian job as a correctional officer and who drinks too, though not with any overt violence).  These situations sometimes make someone wary of alcohol, turning people into teetotalers.  It doesn't have any impact on Mason, who indulges in booze and pot without any real consequences.

I remember quite well that in Boyhood when he turns fifteen or sixteen, he shows up slightly drunk and high.  Olivia says they'll have a talk in the morning, but we never see that talk.  We pretty much have to imagine it if we cared to.  We get the sense that Mason, Sr. has evolved politically: in a few segments he rants about Bush and the Iraq Intervention then gets his kids to put up Obama signs (tearing down a McCain sign in the process) only to end up marrying a woman whose parents take Senior, Junior, and Sam to church (giving Mason his first Bible) and having Mason's Uncle Jim whisper at Mason, Jr.'s graduation that Senior is in 'enemy territory' and 'four more years' (I figure he meant Obama's reelection).  I'm guessing because this is neither openly stated or given enough evidence to support.  However, having Uncle Jim (whom I don't remember ever meeting until now) whisper such odd things with little to no context is bizarre to say the least.

I do have admiration for someone who genuinely thought Obama would carry Texas.  A quixotic dreamer of the first order. 

Other moments in Boyhood are flat-out ridiculous.  In one year, we meet Ernesto (Roland Ruiz), another stereotype: a Spanish-speaking, strongly-accented construction worker who is replacing the pipes at Olivia's house.  She tells Ernesto that he is very bright and should take up education, particularly night school at the community college.  Next time we see him, he's a restaurant manager, speaking perfect and accent-free English.  I didn't so much howl with laughter at this but more shook my head in puzzled anger.

A little background.  Bless my mother, but she has an accent herself that in thirty-plus years she's never fully shaken off.  I don't know how it is possible to go from almost all Spanish-speaking day laborer to flawless accent-free English speaker in the course of three years.  I don't think it's possible, or at least I've yet to see it in anyone whose second language is English.

A lot of things happen to Mason, Jr., but they don't add up to anything.  He, Sam, and his two step-siblings Mindy (Jamie Howard) and Randy (Andrew Villareal) go to the midnight release party of the Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix book.  Well, what of it? Mason doesn't appear to carry this love of Harry Potter into his life, or mention it again.

A lot happens to Mason that isn't mentioned again.

Come to think of it, we don't ever see Mindy or Randy ever again after Olivia flees her abusive husband.  Screw those kids, I figure.  Let them stay with their drunk and violent dad.  Yes, I know she couldn't take them with her, and she does mention that she called Child Protective Services, but I spent the rest of Boyhood wondering what happened to Mindy and Randy. Did Mason and Samantha manage to keep in touch with them?  Did they look them up on Facebook (which would have been perhaps fruitless since Mason deleting his account was perhaps THE major turning point in his life given how he talked endlessly about it at one year)? Once they were gone, they were gone.

There is something completely wrong when you spend your time wondering what happened to other characters instead of those you are watching.  I genuinely wanted to know what happened to them, but Linklater doesn't think their situation is worthy of interest, moving on to the next scenario.

The same can be said for other moments in Mason's life.  He and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) sleep together while visiting Sam in Austin (an island of insanity in the Lone Star State).  Was it their first time?  HIS first time?  We really don't know, let alone whether this was real love or just a physical thing given how Sheena the next year had another boyfriend who went to college.

In a nutshell, Boyhood is a series of vignettes about a rather surly, not interesting boy.  That is all. Nothing more.

One thing that Boyhood does show is that in 12 years neither child actor ever bothered to take an actual acting lesson.  Bless Lorelei Linklater, but she confirms the idea that daughters of directors should not work as actresses in their father's films (see Coppola, Sophia).  She was simply dreadful: inarticulate, unconvincing, reciting and whining her way through the film.  Coltrane was no better: speaking with nary an idea of how to be convincing as himself.  Looking down and letting your hair grow is not a sign of introspection. 

The adults were better, particularly Arquette (who wasn't paid what she was worth apparently). She was the only one who was real in all her many flaws (though again, one wonders just how little college professors are paid if she can't afford a home and has to keep moving from place to place).  While her inability to pick good men makes one wonder about her intelligence, at least she seemed to have an actual flow to her story (which is more than I can say about Mason, Jr. or Samantha).  Hawke, reteaming with Linklater, I figure has some kind of change and his character does eventually accept being an adult with his new wife and daughter. 

Here's the question: would Boyhood have worked if we didn't have this '12 years shooting' thing?  If they had hired different actors to play Mason and Samantha to show the progression, would Boyhood be as acclaimed as it is now?  I personally think it might have been better simply because there would have been a better, more cohesive whole rather than bits and pieces spliced together.  Instead of a little, a little there with not much to tie things together, we could have had one large overriding story.  What we end up with is a few glimpses of a not-particularly interesting life where very little actually happens.

The one thing that I did admire tremendously was Sandra Adair's beautiful editing, where the scenes flow so effortlessly that one doesn't see the progression until we are in it.  We don't know where one year ends and the other begins, which made for a far smoother transition than I would have thought possible.  In the editing, I give Boyhood all the praise I can give it.  In everything else...              

In my final view, I think there will be much praise expected for Boyhood, but in five years I don't see anyone genuinely remembering the film, let alone thinking it among the greats like Battleship Potemkin or Vertigo.  I really can't see people rushing to see this year after year, or thinking that it has some great insight into life.  I don't think it will be remembered at all, except perhaps for a curious puzzlement as to what all the fuss was about.


Thursday, April 23, 2015

Locke: A Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, April 13, 2015

Bates Motel: The Deal Review


The Password Is 'MOTHER', All In Caps...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Episode: Norma Louise

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The Americans: Dimebag Review


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

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

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

This obviously thrills her Communist parents.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Episode: Salang Pass

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Freetown: A Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, April 6, 2015

The Americans: Open House Review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Episode: Dimebag

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Bates Motel: Unbreak-Able Review


Bates On A Rampage...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Next Episode: The Deal

Friday, April 3, 2015

Every Day Should Be A Doris Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

McFarland, USA: A Review


McFarland USA is openly inspirational, and even throws in race into its tale of underdogs achieving greatness.  If the characters had been white, it would have just been another 'sports will lead to greatness films'.  However, the characters are Hispanic, which gives it more uplift because we have poor minority kids rising to greatness (mostly).  This isn't meant to be a diss on McFarland USA.  It has plenty of humor and lots of heart, which always makes for a good combination.  I enjoyed the film, found it truthful about how Mexican-American culture works, and was interested in how the characters overcame.  It might be a familiar story, but it told with sincerity, which makes it much better than one might give it credit for.

Jim White (Kevin Costner) is a high school football coach who has fallen from grace.  Not strictly assaulting an arrogant player at an elite school, he takes the only job he can find: assistant at a McFarland, California high school.  His family is shocked to find themselves in the barrio, so much so that one of his daughters asks if they are in Mexico.  They might as well be, given the panic they all have when the get to their new house.  It has murals in it, and the local eatery has nothing but tacos.  Worse, cholos are all about, sending them into WASPy panic.

White observes two things.  One, almost all the McFarland High School staff and students don't care about much, seeing either the fields where they pick fruit or the nearby prison as the student's real future.  The prison is almost literally next door (makes it convenient don't you think).  Two, some of the track members can run real, real fast.  Chief among the speed runners is Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts, no relation to Chris Pratt).  He comes up with an innovative idea: a cross-country team.  This shocks the administration: cross-country tends to be an upper-class sport.  He might as well have asked to form a polo team.  However, White prevails and gets Valles, the three Diaz brothers (Damacio, David, and Danny), the too-cool-for-anything Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar) and Johnny Samaniego (Victor Duran), a bit on the scrawny side whom White saved from getting more injured when trying to play football.

The McFarland High School cross-country team faces all sorts of obstacles.  There's the bigotry and contempt they face from their Anglo counterparts who can't imagine these Mexicans being able to run (except to the Taco Bell or away from Immigration).  There's the pressure from families, some of whom think this is a waste of time better spent working the fields.  Then there is their own tumultuous private lives, filled with domestic issues.

White however, soon starts winning the boys over, and the community starts winning over the Whites.  Jim's wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) even becomes friends with a local manicurist, who helps her integrate into the Hispanic world (and gives her a good manicure as well as car help through her boyfriend).  Their oldest daughter Julie (Morgan Saylor) gets a quinceanera (a traditional fifteenth birthday/coming out party) courtesy of the community, who does this when they learn she just turned fifteen and are shocked the Whites didn't give their daughter her "quince".  Julie and Thomas even fancy each other.  The White's younger daughter Jamie (Elsie Fisher) has taken the mural in her home to heart and won't contemplate having it painted over.

Eventually, the McFarland team does well enough to slowly start competing for the first State Championship.  The entire McFarland community, including the previously reluctant parents, come to see them compete, and we learn the fates of the McFarland team.  Jim White is still in McFarland, having coached the team to several victories.  Some of the original track team members went on to careers in education and law enforcement, though at least one did do prison time.

As I watched McFarland, USA, I did see a very entertaining true-life story.  I found that it is quite accurate in terms of Hispanic culture.  Of particular note was when Mrs. Diaz (Diana Maria Riva) had Mr. White over for dinner.  To his shock, she keeps piling on enchiladas upon enchiladas on his plate, to the amusement of the Diaz Brothers, who know not only that he's not used to this, but that he's far too polite to turn her down.  It culminates with her presenting a Tupperware container full of enchiladas, telling him it's for his family.  Tapping the lid, she tells him to bring the Tupperware back. 

Having seen and experienced this myself at home and with friends, I can vouch for the accuracy of how Mexican mothers can be.

This is one of the positives about McFarland, USA.  It does give us a view into Hispanic, particularly Mexican-American, culture that isn't completely stereotypical and which is pretty respectful and close to the mark.  The majority of the Hispanic characters speak English fluently, with only some of the adults having an accent.  They are seen as hard-working and respectful of their parents (the struggle between pleasing their parents and pursuing track being one of the conflicts). 

Granted, there are things that rubbed me the wrong way.  They might actually have happened, but I for one have never been given a chicken as a housewarming gift.  The quinceaneras I have been too have never had any shootings or threats of shootings (and for the record, I think Julie's dress was far too short for such an event, but I digress).

However, more positive than negative I found the whole thing.  One scene that stuck with me was when White went with the Diazes to the fields to work them.  He finds that it is hard work, and that they aren't paid by the pound or even the number of I think lettuce they pick.  They are paid by the acre.  After a few hours, he's exhausted and pretty beat up physically.  It made me think of all those who find Hispanics working the fields to be some kind of drain on American society, that "them Mexicans" are stealing "real Americans" jobs.  I have never picked fruit or cotton or anything myself, but I'd like all those who find Latino field workers so odious to try it for a day or two (complete with wages) and see how THEY like it.  Maybe they'll find the whole thing much more complicated than they wish to portray it. 

It's not a pro or anti-immigration (legal/illegal) statement.  Everyone in McFarland, USA is a citizen.  It's a recognition that White gets: these kids lives are tougher than he can imagine, filled with both hope and lack thereof at the same time. 

The performances were all quite good.  Costner has an excellent range: fear for his family, frustration that his career is where it's at, humor in his clash of cultures, and encouragement to his team (as all good inspirational sports films have).  Pratts, who got good marks for Season One of The Bridge, also does well as the main track star Valles.  He has the domestic drama mixed in with the attitude that running isn't going to get him far, only to find that he might be wrong.

In fairness, Bello had not much to do apart from being a supportive wife, but she made the most of what she had.

McFarland, USA has inspiration, a good dose of humor, and a pretty respectful treatment of Hispanics (always a plus in my book).  Being Hispanic myself I found the film close to the truth, and I liked the subplot with manicurist Lupe (Martha Higareda) and her mechanic boyfriend Javi (Rigo Sanchez), who painted his lowrider with her face as the Virgin of Guadalupe on the hood of his car.  To its infinite credit, the Whites apologized to Javi for suspecting him of dangerous thoughts when they met for the first time (something we don't see often: an acknowledgement of stereotypes).  They were funny and endearing, the kind of people I'd like to know. 

Is McFarland, USA a 'white savior' film (where the Anglo character comes to rescue the poor minority unable to help itself and needing the noble white man to pick up his burden)?  I don't know.  It is based on a true-life story.  Some might find that whole idea troubling.  I find that the film concentrates more on the cross-country team than on White rescuing them from a life of misery (though I figure a case could be made for that).  On the whole I found McFarland, USA funny, moving, generally true, and inspirational. 

In short, I found it worth taking the long-distance journey with.