Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Oscar Deals With His Drinking Problem

Joan Crawford:
Best Actress for Mildred Pierce

The 18th Academy Awards had drinking on its mind.  It was the first Academy Awards to take place in peacetime, and one would imagine winning the war and the Oscar would make anyone take to the bottle. The Lost Weekend, a message picture about the evils of Demon Rum, took home top prizes.  Oscar even went to bed with Joan Crawford (I leave it to you to make your own snide remark). 

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).



Again, we have far too many nominees to type out (14 Best Song nominees).  I'm far too lazy to work on them, but I can report that the winner, It Might as Well Be Spring from State Fair, was written by perhaps the greatest songwriting duo in history: Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II.  Curiously, Hammerstein became I think one of the few people named Oscar to actually WIN an Oscar.  For my part, I think Rodgers and Hammerstein are brilliant. 

All things being fair though, It Might as Well Be Spring is a wonderful song, and one that is somewhat well-remembered, but maybe not as some others from the Rodgers & Hammerstein songbook.   Personally, I think both It's a Grand Night for Singing and the title song to State Fair, their only musical made for the screen (versus a screen adaptation), are better.  There are at least two Best Original Song nominees that are the winner's equals, or at least one that is most definitely remembered.  Whittling it down to five nominees out of the 14, I give you my list, along with my winner...

It Might as Well Be Spring from State Fair
Aren't You Glad You're You from The Bells of St. Mary's
I Fall in Love Too Easily from Anchors Aweigh
Some Sunday Morning from San Antonio

and my winner...

From Here Come the Waves, Accentuate the Positive.  Music by Harold Arlen, lyrics by Johnny Mercer. 

I think it's a safe bet that Here Come the Waves is not in your DVD collection.  I certainly hadn't heard of the film, and it would probably be forgotten completely save for Accentuate the Positive being written for the film.  This song, or at least its title, has become a saying people recognize, and the upbeat jolliness of the song goes with the optimistic message.

You also have two great songwriters who come close to Rodgers and Hammerstein: Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer.  This number is now part of the American songbook (who had perhaps its best interpreter in Ella Fitzgerald).  I also think if you played Accentuate the Positive, they would recognize it, something I can't say about It Might as Well Be Spring


Clarence Brown (National Velvet)
Alfred Hitchcock (Spellbound)
Leo McCarey (The Bells of St. Mary's)
Jean Renoir (The Southerner)
Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend)

I can't shake the idea that Billy Wilder's win for The Lost Weekend was a bit of a consolation prize for having lost the year previous for Double Indemnity.  It does put Wilder and Leo McCarey in odd positions of being people who both lost to the other and won over the other.  I don't know if we've had a case of two directors going up against each other two years running with one beating the other.  I don't know if anyone else was nominated for directing a sequel to a film that won Best Picture before (certainly since, as Francis Ford Coppola proved).  Be that as it may, Wilder's win cost Hitchcock an Oscar, and in what can be a sad irony, Wilder's second of his two Best Director wins in 1960...cost Hitchcock an Oscar. 

Clarence Brown (National Velvet)
Michael Curtiz (Mildred Pierce)
Alfred Hitchcock (Spellbound)
Fritz Lang (Scarlet Street)
Billy Wilder (The Lost Weekend)

Looking over the list of nominees, I'm surprised Michael Curtiz, one of my favorite directors, wasn't nominated for the noir masterwork Mildred Pierce.  I also see Fritz Lang, one of the true pioneers of cinema, got ignored.  Still, I'm going for Hitchcock for the psychological suspense of Spellbound, and despite my general Hitchcock love this is the first time I give him the Best Director prize.


Eve Arden (Mildred Pierce)
Ann Blyth (Mildred Pierce)
Angela Lansbury (The Picture of Dorian Gray)
Joan Lorring (The Corn is Green)
Anne Revere (National Velvet)

Revere did an excellent job as the very understanding mother, but I'm pulling for the bitch of the bunch.  Arden was a quip-spouting machine in Mildred Pierce, and while I think Lansbury really pushes herself to being a potential upset I'm choosing Ann Blyth's turn as the monstrous Veda, the most corrupt and spoiled child in film history.  It isn't often that you literally want to hiss at a person, but Blyth's Veda is as evil as they come: thoroughly selfish, spoiled, emotionally bankrupt, and shameless in her greed.  I get the sense that in real life Ann Blyth is really a sweet lady, which makes the performance all the more brilliant.

No substitutions.


Michael Chekov (Spellbound)
John Dall (The Corn is Green)
James Dunn (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)
Robert Mitchum (The Story of G.I. Joe)
J. Carroll Naish (A Medal for Benny)

Yep, this year the Academy certainly was fond of its drunks.  Apart from the biopic, having a chemical dependency is almost a sure-fire way to get at least a nomination (this year's winner, The Lost Weekend, then in the future Smash-Up: Story of a Woman and Leaving Las Vegas being fine examples).  For now, we go to Dunn's portrayal of the loving but flawed father in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (by flawed, I mean 'on the sauce').  Given his real-life battle with alcoholism, there's more than a touch of irony that he won for playing an alcoholic. 

More surprising is that this would be Robert Mitchum's only Oscar nomination.  That's right: Jonah Hill has more Oscar nominations than Robert Mitchum.  And the justification for that would be...

Jack Carson (Mildred Pierce)
Dan Duryea (Scarlet Street)
James Dunn (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn)
Sydney Greenstreet (Christmas in Connecticut)
Mickey Rooney (National Velvet)

Jack Carson was never given his due.  He tended to specialize in amiable fellows, the kind of guy you could have a laugh with.  Here was this guy, built like a linebacker, who could do a light soft-shoe and sing a little with the greatest of ease and/or charm.  He was comedic, which is where his forte lay, but Mildred Pierce I think is one of his best performances.  He still had that amiable nature to him, able to wisecrack with the best of them.  However, in Mildred Pierce, there was a darkness, a menace to him.  He was less a ham and more a wolf: sleazy, amoral, willing to take advantage of the situations presented to him (and perhaps, take advantage of Mildred herself).

Jack Carson really never got the credit he deserved as a serious actor or even as the light-hearted entertainer he was.  His death from cancer at age 52 robbed us of a great actor.  Yes, I'm a Jack Carson fan, and I wish there were more.


Ingrid Bergman (The Bells of St. Mary's)
Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce)
Greer Garson (The Valley of Decision)
Jennifer Jones (Love Letters)
Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven)

You have a curious thing among the five nominees for Best Actress.  Three of them are at this point, already Oscar winners (Garson for Mrs. Miniver, Jones for The Song of Bernadette, and last year's winner, Bergman for Gaslight).  The other two are both first-timers, which is particularly surprising given how long Joan Crawford had been around by the this time.  Never dismiss the power of a comeback role, which is what Mildred Pierce was. 

Crawford, having moved to Warner Brothers after being dumped by her home at MGM for being "box office poison", was terrified that another flop would permanently kill off her career (which for her, WAS Joan Crawford).  She wasn't considered the first choice to play the long-suffering mother to the daughter from Hell.  Bette Davis, Queen of Warners (I think at one point, she was billed as The Fifth Warner Brother) had turned it down.  Curiously, so had Rosalind Russell.  Even more humiliating (at least to Crawford), she, this major star, had to audition for the role like anyone else.   Michael Curtiz, who had adamantly opposed Crawford, did a major turnaround, and guided Crawford to her signature role.

As a side note, I remember watching Mildred Pierce with my mother.  At the end, Mom got up in a dramatic fashion that would have made Crawford proud and declared, "THIS is MY life".

I guess that would make me Veda...

Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce)
Judy Garland (The Clock)
Ann Savage (Detour)
Elizabeth Taylor (National Velvet)
Gene Tierney (Leave Her to Heaven)

Tierney gives a bone-chilling, brilliant performance as the manipulative, murderous femme fatale.  I was also taken by both Taylor as the optimistic Velvet Brown and Garland's war wife in The Clock.  However, for the moment, I'm sticking with Crawford.


Bing Crosby (The Bells of St. Mary's)
Gene Kelly (Anchors Aweigh)
Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend)
Gregory Peck (The Keys of the Kingdom)
Cornel Wilde (A Song to Remember)

Bing Crosby makes history as the first person to receive Academy Award nominations for playing the same character, a rarity.  Off the top of my head I can think of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Cate Blanchett as Queen Elizabeth I as others who achieved this, but apart from that I can't think of anyone else.  I think Wilde is sadly pretty much forgotten, and Peck, well, something tells me I'm not a big Gregory Peck fan, or at least as I once was.

In what can be seen as clear-cut idiocy by the Academy, Anchors Aweigh would be Gene Kelly's ONLY Oscar nomination, period.  He would not be nominated again for anything: Best Actor, Best Director, nothing, with only an Honorary Award in 1952.

I live in a world where Gene Kelly never won an Oscar and got exactly one career nomination, but Crappie Redmayne wins one for his robotic Stephen Hawking.  Mad World...

Bing Crosby (The Bells of St. Mary's)
Ray Milland (The Lost Weekend)
Gregory Peck (Spellbound)
Edward G. Robinson (Scarlet Street)
Robert Walker (The Clock)

Ah, Eddie.  Never got no respect.  Again playing against type, Robinson's meek painter/cashier bedazzled by a femme fatale and paying a heavy price, we see how good Robinson was at all his work.  He was typecast as a gangster, but his true genius broke through, allowing him to play all sorts of characters good and bad, brilliant and dim, wise and foolish.


Anchors Aweigh
The Bells of St. Mary's
The Lost Weekend
Mildred Pierce

I really don't have anything against any of the nominees.  Each is a solid piece of filmmaking and does what it intended to do (laugh, cry, or create suspense).  The Bells of St. Mary's holds the honor of being the first sequel nominated for Best Picture, a rare feat that I think has been done twice more (The Godfather and Lord of the Rings Trilogies, along with Toy Story 3).  Therefore, one really is spoiled for choice.  Having said that, my heart and mind tell me that the mystery Spellbound, involving psycho-analysis and weird Salvador Dali-esque dream sequences (which sadly aren't as long as I would have wanted) is the one that stands the test of time.  The Lost Weekend is a very good film, perhaps undone by a forced happy ending, but as a study of a man controlled by alcohol, it's dramatic without being overly so. 

Still, I hold on to being Spellbound...

Leave Her to Heaven
The Lost Weekend
Mildred Pierce
National Velvet

For the moment, I'm sticking with my original choice, though I think both Leave Her to Heaven and National Velvet are fine pictures. 

Next Time: the 1946 Academy Awards.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Americans: Season Three Review


Lo, The Americans is blessed and cursed.  The Americans is one of the best shows on television today.  UNFORTUNATELY, it is all but lost in the shuffle with other shows like Better Call Saul, Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead.  Nothing against sleazy lawyers, unhinged kings or zombies, but this tragic tale of Soviet spies who find their moral core corroded and their children in danger both foreign and domestic is, I think, a better show. 

As I finished Season Three, I thought about what makes The Americans such great television.  It all boils down to two features: great acting and great scripts.  Such a combination isn't always easy to achieve.  I think of Sherlock for example.  Yes, it is highly critically acclaimed and has a rabid fanbase (one that thinks the episodes are better than Canon, which some Sherlockians just don't care about...because The Hound of the Baskervilles can't be as good as Hounds of Baskerville).  I think it is very well-acted, but the scripts are lousy and nonsensical. 

The Americans is different.  Almost all episodes are true to the characters, and in the ten episodes they take time to have our leads, Soviet spies Elizabeth and Philip Jennings, evolve and grow (and sometimes regress).  We have seen them fight, love, work together and be at odds.  In short, we've seem them as an average married couple.

This season we've seen them grow if not conflicted about what they do at least see that there is a high human cost.  Elizabeth had to sit as she cajoled Betty Turner (Lois Smith, in what should be at least an Emmy-nominated performance for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama) to kill herself.  Betty is an innocent caught up in their espionage, and I wonder whether the fact that Elizabeth's own mother is dying somehow impacted seeing this old woman expire in a particularly brutal fashion. 

The real evolution has been with Philip, who was always the more sensitive and 'Americanized' of the two.  Elizabeth believes that life in America is 'easier but not better'.   Philip doesn't.  He isn't about to defect, but he also has been more troubled by his conscience, which as guest/supporting actor Frank Langella observed to him, is a dangerous thing. 

As he sees his daughter Paige slip further from him both emotionally and with the Center's desire to make her a second-generation spy, along with his explorations of emotion through EST, Philip is being dragged emotionally through the mud.  He now not only could lose his daughter, but he could lose his son Misha, whom he's never met, in the deserts of Afghanistan.  I'm still haunted by what he wrote as the 'suicide note' in the season finale.  "I had no choice.  I'm sorry," the note read for Gene. 

In truth, he was writing it about himself.

I think at heart The Americans is a tragedy.  Our hearts break for these two people who are killing and working to destroy our country.  I think it is because they are destroying themselves and what they truly hold dear (their family) slowly and irrevocably.  Brilliantly, we both know them and don't know them.  The Jennings are a front.  They disguise themselves constantly to everyone they meet (and the fact that The Americans hasn't received a Make-Up nomination is as foolish as Crappie Redmayne winning an Oscar for giving an impersonation rather than a performance).   Yet, for all their disguises and subterfuge, at heart they actually are good people doing terrible things.

We are getting such rich performances from the whole cast.  At the top of the list are the leads, Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.  Rhys gives us the heart of the show as Philip, who does his duty but now is almost as robotic as the mail bot he puts a listening device on.  He is growing more conflicted by what he is asked to do: seduce a fifteen year old, give his daughter up, kill more innocents.  This has been a running theme this season, Philip's increasingly divided soul.  Rhys has handled this so wonderfully (and with a successful American accent to cover his native Welsh one). 

Russell has done the same as Elizabeth, who isn't as conflicted about her mission but who also is perhaps starting to regret what she has done/is doing to her daughter.  Elizabeth, unlike Philip, sees that her work makes the world a better place (at least to her), despite what Betty tells her about being evil.  Odd, that we don't think of her as evil even as she does evil things.  Can we, like her, compartmentalize it all?

I also think that The Americans has the best cast on television as a whole.  Holly Taylor has taken center stage as Paige, and I think she's done brilliant work for a younger actress.  When she finally learns the truth (after relentless digging on her own) there was no great hysterics, no wildness.  Instead, it was all rather calm...too calm, almost as if the shock hasn't fully registered.  Taylor handles all this so well on-screen.  The Martha storyline is equally brilliant, as Alison Wright makes the secretary into a sad figure, one who loves but finds herself in a horrible situation.  It's also been good to see Noah Emmerich not just be devoted to investigating like the good FBI agent that he is.  We also see the private side of Stan Beeman: haunted by his love for Nina and the hurt he caused to his soon to be ex-wife Sandra. 

Annet Mahendru as Nina, the Soviet who is working to save herself from certain death in a Soviet prison, has been nothing short of amazing (and yes, remarkably beautiful for a woman locked up in a gulag).  Nina is a survivor, who lives by the opportunities presented to her, who has been given a thin lifeline and is determined to make a go of it no matter how much she has to do.

I now have curiosity over Season Four.  Now that Martha knows her husband 'Clark' is not who he says he is, and Paige has squealed to her hippy-drippy pastor (sorry, but don't understand why Paige found religion through a lefty church when the Moral Majority was taking hold of American politics back then, a hold that is all but dead now), what will happen to both?  Will Elizabeth's resolve strengthen now that Ronald Reagan has declared the Soviet Union an 'evil empire'?  Will Philip finally break?  What about Henry Jennings, who is being left adrift, becoming more obsessed with video games and bonding with next-door neighbor Stan?  What will their next mission be?  How many more innocents will have to die? 

The Americans is a brilliant show in all aspects: writing, directing, hair/makeup, and acting.  I don't understand why more people aren't watching it.  I hope to be more diligent when covering the show, for unlike others, I'm not big on binge-watching.  I love the show and recommend it to everyone.

Next Episode:

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: A Review (Review #724)


The Older Folks At Home...

I think it would be clear to think that a movie about a group of retirees finding life and romance in India would not make for entertaining film-going, but The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel defied the odds.  Now, thanks to the success of this film, we managed to get something extremely rare: a sequel to a film starring a group of people who are, with the exception of two of its stars, well over 50. 

And who says Hollywood ignores the senior set?

For better or worse, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel seems almost blissfully unaware of how its title opens itself up to some awful puns.  It seems blissfully unaware of a lot of things, and while it's tempting to say the reason is because of growing senility, I think overall the film is slight, entertaining in a somewhat cutesy way, but below the original.

Sonny Kapoor (Dev Patel) and Muriel Donnelly (Maggie Smith) form the oddest odd couple: the chipper Indian youth and the dour British senior.  However, the success of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for the Aged and Beautiful has acquired a lot of attention, particularly in America, where the two go to sell the idea of a second hotel to potential investors.  Ty Burley (David Strathairn) will look into it, but he will send his 'guy' to do a secret inspection.

Back in India, the furtive romance of Evelyn (Judi Dench) and Douglas (Bill Nighy) continues.  She has found her niche as a go-between for fabrics, he as a bumbling tour guide who needs children to secretly feed him information.  They still can't quite get together, their mutual shyness getting in the way.  That is no problem for Madge (Celia Imrie), who is the mistress of two Indian maharajahs, squired from one to the other.  Both have asked her to marry them, but she cannot decide.  Neither can ladies' man Norman (the appropriately named Ronald Pickup), who is feeling his way towards a regular relationship with Carol (Diana Hardcastle). 

Into this swirl enters Guy Chambers (Richard Gere), whom Sonny immediately knows is the inspector because Ty said he'd send 'some Guy' (obviously).  Sonny becomes excessively courteous to a puzzled Guy, and quite dismissive of another guest, Lavinia (Tasmin Grieg), constantly belittling and insulting her, to the horror of Muriel (who constantly has to save Sonny from himself).  Sonny also has a hysterical way with his fiancée, Sunaina (Tina Desai).  He is constantly jealous of his frenemy who is teaching them a Bollywood-type wedding dance and who bought up the building he was eyeing.  In short, Sonny makes a right mess of things.

Fortunately, he has his mother (Lillete Dubey) to help.  He essentially pimps her out to Guy, convinced it will help in the evaluation.  It doesn't, but a tentative romance starts between them.  In the end, Evelyn and Douglas do get together, Norman is forced to dump the unfaithful Carol, Madge chooses neither, and Sonny & Sunaina do marry...and celebrate the opening of The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The real dancing fool.
While The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel attempts to recapture the magic of the original, something was a bit off.  I think it is primarily because a great deal of time is spent with Patel's Sonny.  It's curious that for being British by birth and upbringing, Patel is asked to do a lot of Bollywood numbers.  He seems affable enough, but by goodness was Sonny an idiot.  Over and over I found him to be borderline moronic.  His insistence that Guy HAD to be the inspector...because his name is 'Guy' makes me question whether Sonny can function.  His dismissal of Lavinia is equally ridiculous (I can't imagine that any hotelier would be so brazenly insulting to any guest, especially in front of others, even those who liked him).

As a side note, you'd have to be pretty dim to not guess who the real inspector was, and I wonder whether Ol Parker's screenplay was meant to be that obvious. 

Sonny's paranoia over his frenemy, his clumsy way of dealing with people, his virtual prostituting of his own mother, all done with this excessively cheerful, upbeat manner?  Part of me wondered whether the only thing left for him to do was to go up to a guest and say, "Thank you. Come again".  His whole manner made me think that it was good that The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel had him in small doses.  There is only so much of the overeager but thoroughly stupid Sonny I could take, and the film gave me an overload.

For a movie about older people, we spent far too much time with the 25-year-old Patel.

I think sometimes the comedy was a bit forced, particularly with the Norman storyline of him accidentally hiring a hitman to take care of Carol.  Somehow, in all that bumbling, he finds her unfaithfulness, and I don't know if that worked either. Neither with the Madge storyline (she was sleeping with two men) or throwing in the horrid Jean (Penelope Wilton), Douglas' soon-to-be ex, in what I thought was a contrivance. 

That isn't to say The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel isn't without some charms.  Dench and Nighy continue to be charming as the older romantics.  They were a highlight.  Smith too was wonderful as the sensible Muriel (though the suggestion that she now has some illness to create some form of drama wasn't working for me). 

In short, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is tolerable (though at two hours, it feels so much longer).   There are some genuine moments of comedy, some tender moments, but they had to play second fiddle to some really dull and bizarre moments too.  Still, can one really argue with a big Bollywood number involving a group of old white people?


Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Americans: March 8, 1983 Review


Ronald Reagan, in my view, is one of the Greatest Presidents in History.  I admit to being prejudiced on the subject, given I am a Child of the 1980s and grew up with President Reagan.  He is a shadow over The Americans, given that he saw the defeat of the Soviet Union as not just a political but a moral crusade.  March 8, 1983 is the day on which President Reagan gave what has come to be known as "The Evil Empire" speech.  As the world of the Jennings is coming down all around them, to hear the leader of their enemy refer to their country and cause as evil has an impact on all of the Jennings and their circle, whether they know it or not.  March 8, 1983 is not just the season finale to The Americans, but it is a tumultuous day for the family, as so many things start emerging that could end up exploding all around them in ways none of them can foresee. 

We do have to go a bit back, to when Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) along with her daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) manage to get tickets to West Berlin,  Ostensibly a perk of being a travel agent, this is really a secret trip to see Elizabeth's mother, who is dying.  Gabriel (Frank Langella) is livid about this, but in the end he gives in. While in Germany, Elizabeth is on alert for anyone suspicious of them.  They do get to see Elizabeth's mother, smuggled in as she is in the last stages of cancer I believe.  Grandmamma knows about Paige, but this is not the happy reunion her granddaughter expected.  Instead, she's slightly traumatized: worried that Elizabeth could leave her like she left her mother, she prays for them both.

Philip (Matthew Rhys) meanwhile, has one particular young man in mind while plotting the newest mission with the Afghans with Yousaf (Rahul Khanna).  As part of their efforts to throw the FBI investigation off track regarding the bug, Philip kills Gene (Luke Robertson), the tech guy.  He frames it as a suicide to suggest that it was him who planted the bug, but Philip's conscience is getting at him.  He sees all the toys in Gene's apartment, and it brings to mind his son Henry (Keidrich Sellati), who has become obsessed with electronic toys.  Despite his excellent work, Philip is basically a broken man.

Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) gets the proof that Zenaida (Svetlana Efremova) is a double agent, but Agent Gaad (Richard Thomas) is livid that he created this operation with Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin) AND did it without authorization.  (There's a lot of livid higher-ups, aren't there?).  Gaad is convinced Beeman is finished, but an unexpected source of rescue comes from the assistant attorney general, who encourages Beeman to keep up his relationship with Burov.  However, Beeman's goal of rescuing Nina failed, as she will not be traded for Zenaida.

In the end, we see Philip and Elizabeth in their room as a news report details Ronald Reagan's speech to the National Evangelical Association.  As Paige is on the phone, revealing to Pastor Tim that her parents are Russian spies, Elizabeth becomes quietly enraged at Reagan, while Philip, defeated, is blubbering on, not caring about what the President has to say.

There really is nothing more to say other than The Americans is one of if not the best-acted television series so far.  I can't find a bad performance from any of the cast in this episode.  Certainly the trio of Russell, Rhys, and Taylor all score grand slams.

The scene with three generations as they reunite is so tender and heartbreaking and beautiful.
Philip's regret about killing Gene, down to when he types the 'suicide note'.  "I had no choice.  I'm sorry," is what he writes as Gene, but I think he was writing that about himself.  His quest for peace through EST, which he now finds a source of release and comfort.  Paige's fears about being left.  Elizabeth's quiet rage at Reagan.

Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

On the whole though, March 8, 1983 isn't perfect. We get only the slightest glimpse of the storyline with Nina and Anton, and Martha has disappeared, both of which I find curious choices.  However, that does make Season Four a more fascinating affair.  That, and the idea that Paige has revealed the biggest family secret.

She should have gone Catholic: at least priests can't reveal what they learn in confession...


Season Three Overview

The Americans: I Am Abassin Zadran Review


It is said that it is the old who wage war, but the young who die in them.  I find this to be true, and I Am Abassin Zadran, this episode of The Americans, proves it to be true.  Not only that, but it also shows that the players on the world stage may change, but some things appear eternal, like the quagmire that is the basketcase known as Afghanistan. 

There's so much going on around Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell).  Their daughter Paige (Holly Taylor) is acting out: staying with Pastor Tim and his wife over the Jennings' objections.  Martha (Alison Wright) is starting to waver in keeping what she knows about 'Clark' and the bug secret from the investigation.  Elizabeth's mother is dying and Philip is pushing Gabriel (Frank Langella), their minder, to grant her a last visit (which Gabriel doesn't want).  Then they have their work of disrupting the mujahedeen group the CIA is working with by playing one side against the other.

At the Rezidentura, the head officer Arkady (Lev Gorn) want to terminate Operation Zephyr (the bug that was placed on the FBI mail robot).  He's tired of listening to idle gossip the device picks up.  Both Tatiana (Vera Cherny) and Oleg (Costa Ronin) advise him to give it more time, suggesting that to terminate an operation so quickly would look bad to Moscow.  Reluctantly, he agrees.  Gabriel meets with our old friend Claudia (Margo Martindale), and expresses his doubts about turning Paige (which Grannie is in charge of).   It isn't that he's concerned with Paige.  He's worried that the efforts to make a spy out of Paige are affecting Elizabeth and Philip, particularly the latter. 

The culmination to this appears to be good news/bad news.  Good news: Abassin Zadran (George Georgiou) kills the other mujahedeen.  Bad news: Paige will see her actual grandmother in East Berlin.

I think I Am Abassin Zadran is a particularly prophetic episode, more about today than yesteryear.  At a critical point in the episode, when Elizabeth and Philip are feeding doubts int Abassin about how the Americans work, he replies, "Why is there no war here, in America?".  It's clear we know what is coming, but it's chilling to realize that in a couple of decades, the same source of trouble for the Soviets will plague the imperialist Yankees.  It's subtle, but highly effective.

We keep getting such brilliant performances from the cast.  Of particular note are Wright as Martha, who is so devastating in her final scene with Rhys as her faux-husband, the terror and heartbreak and fear all revolving so well.  If there were any justice, Wright would be mentioned as a potential Emmy nominee along with Russell and Rhys.  The scene when she calls her parents, if just to hear a familiar voice, is devastating.

Rhys is equally powerful in I Am Abassin Zadran, particularly that last scene when he finally reveals his true self to Martha by taking off the wig.  It's not just an unmasking, it's an emotional strip-tease.  Russell too has brilliant moments when facing off against Maurice (Thaddeus Daniels), the husband of her unwitting agent who pushes for more money.  Her quiet rage at having to deal with this man is palpable. 

We get a beautiful scene between two great actors: Martindale and Langella.  As the Soviet agents, we see the sarcasm and cynicism of those who don't believe that America is "the land of the free" and marvel at the variety of choices of hamburgers.  The paradox of being American, Grannie states.  No wonder they thought the imperialists would be easily defeated.

I do wonder a bit about Martha: how welling she was go to get a ride from Hans or not have some concerns about 'Clark'.  Still, apart from that, I Am Abassin Zadran does great work that will lead to a hopefully great season finale.


Next Episode: March 8, 1983

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Americans: One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov Review


I remember when I had to read A Day in the Life of Ivan Desinovich by the brilliant Alexander Solzhenitzyn.   Just like Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep? borrows from literature, so does The Americans' episode One Day in the Life of Anton Baklavov.  As that storyline gets deeper and deeper, we don't ignore some of the others, which are also building to a strong conclusion (at least we hope they do). 

Paige (Holly Taylor) is understandably freaking out over the revelations of her parents, Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys).  She is unsure what to do or how to take all this information, and she's not the only one unsure as to what to do.  Elizabeth's unwitting dupe Lisa (Karen Pittman) is being pushed by her husband Maurice (Thaddeus Daniels) to get more money for the work Lisa is being asked to do.  Elizabeth seethes at Maurice's interference, but there is not much she can do on the subject.  Martha (Alison Wright) is unsure how to proceed when it comes to her husband "Clark".  She is also wary of the growing investigation as to who put the bug in Agent Gaad's office.  She did, of course, but she also knows that her motives were good, but who really is going to believe her true-but-outlandish story?

Having learned from Yousaf (Rahul Khanna) that a meeting of mujahedeen leaders is being arranged by the CIA, the Jennings start casing the hotel they are being put up in.  To do that, Elizabeth has to use her feminine wiles on the hotel manager, Neil (Bill Heck).  She doesn't go to bed with him the first time, but she is tempting him, flirting and teasing.  Elizabeth, learning that her mother is dying, wants to see her but wouldn't ask for the privilege.  Instead, it is Philip who goes to Gabriel (Frank Langella) asking she be given special permission to do so.  Paige, for her part, is also upset to learn of her grandmother's impending death.  She thinks that it is unfair that Elizabeth cannot see her mother, but at the moment, what can she do.

The main story involves Nina (Annet Mahendru), who is working to get the trust of Anton (Michael Aronov),
the scientist whom the Soviets want to get work out of.  He misses his son terribly, and with some work on her part, by not pushing, she slowly gets him to give her his trust.  Trust is a dangerous thing, for we know not where it will end up. 

What was great about ODITLOAB is that the stories didn't collide with each other or overwhelm one over the other.  They blended well and took just the right amount of time.  The main story of Nina and Anton wasn't short-shrifted or made the dominant one.  Instead, it worked well, and the slow and steady method Nina is taking I hope will reap rich rewards, but it does put one in a quandary.  Part of us doesn't want her to succeed if it means it will cost Anton something dear, but we also don't want her to spend either ten years in prison or worse, executed.  She has a great deal of pressure on her, and how this story will turn out will be fascinating to watch.

We also have great acting, particularly between Russell and Taylor, who is really coming into her own as both Paige and as an actress.  The scene they share in the car where they talk about the dangers of the Jennings' work and about Elizabeth's mother (if memory serves correct) is raw and real and wonderful to watch. 

About the only thing I really didn't care for and still don't quite get is this entire storyline of Martha, who seems if not all too willing to go along with Clark's ideas, but who doesn't seem to wonder about who he really is.  Maybe I am missing something, so I'm not going to belabor the point, but I still find it all a bit confusing. 

Apart from that I think The Americans is simply a fantastic show, and this Day is a wonderful one.


Next Episode: I Am Abassin Zadran

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Bless Me Oscar, For We Have Sinned

Ingrid Bergman:
Best Actress for Gaslight


As it has been a long time since I've done a Tuesdays With Oscar retrospective, I've decided to tweak it a little by altering somewhat the structure.  I'll start with Best Original Song and work my way down.  I'll also try to make my reflections shorter.

The 17th Academy Awards continues a curious love affair with Catholicism.  After awarding their Best Actress prize to Jennifer Jones the previous year for playing a Catholic saint, the Academy voted as their Best Actor and Supporting Actor men who played priests.  It also threw its Best Picture award to a film revolving around saving a church.  This of course was before Hollywood thought the Catholic Church was nothing more than a Satanic cult for homophobic child rapists whose only good qualities was in expelling demons who weren't on Supernatural

The battle between light and darkness was on full display, as the sunny optimism of Going My Way went head to head against the noir nihilism of Double Indemnity.  Whether the Academy made the right choices this year I leave to the reader, but I think this year's winners reflect a tradition within the Academy of choosing the popular choice rather than the long-standing one.

As always this is just for fun and should not be taken as my final decision. I should like to watch all the nominees and winners before making my final, FINAL choice. Now, on to cataloging the official winners (in bold) and my selections (in red). Also, my substitutions (in green).



No, I won't bother to write all the nominees because I'm lazy that way.  There are twelve nominees, and I bet each one is better than either Man or Muppet or Skyfall.  In any case, the winner was the jaunty little number from Going My Way.  I admit to being taken by surprise since the title song was the one they kept pushing, but I knew it wasn't.  Instead, I kept waiting...and waiting, for THE song to pop up.  Imagine my surprise when I heard Bing Crosby ask the kids if they wanted to sing The MuleTHE MULE?! What kind of song was THAT?  Wouldn't you know it, it isn't known as The Mule, but instead as the Best Original Song winner...

From Going My Way, Swinging on a Star, music by Jimmy Van Housen, lyrics by Johnny Burke.

Now, while I like Swinging on a Star, and it is a good song, my choice from the nominees is different.  It too is a classic, and one that I think is a little better remembered than Swinging on a Star (and from a film much more remembered than Going My Way).

From Meet Me in St. Louis, The Trolley Song.  Music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

Granted, it couldn't have been an easy choice that year with a.) 12 nominees, and b.) two real American standards.  Having said all that, I'm going to select ANOTHER song as my personal choice.  I present my FIVE Best Original Song nominees, along with my winner:

I Couldn't Sleep a Wink Last Night from Higher and Higher
Long Ago and Far Away from Cover Girl
Swinging on a Star from Going My Way
The Trolley Song from Meet Me in St. Louis

and the winner...

Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas from Meet Me in St. Louis.  Music and lyrics by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane.

Has there ever been a more melancholy, more mournful Yuletide song that has been embraced by the world?  It is sung every Christmas, and yet, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas at its heart, is about loss.  It is a regret for all the Christmases that the Smith family will not have in their beloved St. Louis.  It's meant to comfort, and I think it does, but there's such yearning in the song that it brings tears.  It is a brilliant song, one of many which have become iconic.

When was the last time you sang Swinging on a Star?


Alfred Hitchcock (Lifeboat)
Henry King (Wilson)
Leo McCarey (Going My Way)
Otto Preminger (Laura)
Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity)

First, the slow, creaky Wilson got a nod thanks to the campaigning of its producer, Darryl F. Zanuck, who idolized that bigot.  Out of the others, for me the battle really is between the two great noir films nominated: Preminger's Laura and Wilder's Double Indemnity.  Both are brilliant pieces of film, and it was a struggle to pick one over the other (though not a struggle to pick either over the charming but lightweight Going My Way).  While it might be logical to pick Billy Wilder for his dark tale of greed, I'm going for Preminger because I was taken by surprise at the twist near the end that threw everything for a loop.  I also think Preminger as a director was never really given his due.  Wilder, he's a legend, one of the greats.  So is Hitchcock.  However, pity that Preminger never got the accolades they did, living or dead.  Maybe it's time for a reevaluation.

Lewis Allen (The Uninvited)
Alfred Hitchcock (Lifeboat)
Vincente Minnelli (Meet Me in St. Louis)
Otto Preminger (Laura)
Billy Wilder (Double Indemnity)

I love the noir films, but I also love the charming, homespun style of Minnelli in Meet Me in St. Louis.  His idea to break up the story into four seasons, and to make the family dynamic one of love and innocence, was brilliant.  I thought I would hate Meet Me in St. Louis, but instead I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. I think it takes an enormous amount of talent to direct children, and to direct scenes where romances build slowly.  Minnelli was a great director, visually and actor-wise.  Pity he too wasn't recognized for this film with at least a nomination...but the boring, forgotten Wilson was.


Ethel Barrymore (None But the Lonely Heart)
Jennifer Jones (Since You Went Away)
Angela Lansbury (Gaslight)
Aline MacMahon (Dragon Seed)
Agnes Moorehead (Mr. Skeffington)

First, I'm knocking out MacMahon on the basis that I don't go for yellowface.  Dragon Seed is infamous now because it has the very WASP Katharine Hepburn as a CHINESE woman!  It would be like casting Channing Tatum as Genghis Khan (with the exception that Hepburn could, you know, actually act).  Still, seeing images of Hepburn in Dragon Seed sends either shivers or gales of laughter, and I can't imagine MacMahon doing any better.

As such, the only real battle is between Lansbury and Barrymore.  Part of me really is thinking, 'Lansbury', but for the moment, I'm sticking with Barrymore's doomed Cockney mother.

Ethel Barrymore (None But the Lonely Heart)
Angela Lansbury (Gaslight)
Margaret O'Brien (Meet Me in St. Louis)
Shirley Temple (Since You Went Away)
Gene Tierney (Laura)

That being said, when I think how good Margaret O'Brien was in Meet Me in St. Louis, and how she was shunted off with an Honorary Juvenile Oscar, I think the Academy is quite cowardly.  O'Brien was cute without being annoying, funny without being idiotic, and most of all, as authentic as any child who finds burying her dolls great fun in its morbidness.  O'Brien is a standout among the performances in Meet Me in St. Louis, and I think if she had been nominated among her adult peers, had a chance, or at least perhaps of splitting votes.   


Hume Cronyn (The Seventh Cross)
Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way)
Claude Rains (Mr. Skeffington)
Clifton Webb (Laura)
Monty Wolley (Since You Went Away)

I find nothing wrong with Fitzgerald's cutesy old parish priest, full of that wonderful Irish charm that he brought to his cantankerous but loveable Father Fitzgibbons, unaware that the youth were not as either criminal or sweet as he thought.  However, it is Webb's slimy tabloid reporter Waldo Lydecker that made the biggest impression on me.  It wasn't that the, shall we say, flamboyant Webb attempted to play it straight, but in his first scene with Dana Andrews' investigator that perhaps is the most overtly outlandish in a film released during the time of the Breen Office.  There Waldo is, stark naked, typing in his bathtub, and he doesn't shrink from rising from the waters, one imagines completely nude, in front of the police officer.  We didn't see that obviously, but one can only wonder what was going on.

Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way)
Claude Rains (Mr. Skeffington)
Edward G. Robinson (Double Indemnity)
Walter Slezak (Lifeboat)
Clifton Webb (Laura)

It's a terrible shame that truly great actors never got their due or respect from the Academy.  While people like Myrna Loy, Maureen O'Hara, and Edward G. Robinson went to their graves without a single Oscar nomination, people like Crappie Redmayne can tout themselves as these great thespians simply because some group threw them a statue.  Yes, O'Hara is still alive but I doubt she'll make a comeback anytime soon. 

Robinson was known as a gangster on film, but he was much more than that.  He was a truly solid actor, one who could do just about anything.  In Double Indemnity, he plays against type: as the honest insurance investigator convinced that a man's death was no accident, but murder, unaware that the murderer was working right next to him.  In this sleazy, sordid noir, Robinson is the moral core of the film, one that needs one badly.  He is clever, shrewd, honest, funny, and above all bright.  Sure, he may need some time to piece it all together, but put it together he did.


Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight)
Claudette Colbert (Since You Went Away)
Bette Davis (Mr. Skeffington)
Greer Garson (Mrs. Parkington)
Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity)

Oh, I have absolutely nothing against Bergman or her performance in Gaslight.  It has stood the test of time.  That being said, I don't think anyone who has seen Barbara Stanwyck's performance as the cold-blooded schemer in Double Indemnity doesn't think that it was a much stronger performance than that of a woman who is being driven mad.  Stanwyck really, like Robinson, could do it all: comedy (Ball of Fire, The Lady Eve) as well as drama (Stella Dallas).  Here, she is the ultimate femme fatale, this dark beauty luring poor Fred MacMurray to his doom.  Her manipulation, her cold-bloodedness, her evil...really great acting.  Four nominations, four losses (and some to performances and actress not remembered today: Louise Rainer's little Asian peasant in The Good Earth?  Joan Fontaine's consolation prize in Suspicion?  Jane Wyman for Johnny Belinda?).  More proof the Academy Awards are a poor way to judge film greatness.

Tallulah Bankhead (Lifeboat)
Ingrid Bergman (Gaslight)
Bette Davis (Mr. Skeffington)
Judy Garland (Meet Me in St. Louis)
Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity)

All things being said though, I think I'm a closet optimist, for my choice is Judy Garland in the joyful, hopeful, bright and uplifting Meet Me in St. Louis.  Garland, again another person who never won a competitive Oscar (and if anyone can make a case as to how Crappie Redmayne is better than Judy Garland, I'm all ears), didn't like her character: another teenager.  She complained that she would probably end up collecting her first Social Security check and play her first love scene the same week.  However, her Esther Smith was more than just a girl in love with 'the boy next door'.  She was someone growing into a woman, who was understanding what that meant.  Her delivery of songs as varied as The Trolley Song and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas ran the full spectrum, and her performance is still remembered and beloved. 


Charles Boyer (Gaslight)
Bing Crosby (Going My Way)
Barry Fitzgerald (Going My Way)
Cary Grant (None But the Lonely Heart)
Alexander Knox (Wilson)

Well, for starters we can knock out two nominees.  I'm no fan of Wilson or Wilson, and Knox, while decent, was by no means the best (and let's face it, no one remembers Wilson or Wilson all that much).  We can also dump Fitzgerald, the first and only person to receive two nominations for playing the same part in the same picture.  I can also say, with sadness, that this will be Cary Grant's second and final nomination.  If you think of all the great performances Grant gave, the Academy saw fit to nominate him for only two. 

If we think long and hard on that, that ties Cary Grant with, of all people, Jonah Hill, in number of nominations from the Academy.  Remind me why we think Oscars are worth anything?

Now we end up with two people really (although, Grant was probably nominated for playing against type as a Cockney, which is ironic since the embodiment of sophistication was born a poor kid from Bristol by name of Archie Leech).  When he wasn't spending his time beating his children till they bled and disinheriting them until they turned 65, Der Bingle had time to make movies.  He was concerned about his chances to win, knowing that if he did his Road co-star Bob Hope would have a ready punching bag.  Fortunately for him, the cool daddy-o priest got him the Oscar, but it robbed Boyer's manipulative villain a chance to win. 

Dana Andrews (Laura)
Charles Boyer (Gaslight)
Cary Grant (Arsenic and Old Lace)
Fred MacMurray (Double Indemnity)
Dick Powell (Murder, My Sweet)

It was a very difficult decision for me.  For most the time I thought it would go to Fred MacMurray's dupe in Double Indemnity.  Then I remembered Dick Powell in another noir masterwork, Murder, My Sweet.  It's amusing that the original title, Goodbye, My Fancy, had to be changed to the less ambiguous Murder, My Sweet because Goodbye, My Fancy might lead people to think this was going to be a lighthearted romantic comedy.  Those were the types of roles Powell was known for in the first half of his career: the lightweight, breezy films where he would croon a little and swoon a little over a pretty girl.  No actor's career shifted as wildly but as brilliantly as Dick Powell, whose second half was dominated by gritty turns in noir.  For that, he deserves recognition. 


Double Indemnity
Going My Way
Since You Went Away

First, forget the boring and pretentious Wilson, a film that has the racist President all but walk on water.  Yes, Going My Way was very nice, very charming, very sweet.  I loved the film, but for me, Best Picture has to have as its winner a film that I think stands the test of time.  It has to be remembered, evoked, one that still says something.  Going My Way, as charming as it is, doesn't.  The dark, despairing noir masterwork Double Indemnity does.  Its tale of greed and the high price of lust still haunts the viewer long after the film is over.

Double Indemnity
Going My Way
Meet Me in St. Louis
The Uninvited

That being said, I think we can come up with better and better-remembered films than Wilson.  There's the equally brilliant noir film Laura, the creepy suspense film The Uninvited, and my choice for the Best Picture of the Year: the charming, pleasant, and moving Meet Me in St. Louis.  The film is sweet without being sickeningly so, charming, a beautiful portrait of an idealized American family.  Meet Me in St. Louis is I think a truly authentically American film about an American subject, and the film never fails to charm and move.  Its collection of American standards in song and with performances that are still beautiful make it truly one of the great American film musicals, and one of the greatest films ever made. 

Sorry, but this year, I'm Going My Own Way to name Meet Me in St. Louis the Best Picture of 1944.

Next Time: the 1945 Academy Awards.

James Horner: A Brief Remembrance

I must confess I am not a fan of James Horner's work.  Titanic in particular was an appalling work overall, and the theme song My Heart Will Go On is responsible for one part of my hatred for it.  Along with James Newton Howard, I considered Horner to be nowhere near the league of the great film composers like Bernstein, Steiner, Herrmann, Waxman, Rozsa, or Williams. 

Having said that, James Horner did do some good work.  Somewhere Out There is still a beautiful song, and I still get a thrill hearing the theme to The Rocketeer.  No, I wasn't a fan, but learning of his death in a plane crash yesterday still saddens me.  For better or worse James Horner's music is part of film history, and many people will recognize his work. 

My heartfelt condolences to his family and friends.

As tribute, I present one of the few authentically brilliant scores James Horner created.


Monday, June 22, 2015

The Americans: Stingers Review


I remember well when my parents and I had "The Talk".  The only thing I learned was that I was going to get 'feelings' and that I was going to grow hair.  Given by the time we had "The Talk" I had a mustache I figured this was a particularly odd revelation.  I'm sure though, that whatever discomfort I had when we had "The Talk" could not top the discomfort of Elizabeth and Philip Jennings when they told their daughter Paige what they knew they had to eventually.  Stingers is interesting that what was built up as the big turning point in the series was handled quietly, oh so quietly.  This was handled so well that it not only defied expectations, it elevated them.

There is a Cold War between Philip Jennings (Matthew Rhys) and Pastor Tim (Kelley AuCoin), the hippie-drippy pastor Paige (Holly Taylor) seeks out in time of need.  Pastor Tim is pushing Paige to get her parents to be more open about who they are, and she too has tired of the strangeness of her life.  She wants to know about why they have no relatives, why they get phone calls and rush off at all hours, of all the things going on.  Philip and his wife Elizabeth (Keri Russell) apparently aren't noticing that their son Henry (Keidrich Sellati) is bonding with their neighbor, FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich). 

Their big mission is Yousaf, the Pakistani ISI officer who is panicking.  He is coming to America, causing the Jennings' minder Gabriel (Frank Langella) that Yousaf "only has eyes for Philip".  Beeman for his part is still working to find out if Zenaida (Svetlana Efremova) is a double agent, and after watching Tootsie, she secretly leaves a message.  At the Rezindentura, Head Official Arkady (Lev Gorn) worries over the fate of Willow.  She's been recently targeted at her hotel room by an unknown assailant, and he fears that the Soviets' left hand doesn't know what the right hand is doing.  In other words, because of the super-secret nature of Willow's work, the Soviets may think Zenaida really has betrayed the  Soviet Union and is being pursued. 

At long last, Philip and Elizabeth tells Paige the whole truth about who they are.  She doesn't become hysterical, but she also doesn't leap for joy. 

Stingers is perhaps the most intense and quiet of The Americans episodes so far.  We get the big revelation of Philip and Elizabeth's true identities, but neither them or Paige go all crazy or intense.  There is no screaming, no big dramatic moments.  Instead, everyone is quite quiet and still, which makes them all the more intense.  This is the moment Philip has dreaded and Elizabeth has pretty much been looking forward to, but both find the actual exposing of their lives much more traumatic and unsettling than they thought.  For Paige, it seems an unreal situation, as if the entire gravity of the situation is not fully registering in.

All three of them (Rhys, Russell, and Taylor) were so excellent in the scene that they elevated the whole episode to a higher register.

We get a perverse sense of foreshadowing when Paige comes into the travel agency front unannounced.  She sits at their desk and wonders aloud if they plan to make a travel agent out of her.  The double entendre is simply brilliant.

We also get movement on two fronts, one foreseen, one not.  The Zenaida plotline finally has confirmation, showing that Stan's instincts were right.  However, we get a bit of a laugh when Zenaida observes after leaving Tootsie that a man dressed as a woman wouldn't be acceptable in the Soviet Union, and Stan says the same goes in the U.S.


Stan plays a role in a storyline I wasn't expecting: that of Stan finding a surrogate son of sorts in Henry Jennings.  Stan brings a confiscated VHS copy of TRON for Henry (so 80s), and they hang out together.   

If there was any flaw, it is when Elizabeth slips into a bit of speechmaking when revealing her truth.  However, when they speak Russian in an odd effort to comfort their daughter, it is so heartbreaking and played as real as possible.

Stingers is a brilliant episode, and one gets a positive impression of how good The Americans is.


Next Episode: One Day in the Life of Anton Baklanov

Focus: A Review


Will Smith has been having a bad time of it recently.  Once, he was the go-to man for big-budget popcorn films, one of the few African-American actors who could transcend racial lines and appeal to all moviegoers.  He parlayed that into a serious acting career, with two Oscar nominations (both I think merited).  Now, he's had a series of box office disappointments and downright bombs ranging from the odd but ambitious Seven Pounds to the horror/ego trip/progeny vehicle of After Earth.   Smith is a shrewd manager of his career and persona, and I figure he realized his career was going off when it need not.  As a result, I figure he figured a stylish crime caper could put him if not back on top, at least restore a bit of the Smith luster.

Focus has a lot of style, but what it doesn't have is, well, focus.  Style will get you only so far, and audiences are I think willing to let go of some things.  However, Focus tries to be too clever in its con games, coming up with twists and turns that instead of being clever and stylish, become a bit puzzling and a tad too convenient to be believed.

Nicky Spurgeon (Smith) is a professional con man.  One night, the beautiful Jess (Margot Robbie) attempts to rob him through seduction, but being new to grifting, she flops.  A few days later, she finds him and asks if she could be his protégé.   He agrees and a romance develops.  Their big score is at the Super Bowl, where he, with her unwitting help, manages to rob Lyuan Tse (B.D. Wong), a big-time gambler.   However, Nicky, concerned that his professional and private lives are colliding, sends Jess away with part of the share they won off Tse.

A few years later, they reunite accidentally.  Nicky has been hired by Rafael Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro), a billionaire racing car owner.  He wants Nicky to get him a new device from his rival that will give him an edge in racing.  Despite the loud objections of Rafael's right-hand man Owens (Gerald McRaney), Nicky begins his scheme.  At the party that will launch the long con, he discovers that Rodrigo's girlfriend is Jess, who appears to have gone legit.  Again the personal and professional begin to collide, with Owens hot on their heels.  Eventually the con goes wrong, for Nicky has taken the device and apparently sold it to all the rivals.  Rafael discovers this and is enraged, and he suspects that Jess is part of the scheme.  Owens shoots Nicky, shocking everyone and causing Rodrigo to flee (not wanting to be part of murder).

We end up discovering that this was all part of the show, for Owens is really Nicky's estranged father (!), and they get away, though Jess has to take Nicky to the hospital for that non-life threatening but still painful bullet wound.

I think where the film kind of lost me in terms of thinking it good was in the long Super Bowl sequence.   There was a lot at stake, and it looked like Nicky's compulsion to win was going to be a major part of the movie, giving us a complicated character and situation.  He kept gambling and gambling, putting the team's money in danger as his compulsion kept growing. 

All well and good, until we get to a point where he actually pulls it off.  Even then, we might think that was wonderful, until Nicky explains to Jess how he did it.  Then it just falls apart.  Why?  Because it relies on far too many variables to work exactly correct and it becomes far-fetched.  If we are to believe Focus' screenplay, Tse had been manipulated for days to think of a particular number over and over, right down to the hotel's décor, so that after apparently deliberately losing again and again, Nicky could manipulate Tse enough to have him subconsciously select a particular player based on the subliminal number he had been seeing for days on end without him knowing it.  It also required that Jess be somewhat conned herself and that one of the team's players (who was also part of the con) be there, visible, to allow her to select HIS team number (which was the exact number Tse selected).

It all seems a little too convoluted to fully accept, and this is where Focus went a bit off.  It tries too hard to be clever, but it doesn't back it up.  We don't have any clues or suggestions that the fellow con man was a football player, let alone that the high-roller could possibly have a number fed to him by the light fixtures at the hotel looking like a particular number without it being obvious.

Worse was the Owens twist.  Nothing suggests that, and just declaring it so comes across as ludicrous.  Given how often we're if not directly told that Nicky's father was dead (or at least have it highly suggested) to have Owens suddenly 'pop' up seems too far-fetched and convenient to be believed. 

This is where Focus goes wrong: again and again it wants to show off how clever it all is, when the twists are more unbelievable than clever.

This isn't to say Focus was horrible.  It has a strong visual style and flair.  If nothing else, Focus is very stylish in its look.   Robbie may not be the best actress around, but she makes for lovely eye candy and does the best she can.  McRaney was a bit comical in his eternal gruffness, and Santoro too did the best he could with the menacing playboy.  As for Smith, he still has the charm to make the con man believable, but because the script by co-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa never decides when he isn't conning, we never know if he is sincerely surprised and hurt to see Jess again or whether it's all part of some bizarre and insane master plan that even Jess doesn't know she's a pawn of (despite them not seeing each other in three years).

Focus has a great style, but I would have sacrificed some of its style for substance.  Still, I imagine it would be a bit harmless to watch if nothing else is on.  In the end, Will Smith needs to find stronger scripts to get his own game in order.


The Americans: Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep? Review


Obviously, Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep? is a rip-off of Philip Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was the basis of the classic Blade Runner (and as a side note, I am on the record opposing a sequel).  Maybe that's why I thought it was a little too cute for my taste.  That, however, is the only 'cute' thing about DMRDOES, for it is a quiet episode, one that is haunting, dark, and has us see that the leads in The Americans can be quietly monstrous, even if it is duty to the State.  In short, DMRDOES reminds of the ugliness of their business, starting at the opening of the episode and ending with it.

Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) have been instructed to plant a bug on the mail bot that Agent Gaad smashed in a fit of fury.  They aren't convinced this is the best use of resources, but like all workers, they have to do what Upper Management tells them.  As the mail bot has been sent to repairs, they go to the repair shop to install the device.  They hear that someone may be in the building, so Elizabeth goes to investigate.  There, she discovers Betty Turner (Lois Smith), the widow of the family company's founder who checks the books at night, preferring the silence in the night she says puts her 'in tune').   Elizabeth holds her hostage while Philip continues working on the device, but both know that Betty cannot be allowed to live.  Accepting this, Betty soon starts talking about her late husband, his war record, and her son.  At least Betty knows that her son will not be targeted, so that puts her at some ease.  However, Elizabeth has to kill her, but in a perverse act of mercy, she allows Betty to overdose on her heart medication rather than flat-out shoot her.  In a way, Elizabeth gives her fellow Liz an honorable way out.  They keep talking as Betty takes more pills, eventually succumbing to the overdose.  While she doesn't say anything, Betty's slow death affects Elizabeth, while Philip remains unaware of what has gone on.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth had to dump her protégé Hans (Peter Mark Kendall) since she thinks Todd (Will Pullen) might have spotted him.  Hans takes care of things personally, in a brutal way...he finds Todd working at a storage facility and slaughters him (stabbing his eye at one point as Todd makes a desperate bid to escape).  Facing death is Zenaida (Svetlana Efremova), the defector FBI Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) suspects of being a mole.  He cooks up a scheme with Rezidentura officer Oleg Burov (Costa Ronin): Burov, in disguise, will break into Zenaida's hotel room and threaten her for being a 'traitor', then 'attack' Stan as he comes in with her dinner.  Philip, for his part, confronts his minder Gabriel (Frank Langella), and the rage he has towards him for interfering with his family is barely contained.

I think Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep? is a shocking and sad episode, one that forces us to deal with things we haven't, or at least haven't for a while.  The bulk of the episode is between Russell's Elizabeth and Smith's Betty.  For my part, I think Lois Smith should earn an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama for her performance.  It is simply pitch-perfect: heartbreaking in the fact she knows she will die, mournful as she remembers her family, and even brave when confronting the Soviet agent.  It's been about a week or so since I saw it, and it still haunts me, particularly her final moments. 

Russell herself might consider submitting this episode for Emmy contention.  It is difficult to act quietly as you kill someone, to attempt not to show emotion when you know the character is herself tortured regarding her act.  As Betty slips away, we see that she doesn't want to react, doesn't want to feel, but she does, and for someone who is dispassionate about executing others (versus her more sensitive husband), at least this time we see Elizabeth can be just as overwhelmed by things as he can. 

The subplots involving Hans and Zenaida are equally effective.  Hans' brutal act is shocking (and yes, graphic) and I figure it was done to keep Hans working, but I also wonder whether in the future Elizabeth doesn't put two and two together.  It would be extremely convenient if Todd just happened to die, and die in a particularly vicious way, and NOT have her wonder.  Will she approve?  Will she be angry that Hans overrode her promise to Todd to let him live?

Regarding Zenaida's story, it is interesting that Oleg managed to spout off revolutionary gibberish so easily, as if by rote.  It's as if even he doesn't believe it and knows it to be nonsense.  I like how well Ronin and Emmerich work together, forming the strangest double-act in espionage, all for the sake of saving Nina. 

Perhaps my only dislike is how quickly Martha is dispensed with.  I felt so sad for her when she got a call from the foster agency and told them she wasn't going through with it.  Martha has wanted a child so badly, and knowing that she had to turn down perhaps her only chance must have been heartbreaking.  Yet that, and the fact that she is a bit of a ticking time bomb are kind of just hanging there. 

Do Mail Robots Dream of Electric Sheep?, however, has brilliant acting all around (PLEASE GIVE LOIS SMITH AT LEAST A NOMINATION!) and some brutal bits of dialogue.

"You think doing this to me will make the world a better place?", a calm but slowly dying Betty asks Elizabeth.
"I'm sorry, but it will." is the reply
Betty isn't buying it.  She quietly tells her assassin,  "That's what evil people tell themselves when they do evil things."


Betty Turner: In Memoriam


Next Episode: Stingers