Friday, December 9, 2016

"Florence Foster Jenkins" Offers Great Performances

At first, I thought it was a little strange to be making a film about Florence Foster Jenkins, who gained her notoriety for being an enthusiastically awful would-be opera singer. She was a great lover and supporter of classical music who, alas, was completely deluded about her own talent. Jenkins attracted a loyal following and became a cult figure in her day, even making records and playing Carnegie Hall in 1944. However, the thought of a film biopic, starring Meryl Streep, made me itch with secondhand embarrassment. Rubbernecking an awful singer feels more appropriate as fodder for Youtube than a prestige pic.

I'm so glad to be proven wrong. The film, wisely, is not just about Florence Foster Jenkins, but also about two men who supported her endeavors in her later years. One is her husband, St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), who attends to Florence's every need, but goes home to another woman, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson), at the end of the night. The other, our POV character, is a young pianist named Cosmé McMoon (Simon Helberg), who is hired as an accompanist for Florence's lessons with famed vocal coach, Carlo Edwards (David Haig). Initially Cosmé thinks he's lucked into the well-paying gig, but finds out exactly how bad Florence's singing is at the same time the audience does, and is aghast when he learns that she intends to perform.

And little by little, as the mysteries of Florence's past and circumstances are revealed, the film also reveals itself to be not about mocking the figure of Florence Foster Jenkins, but empathizing with her, and appreciating her for who she was. Director Stephen Frears has orchestrated a remarkably funny, but also immensely touching, gentle film that gives Florence her due. With her ornate costumes, enthusiastic butchering of famous arias, and blissful unawareness, the recreated performances have to be seen (and heard) to be believed. But the best moments are the quieter, personal ones where she's enjoying music with Cosmé or being reassured for the millionth time by her ever-patient husband. Whatever can be said about Florence Foster Jenkins, it wasn't just her terrible singing that attracted so many admirers.

Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep, and fearlessly delivers all the off key warbling necessary to make Florence come alive, As someone who grew up around a lot of classical music, I got a real kick out of her murdering "Die Fledermaus" and "The Magic Flute." However, I think the best performance here is Hugh Grant's. In the beginning St. Clair comes off as so overeager to please that he's a little suspicious. Is he conning Florence to get her to fund his life with Kathleen? Is his overprotectiveness hiding something more sinister? Surely he doesn't actually think Florence is a good singer, does he? Grant keeps St. Clair utterly charming and sympathetic throughout, and I'm glad that he's finally nabbed another role worthy of his comic talents.

And then there's Simon Helberg, who is playing to type, but he's such a perfect audience surrogate. As the newcomer to Florence's circle, he's the only one not in on the game, and conveys exactly the right amount of incredulous disbelief and cognitive dissonance when Madame Florence opens her mouth. Outside of the central trio of characters, the cast is unusually sparse. Rebecca Hall is wasted as Kathleen, with little to do but be the typical worried girlfriend. Nina Arianda, however, nearly steals the picture a few times as a bombastic showgirl named Agnes. She's recently married to one of Florence's supporters, and threatens to be a disruption at her concerts.

"Florence Foster Jenkins" is ultimately a very modest picture, very small scale and heavily dependent on its main performances. And it's the right size for the story of Florence, who is only able to exist as she does in the carefully constructed and well-guarded bubble that St. Clair and her friends maintain for her. I found myself comparing the film to "Goodbye Lenin!" and "Lars and the Real Girl," other charming, low-key films about people going to extreme lengths to try and accommodate the delusions of their loved ones. And like those films, "Florence Foster Jenkins" is refreshingly good natured, where the real triumph is human kindness winning out over easy cynicism.
---

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"The Americans," Year Two

Minor spoilers ahead.

I found the first season of "The Americans" promising, but wasn't really all that impressed with it. The second season, however, was a significant improvement in almost every department. Storylines were tighter and more focused. The new characters and new storylines were excellent, and everything tied together well thematically. A big improvement is the shift away from Philip and Elizabeth's relationship troubles to their worries over Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Paige in particular is quickly growing up and trying to strike out on her own. Meanwhile, Nina and Stan Beeman's relationship becomes more fraught, especially as Nina has to wrangle the attentions of a new officer at the embassy, Burov (Costa Ronin), and Stan becomes estranged from his wife Sandra (Susan Misner).

Mostly gone are the flashy action sequences with lots of gunplay and running around. And the scenes of seduction and recruitment involve a lot less salaciousness, and much more drama and tension. Now that Philip has married Martha (Alison Wright), the deception has become more complicated. Whether Nina and Stan are actually in love with each other is less interesting than what else is motivating them, and how far they're willing to go to maintain the relationship. The series feels like it's stopped trying to feel like a network show, relying on easy thrills, and has gotten down to the business of really getting into the characters' heads. In the very first episode, Philip is forced to kill an innocent bystander and comes home shaken. It's a reaction that I didn't see nearly enough in the previous season, and is indicative of a more thoughtful, more confident approach to the material.

The cast continues to be excellent. Matthew Rhys has fully won me over, as Philip keeps revealing more shades of gray. His undercover assignments also allow some more interesting nuances, and I'm really becoming fond of the funky disguises. Keri Russell and Noah Emmerich remain consistently strong. Annet Mahendru as Nina is also much more compelling now that her character has been allowed a greater degree of control over her situation. She and Costa Ronin pair particularly well. It's also nice to see Paige becoming a major player, giving Holly Taylor more to do. They're setting her up for much bigger storylines to come, but still easing her into things. Time will tell if Taylor can handle more, but I'm optimistic that she's going to be fine. The ever dependable Margo Martindale and John Carroll Lynch also make memorable appearances in smaller roles.

Big kudos go to the writers, who are responsible for many of the show's improvements. The plot maintains the bifurcated structure of the first season, but has put the danger of Stan discovering the identity of the Jennings on the back burner. Philip and Elizabeth operate independently of Nina and Stan, but are both involved in the same search for classified stealth technology. Philip and Stan have a few low key conversations together, but otherwise the two groupings of characters don't intersect. However, both storylines work so well that by this point that I doubt any viewer will care. The murder case that Philip and Elizabeth spend much of the season trying to solve is kept on a fantastic slow burn through multiple episodes, resolves in a very satisfactory fashion, and sets up bigger hurdles for the future. Nina and Stan find themselves exactly where neither of them want to be, after a whole season of struggling to escape.

There are a few bits and pieces that I had reservations about. The new handler Kate (Wrenn Schmidt) was fairly wasted and the Martha storyline still feels like it's treading water - though it does deliver some of the show's best moments of humor. Also, the execution of the few big action setpieces that we did get were a little lacking. The infiltration of a training camp in one of the later episodes, for instance, was shot so murkily that I couldn't tell what was going on. But as I mentioned earlier, "The Americans" is no longer a show where the quality of the action sequences really has much impact on the quality of the show.

I'll be barreling ahead to season three.
---

Monday, December 5, 2016

"Neon" Nightmares


You'd think that "The Neon Demon," a campy, brutal new thriller from Nicholas Winding Refn set in the fashion world, would be a fun watch. And it is, occasionally. There are some lovely shocks and scintillating visuals to enjoy as fresh-faced teenager Jesse (Elle Fanning) begins her career as a high fashion model in Los Angeles. Seasoned twenty-something models Sarah (Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote) immediately regard the newcomer as competition, but makeup artist Ruby (Jena Malone) is intrigued for different reasons. Sadly, "Neon Demon" is also frequently a slog, dragging out its metaphors and hiding too many of its better notions under layers of murk and symbolism.

Jesse is positioned as a sacrificial lamb from the start, made up as a murder victim covered in fake blood and colored sequins for her first photo shoot. Sixteen years old, and tight-lipped about past, she's coached to lie about her age by the modeling agency that signs her, and then fawned over by photographer Jack (Desmond Harrington) and fashion designer Robert Sarno (Alessandro Nivola). Everyone is enraptured by her beauty, promising Jesse success and glory. However, she's also extremely vulnerable. Jesse is almost totally alone in the world, short on cash, and living out of a sketchy motel run by the brutish Hank (Keanu Reeves). The only one who really seems to care about her well-being is her would-be boyfriend Dean (Karl Glusman), an amateur photographer. Jesse, alas, is hypnotized by the glitter and the neon lights, and doesn't realize the danger until it's too late.

Elle Fanning does her best to give Jesse some shadings, suggesting that she has a darker, nihilistic side that is being drawn out by her meteoric rise. I tried to give her the benefit of the doubt, remembering that Ryan Gosling managed to do a lot with very little in Winding Refn's "Drive." However, Fanning has even less to work with, and fails to deliver. Jesse has a fair amount of dialogue, and some interesting reactions to strange encounters, but her primary purpose in the film is to be a symbol of everything that the fashion industry desires and destroys. She has very little agency, and the director doesn't seem interested in giving her much of an inner life beyond occasionally enjoying her victimization. The only bits of the story where Jesse is actually active is in her interactions with Dean, which are brief and fairly dull.

Fortunately, there's the trio of Sarah, Ruby, and Gigi. They're the ones who get all the juicy stuff, embodying lust, jealousy, and self-destruction. Sarah and Gigi in particular are ghoulish figures, their desperation and viciousness seeping out from their coldly perfect facades from the very first scene. They're shallow, but deeply unnerving. Ruby is a more complicated creature, whose motives are clear, but her ultimate endgame less certain. Jena Malone turns in my favorite performance of the film, as Jesse's potential ally who becomes stranger and more concerning the longer she's onscreen. The biggest flaw of the film is that it doesn't make more use of her.

The whole narrative becomes a series of escalating absurdities and esoteric mood pieces, which Winding Refn is no stranger to, but these are not particularly good ones. He puts Elle Fanning up against yawning black voids and searing white backdrops, bathes her in colored lights, and paints her with shiny cosmetics. Cliff Martinez provides the synthesizer-heavy score, adding aural texture to the abstractions. It's all very pretty, but rarely evocative. Often, it bores. By the time the violence finally gets underway - as it always does in a Winding Refn movie - it's too little too late.

Clearly, "The Neon Demon" is meant to be interpreted, as it's full of signs and symbols and patterns. However, all the dialogue is too on the nose, and the director's biases are all too clear. Worse, the "The Neon Demon" isn't the least bit horrific or thrilling, despite all the witchy allusions to "Suspiria." The stakes just are just too low, the heroine too inert. There's something terribly untidy about the loose ends left everywhere - the fate of Dean, and the whole subplot with Hank, for instance. And frankly, all the glowing triangles and pyramids just came off as silly affectations.

Whatever spell Nicholas Winding Refn was trying to weave, it doesn't have the desired effect. Points for some interesting imagery and admirable restraint in portraying the female characters, but I expect that even the most devoted Winding Refn fans are going to have some trouble with this one.

---

Thursday, December 1, 2016

My Favorite Terry Gilliam Film

I thought I'd written this post before, some time ago, since Terry Gilliam is one of my favorite living directors. He's not the most consistent auteur, and has suffered some extraordinary bad luck over the years. However, his output contains several titles that I consider essential cinema. Unlike most fans, I didn't comes to his work from "Monty Python," but from his later urban fantasy films. I was especially intrigued by his love/hate relationship with Hollywood, particularly the legendary battle he waged against Sid Sheinberg, the president of Universal, for the heart and soul of "Brazil."

"Brazil" is a spoof on dystopian stories that once had the working title "1984 & 1/2." Our hero is Sam Lowry (Jonathan Pryce), a small cog in the nightmare bureaucracy that controls his drab society. He has fanciful dreams of being a heroic winged figure, the savior of a beautiful captive woman. During Sam's investigation into a fatal paperwork mistake, he comes across Jill (Kim Griest), a free spirit who looks exactly like the woman from his dreams. Sam spends the rest of the film trying to find her, while having run-ins with the renegade air-conditioner repairman Tuttle (Robert DeNiro), Sam's plastic surgery obsessed mother Ida (Katherine Helmond), and various figures from the bureaucracy, including characters played by Ian Holm, Bob Hoskins, Ian Richardson, and an evil Michael Palin. The title of the film comes from the song "Aquarela do Brasil," which Sam hears on the radio, and then recurs throughout the score, signaling when his mind is drifting into flights of fancy.

The art design and effects work of "Brazil" is what most people remember about it. Gilliam is known for his detailed, spectacular fantasy creations, and here he builds a whole nightmare city of modern inconvenience. Scale plays a huge party in the impact of the visuals - the endless rows of gray bureaucrats in the dimly lit Ministry, the torture chamber located in the cavernous cooling tower, and highways entirely bordered by endless billboards stretching out to the horizon. There are distinct Art Deco influences, and retro-futurist concepts of what 1984 might have looked like in the mind of someone from the 1930s or 40s. Models and matte paintings are used extensively and contribute immeasurably to the film's handmade, careworn feel. Everything is falling into disrepair, mired in neverending Kafkaesque red tape and paperwork.

By contrast, "Brazil" also offers its scenes of unbridled whimsy and delight. The gorgeous flying sequences remain some of the best things that Terry Gilliam has ever done, and are frequently pointed to as some of the best effects ever achieved with miniatures and blue screen. There is a neon samurai villain, a floating woman that appears to be dressed in clouds, and a man that disappears in a storm of fallen papers. Federico Fellini's work was a major influence on Gilliam, and perhaps that accounts for the wildly colorful surrealism that occasionally pops into the narrative to help break up the drabness. Ida, with her mangled face and a shoe perched on her elaborately coiffed head, is the most obvious example. Perhaps there have been more well-realized dystopias in film, but surely none that are so wonderfully weird and strange, and committed to its director's own uncompromising, inimitable vision.

As satire, "Brazil" is absolutely vicious. The plot is set in motion by a typing error which causes an entirely innocent man to be seized and executed without anything resembling due process. However, the arresting officer does offer the victim's wife a receipt for his arrest. Minor repairs are entirely at the mercy of disreputable workmen who tend to exponentially complicate every situation. Competency and efficiency are practically viewed as rebellious acts. Many of the bureaucrat characters are so caricatured as to appear barely human. There's a fun gag with Deputy Minister, who appears at his office surrounded by a constantly babbling crowd of underlings who all want his attention. They move where he does, like a swarm of hornets. Perfectly ordinary seeming people are constantly doing horrible things in the name of the bureaucracy, all in very brisk, businesslike ways. And it's the veneer of social nicety that really twists the knife

Then there's the matter of the ending, which the Universal executives were so unhappy with that they attempted to recut the picture and substitute their own. Mild spoilers here, but what happens to Sam Lowry is unusually harsh for a picture that was backed by a major studio. Gilliam refused to give in, and fought back in the press to preserve his cut. There's not enough space to get into the details, but the anarchic spirit and relentless creativity of the film were reflected in Gilliam's campaign. The battle for "Brazil" resulted in one of the most famous victories of an artist over the system. I don't know that Gilliam would have prevailed today,

I have my issues with "Brazil." The plot is difficult to follow, as it is in may Gilliam pictures. Jonathan Pryce is not a strong leading man, and Kim Griest is downright iffy. But when it comes to sheer filmmaking guts and glory, "Brazil" is impossible to forget.

Terry Gilliam - What I've Seen

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
Time Bandits (1981)
Brazil (1985)
The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1988)
The Fisher King (1991)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
The Brothers Grimm (2005)
Tideland (2005)
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
The Zero Theorem (2013)

---

Saturday, November 26, 2016

"Penny Dreadful," Year Three

Some moderate, non-detailed spoilers ahead.

It was worth watching the final season of "Penny Dreadful," though it clearly had its problems. I knew about the downbeat ending long in advance, but I thought that the biggest issues were that John Logan added so many new pieces and tried to cover so much ground. Inevitably, there were too many characters who didn't get their due, too many plots that were rushed through, and some very poor storytelling choices.

Things started out well. After the events of last season, Vanessa has been left alone in London to stew in her misery. With a help of a psychiatrist, Dr. Seward (Patti LuPone), she returns to society and becomes enamored with a zoologist, Dr. Sweet (Christian Camargo). Unfortunately, she's also being spied on by Seward's secretary Renfield (Samuel Barnett), recently recruited by Dracula. Meanwhile in America, Ethan is being extradited and a reunion with his hated father, Jared Talbot (Brian Cox), appears inevitable. Sir Malcolm and an Apache warrior Kaetenay (Wes Studi) race to help him. Victor Frankenstein partners with an old friend, Dr. Jekyll (Shazad Latif), seeking to find a way to return Lily to his side. She's still with Dorian, plotting a proto-radical feminist uprising, and recruiting London's prostitutes to her cause. Finally, John Clare tracks down the family (Casper Allpress and Pandora Colin) that he left behind when he died.

Some of these stories play out perfectly well. I have no complaints about John Clare, Lily Frankenstein, or Dorian Gray - Gray actually has his best arc, gradually becoming disillusioned with Lily. However, the rest of the show was rife with truncated or just plain badly conceived ideas. Emblematic of this is Catriona Hartdegen (Perdita Weeks), a jarringly modern scholar of death rituals, who appears in the second half of the season as a new ally for Vanessa. She frequently acts like she's in an action film, with her quips and her fearless fighting prowess, and with next to no development at all, she ends up playing a major part in the finale. Catriona would be a Mary Sue if she had more screen time. Or there's Dr. Jekyll, who in an interesting twist is a half-Indian chemist with massive daddy issues. This season sets up the famous Jekyll and Hyde story, but of course will never pursue it fully. Ethan's history with the Apache desperately needed more time, and I'm disappointed that he didn't get a flashback episode. And what about John Clare's death?

And we have to talk about Vanessa Ives. Eva Green and Rory Kinnear did a magnificent job with their bottle episode, "A Blade of Grass," which felt like it was setting up much bigger things that the series ultimately skipped. I don't object to the ending of "Penny Dreadful" and Vanessa's story, but how the series chose to get there was endlessly frustrating. The all-important seduction of Vanessa felt far too fast, and then the final two episodes only featured her for a single scene with barely any emotional context. It would have taken more than an episode or two of extra material to fix this, and I'm really torn about whether John Logan should have attempted this finale at all. There are so many loose ends hanging around the edges of the series, any sense of closure is minimal.

The production of "Penny Dreadful" remains excellent. I loved the views of the New Mexico territory, Dr. Sweet's museum, and the visions of an apocalyptic London. It was a nice change of pace to see America in this era, and there were some fun variations on the show's predominantly British horror tropes. I'm glad I stuck with the series long enough to see the chapel showdown, Billie Piper calling for revolution on Dorian Gray's dinner table, and that gorgeous final scene with Ethan and Vanessa surrounded by flickering candles.

Even if it means no more Eva Green, I'd love for "Penny Dreadful" to continue. There's clearly so much more that the series could explore, and the series might be able to fix some of these issues retroactively. As it stands now, the show is still by far the best horror television series that I've ever seen, and it won't be matched easily in the future.
---

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Top Ten Films of 2002

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

Dirty Pretty Things - This was the first film I saw Chiwetel Ejiofor in, playing an illegal African immigrant who works in a London hotel. He and the rest of the ensemble are phenomenal, humanizing the plight of the desperate souls who comprise an invisible underclass of legal and illegal immigrants from all over the globe. Director Stephen Frears, whose intense human dramas and thrillers I prefer over his comedies, is at his best here. His careful treatment of the difficult material gives it some real emotional power.

Punch Drunk Love - An Adam Sandler movie conceived and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson is a lovely, precious thing. The emotions are heightened, the violence stings, and the colorful romance is as strange as it is affecting. Sandler proves that he's not only capable of being a good comedic and dramatic actor, but a devastating one in the right hands. As for Anderson, "Punch Drunk Love" has some of his most stunning images and memorable characters. And this is without a doubt the funniest film that he's ever made.

Oasis - This is the film that cemented Lee Chang-dong as my favorite Korean director. Somehow it manages to avoid the usual pitfalls of stories about the disabled, being neither too maudlin nor too exploitative - though the disabilities in question are certainly mined for drama. Instead, it finds ways to us to help the audience to connect to the characters who the rest of the world has largely written off. There's a daring to the portrayal of the couple, particularly the female lead stricken with cerebral palsy, that is riveting.

Bloody Sunday - You can trace the popularity of the quasi-documentary shakeycam style back to this film, where Paul Greengrass uses it to capture the horrors of Northern Ireland's 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre up close and personal. The intensity and the realism of the recreations are tremendous, and just enough context is provided to drive home the depth of the tragedy. Greengrass would go on to make other films in the same vein with the same style, but he only rarely achieved the same degree of verisimilitude.

25th Hour - Spike Lee captures the aftermath of 9/11 in New York in this thoughtful, uncompromising human drama about a young man's last day freedom before a long prison sentence. Edward Norton leads a strong cast, and delivers the film's signature monologue with so much dynamic, uncoiling emotion, it's impossible to forget it. And Lee's dreamlike shots of New York and its imperfect citizens build to one of the most beautiful endings in film, bar none. Lee maybe inconsistent, but when he lands a hit, there's no one better.

City of God - A look at the nightmare world of Brazil's favelas, where crime is often committed by the very young, and it's nearly impossible to escape the cycles of violence and poverty. The film is bursting with energy and constantly in motion. It's easy to relate to the young protagonists as we follow them from childhood to adulthood while Brazil changes around them. Nearly all the characters were played by non-actors, mostly kids from the real favelas. This lends a striking degree of authenticity and poignancy to "City of God."

Frida - The life of the celebrated Frida Kahlo is vividly brought to the screen by director Julie Taymor. Her mixed media approach never felt more appropriate, and Salma Hayek tackles the title role with everything she's got. I adore the portrayal of Kahlo and Diego Rivera's tumultuous relationship, which forms the backbone of the film, and all the different ways that Taymor finds to incorporate the art and iconography of Kahlo into the visuals. I especially love that the Brothers Quay contributed a brief snippet of animated body horror.

The Pianist - Roman Polanski's most personal film is a Holocaust memoir of a Polish-Jewish pianist, Władysław Szpilman. There's little sentiment or emphasis on larger messages here, just a quetly matter-of fact chronicle of Szpilman's struggle to survive in wartime Warsaw. From the ghettoes, to the concentration camps, to life in hiding, the effect of Polanski's own experiences is clear. Since "The Pianist," Adrien Brody never had another part so perfect for his talents, and Polanski's career has been in a notable decline ever since.

Chicago - The best time you could have had at the movies in 2002 was watching Rob Marshall's bold, brassy film adaptation of the stage musical "Chicago." Everyone is cast right, everyone knocks their solo out of the park, and we get some great cinematic versions of iconic numbers like "All That Jazz," "Cell Block Tango," and "Mister Cellophane." The use of the fantasy cutaways for the musical sequences is especially effective, letting supporting actors like John C. Reilly and Queen Latifah enjoy their much deserved moments to shine.

Infernal Affairs - Long before it was remade by Martin Scorsese as "The Departed," "Infernal Affairs" was memorable for being the film where popular Chinese actors Tony Leung and Andy Lau went head to head, as competing moles for the police and the mob, respectively. The script was smart, the direction was slick, and the performances were excellent. It remains among the best of the Hong Kong crime thrillers, full of inventive twists and turns. Pay special attention to the early use and depiction of nailbiting cell phone conversations.

Honorable Mentions

Hero
Far From Heaven
Road to Perdition
Irreversible
Russian Ark
Better Luck Tomorrow
About Schmidt
Talk to Her
One Hour Photo
Catch Me If You Can
---

Monday, November 21, 2016

The First Five of "The Americans"

In the age of television anti-heroes, what better subject for a cable drama than one of the American media's favorite go-to bad guys, Communist spies? "The Americans" imagines a version of the 1980s where there really were deep cover Soviets living in the U.S. under assumed identities, fighting the Cold War on enemy turf. Elizabeth and Philip Jennings (Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys) look like an average American married couple, with two children, Paige (Holly Taylor) and Henry (Keidrich Sellati). However, they're actually KGB agents, carrying out dangerous missions on behalf of Soviet intelligence. The series was created by Joe Weisberg, a former CIA official.

The early episodes get the ball rolling on several ongoing storylines. Elizabeth and Philip have never been romantically involved despite having children together, but that starts to change after a particularly dramatic mission together. They begin to open up to each other about their previously closed-off personal lives and histories. Then there's Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), an FBI agent working in counterintelligence, who moves into the Jennings' neighborhood with his family. Stan and his partner Chris Amador (Maximiliano Hernández) are frequently working against the efforts of the Jennings, though they don't know it. Stan also becomes involved with Nina (Annet Mahendru), a secretary at the Soviet embassy who he coerces into becoming an informer.

Watching the Jennings carry out espionage missions and keep up false identities is certainly fun to watch, but what I've really been enjoying about "The Americans" is the way it recontextualizes history from the Soviet point of view. Elizabeth and Philip are portrayed quite sympathetically, and the fervent anti-communism of the Americans can be unsettling. The show's episode on the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan is a highlight, with the CIA paranoid about the possibility of a Soviet connection, while the Soviets are paranoid that the CIA will try to pin the blame on them. I like that the show doesn't seem to lean one way or another on the politics at this point, though we all know who is going to win in the end.

Now, the Soviets never really used deep cover operatives like this, and frankly the lives that Philip and Elizabeth are a little ridiculous in construction. However, Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys are very good at selling their complicated, tumultuous, and often contradictory relationship. Elizabeth is the true believer, the one who is more emotionally invested in their work for the KGB. Keri Russell is fantastic at showing how she thinks and operates, and she's been the standout of the cast so far. Philip's loyalties are less certain, but when push comes to shove, he's equally willing to do horrible things. Matthew Rhys hasn't quite won me over to the same extent as Russell yet, but he's getting there. I also really appreciate how complex Stan Beeman is, full of doubts and flaws. Noah Emmerich is showing the potential to be great.

My issues with the show mostly have to do with the writing. "The Americans" is fond of action and violence to the extent that you could mistake its more bombastic sequences for something out of "Alias." The consequences, however, are usually much more dire for anyone caught in the crossfire. The Jennings may be fun to root for, but the game they're playing is a brutal one, and being absolutely heartless monsters is often a part of their job description. So far this has been great for individual episodes, but the show hasn't really addressed their moral slipperyness on a character level yet, and that hasn't been sitting well with me. I realize that we're still in the early going here, but this is a big piece of the picture that is going to need to be addressed.

Frankly, I prefer the slower, calmer moments where "The Americans" occasionally achieves a tone closer to "Mad Men." There's a very clear sense of history happening, and larger forces affecting the characters, which helps to set the show apart from similar spy-themed media. "The Americans" works fine as a standard action thriller, but I hope that it does become more thoughtful over time, and lets its characters engage with thornier issues at it approaches the conclusion of the Cold War. Maybe I'm asking the show to be something it isn't, but the possibilities intrigue me. So, my position on the show is undecided for now, but I do want to watch more.
---