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Entries in ethan peterson (38)

Thursday
May252017

In Which She Was There For More Than A Few Years

Oh, Say. Can You See?

by ETHAN PETERSON

The Americans
creator Joe Weisberg
FX

Keri Russell, 41, and Matthew Rhys, 42, changed everything through their love. At the beginning of The Americans, they fought a lot and never seemed to penetrate each othe's emotional defenses at key times. Their real-life marriage altered the deal. Now in the middle of this fifth, penultimate season, one addresses questions posed for the other. Their daughter Paige asks if they feel like their names actually are Phillip and Elizabeth Jennings. "Yes," Rhys answers for both of them. "But I miss my old name." He does not say it, or tell it to his daughter. But we know it well.

Finally these married spies are thinking about going home to Russia. A part of us knows that they will never make it there, or survive in that unforgiving place. For the first time in the show's history, this season has attempted to give us a taste of what life was like before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Before, during, and after the Cold War most Americans did not know what life was actually like in the Soviet Union. The Americans depicts Moscow as a sinister, unforgiving limbo. The mere idea of leaving Washington D.C. and its environs for this place fills us all with a deep and abject horror.

Life in D.C. has become sufficiently ridiculous for the only son of these two spies, a growing boy named Henry (Keidrich Sellati). Henry is at the age when he has no real use for his parents, and he has devised a plan to separate himself from them permanently. He has met a lovely young woman named Chris with whom he plans to abscond to a New Hampshire boarding school. "Senators went there!" he shakily announces to his parents, who are gobsmacked. I don't actually believe any parents would stifle their boy's dreams in this fashion.

Paralyzed by the fear of what their retirement might mean, every murder or act of sabotage takes on additional heft. So they hold Russia up, as their last impossible dream, and the American writers who shape their lives tear it down. In order to show us what would await them, The Americans has given us Oleg (the marvelous, pleasantly scrutable Australian actor Costa Ronin) was moved from his duties in the U.S. home to be near his family. He occupies a small room in his family's apartment. All the women he loved are dead or gone. His mother and father are even more devoted to him than ever, since his brother has perished in Afghanistan.

Oleg learns that his mother served more than a few years in a camp as penance for some non-crime. It was beyond his father's capabilities to help her then, and she explains that in return for fucking the camp doctor, she was given perks such as a blanket and extra food. His knowledge of what happened to his mother in the society he props up through his work in the KGB makes him deeply jaded. In one powerful scene he stares out at Moscow; the wish in his eyes is to burn it all down.

Some societies – now that I think of it, every society – comes to this burning point, where they feed on their own inefficiencies and collapse if they do not have certain basic operating principles that allow healing on a macro scale. True democracies always have the opportunity to take this positive step. The Americans does not really explore the various foibles of their own country, except when it comes to the fetid, cliquish FBI, the only mirror of the enemy which does not come across as a resounding win for the United States. It is not moral scruples which prevents Agent Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich) from eclipsing the fervor of his enemy. He just has better things to do.

The best scene in the entire season featured a double date, KGB and FBI. It was the first time Keri Russell's "character" had met Renee (Laurie Holden), a woman Stan had begun dating after the collapse of his marriage. Team KGB openly wonders whether she is a plant to spy on Stan and keep him in check, and regretfully decide they will probably never know the answer.

The concept of having another person's happiness in your hands comes up again and again in The Americans. It is akin to a weird sort of godhood in a country whose main figure of worship is Ronald Reagan.

It took far too many episodes to resolve the subplot of Paige Jennings (Holly Taylor), who finds her priest's diary entries about her. All in all, Paige took this information in good stride, and she seems to finally understand how much her parents must trust her to make her complicit in their work lives. Taylor is a phenomenal actress who ably communicates a sterling range of emotions lurking beneath the surface. The writers of The Americans, knowing how little is actually required to make her scenes interesting, probably have lingered on her too long as a crutch.

Every possible dilemma the spies have faced in their personal life has now been explored. A subtlety of purpose and horror has replaced conventional twists and turns. The Americans has always been fairly short on action, but in the eleven episodes remaining in the show's run, we get to build to the ultimate moment: when Stan Beeman is informed of what a total oblivious, hot dog-eating chump he really is. If Phillip's son Mischa never gets to meet his father, I will take it very personally.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.


Thursday
May182017

In Which Amy Schumer Confines Herself To The World

Tripwire

by ETHAN PETERSON

Snatched
dir. Jonathan Levine
97 minutes

Roger (Christopher Meloni) is a fellow traveler Emily Middleton (Amy Schumer) and her mother Linda (Goldie Hawn) meet in the Colombian jungle. Just 14,000 years ago, the residents of the region farmed maize, potato, quinoa and cotton. These three hikers do not even know what is edible. When Roger takes them to a valley they must cross by swinging on a thick vine, he suggests he go first because "I am the man." Women deal with this kind of sexism all the time. It is called "casual sexism" because it is not really ill-intentioned. Snatched, an important film that also features a scene where a romantic interest inadvertently catches sight of Emily Middleton wiping her vagina with the aid of a bathroom mirror, has Roger swing manfully to his death when the rope breaks.

Unfortunately and somewhat ironically, Meloni is the best actor in Snatched by far. The film is a substantial improvement on Ms. Schumer's last "comedy," in that it actually features some, but not many, jokes completely unrelated to the fictitious idea that she is unpleasant, unkempt, and unattractive. As her fervent fanbase can readily attest, none of these things are actually true. She is a lovely woman whose oversized cheeks only add to her considerable beauty.

In a key scene where Emily Middleton sunbathes at a resort in Ecuador, she shows off her body, which is also quite impressive. Later, she humbly suggests that her slim physique is due to a tapeworm, which is extracted orally in an extensive and graphic scene. Emily recovers from this parasite in a native village with a disturbing patriarchal culture. She is so offended by the sexism she finds there that she destroys their way of life. These heady subjects all occupy space in the best screenplay Katie Dippold (The Heat) has ever written.

Hawn is not given very much to do in Snatched. The character of Linda Middleton is an overbearing single mother; it is unclear why her relationship with the father of her children fell apart so many years ago, or why she has refused to have any sex in the years that followed. Dippold introduces this woman in a scene where she writes up a rough draft of a dating profile before deleting it in disgust. The profile says that she loves cats and Grey's Anatomy. Later on, we are informed that Linda is learning how to be a sculptor, although her daughter immediately dismisses the singular art she produces.

Emily Middleton also has a brother named Jeffrey (Ike Barinholtz). Barinholtz, recently the author of the Kevin Hart comedy Central Intelligence, plays an overly verbal loser in most supporting appearances. As he tries to recover his mother and sister after they are kidnapped and brought into Colombia, he makes a trip to the State Department when he cannot find anyone who will listen to him over the phone. This is a taxing and anxiety-ridden journey, since Jeffrey is substantially agoraphobic and makes his only income teaching piano lessons to young people.

Dippold acquiesces to Schumer's typical self-deprecating humor, but she treats Jeffrey's illness with astonishing sensitivity. The characters of Snatched are all ill, in fact. Whatever technology permitted them to stop farming maize and potatoes, as the first humans did quite easily, has also meant an end to any intrinsic chance of happiness. Emily Middleton's boyfriend Michael (the talented Korean-American actor Randall Park) explains that he is breaking up with her because she has no direction in her life – he is tired of her focus on appearances, and declines to accompany her on a trip which has the intrinsic purpose of subjectifying native cultures while having frequent, unemotional sex.

In another less sensitive film, the Middletons would befriend some locals who would show their inherent aboriginality. In Snatched, these white women are outsiders to every part of the culture. They are treated with respect for the most part, and they only come to harm out of their own stupidity. Emily in particular fights back with a velocity of violence never employed by her captors. Using an arrow, she kills the young son of the man ransoming her and her mother, and caves in the skull of another man who is transporting them to nicer living quarters. "You are an excellent murderer," Linda observes of her daughter.

The Spaniard Alonso de Ojeda was the first conquistador to discover Colombia. (He also gave Venezuela its name.) His expeditions were thoroughfares of rape and murder; no women and children were spared by his men. He was so ashamed by his actions that at the end of his life he died penniless and alone after ensuring that people would walk over his grave as punishment for his colonial acts of subjugation.

Emily Middleton's emotional journey is remarkably similar. On her next trip, this time to Kuala Lumpur, she stays within the tourist trappings so that no one else can be hurt. Emily has not altered who she is, she has only the knowledge that her inherent destructiveness must be contained to prevent it from harming the people around her. There is something so completely non-redemptive about Snatched, a refreshing, if depressing testimony to how little of life we are even capable of living.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording. You can find an archive of his writing on This Recording here.


Tuesday
May092017

In Which We Complete One Vile Task After Another

Human Events

by ETHAN PETERSON

American Gods
creators Bryan Fuller & Michael Green
Starz

Reading Neil Gaiman's writing has always been more of a drag than it is worth. His extended graphic novel The Sandman is the most overrated work in the medium not created by Alan Moore, and his novels are equally fraught with various gimmicks, iimpotent violence, and a bizarre appropriation of black culture meant to be inclusive, but that really comes across as tone deaf. Gaiman's chief literary technique is overwriting, and his questionable command of various cobbled together mythologies, a subject Gaiman is fascinated by because writing about human beings is beyond his capabilities, emerges onto television in American Gods.

Are you prepared to be alternately excited and tremendously bored for long stretches? American Gods will probably be your favorite show now that Hannibal has been canceled. Bryan Fuller is fresh off completing the abominable achievement of making a Hannibal Lecter series boring. Even a serial killer who eats his victims could not be kept entertaining on that graphic and dreadful show that made real life into some bizarre fantasy whirlwind, just because people were dying. Occasionally in Hannibal, Mads Mikkelsen would kill someone. The rest of the time he spent giving extensive lectures on god-knows-what before dramatically not taking someone's life. Fuller's sometimes enthralling aesthetic sense demanded that blood be evoked in nearly every scene, along with a hokey slow-mo used so often it was simply the key signal to fast-forward the show on DVR.

American Gods gives him a larger canvas and possibly a larger budget for the one thing he excels at in this medium: special effects and dream sequences. Shadow Moon (Ricky Whittle) is released from prison three years early on a six year term for assault. He finds out his wife and friend were killed in an automobile crashed while she was giving the fellow oral sex. This is the kind of over-the-top schtick Gaiman loves in lieu of actual characterization and scene work. It is like watching the bullet points in a character sketch read on screen. (American Gods even features more than one different voiceover.) On his way to bury his wife, Shadow meets Mr. Wednesday (Ian McShane), who is reprising his character from Deadwood in virtually every aspect.

Whittle has about three or four facial expressions of which he is capable. His most recent acting performance in The 100 showed about as much range as a tin can. Watching him try to emote is physically painful, as are the awkward and lame scenes where a Russian god played by Peter Stormare asks him if he is black. There is really no reason Orlando Jones, an actor of considerable talent and range, couldn't have played Shadow much better. Instead he, along with Gillian Anderson, Cloris Leachman, Yetide Badaki and Crispin Glover, are gods who have relocated to America for some reason, I guess to give extended monologues or have sex with mortals, since this is all they really do.

Many British writers have written excellent books about America. Gaiman is not really among them. He has a weird jealousy for this painfully diverse nation, but he also views it as a central hub for the intersections of commercialism and the evil manipulation of various technologies. Stop me if you've heard this dreck before. Mr. Wednesday, along with various other characters, takes predictable shots at low-hanging fruit like gun control, cell phones and the American midwest. These edgy hot takes are somewhat out-of-date, but who cares? Here's a scene where Peter Stormare murders a cow.

The sad thing is that there is a good concept for television buried underneath all these indulgences, but American Gods never brings out any of the considerable pathos involved in viewing how actual deities might react to human events. You see, there are not any human events in American Gods, or at least not any we are driven to care about. Even the historical phenomenon of human enslavement is brought up as if it began only four hundred years ago; apparently Gaiman can only be bothered to think back that long. There is nothing so dull as a worldliness that begins and ends with blaming America.

Ethan Peterson is the reviews editor of This Recording.