Thursday, February 11, 2016

Cult-TV Flashback: Hemlock Grove (2012 - 2015)

Earlier this week, a reader here on the blog asked me for my thoughts about Netflix’s Hemlock Grove (2012 – 2013), the Eli Roth-produced horror TV series based on Brian McGreevy’s novel.

I have watched the first half-dozen episodes of the first season twice, so my knowledge is based on those episodes and my double viewings of them.

My conclusion at this juncture is that the series is somewhat inconsistent in tone and approach.

Sometimes it is well-acted; sometimes not.

Sometimes Hemlock Grove is fascinating and visually-daring…even crazy.

And sometimes Hemlock Grove qualifies, actually, as droning and tedious.

There were times I had a hard time staying tuned to the action on-screen, which is why I watched the episodes twice.

At this juncture, I cannot report accurately whether this sense of muddled inconsistency or uneven-ness recurs later in the series’ run… only that the episodes I saw vacillated wildly between curious strangeness and tiresome cliché.

I will readily admit that perhaps I didn’t watch enough episodes to find the series' “vibe” resonant, or to fall in love with the characters. The central mystery is pursued with such haphazard, variable, irregularity that it did not hook me, either.

Again, this is my critical evaluation based on what I viewed. The aforementioned blog reader made n interesting case for the program’s virtues, and two pod-cast hosts that I know and respect greatly lauded the series to me as well. 

I made the mistake of dismissing The Vampire Diaries (2009 - ) after the pilot episode, some years back, and don’t wish to make the same error here.

All I can write is that based on my admittedly-limited viewing of the first season, Hemlock Grove proved more uneven than enticing.

Hemlock Grove is the tale of two young men in a Pennsylvania town: a 17-year old gypsy werewolf, Peter Rumancek (Landon Liboiron), and Roman Godfrey (Bill Skarsgard), an “upir” or vampire. 

They become uneasy friends and soon work together to solve a mystery: a series of vicious animal-attack style murders in Hemlock Grove.

The series, which ran for three seasons, is a soap opera in its structure and narrative development, and also concerns a young woman, Letha (Penelope Mitchell) who believes she has been impregnated by an angel. Others fear she may have been raped.

Meanwhile, there’s a deeper background to the story as well.

Roman’s sister, Shelley (Nicole Boivin) is a deformed young woman and outcast. And Roman’s mother, Olivia Godfrey (Famke Janssen) is having an affair with her former brother-in-law, Norman Godfrey (Dougray Scott), who works at the mysterious Godfrey Institute of Medicine.

Meanwhile, Peter’s mother, Lynda (Lili Taylor) also seems to possess some secrets, as well as a healthy dislike for Olivia.

What I admire most about Hemlock Grove is the series’ setting. 

The town itself has become a zombie, or undead.

The rust belt location once thrived as the home of a successful steel mill. But once the economy took a down-turn, industry and manufacturing died, thus leaving the town’s denizens stumbling on futilely, trying to figure out where they belong and how they can live. 

The new “industry” in town, --which hovers on the cutting edge of bio-medicine/and bio-abomination “science run amok" -- has replaced the rust belt soul of the town with something, then, that the citizens fear and dread.

There are a few shots in Hemlock Grove which reflect this new reality. 

We see the apricot, autumnal nature of the town and its lush landscape, but then this strange, white, high-tech ominous tower occludes the sky-line. It’s like a cyborg growth or blot on the town’s natural horizon.

The “feel” of Hemlock Grove, based on my viewing so far, is part-Twin Peaks (1990-1991), part film-noir. 

The episodes I watched seem to embody the notion, oft-seen in noirs that though you may be done with the past, but the past is not done with you. 

The older, established generation here -- represented by characters played by Janssen, Scott, and Taylor -- seems dissolute, corrupt, and trying desperately to overcome old secrets and old hatreds. 

The past, in some sense, is the “real” monster portrayed in the series.

The younger generation, though embodied literally by vampires and werewolves, seems like Hemlock Grove’s best hope for a better future.

The friendship between Peter and Roman is intriguing, and it doesn’t progress predictably, which is a quality I appreciated very much.  

Roman, for example, learns that Peter is a werewolf, and asks to watch him transform.

Peter -- for reasons not entirely known even to himself -- agrees.There’s a certain homo-erotic tension in the relationship overall, but certainly in that moment of transformation, featured in episode 2, “The Angel.” There’s an electric feeling of discovery between the two characters, and it isn’t exactly platonic.

Instead, Roman watches, wide-eyed, as Peter strips down nude, and the transformation occurs. 

Then, in a perfect example of how Hemlock Grove shifts tones radically moment to moment, the werewolf Peter devours his own cast-off human flesh right on camera. The series is erotic one moment, and visceral Grand Guignol the next.

That equation probably sounds like it could be terrific, but the pace and plotting are so damn languid. 

Individual moments are spiky and weird and memorable, but overall the series feels like it is on David Lynch-styled cruise control or automatic pilot, only without benefit of Lynch’s guiding intellect or strange sense of humor. The series even flirts with his trademark "dream sense," but again, it feels applied haphazardly.

Hemlock Grove is definitely of the Wolf Lake (2002), Twilight (2008 – 2011), Vampire Diaries (2009 - ), Teen Wolf (2011 - ) monster school or genre, but it also attempts to distinguish itself from that  competition through its off-kilter sensibilities. 

Two things result from the series’ off-kilter nature, I reckon.

One, Hemlock Grove doesn’t feel teeny-bopperish, as one might legitimately fear, considering the milieu. The show is many things, but the vampires aren’t glittery, and the werewolves aren’t mere boy toys.

The other result is that Hemlock Grove feels off-putting and impenetrable at times -- at least as far as I got into the continuity. I found this approach distancing.

Hemlock Grove ended after three seasons of about a dozen episodes per year, and my understanding is that those who stuck with it really enjoyed it.  

That's as it should be.  

For me, the episodes that I watched had some great promise, some amazing scenes, and a hell of a lot of weirdness for, apparently, weirdness sake. 

Hemlock Grove?  

Not your average destination spot, but a little too bizarre and sleepy for my tastes.

TV Promo: Hemlock Grove (2013 - 2015)

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The X-Files: "Home Again" (February 8, 2016)

In “Home Again,” Mulder (David Duchovny) and Scully (Gillian Anderson) investigate the brutal murder of a HUD official, Joseph Cutler (Alessandro Juliani) who was attempting to forcibly relocate a group of homeless people in Philadelphia. 

His body was discovered… pulled apart…with his head discarded in a trash can.

While Mulder pursues a lead involving a street artist, Scully is called back to Washington D.C. because of terrible personal news.

Her mother, Margaret (Sheila Larken), has suffered a devastating heart attack and is near death. But efore slipping into unconsciousness, Margaret asks for Charlie, her estranged son, and Scully’s brother. This request mystifies Scully.

While Mulder attempts to console Scully, the murders in Philadelphia continue unabated. Those who have sought to exploit the homeless for their own gain are dying in gruesome, bloody ways.

Margaret’s final words to Scully and Mulder remind Scully of their absent son, William, and their parental responsibility to care for him; a life they brought into this world together.

While she considers that idea, Scully and Mulder confront the artist, Trash Man (Tim Armstrong), who has created from his own rage a work of art that may have come to life…

This 2016 X-Files revival is proving itself a “dark wizard” of sorts, again striking pay-dirt this week with writer/director Glen Morgan’s creepy and emotionally-affecting installment: “Home Again.” 

This tale beautifully resurrects a classic series institution -- murder-to-pop-music montage -- at the same time that it develops significantly the major character arc of these six new episodes: Scully’s crushing regret and guilt over giving up her son with Mulder, William, all those years ago.

Beyond these remarkable touches, “Home Again” reaches for and attains greatness via its careful and even-handed social commentary.

Once you pry away all the violence and pathos, Morgan’s episode concerns something quite significant: the role and responsibility of the artist in the public square.

Specifically, no one in “Home Again” will help the homeless of Philadelphia out of the goodness of their hearts. There are safety concerns and profit concerns about the homeless, but no real caring or empathy for them. We glean this understanding not only from the dialogue, but from a powerful image captured in the teaser.

After being in the proximity of the homeless, the first victim uses hand-sanitizer, washing off “the germs” he associates with those who live on the streets. The image is perfectly disdainful, and perfectly apt.  You can’t “sanitize” away a lack of conscience, can you?

Just about the only person who does see the truth about the homeless is a street artist called The Trash Man. He understands that the homeless are largely powerless to help themselves, yet are judged a problem, not people to help.

In this case, however, the artist’s indignation at the heartlessness he views in his society proves so powerful that the emotion manifests a violent life of its own. Trash Man creates a thought-form, or “tulpa” (a Tibetan word for “phantom” or “conjured thing”) that carries out his agenda of rage.

To describe it bluntly, “Home Again” gazes at art, and considers both how it can enact social change, and -- frightfully -- must simultaneously be responsible for the change it enacts. 

This is not a small or inconsequential idea. 

Indeed, I have had many interviewers in the last few weeks ask me if The X-Files “created” the culture of conspiracy and is, therefore, somehow responsible for birthers, truthers, and so on.

My answer is always negative. I accept as an axiom the notion that art reflects life, and that The X-Files simply comments on and reflects those things detectable in the culture by the artists involved. 

What this episode seems to remind audiences is that works of art such as Star Trek, The X-Files, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead must not only address social concerns, but -- in shaping the culture -- showcase a sense of responsibility for the ideas they introduce.

I have never had any concern about The X-Files walking that fine line, because it never mindlessly espouses one point of view or another. The series mantra has always been “The Truth is Out There,” not “I Know What the Truth is, and it is Liberal and/or Conservative.”

“Home Again” re-affirms the series’ long-term commitment to gazing at issues through various filters, or lenses, and asking audiences to consider -- with an open mind -- all possibilities.

Here, we understand and sympathize with the artist’s rage at what he sees as the selfishness of the culture at large. He sees the terrible people who live in their McMansions, and don’t want their precious children going to school anywhere near “riff raff” like the homeless.

But at the same time, we see that the artist’s “anger” as a point of creative inspiration boasts murderous drawbacks.

Perhaps just that anger is a legitimate response to injustice, yes, but it is not a strategy for making things better.

Instead, it is an emotional response. It is not an answer in and of itself.

Once more, The X-Files appears to have captured the national moment in which we live, both acknowledging the rage that so many people feel, and noting, simultaneously, that it isn’t a productive emotion. 

As Scully trenchantly notes in “Home Again:” “we’re all responsible” for that which we create; that which we stoke; that which we put out into the world. 

Even the yellow notices posted on the streets of Philadelphia reinforce this idea: “You are responsible,” they read.

There are some politicians out there who are running for President right now and might very well learn this idea of responsibility the hard way if they continue to play to the anger and resentment of an embittered population instead of the better angels of our country’s nature. 

Anger isn’t a strategy for governance, nor one for tightening frayed national bonds.

“Home Again” thus considers how art -- and even speech -- takes on a life of its own once it has entered the world.  

And because this is The X-Files and not some run-of-the-mill horror show, Morgan’s script also boasts the wisdom to tie the idea of societal responsibility to Scully and her sense of personal responsibility.

Morgan's direction also makes it clear that this is Scully's story; her journey. When she flees a crime scene to see her sick mother, the camera gazes at her from inside her personal "bubble," and we get a close-up, jittery look at her anxiety. It's the perfect technique to make us understand what she is going through, and that her feelings are paramount.

Before long, Scully's mother helps Scully to understand that she made a mistake when she gave up William.  He is still out there, and even if she is not with him, she is responsible for bringing him into the world.

Even “Home Again’s” murder set-piece is a comment, in a way, on responsibility, or lack of responsibility. The Band-Aid Nosed Killer (the aforementioned tulpa or phantom) stalks an obnoxious lawyer to her suburban McMansion to the tune of “Downtown,” a 1964 song performed by Petula Clark and written by Tony Hatch.

Now, The X-Files possesses a long history of coupling music with horror.  In Morgan’s “Home,” we had the Peacocks attack to the tune “Wonderful.”  The song “Twilight Time” was utilized ironically in “Kill Switch,” and “The Hokey Pokey” informed brutal murder sequences in “Chinga.”

So this approach -- like the long, personal soliloquy of the voice over narration -- is a legitimate X-Files technique. I'm happy to see it resurrected in such style.

But more importantly, the tune “Downtown” is an ode or paean to not talking responsibility. The singer urges the listener to “forget all your troubles,” “forget all your cares” and visit “downtown.”  

There, you can enjoy “the music of the city” and feel all right, ostensibly.  But -- here's the rub -- Morgan's teleplay also refers to the homeless, euphemistically as "Downtown People."   

If you say it that way, it doesn't sound like you're such an awful person, right?

Of course, the city as depicted in “Home Again” is a heartless, caustic place, where the homeless are pawns to be moved around, hidden away, and “handled.” So “Downtown” knowingly pushes up against the episode’s depiction of the modern metropolis and its callous vibe.  The city is not a place to forget troubles or cares. It’s not a place where the music is happy. 

It’s a place where bad people are harming other people, and now a monster is murdering those bad people for their trespasses.

As an aficionado of the horror genre, the “Downtown” sequence in “Home Again” is everything that I would have hoped for and dreamed about regarding an X-Files revival. It’s a ghoulish, wicked scene, that generates scares and rights the scales of cosmic justice. I love when The X-Files hits such notes of irony and humor, with plenty of blood and guts to go along. These montages are scary and cerebral at the time, and "Home Again" lives up to that tradition.

For those who aren’t in The X-Files for the horror, or the social commentary, “Home Again” works superbly in terms of its fidelity to series history and its commitment to growing the characters, particularly Scully.  

Morgan and partner Wong gave us such early episodes of the series as “Beyond the Sea” and “One Breath,” both of which went a long way towards informing our understanding of Scully’s family of origin. It’s appropriate that Morgan should return to that terrain here, and use imagery from various episodes (including “One Breath”) to help us recall what Dana and the family have endured.

Also, I must confess, I love that “Home Again” -- and indeed, episodes such as “Founder’s Mutation” -- are operating on the belief that the last two seasons of the original series are also, legitimately, The X-Files.  

Some creators or writers run away from material that didn’t meet total fan approval. The X-Files, by bringing up William, and the events of the last two seasons, reminds fans that William’s story is The X-Files too. The revived X-Files doesn’t try to shake off those last two years (which I loved).  

Instead, it embraces those years, those characters, and those stories, and has weaved one of the most heartbreaking character arcs imaginable for Scully.  She grieves, throughout these episodes, for what she has lost; for what she has given away. Her mother’s words in this episode help her to understand her responsibility, vis-à-vis William, and I hope we will see her doing everything in her power to find him, in upcoming episodes and in upcoming seasons.

Again, this dynamic, heart-felt arc for Scully -- which has left my wife bereft and in tears on at least two occasions -- would not be possible without those last two seasons. 

I am so glad the creators of the series decided to embrace series history and not run away from it, just because of stupid conventional wisdom.

“Home Again” is -- like the three preceding episodes of this revival -- a triumph in terms of its literacy, its social commentary, and its character arc. Beautifully filmed, and emotionally resonant, "Home Again" brings the revival to a four-for-four tally.

Next Week: "Babylon."

Trading Card Close-up: Tron

Action Figures of the Week: Tron

Tron Storybook

Tron Yo-Yo (Duncan)

Tron GAF Viewmaster

Board Game of the Week: Tron (Ideal)

Movie Trailer: Tron (1982)