Sunday, April 14, 2013

The 4400: Being Tom Baldwin

Being Tom Baldwin (Episode 3.2)
Directed by Colin Bucksey
Written by Shintaro Shimosawa and James Morris
Guest starring: Sean Marquette, Leanne Adachi
First aired: 18 June 2006
Rating: 6/10

Previous episode: "The New World"
Next episode: "Gone: Part 1"

An evil-looking Tom Baldwin walks into an interrogation room and shoots an evil-looking TJ Kim twice in the head, which reminds me of the wonderful Police Squad! episode with the shooting of Mr. Twice ("So you shot Twice." "No, I only shot once."). In this case Baldwin did shoot twice (but not Twice), yet the evil-looking Baldwin wasn't Baldwin, but a kid named Boyd Gelder (Sean Marquette), who isn't evil-looking at all.

There are two obvious problems with the main plot of this episode: it fulfills expectations of a familiar idea, and it offers us a threatening situation that is presented as less than threatening.

Introducing Boyd Gelder (disappeared 3 March 2000), chameleon 4400, yet another X-Men character imitation, namely Mystique, only less attractive. More importantly, though, Gelder lacks the overall appeal of Mystique: he is not presented as terrifying or even sinister. The innocence of the youthful character, while potentially intriguing, doesn't face up to the threatening allure of other 4400s such as TJ Kim or Isabelle. It also doesn't help that his youthful angst is delivered through the older body of Tom. Regardless of his power, Gelder comes across as just another confused teenager more than he does as a threat to NTAC's investigations and, ultimately, the world. There is so far little back-story: we're informed he volunteered and was not recruited, but how he learned of the existence of the Nova group is information withheld. The fact that he comes from a clean home adds little to the threatening factor. If Gelder were a broken teen with nothing to lose I would bye into the dangerous renegade chameleon, but he's presented to us as less wolf and more pussycat.

The impostor idea is nothing new. As an idea it remains intriguing since the notion of being imitated and made to do things we wouldn't normally do is unavoidably terrifying. "Being Tom Baldwin" (nothing like the superb Being John Malkovich), despite its strong premise, succumbs to the pattern of the expected. The viewer knows early on who and what is behind the Baldwin-not-Baldwin conspiracy, so the nature of the threat is not a mystery for long. Once the characters catch up with the viewer and know what they're dealing with, the lead's loved one is threatened, the partner is also mimicked along with a close colleague, and of course the climactic showdown, as I expected within the episodes first few frames, features lover Alana pointing a gun at the two Toms, not knowing which one to shoot. If it were me, I'd have shot Twice.

Meanwhile, in other parts of the 4400 universe...

Isabelle wants to learn things, to catch up on all the standard life events that she missed out on by suddenly becoming almost twenty. These activities include swimming, driving and fornication. Shawn is there to help, at least with the first two. It's obvious feelings are brewing, at least in the physical department. I would expect someone as conscientious as Richard would want to take his little big girl under his wing and teach her the things parents teach their children, but he's on a journey to bury Lily's ashes, conveniently out of the way for just long enough for the youngsters to shed some clothing. Considering the responsibilities of fatherhood, complicated as they are with Isabelle, Lily's ashes could wait a few weeks, and I think Lily would agree. Matthew, on the other hand, seems to be urging Isabelle to lust after Shawn, and I wonder if the union will produce an uber evil 4400 spawn.

As much as I believe Mahershala Ali is the most talented actor in the series, I was left cold with Richard depositing Lily's ashes at his former Lily's gravestone. It's not Richerd, however, that leaves me cold, but the simple fact that I don't miss Lily much and her loss is a benefit to the show. I did like older Lily Tippi Hedren quite a bit though, but there's only so much the writers could do with such a character, unless they give her a truly unusual ability, like free health care.

Briefly the Dr. Burkhoff plot progresses, and we learn that he is increasing his doses of promicin as he is actually developing a 4400 ability, a kind of instant healing. Some nice humour is thrown into the scene:

Skouris: Kevin, you do have a 4400 ability.
Burkhoff: It's getting there. It doesn't always work.
Skouris: Doesn't always work? You just put a scalpel through the back of your hand.
Burkhoff: I know. I was nervous about that.

Some more humour sneaks in when Diane sees and chases herself (Boyd Gelder, really), and later says to Tom, "I don't really run like that, do I?"

Flaws continue to abound as season three progresses. When fake Tom is looking out of real Tom's window, a crew member is moving about in the kitchen, taking a seat it would appear. This movement attracts our attention and it's difficult to miss the flaw. The episode also features a number of minor continuity errors, some generic dialogue ("It's the least we can do for him!")

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The 4400: The New World

The New World (episode 3.1)
Directed by Vincent Misiano
Written by Ira Steven Behr and Craig Sweeny
Guest starring Tippi Hedren, Ian Tracey, Leanne Adachi, Sharif Atkins
First aired 11 June 2006
Rating: 7/10

Previous episode: "Mommy's Bosses"
Next episode: stay tuned for "Being Tom Baldwin"

Season Three propels us toward Armageddon and a division akin to that in the universe of the mutant X-Men. Former NTAC lead Dennis Ryland is convinced that war is looming ahead. The good guys have no Professor Xavier at their helm, while the bad guys, an organization of renegade 4400 called Nova (probably in reference to the astronomical term referring to the sudden brightening of a star rather than the Latin word meaning new, though both are suspicious), have a mysterious leader by the name of Daniel Armand (Ian Tracey of Da Vinci's Inquest and Da Vinci's City Hall) (disappeared 20 July 1990). With a threat to perform some major cataclysmic show of power, Diane and Tom are racing against time (ha!) to figure out who is behind the Nova group. Standard fare with some red herrings, this plot line is broken up by some other season-setting stories.

There's a lot transpiring in this hour-and-a-half-long episode.

TJ Kim (Leanne Adachi), the siren from "Lockdown" (episode 2.10) returns in an assassination attempt on Ryland, as does mind reader Gary Navarro (Sharif Atkins) from "Voices Carry" (episode 2.2), to further the assassination attempt. Both these talents are linked with the Nova bad guys. These two powerful talents over match their 4400 opponents, good guys made up of the likes of more passive powers such as healing (Shawn), predicting (Maia) and Alana Mareva, who is little more than an organic holodeck. Except that baby Isabelle (Megalyn Echikunwoke) is all grown up, wanting to learn about this world, while exhibiting signs of invincibility. The main focus is on the Nova group and some show of power plot they are planning to release on October 19th, so that NTAC agents are hurrying to find its secret members, particularly Arcand, whose power is not yet revealed.

The most interesting plot line in this episode is that while former baby Isabelle is rapidly aging, so is mother Lily. The episode features an elderly Lily, wonderfully portrayed by Tippi Hedren (best known for her role in Alfred Hitchcock's excellent 1963 film The Birds). A great casting coup, Hedren makes a far more interesting Lily than her youthful counterpart Laura Allen ever did, and alongside talented actor Mahershala Ali as husband Richard, the relationship and its history are awarded proper dimension. Interestingly, however, is that Allen and the young Lily were supposed to return for season three, but, for reasons I'm not aware of, she was unable to, and this story-line needed to be assembled close to the shooting schedule. Meanwhile, we receive a glimpse of Richard's ability, a kind of telekinetic manipulation of objects.

As for the suddenly twenty year-old Isabelle? Possibilities abound, but so far Echikunwoke is weak in the role, focusing more on the girl's innocence rather than the conflict that would arise from learning human history (remember Leeloo's similar education in Luc Besson's 1997 fun-filled silliness The Fifth Element?). Isabelle is unaffected by her education, wanting only to experience things, which is just plain silly and unrealistic, even for such a fantasy as The 4400. "What if I'm evil?" she naively (and laughingly) asks an awkward Shawn. Alongside the new Isabelle we discover that Matthew Ross (Garret Dillahunt, who we've since seen in the very good but inherently flawed Looper) is more than just a right hand man, as he appears to have some sinister information concerning Isabelle and the 4400. Unfortunately Jordan Collier is noticeably absent from this episode.

A better story-line is eccentric Doctor Kevin Burkhoff (the always enjoyable Jeffrey Combs) injecting himself with promicin in order to generate a 4400 ability. Since the promicin inhibitor is no longer being injected into members of the 4400, individual powers are becoming stronger. This "new world" of the title is a path to Armageddon via more powerful mutants, and a glimpse of other 4400s around the world show us how varied these the abilities are. I still keep in mind from season one the concept that humans from the future developed these abilities in order to save the future human race from some terrible catastrophe.

In general terms, the episode focuses on notions of loyalty as 4400 members as well as non-members are being pressured to choose sides. The sensitive Shawn Farrell (Patrick Flueger) crosses both teams as he is a "good" 4400 who, it turns out, funded the Nova group as a precautionary measure in case the government turned on them.

Idiocy manages to peek its fuzzy head as Diane and Tom head out on their own to a potential Nova member's hideout. Do they think they can take on the likes of TJ Kim and who knows who else that might be there? Lucky for them it's all a ruse.

Overall a good season opener, with many turns and a good set-up for the season series. There are a number of hints to other potential plot lines down the season, from Maia meeting a boy who can manipulate electricity, to Alana becoming more active at the 4400 Centre. We also learn that there is some powerful hypodermic concoction that can kill Isabelle.

Another 4400 member is lost, Wesley Hauser (disappeared 1975), bringing our 4400 count down to 4,371. Yet with the post-returnee introduction of Isabelle and Dr. Burkhoff exhibiting 4400 talent, we can add two and raise the total number to 4,373. Now that would be a quirky title for a series.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Thomas Tryon, Harvest Home (1973)

Tryon, Thomas, Harvest Home, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1973
___________, Harvest Home, New York: Fawcett Crest, July 1974 (my edition)

Visit Harvest Home at Goodreads
Visit Harvest Home at ISFdb
Visit Harvest Home at IBList
Read about other Friday's Forgotten Books at Patti Abbott's blog.

Rating: 7/10

The early 1970s experienced a mini-trend in pagan-related horror, pagan communities subsisting in modern society, featuring harvest rituals, heaps of corn and various forms of sacrifice. The three that most readily come to mind are the excellent Robin Hardy film The Wicker Man (1973), Stephen King's short story "Children of the Corn" (1977), and their predecessor Harvest Home, Thomas Tryon's follow-up to his successful first novel The Other. Each of these stories focus on long-standing farming communities that maintain traditions dating back to the communities' early days, and deal with outsiders, crops and, of course, sacrifice. All three pieces are quire strong, and Harvest Home, forty years after its publication, continues to generate a strong response, despite being out of print.

[I have read in some places that The Wicker Man was based loosely on Harvest Home, yet this makes no sense since The Wicker Man, released the same year that Harvest Home first saw publication, was filmed the year before, and no doubt drafted even earlier.]

Briefly, the story is narrated by Ned Constantine, a New York painter who, along with wife Beth and daughter Kate, move to the isolated rural Connecticut community of Cornwall Coombe. They discover the town by chance, falling in love with an empty house that the townsfolk at first are unwilling to consider selling. Months later Ned receives a call offering the house, and urban American family settles into the quiet community.

"WARNING: DO NOT READ THIS BOOK IF YOU ARE ALONE. BUT IF YOU DO, KEEP REPEATING TO YOURSELF, "IT'S ONLY A BOOK. IT'S ONLY A BOOK." This hyperbolic announcement, blaring in thick bold type at the top of the back cover, is perhaps ingenious 1973 marketing at work, and may have helped propel the novel to many bestseller lists, but it is unfortunately misleading and might even lead to disappointment to contemporary readers. The novel contains clear horror elements, yet the weight of the plot rests on elements of mystery and suspense. Indeed the first three quarters of the book read like a cozy mystery (minus the humour element) rather than a piece of horror, as Ned first begins to integrate into the community, and slowly discover that something is amiss. The last quarter of the novel is very much horror, more akin to classic horror than anything modern; we are still shy of the era of Stephen King and Peter Straub.

Community conspiracies are prevalent in varying forms of horror, from novels such as Ira Levin's The Stepford Wives to recent television anthology episodes of the Forrest Whittaker-hosted Twilight Zone ("Evergreen") and Mick Garris's lackluster Fear Itself ("Community"). There are unavoidable elements of irony in that the reader, aware that the novel (or show) is of a genre, are a step ahead of the protagonist for the bulk of the plot, whereas the sequence sees the narrator defeated by the community.

Which brings us to the major flaw of Harvest Home. Once he understands what is going on at Cornwall Coombe, and that he and his family are in danger, rather than tell his wife and daughter what is going on and quickly drive them back to New York, he keeps the secrets to himself and decides to catch a sneak peek at what goes on during the night-time ritual of the annual Harvest Home celebrations. Constantine, overall, is not a sympathetic character: he i aggressive, macho, and though he genuinely cares for his family, there is a certain distance between himself and both Beth and Kate. We learn early that their marriage has been troubled, as has Kate's upbringing as she suffered health-wise via her parents' difficulties, and this history makes of them easy targets for Conrwall Coombe's unique society. The novel, with its matriarchal universe, can almost be read as a kind of 1970s feminist treatise, where a traditional matriarch defeats the modern macho male, except for the hints of misogyny that creep into the text. Most of the women, including Beth, seem to be derived from the 1950s wife ideal, and this would be great if it were addressed, that the housewife of old is a vessel for a strong woman, someone repressed and finally breaks through that shell via the Harvest Home celebrations. Alas the text does not address that issue, and these women come across merely as dated.

Despite this bothersome flaw, the novel is well written, well constructed and the community terror is very much real. Cornwall Coombe is populated with various characters, and the most frightening aspect of these people is that the tradition of Harvest Home is so embedded in their lives that even those who do oppose it are trapped by an age's old tradition.

There was an NBC miniseries based on the novel titled The Dark Secret of Harvest Home. It features a recognizable cast with Bette Davis as the matriarch Mary Fortune, Rosanna Arquette as Beth, Rene Auberjonois as the peddler Jack Stump, Norman Lloyd as the bell ringer Amys Pemrose, the wonderful Donald Pleasance as Narrator (interesting, since the novel is narrated by its protagonist), and in the role of Ned (re-named Nick, perhaps to make it more obviously Greek), longtime television actor David Ackroyd. I'd be interested in watching it, as it has a good reputation.

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