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Supersized ‘Bonnie & Clyde’ feels oddly smaller

Emile Hirsch, Holliday Grainger and Sarah Hyland star in 'Bonnie & Clyde.'

Emile Hirsch, Holliday Grainger and Sarah Hyland star in ‘Bonnie & Clyde,’ a two-part TV movie premiering tonight on three cable channels.

Bonnie & Clyde, the two-part, four-hour TV movie premiering simultaneously tonight and Monday on Lifetime, A&E Network and History Channel, covers many of the same events chronicled in Arthur Penn’s 1967 Bonnie and Clyde feature film, which earned 10 Oscar nods (including two trophies) for its electrifying depiction of the violent dual careers of gangster-lovers Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. Penn’s film confirmed the superstar status of its two leads, Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, and also included fascinating supporting performances from Academy Award winner Estelle Parsons, Gene Hackman and Michael J. Pollard. More than four decades after its initial release, Bonnie and Clyde has lost none of its power, and if you’ve never seen it, by all means seek it out.
This new cable production, which casts Holliday Grainger (The Borgias) and Emile Hirsch (Into the Wild) in the title roles, runs about an hour longer (not counting commercials) than Penn’s film, yet its objective, as well as its overall impact, feels much more modest. While Penn and his team told the story with all its doomed romantic aura intact, Bonnie & Clyde seeks to strip away most of the hype surrounding this true-crime saga to look at the real characters at the heart of it.
That’s certainly a valid approach, even a sensible one, since it would be nuts to try competing with Penn’s masterpiece on its own terms. Unfortunately, this Bonnie & Clyde simply doesn’t bring much new to the party.
It doesn’t help that the teleplay by John Rice and Joe Batteer, is fairly workmanlike, moving from event A to event B and so on as it makes its way to the carnage we know is coming eventually. For those who don’t, this TV movie opens on May 23, 1934, as a macabre mini-parade of police cars and a tow-truck rolls into rural Gibsland, La., bearing the bullet-riddled “murder car” that holds the sheet-covered corpses of Clyde, 25, and Bonnie, 24. At this point, the film, narrated by Hirsch’s Clyde, flashes back to his Texas childhood, when a near-fatal fever at age 9 left him – his grandmother would swear – with the gift of second sight.
That dubious bit of trivia might be worth a mention in passing, yet Rice and Batteer seem determined to make it a dramatic hook for their script. The young Clyde, still a boy, has a dreamy vision of the seductive adult Bonnie walking slowly towards him across a field and, while he and his older brother, Buck, are fleeing the scene of a petty larceny, Clyde is shocked by a brief flash of the bloody future fate awaiting his sibling. Premonitions like these keep recurring through the TV movie, and they’re never less than jarring.
At 28 and 25 respectively, Hirsch and Grainger are closer to the ages of their characters than were Beatty (30) and Dunaway (26), but they have to work harder to register with us. That they eventually manage to turn in praiseworthy turns is kind of remarkable, given that, even with its additional running time, this Bonnie & Clyde doesn’t seem to have a clear, convincing notion of who its characters were and why they did what they did.
Oh, the broad strokes are there. This account wants us to buy into the notion that Clyde was an easily manipulated, somewhat dim boy who kept wanting to go straight and settle down (those pesky premonitions, remember?), but Bonnie was so obsessively driven to seek fame and attention that she bought into their own press-driven myth and kept pushing Clyde to bigger and bigger crimes.
That’s certainly a way to go, I guess, but it’s not a theory that is very well supported by the historical record and, frankly, it seems more like the premise of … well … a Lifetime Original Movie.
Academy Award winners Holly Hunter (as Bonnie’s mom) and William Hurt (as a Texas Ranger who comes out of retirement to pursue the duo) make the most of their limited screen time and Sarah Hyland, best known as ditsy Haley Dunphy on Modern Family, has some very affecting moments as Clyde’s sister-in-law, Blanche (the role that won Parsons her Oscar).
Don’t get me wrong, with two-time Oscar nominee Bruce Beresford (Tender Mercies) at the helm, this made-for-cable Bonnie & Clyde isn’t terrible by any means. But it just feels a little irrelevant up against Penn’s absolutely essential feature film, which, by the way, is scheduled to be available later this week in a budget-priced two-DVD special edition set from Amazon.com.
Holliday Grainger and Holly Hunter play daughter and mother in 'Bonnie & Clyde.'

Oscar winner Holly Hunter (right) plays Bonnie’s (Holliday Grainger) concerned mother, Emma Parker, in ‘Bonnie & Clyde.’

Elegant Sundance thriller ‘The Returned’ is magnifique

A small mountain town is rocked when former residents inexplicably return from the dead none the worse for wear in 'The Returned' on Sundance Channel.

Claire (Anne Consigny, seated left) cuddles her daughter Camille, who inexplicably has reappeared four years after a fatal bus accident, in ‘The Returned’ on Sundance Channel.

If you’re in search of some Halloween entertainment that’s rewardingly creepy yet short on violence and gore, look no further than The Returned, a critically acclaimed eight-part French series premiering (with subtitles) Thursday on Sundance Channel. Widely pigeonholed as a “zombie drama,” this 2012 series sidesteps pretty much all the trappings of that genre in favor of providing more cerebral, yet still very unsettling, chills.
The first episode opens with a school field trip that goes horribly wrong when a bus from a small mountain town suddenly veers off a roadway high atop an immense dam and carries its teenage passengers to their deaths far below. Four years later, the families and friends of those young victims have begun to put their lives back together again, until the night Claire (Anne Consigny), hears a noise in her kitchen and is stunned to discover her teenage daughter Camille (Yara Pilartz), who died in that bus accident, calmly putting together a sandwich. The girl, who looks exactly the same age as she did the last time Claire saw her, murmurs an apology for being late, explaining that she had suffered a blackout on the trip and then awoke on the mountainside near the road. Camille’s a little disoriented but otherwise none the worse for wear – even her clothes are tidy – and she calmly proceeds to have a bubble bath and get ready for bed as the shaken Claire calls her estranged husband, Jerome (Frederic Pierrot), and summons him to her side.
Meanwhile, this same weirdness is playing out all over the small town, as loved ones and other acquaintances who died under unrelated circumstances start stepping out of the shadows and back into the lives of the people they once knew, who are understandably freaked out by these incidents. In each case, the “returned one” has no sense of lost time or memory of his or her passing, just a sense of confusion at the changes that have occurred since then.
A sensation in Europe, The Returned, which is adapted from a feature film by Robin Campillo called Les Revenants, already has captured the attention of American producers, with Carlton Cuse, the show-runner for A&E Network’s Bates Motel, in talks to develop an American version of the show for that same cable channel.
Beautifully filmed, The Returned unfolds at the kind of deliberate pace one normally associates with arthouse fare. Don’t tune in expecting big “booga-booga!” shocks that make you jump, just a mounting sense of unease that something is terribly wrong in this little town, as the human “survivors” – including Camille’s twin sister, Lena (Jenna Thiam), who is now 4 years older than Camille – try to adjust to their inexplicable new reality. I’ve only seen the first episode at this point, but there’s nothing to suggest the “undead” characters are suddenly going to develop a ravenous hunger for brains. Nevertheless, hey, no promises.
Clotilde Hesme and Pierre Perrier star in 'The Returned' on Sundance Channel.

Engaged to marry another man, Adele (Clotilde Hesme) is stunned when her deceased lover Simon (Pierre Perrier) suddenly re-enters her life in ‘The Returned.’

You’ll want to check out ‘Bates Motel’

In the opening scene of Bates Motel, the compelling new “contemporary prequel” to Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic 1960 horror film Psycho that premieres tonight on A&E Network, 17-year-old Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore) jerks awake in his bed as, behind him, a 1940-ish black-and-white Rosalind Russell movie plays on an old-model TV set. Norman seems disoriented, even drugged, as he hauls himself from his bed and staggers unsteadily down the hall. In the kitchen, an unattended steam iron hisses in disuse, while a meal on the stove simmers messily on the brink of burning. He makes his way into the next room, a garage/work space, to find the bloody and lifeless body of his father lying on the floor.
As a freaked-out Norman races down the hallway to the bathroom where his mother, Norma (Vera Farmiga), is taking a suspiciously leisurely shower, we share his disorientation. Where are we? No, more to the point: WHEN are we?
Flash forward six months from wherever the heck we are. Norma is driving Norman from their former home near Scottsdale, Ariz., to the coastal town of White Pine Bay, Ore., where Norma has bought a ramshackle motel for the two of them to manage. The property, as well as the adjacent house looming above, are virtual clones of the buildings from the Hitchcock film, so it’s only as Norman sits waiting for the bus to take him to school on his first day and we see him listening to music on his smartphone that we realize we’re really in the present day.
It’s an interesting creative decision and one that some critics already have jumped on as a flaw in an otherwise provocative series, but that sense of time being out of joint seems to be very much by design. How else to explain why that distinctly non-digital TV set in the original Bates home in Arizona is tuned to a classic movie channel or, even more striking, there are vinyl LPs playing on a ’60s-style hi-fi console in Norma and Norman’s sinister abode adjacent to the motel?
Given that the show’s two executive producers – Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin – hail from such Emmy-winning shows as, respectively, Lost and Friday Night Lights, I’m inclined to cut them some slack for now, especially since Bates Motel is anchored by two absolutely spellbinding performances by Highmore and Farmiga.
In terms of degree of difficulty, I have to award points to Highmore, the former British child actor who tore your heart out as the little son of doomed Kate Winslet in 2004’s Finding Neverland and took the title role in Tim Burton’s uneven 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now lean and lanky at 21 in real life and managing a credible American accent, Highmore is inspired casting in a role that previously has been inextricably associated with Anthony Perkins. The show’s creators have indicated in interviews that they hope viewers will grow attached to Norman and his mom in a way that de-emphasizes the grisly events that will, eventually and inevitably, follow and Highmore does a splendid job of playing a younger Norman Bates who is both already seriously damaged yet heartbreakingly salvageable at the time the events in this series play out.
The reason his sad fate is sealed is spelled out by Farmiga’s uncompromising and multifaceted portrayal as a woman who wants to be all things to her son: protector, companion, confidante, even surrogate lover. Watching her scenes, you get a sense that this actress, who has been plugging away for so many years without the appreciation she deserves, recognized a career-changing role when she saw it, because she delivers an utterly fearless performance. Her Norma is determined to keep Norman bound to her in a you-and-me-against-the-world dynamic, and what she does to assure that is one of the creepiest things about Bates Motel.
By the end of the premiere episode, we’ve seen (probably) two murders, a violent attempted rape, plus evidence of a sex slave ring, with hints to follow that this Pacific Northwestern community is so kinky that somewhere there’s a diner that serves a damn good cherry pie (Cuse has freely acknowledged that Twin Peaks is an integral part of the show’s DNA).
This early 2013 TV season includes such other serial killer projects as the popular but probability-stretching The Following on Fox and NBC’s upcoming and very bleak Hannibal, but it’s Farmiga and Highmore’s dazzling double act that will keep me checking into Bates Motel week after week. It’s wonderful to see A&E, once a front-runner in terms of original dramatic programming, raise itself out of the muck of low-budget reality shows to deliver such an audacious new original. Bravo.