Saturday, February 28, 2009

Dollhouse: 'Stage Fright' (1x03)

The good news is each week of Dollhouse has gotten a little better, but none of the episodes have been total winners yet. As with much of the series, this episode has a lot of interesting ideas and thematic content, but the ideas just sort of sit there and don’t really integrate into the narrative in any way. The show has an intellectual interest, but most of the time it doesn’t have the emotional impact or Joss’s best work, or even his middling work.

The basic idea here is to juxtapose the gilded cage of pop star Rayna with Echo’s similar situation. Both have what some people would consider a utopian existence, free of worry and choice, with someone worrying about and caring for their every need. Normal people want to live that kind of life, but for the people living extraordinary lives, sometimes the thing they want most is normality. The confrontation between Rayna and “Jordan” in her dressing room hits the similarities home, perhaps a bit too hard on the nose.

The problem is what does this parallel really say? I suppose on one level it’s a way to explore the way that women are treated as commodities, defined by their relationships to others. That’s how Echo is used, an object to project fantasies on, and Rayna is the same thing. But, just saying that doesn’t make an interesting story, and it’s hard for the show to condemn that attitude when most of the female characters in the episode are shown in the minimal amount of clothes whenever possible.

I have no problem with that, these are good looking people, but I feel like the line between implicating the audience in the same attitude that the characters in the show have and just using sex to sell the show has been crossed. I think part of the problem is that we’re left with no place to view the show from. We’re made to look at Echo in various states of undress, and are still meant to condemn the fact that she’s being used by her handlers. It’s hard to have it both ways. I don’t think there’s anything inherently misogynist about showing women without many clothes. Look at a film like Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which keeps its sexuality fun and empowered. But, here, there’s such a mess of viewpoints, it’s hard to know what to think, and my takeaway is simply that sex is being used to sell the show even as it’s being condemned from within the narrative. The show’s trying to have it both ways, and not quite pulling it off.

Anyway, I will say that at least this week’s mission made sense to use a doll on. I don’t understand why they led off with the hostage negotiator story, since these past couple of episodes have done a much better job of saying why someone would use a doll on a mission instead of a regular professional. I’m not saying this should have been episode one, but even more than last week, it pointed to a kind of viable type of future storyline, and was a bit more creative with the premise than we’d see previously.

I also really liked Echo’s interactions with Sierra. More than Dushku, she could easily swerve between personalities, selling us on the meek “number one fan,” then switching back to impersonal doll mode. That said, I’m not sure why she didn’t activate her backup personality when she got kidnapped, surely that would be the kind of emergency she’d have been programmed to get out of.

Also interesting was the revelation that the Russian guy is actually a doll, messing with Ballard, presumably on behalf of his Dollhouse superiors. This raises the interesting idea that the dolls could be used as the ultimate sleeper agents. Think of an Infernal Affairs type situation, where a doll is planted in a criminal organization and doesn’t even know they’re being used as a surveillance op for the police.

Back at the dollhouse, Boyd and Claire get a bit closer. I’ve got a bad feeling about Amy Acker’s future since I believe she’s been cast in a new pilot and is still credited as “guest starring” even though she seems to be a main character. But, for her time on the show, she’s a nice human presence in the dollhouse. Things aren’t totally working on that side of the storyline yet, but I want to see more, and at this point in the show, that’s what’s needed.

While I did enjoy the episode, I think the climax evidenced one of my major problems with the show, and that’s the fact that it feels a bit dated in its production value. I feel like I saw that same above the stage climax in a Buffy season one episode, and TV has come a long ways since then. In a world where you can have shows that are shot as well as The Sopranos, or produced on the scale of Rome, this competent, but unexceptional direction just doesn’t do it. Shooting a show as well as The Sopranos doesn’t require money, it requires great directors. Perhaps they have to shoot this show faster than The Sopranos worked, but still, the lack of production value and technical skill shows.

But, I’m still liking it. This was my favorite episode yet, and we’ll see where things go. Episode six is supposed to be the big “game changer,” so if they can stay this good until then, I’m excited to see how big the quality jump is.

Battlestar Galactica: 'Someone to Watch Over Me' (4x17)

My biggest problem with Battlestar throughout its run has always been its frustrating inconsistency. After an incredible premiere, they rambled through most of this chunk of episodes, before returning to greatness here with an episode that focused on a lot of neglected characters and had some really chill-inducing moments like only this show can do.

I really loved this hour, I think all the stories in it worked, and it built things up to a level of tension where I can really believe that we’re three episodes from the finale now. But, let me first address some of the issues I’ve had with the show since its return from hiatus. There’s been a major shift in purpose and focus since the show returned from the strike. I feel like the cylon/human alliance plot was set up nicely over the course of the first half of season four, but we sort of jumped forward to the point where it’s a foregone conclusion without really seeing the growing pains it would have. I suppose that’s what the whole putting goo on Galactica and munity subplots were supposed to do, but those all skirted around the issue, they didn’t deal with the alliance itself. Where’s D’Anna? Where’s Leoben? They’re the strongest cylon personalities, and I’d like to see how they’re dealing with all this.

I think the biggest issue is that Moore and co. realized that they had to wrap up all the storylines and actually pay off a lot of the mysteries. That led to the construction of the whole the final five were humans who became cylons who then could reproduce so they were indistinct from humans who then got into a war with cylons and traveled across the galaxy to make the skinjob cylons and then got trapped in the human world by Cavil story. It’s a really complex thing, and just explaining it took an entire episode. I loved that episode, but the show, don’t tell problem has been there going forward. All that information just closed off old storylines, it didn’t open up that many new possibilities, and to a large extent, it made the fleet we’ve been following for all these years just pawns in a parent/child conflict between Cavil and the Five. I suppose the point is to have the people of the fleet and the rebel cylons break the paradigm that’s doomed humanity for so many years, but it takes away some of their agency.

Here, the five talk about not wanting to be gods, but what it’s really done is remove character agency. All these people were placed into roles, and their motivations are determined by vague memories of the past. We don’t have a sense of them creating their own story, they’re just playing off of a script written long ago that they can’t quite make out. This has all happened before, this will all happen again was interesting when it was about Kara, because she always maintained agency, but feared getting caught up in trying to live out her destiny. At the end of The Invisibles, Jack says predestiny doesn’t matter, we’re here and we’re living out our lives in the moment. That’s what Kara was doing, with the five, it’s impossible to tell, and that makes them subject to writers’ whims rather than defining their own story.

But, they spent most of this episode sitting at a bar, so it wasn’t a huge problem. We thankfully got to spend some time with Sharon and Kara, two of my favorite characters who have been out of the spotlight for a while. Kara apparently hallucinates a ghost version of her father to talk to, and uses him to process her own issues about her parental abandonment. I like the way talking to the pianist is a way for her to try and understand her father’s point of view. He was committed to his art, and didn’t want to be held back by his wife. That sounds at least somewhat admirable, but how does it feel to Kara, who’s the one left behind. Is she less valuable than his art?

This storyline ties in nicely with the way we previously saw Kara abused by her mother. Her mother broke Kara’s fingers, a way of preventing her from following her father’s artistic path. That’s a well done retcon, enhancing what we saw before without contradicting any of it.

The question that arises now is whether Kara’s father is Daniel the missing cylon. That would knit a lot of things together, and would explain why her father knows the cylon song. That moment was absolutely brilliant, like only this show can do. Hearing the song gradually become the cylon revelation All Along the Watchtower piece, accompanied by that slow zoom on to Tigh and Kara getting lost in the music was perfect. It was something you can only do in cinema. A moment like that makes up for a lot of the troubled elements throughout the season. It’s also part of why the show is frustrating, they can be so good, why can’t they hit that level all the time?

Tyrol and Boomer had some great stuff too, but did raise some questions. The impression I got from season one was that Boomer honestly believed she was human, and was horrified to find out the truth. Even after they killed her, she teamed up with a Six in “Downloaded” to help the humans, so I’m not sure why she’s turned into a hardline Cavil person, who’s this ultimate femme fatale operative here, taking joy in messing with everyone in the fleet. Maybe I don’t remember something from the lengthy hiatus the show took, but the motivation doesn’t seem quite consistent.

But, I did enjoy pretty much everything she did, and if you accept the character development, her manipulation was great. You buy into her and the dream life she’s built for herself and Tyrol. I also loved the skeeviness of making sure to fuck Helo where Athena could see. That’s the kind of scene you can only do in sci-fi.

And, her escape from the Galactica with Hera kicked the story into high gear after it lagged for a bit. Halfway through this episode, I was thinking this did not at all feel like a show that was three episodes away from its finale. But, by the end, the pieces start to come together, even as the Galactica starts to fall apart. I’m guessing like Babylon 5, the titular space ship won’t be making it to the series finale. And, I’m also assuming we’ll be seeing the return of Cavil shortly.

The juxtaposition of Roslin’s collapse with Hera’s departure was evocative. We’ve already seen them tied together in the opera house vision, what will Hera’s departure mean for the future of the fleet? Can the Cylon/Human alliance continue without the embodiment of that alliance.

Ultimately, I’m less concerned with the narrative resolution than with getting more of the great character moments we got in this episode. I loved the Kara story, and I hope we get more moments of beauty like hearing her gradually build the song. If there is a final space battle, I hope it’s a trippy, evocative one. The show’s got itself back in a good place, I hope they bring it home strong.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Friday Night Lights: 3x01-3x06

I’ve talked a lot about my mixed feelings on two Friday night shows this year, Battlestar and Dollhouse. And, amidst their troubled runs, a show I’d kind of dismissed has just come back and started killing it every week, and that’s Friday Night Lights. After a second season that could be most kindly described as “troubled,” the show has been consistently getting close to season one highs every week. Right now, it just might be the best show currently airing on Friday nights.

Whenever a veteran band comes out with a new album, it’s invariably hailed as “a return to their roots,” a throwback to the spirit of their most loved album. Every new Radiohead album is at least rumored to be a throwback to the style of OK Computer, every Depeche Mode album is a callback to Violator. And, Friday Night Lights season three was treated as a return to the style of season one. Season two isn’t exactly wiped out of continuity, but most of its story developments are conveniently disregarded.

Grant Morrison proposed the idea of hypertime continuity for the DCU, in which all the stories are true, but some are more true than others, depending on the quality and staying power of the story. Batman’s origin will never change, that’s a fundamental piece of the character’s makeup, but various details about it can change, and the best way to figure out the “true” origin is to look at which version of the story is strongest. That way, if someone writes a story in which it turns out Batman’s parents were really murdered by space aliens, it can fade in to the background, technically still part of the mythos, but far away from the core timeline.

The hypertime concept is a good way of explaining how season three deals with the series history because what it boils down to is the stories that people like are the most true, and the ones that people don’t like can be forgotten. So, developments like Lyla and Riggins getting together can continue, but Matt and his maid sleeping together and the Landry murder plot fade away. Technically, the Landry murder still exists, but it’s drifting somewhere in limbo, hopefully never to be mentioned again.

At first, I felt like the show was just replaying its greatest hits. I have mixed feelings about U2’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind album because so much of it feels like a conscious decision to sound like what people think U2 should sound like. So, even though there’s great songs on there, it feels almost like a covers album, U2 covering themselves. The first few episodes felt this way, the emotional beats and style were right out of season one, but I was conscious of the show revisting those great storylines, and that distracted me from surrendering to the emotion of the stories.

But, starting with the last episode of the Smash arc, the show has just been nailing it on all counts. The first season of the show was brilliant because they would do moments where intellectually you knew what was going to happen, but they managed to maintain a huge amount of tension, and then give you a huge emotional payoff when the victory you were waiting for finally came. In the Smash storyline, we saw the amazing scene where Coach Taylor and Smash are told that they’ll have to come back for the next practice, which leads to Coach making a plea to let Smash on the field, for a moment there’s tension, then Smash gets his chance and the emotion just soars. The stakes have been delineated so clearly that just seeing him get out on the field is a huge emotional payoff.

I loved the end of that arc, it was an unabashed happy ending, one that skirted through sadness but made it in the end. Because we saw Smash really suffer, the payoff is much more satisfying. Particularly effective was the possible Alamo Freeze job, which made the practical considerations vs. following his dream conflict very clear.

The show has also focused more on the smaller details of life in Dillon, recalling the early days of the series. I loved Riggins’ tour of the seedier side of town in the last episode, and the contrast between the world weary senior and the totally naïve freshman. In high school, you have these kids who have already lived a hard life and done it all and you’ve got some people who are totally under the wings of their parents, and never really done anything. And, that’s conveyed well in those scenes. I also liked the detail of JD having a crush on Lyla.

Another beat that really worked in this episode was the Matt and Julie story. This show has always been one of the most beautiful on TV, and their trip to the lake felt dynamic and visual in a way that TV rarely does. It felt more like a Malick movie than a network drama. Compare to the look of the forest on Dollhouse, where it almost felt like they were on a giant soundstage. The scene on the lake made you feel like you were in nature, the sun sparkling and cutting through the trees to create an absolutely beautiful space. Even in the weakest days of season two, the show always looked great, and this season, they’ve been knocking out as well. My favorite shot of the episode was Julie and Matt driving back home in the glow of the rising sun.

This season has also brought Landry back to the character who first stood out in season one. I don’t mean to imply that all change is bad, but season two got away from everything good about the show. To go back to the style of season one, but continue to evolve the characters is what’s made the show so satisfying this year. I really like the band storyline, particularly the way that the band he’s in feels so specific to the town he’s living in. It sounds just like high school bands sound, all jumbled noise, with some snatches of skill struggling to rise above the mess.

So, I’m really excited to see the season continue to develop. The JD McCoy storyline is great, uniting a lot of the characters, and putting Coach Taylor in an interesting place. But, most importantly, the world feels real again, and it’s great just to spend time there. I thought season two had killed the show, but it’s back.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Battlestar Galactica - 'Deadlock' (4x16)

The entire backhalf of season four has been problematic in a lot of ways. I’ve loved pieces of it, the premiere particularly, but since then, the show has been drifting and struggling to find an emotional focus. Last week’s controversial info dump hour was thought provoking and really challenging like only this show can be. This episode reverts to a weird kind of soap opera, as character motivations are thrown around in service of an overarching narrative that’s making sense on a thematic level, but doesn’t seem to have the kind of drive that a series entering its final four episodes should have.

A lot of shows are rejuvenated in their final seasons, having the liberty to make lasting character change and tear the premise apart in dynamic ways. Six Feet Under is a great example, the final fate of Nate is the obvious example, but even before that, the show broke out of the soap opera drift of its weaker fourth season, where you feel like plots are spun just to keep characters on the show, rather than because they’re stories that need to be told.

This show hasn’t really taken advantage of that freedom, sure last week’s episode revealed most of the big mysteries surrounding the show. But, I’m not the kind of viewer that’s as interested in the answers to questions as in how characters grow and change. In most cases, mysteries are more interesting than their answers, and those answers are primarily interesting as a device to lead us to new, more compelling stories. In this case, the answer to the great mystery of the Final Five has worked on a thematic level, and was really compelling to hear last episode, but hasn’t led to a particularly interesting story in its followup.

My major issue with this episode was that the Tigh/Caprica Six relationship felt like kind of an afterthought last season. It was interesting in the context of Tigh exploring his new role as a cylon, and a continued exploration of his grief over Ellen’s death, but I never thought that he really loved her. So, Ellen claiming that Tigh must love her because she’s pregnant didn’t work on an emotional level. It makes sense on a mythology level, but we know that Tigh loves Ellen more than her, or at least that’s what the scenes we’ve actually seen have led us to believe.

The last season of The Sopranos drew a lot of fire for its slowed down pace and dedramatized style. I think they’re trying for something similar here, cutting character beats to their core, and skipping over scenes that would seem like big dramatic moments to instead focus on the daily routine of the fleet. It worked on The Sopranos because there wasn’t that much narrative baggage to deal with. Sure, the war with New York was in play, but the show was always extremely character driven, so you could have no narrative resolution and still feel satisfied.

Here, the narrative has become so convoluted, just telling us what’s happening takes up a ton of time, and doesn’t leave a lot of time for character beats. Another central issue for me this year is that they’re hitting the exact same character beats in every episode, and neglecting a lot of the cast. Yes, Olmos and Hogan are great actors, but how many scenes of them bonding do we need to see? It feels like they’re the only two characters who get any real screen time and development now, everyone else just does whatever the narrative requires.

Tyrol is a great example of this. In one scene, he’s urging Adama to use the cylon goo to fix the ship, and doing everything he can to save Galactica from Gaeta and his rebellion. Then, this episode he’s saying that they should abandon the fleet and fly away on the baseship. It could make sense if we’re given any insight into his motivation, but we’re not, and are left to piece together a complex set of motivations without anything onscreen to back it up.

Plus, I think last episode’s revelations throw into question the whole notion of these characters as “cylons.” They’re technically cylons, but on Earth, they were the equivalent of humans. Couldn’t this have been a key moment to say, see we’re the same as you, accept us again. Instead, it’s just glossed over and he and Tory decide to go back to the baseship, seemingly ignoring everything we learned from Anders last week.

Why is Tory so resolutely committed to the cylons? What makes her different from Tyrol and Tigh? There’s so much potentially interesting stuff there, but instead we’re spending all our time on the same three characters who have been the subject of every other episode this season.

Along those lines, the Baltar storyline in this episode is disappointing because, while often hilarious, it doesn’t make any sense in the overall story, and basically invalidates everything interesting about his arc in the early part of the season. I found Baltar really interesting as someone who’s decided that all these voices he’s been hearing in his head are a message from God, and that’s his purpose in the fleet. He may enjoy the attention of his harem, but on some level, he has to believe to make that story interesting. Here, we see him as the same goofy guy from earlier in the series, but inexplicably Adama decides to arm him with guns, a mere episode after a similar civilian force overwhelmed the ship and caused mass chaos.

It’s frustrating to watch the show hit the same beats again and again because it can be so great. The scene where Tigh talks about letting his love fill the frakkin’ room is awesome, but the story it’s in doesn’t have an emotional impact to match the impact of the scene itself.

I guess my central issue is that the show has just abandoned any attempt to evolve most of its characters, and decided to focus exclusively on Adama and Tigh, with the convoluted cylon mythology as a backdrop. There hasn’t been much interesting work done with Sharon, Helo, Baltar, Tyrol, Tory, Leoben, D’Anna or even Kara this season, and that’s frustrating because they’re all great characters, and could have great stories. When they do appear, it’s merely to serve the plot, and that’s frustrating.

This wasn’t an awful episode, but it’s symptomatic of a lot of the problems the series has at this point in its run. I think it was a huge mistake for them to ever leave Earth. As the show often does, I was all excited about a new status quo. How would they try to rebuild Earth and make it livable? Instead, we got the same Galactica on a search that we’ve already seen. I know there’s budget issues with filming outside, but I just see the end product, and I know that the show’s most exciting episodes were the New Caprica arc, where everything was different and we saw the characters in a new light. Let’s see that again before the end.

My 2009 Academy Awards

The real Oscars have happened already, but what would happen if I was giving out the awards. Here's what...

Best Actor
Josh Brolin – W.
Clint Eastwood – Gran Torino
Philip Seymour Hoffman – Synedoche, New York
Brad Pitt – Benjamin Button
Mickey Rourke – The Wrestler

Rourke became this guy. He’s done a lot of hard living, and that all reads on screen. Like a lot of great movie star performances, it’s a role that uses his off screen narrative as a supplement to the performance, such that the performer and role become inseperable, and mutually supporting.

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett – Benjamin Button
Anne Hathaway – Rachel Getting Married
Nicole Kidman – Australia
Lina Leandersson – Let the Right One In
Ellen Page – The Tracey Fragments

Anne Hathaway also had a tough year off screen, but she nailed it onscreen with a great performance at the center of a really great film that’s unfortunately been sort of forgotten here in awards season. She’s the wild heart of the movie, and makes a really memorable, strong character.

Best Supporting Actor
Robert Downey Jr. – Tropic Thunder
Aaron Eckhardt – The Dark Knight
James Franco – Pineapple Express
Heath Ledger – The Dark Knight
Brad Pitt – Burn After Reading

This one was the most locked category in a pretty locked Oscar field, and understandably so. I didn’t like Batman Begins, I loved The Dark Knight. What’s the difference between the two? It’s Ledger’s performance. He injects a degree of chaos in to Christopher Nolan’s sealed world, and utterly owns the movie as a result.

Best Supporting Actress
Cate Blanchett – Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Rosemarie Dewitt – Rachel Getting Married
Catherine Keener – Synedoche, New York
Natalie Portman – My Blueberry Nights
Marisa Tomei – The Wrestler

This one’s a decidedly unconventional choice, but no other female supporting performance this year gave me the joy that Cate Blanchett’s manically over the top Indiana Jones villain did. Her accent wasn’t convincing as any sort of real accent, but it was a lot of fun. She didn’t go deep into character, but she was incredibly entertaining. What’s wrong with pop fun in a movie?

Best Animated Film
Rebuild of Eva

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

All three of these are great films, but Rebuild of Eva’s devastatingly emotion and potent character psychology put it over the top. It’s a really smart reinvention of a brilliant TV series, updating and refining what was already good to make it not necessarily better, but something different and worthwhile.

Art Direction

My Blueberry Nights
Synedoche New York
Sukiyaki Western Django

No movie looked as sumptuous and glam as Australia. Baz always makes great looking films and his art direction team excelled on this one.

Let the Right One In
My Blueberry Nights
Rachel Getting Married
Speed Racer

The most deliberate and haunting film of the year, the film’s cold, lifeless look fits perfectly with its vampiric subject matter.

Costume Design

Speed Racer
Sukiyaki Western Django
Synedoche New York
Repo: The Genetic Opera

It’s a bit of a cliché to give the costume design award to a big period piece, but the characters looked great, and an entire world was built on screen in the highly underrated Australia.

Let the Right One In
Rachel Getting Married
Rebuild of Eva
Speed Racer

It’s hard to assess an editing award because so much of an editor’s job is to create the rhythm that a director wants. But, I like to reward films that use editing to expand what cinema can do, and no film did that more this year than Speed Racer. Not all of it worked, but the experimental editing style was exhilarating to see, and made me more excited about the possibilities of cinema than anything else I saw this year.

Foreign Language
Let the Right One In
Rebuild of Eva
Sukiyaki Western Django
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The Machine Girl

As I said earlier, this is a masterful reinvention of the TV series, distilling what worked in to the shorter running time of cinema.

Benjamin Button

Let the Right One in
Syndeoche New York
The Dark Knight

So much of the film hinges on playing with our perceptions of Brad Pitt the movie star, of watching an old man become the star we know now, and then become the star we knew fifteen years ago. The makeup team pulls it off, and the film’s success really hinges on them.

Let the Right One In
The Dark Knight
Rebuild of Eva

So much of the film is wordless, the score carries an even greater burden. But, the score makes Wall-E work.

“Another Way To Die” - Quantum of Solace
“Beautiful World” – Rebuild of Eva
“Jai Ho” – Slumdog Millionaire
“The Wrestler” – The Wrestler

The closing credits track for Rebuild of Eva nicely sums up the themes of the film and does so with a catchy J-Pop flourish.

Rebuild of Eva
Speed Racer
The Dark Knight

Ben Burtt built Wall-E’s voice, and so much of his character through sound. Great work.

Visual Effects
Benjamin Button

Speed Racer
Synedoche New York

As I mentioned earlier, the makeup is a big piece of character, but here so are the effects. We’re on the road to a post spectacle effects world, where effects are subtle and designed to be invisible rather than call attention to themselves. Benjamin Button is a step on that road.

Screenplay – Original
Rachel Getting Married
Synedoche New York
The Wrestler

Robert Siegel builds an entire world in the shadows of a man’s failed life. The film feels rambling and full of the little moments that real life has, but most movies don’t.

Screenplay – Adapted
Let the Right One In
Rebuild of Eva
Snow Angels
The Dark Knight
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time

It’s odd to think that Anno should be rewarded for adapting his own work. But, his work as a screenwriter here is very similar to what a writer has to do when adapting a novel to film, distilling more rambling plots and character arcs into a single, driven narrative. That’s what Anno does, creating a film that’s in a lot of ways stronger than the series it’s drawn from.

Baz Luhrmann - Australia

Hideaki Anno - Rebuild of Eva
Wong Kar-Wai - My Bluebery Nights
Tomas Alfredson - Let the Right One in
Darren Aronofsky - The Wrestler

Luhrmann’s films have a distinct voice and feel no matter what the subject matter is. Here, he manages to create emotional moments that hit me like no other movie this year. He understands that movies are in many ways like dreams, they exist in a place removed from reality, and here he creates a film that recalls the best of classical Hollywood in its pitch perfect creation of emotional moments.


Rebuild of Eva
Let the Right One in
Rachel Getting Married
My Blueberry Nights

Australia is also the best film of the year. No movie engaged me emotionally like it did, building up, receding then building again to a devastating finale. It was a transporting cinematic experience, and a hugely underrated film.

Nominations (Wins)
Australia – 10 (4)
Rebuild of Evangelion 1.0 – 9 (4)
Let the Right One In – 9 (1)
Synedoche New York – 7
The Dark Knight – 6 (1)
The Wrestler – 5 (2)
Rachel Getting Married – 5 (1)
Speed Racer – 5 (1)
My Blueberry Nights – 5
Wall-E – 5 (2)
Benjamin Button – 4 (2)
Sukiyaki Western Django - 3
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time - 3
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull 1 (1)
Blindness - 1
Burn After Reading - 1
Gran Torino – 1
Pineapple Express – 1
Quantum of Solace – 1
Slumdog Millionaire – 1
The Machine Girl
The Tracey Fragments – 1
Tropic Thunder - 1
W. – 1

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Dollhouse: 'The Target' (1x02)

The second episode of Dollhouse is a major improvement over the first, addressing a lot of the issues I had with that episode, and providing some welcome arc elements, but also still suffering from the basic problem that the premise still doesn’t make much sense, and dealing with the premise leads to a lot of people behaving in ways that feel contrived and don’t make much sense in a real world emotional context.

The good thing about the episode was that it worked well as a mix of standalone and arc stuff. The scenes in the woods were generally exciting, and I particularly liked the evolution of Echo’s imprint as time passed, and the encounters with the earlier versions of herself. I do think a major opportunity was passed up by having that canteen she drank from laced with some unspecified poison instead of LSD or something like that which could have provided the perfect excuse to send her on a journey through her own memories, and do some more creative filmmaking.

Whedon’s shows have never been known for their filmmaking merits. Outside of his last period Buffy showcase episodes, like “The Body” or “Restless,” the shows were directed in generic TV style. The writing and performances were strong enough to overcome that, but here on Dollhouse, the show often feels distinctly like a generic Fox series, and the woods setting here felt like something that would be on a syndicated fantasy series circa 1998. There are striking images from time to time, particularly the overhead shot of the dolls going to sleep, but in general, the show isn’t doing that much groundbreaking visually.

The twists in the woods story did genuinely surprise me at times. The revelation that the park ranger was after them was great because the scene was set up as a way to show us how prepared the Dollhouse team was. It didn’t feel arbitrary that he would appear because the purpose of the scene was to show that Boyd was prepared for any contingency.

The other thing that did impress me about the episode was how much background we got, along with the development of the season’s “big bad,” the rogue doll Alpha. The scene where Boyd is bonded to Echo was particularly interesting, probably the best scene of the episode.

But, there’s still a lot of issues. Topher, the programmer guy, feels like a character that Whedon has beat to death in previous stories. He’s like a recast for maximum genericness version of Warren. Buffy was a show that was ostensibly much goofier than this one, but even in one episode, “I Was Made to Love You,” we had a much better understanding of the emotional stakes that drove Warren to invent April. The feelings were right on the surface, and even though it treated in a goofier way, the whole sexbot concept felt sleazier and more interesting there.

Warren was understandable as a very real person, the kind of guy who was never able to connect with women and because of his robot building genius, was able to make the perfect woman for himself. It’s a wacky story, and not exactly realistic, but it’s emotionally understandable. Here, everyone is in this weird business secret agent mode, and there’s not much recognizable humanity on display.

And, the problem is, the show’s concept basically demands a constant diet of illicit sex and violence to make sense, but is there any point to a show about a woman who’s constantly raped, then brainwashed to forget about it? That ostensibly makes a statement about women’s role in society, and the perception of female value, but what is that statement. The single Warren robot story said a lot more about that, and did so in a way that was absolutely heartbreaking in a way I find hard to believe this show will reach.

Joss has always been at his best when he uses the action side of a story as a device to turn individual emotions in to a larger than life struggle. I never watched Buffy for the narrative, I wanted to see how the characters were affected by what happened. That’s why even a bad Buffy episode can be really enjoyable, because it’s nice to spend time with those characters.

And, the problem with Dollhouse is that Joss has created a show that explicitly makes impossible the thing he excels at, extended character development. Now, it is hinted that Echo will remember her past selves, and struggle to rediscover her true self. That’s possibly interesting. I don’t really care about the mystery of who Echo is, but I think there could be a great story in Echo trying to invent a new self after living for so long with the comfort of imprinting.

But, even if that happens, we’re still left with a bunch of characters at the Dollhouse who don’t have any clear motivations for what they’re doing. Boyd seems like a nice enough guy, so why would he get involved with this operation? Is it just for the money, or do they have something on him too?

Ultimately, I think the biggest issue is the tone. This episode had a lot of good things about it, but there’s still the fact that the premise makes no sense, and no one acknowledges that absurdity in the way they did on Buffy. There’s some jokes with Ballard, but because we’re emotionally aligned with Ballard, and we know that the Dollhouse exists, those guys come off as the delusional ones.

This was certainly an improvement, but the show’s still got a way to go. We’ll see what happens next week, at least it looks like it will be a more fun than portentous episode.