Sunday, June 20, 2010

[Television Review] Dollhouse

Dollhouse is about a mysterious company that produces a single product: people. More specifically, the Rossum Corporation produces bespoke personalities grafted onto mindblanked people who may or may not have volunteered to put themselves into this situation. For a steep price, clients can hire these tailor-made people, whether that be for a night of sex, a weekend of whitewater rafting, or a high-end art heist. Some of the drones are beginning to remember bits and pieces of their engagements and occasional chunks of memory from their former selves, however, and there's a disgraced FBI agent who's attempting to track down the location of the Dollhouse as well, ensuring that there are plenty of complications piled onto an already complicated premise.

This is a show that I really should like. It's a Joss Whedon creation, and I tend to appreciate his work. It's well-written, dark without being overly depressing, paced well and competently shot. It centers on one of my favorite subjects, the malleability of the psyche and how identity might be more fluid than we generally give it credit for. All of these ingredients should cook up to something that I find irresistible. Why, then, do I find it so hard to care about the show?

I'd like to blame Eliza Dushku, who's utterly unconvincing as someone who's a walking receptacle for modular personalities. I can't do that in good conscience, though, because I assumed that this would be the case long before I began watching the show. She's never been a good actor before, and I didn't have any reason to think that she'd bother to start being one now. I also had no idea accepting the informed attribute that she is, in fact, acting like a different person every week, rather than acting like the same one with a few different mannerisms. Though it would've been great if the lead had been capable of pulling off the daunting task of having to play a character who completely disappears into a different persona each week, but still retains traces of the initial personality, it wasn't particularly problematic to me that she wasn't.

A lot of the reason I found it hard to engage with Dollhouse was that so much of it felt like a retread of Whedon's other television work. The dialogue mostly maintains Whedon's slightly too clever but still funny/insightful modality, though it's definitely played down here from the heights it reached in Buffy and Firefly. Some of the characters resemble characters from earlier shows. For example, Topher, obviously the favorite character in the writers' room as he's their chance to show off their most clever lines of dialogue, is basically Wash minus compassion plus intelligence. The relationship web of the employees of the Dollhouse mimics that of Buffy's scoobies, Angel Investigations, the crew of Serenity and the professors of Xaviar Institute (while Whedon was writing them, anyway), not in its particulars but in the familial sense of how the characters relate to each other. Not every group of people who spend time together acts as a surrogate family, and while that social structure worked well for the previous Whedon projects, it falls on its face here.

The first half-dozen episodes are heavily episodic and play out like an updated Quantum Leap, with Echo being thrust into various situations in which she's needed to figure out what's really going on and then save some people, often from themselves. As the season progresses from there, it becomes more and more serialized, with the penultimate episode being entirely dependent on previous episodes. The final episode of the season, available on the DVD set but never aired on television, is an intriguing flashforward to an apocalyptic future that follows directly from the events of prior episodes. This was definitely the best episode of the season, which is probably not coincidental with the fact that it only features the main characters of the regular season in cameo roles.

For a show that's all about characters whose personalities are chunks of data injected into empty hosts, there's not much exploration of the theme of identity. There's a total lack of any kind of sciencey explanation for how the personality mapping and rewrites work, which would be fine if they worked consistently. Coherent mythology has never been Mutant Enemy's strong suit, but in its other productions, that tendency toward making up rules on the fly could be overlooked, as it didn't matter to the character-based storytelling how fast the ships travel or what exactly a demon is. In Dollhouse, though, the tech is the characters, and shortchanging its plausibility by failing to adhere to any set of rules disrupts the characters themselves.

The primary theme foregrounded across the season is that of violence towards women, rather than being anything to do with shifting identities. But rather than tackle this topic in any meaningful way, the shows sticks with "men will abuse women when given power over them" and doesn't go any deeper than that. A lot of the problem is that the abusers we see are generally characters-of-the-week, so they don't get enough screen time to be fleshed out in any way that allows for an actual examination of why men who have power over women abuse them. As a result, we end up getting the worst of both worlds with this ugly choice of topic: all the squick-inducing abuse and violence, but none of the avenues of potential discussion to explore why they occur. I very much doubt that it's intentional, but that pairing gives all the brutality on display an almost pornographic tone. I don't take issue with art which deals with weighty, uncomfortable subjects - those are the motifs that I tend towards - but it's a clear failure on Dollhouse's part that it presents the salacious without any follow-up.

Reading back through it, this review has been mostly negative, but I want to stress that I don't think that the show is bad. It was entertaining enough while I was watching it, but it was too forgettable and loosely built for me to have been excited about what would happen in subsequent episodes, and I've got no desire to go back and re-watch any of it. Perhaps my expectations were simply too high for it after the unalloyed genius of Firefly, which leads me to think that audiences less familiar with Whedon's pet obsessions would likely find Dollhouse much more engaging than die-hard fans. It was an diverting season of television that wasn't ever able to quite plumb the depths of its own themes, but I'll certainly be giving the second season a try in hope that it will live up to the abundant untapped potential lying just under the surface of this material.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

[Film Review] Superbad

The DVD menus of Superbad are possibly the most honest that I've seen. They don't show stills or short clips from the movie itself, like many such menus do, or feature snippets of dialogue, or simply sit there inert. Instead, they present a parade of childish drawings of penises in various styles, situations and outfits, while the silhouette of Michael Cera dances to an amazingly amateurish funk track. It's not so much that this is entertaining, but it does serve as a perfect non-spoilery encapsulation of the movie you're about to watch. Well, the music on the menus is misleading, since the music in the film itself is great.

After the title sequence, which is more dancing silhouettes, Superbad launches headfirst into its mission: getting deep inside the sex-obsessed heads of high school boys. There's no sense of dramatic build in the first act. Instead we are dumped with total immediacy into a conversation about the best porn site to subscribe to in college, followed by a discussion about how much better the world would be if erections were celebrated rather than scorned. This kind of all-at-once immersion is difficult to pull off, but Jonah Hill and Michael Cera make it work largely by making it feel like the world that they inhabit has always been there, rather than being something made up for a movie.

The film does an excellent job of capturing and conveying the uneasy mix of arrogance and emotional fragility that comprises the life of a high school boy. It also manages to actually out-raunch actual high school boys, a feat not to be taken lightly. Most of the humor, though, comes from deliberately misused vocabulary and awkward phraseology. For a teen sex comedy, there are remarkably few attempts at physical comedy, and those aren't given nearly as much screen time as the hilarious dialogue. There's also not as much sitcom tension, characters finding themselves in situations that are inevitably going to result in their public humiliation, as in many comedies. Most of the setups that seem as though they're going to end in embarrassment for our protagonists instead take an unexpected turn and conclude with them being inadvertently, accidentally awesome. Rather than indulging in the thick sludge of schadenfreude that fuels many comedies, it's obvious that these characters are well-loved in spite of their goofs.

There's some nicely messy worldbuilding here. In most films, but especially in comedies, the setting often comes across as weirdly hermetic, a sealed environment in which every character tic is guaranteed to have some explanation or knock-on effect later in the film. This is understandable, as film narratives are necessarily tightly plotted and details of character and setting are too precious to be thrown away, but Superbad's courage in rejecting that set of assumptions creates the sense that these characters really are moving through a larger world than just what we see on screen. There are conflicts which we never get an to see the full resolution of, characters who are clearly intent on following their own paths but who only drift through the periphery of the plot onscreen, and mysteries for which we never get an explanation. This profusion of loose ends would be refreshing in any movie, but it's especially welcome here, as it resonates so well with the theme of our protagonists entering new, foreign territories for which they have no maps. That this new world is exponentially larger than the relatively sealed environs of the high school society which they're preparing to leave is deftly underscored by the many references to the earlier experiences of these characters and the familiarity which they have with each other.

There's a fair bit of bros-before-hoes subtext running through the movie, as the protagonists find themselves in many desperate situations which could have been avoided, had they stuck by each others' sides rather than chasing after girls. This is reinforced not so much by Seth's lamentations to that effect as it is by the world outside the characters' control, culminating in a two-pronged climax which only reinforces this theme. Thankfully, an unexpected epilogue adroitly undermines this mentality, suggesting that the change these characters have been fighting so hard to avoid is actually the only way they're going to be able to survive in the world of adults, and that such a world isn't nearly as dreadful as they'd been assuming.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

[Film Review] Pandorum

With a name like Pandorum, you can't help but wonder what the title refers to even before the movie begins. It's probably name of the ship, right? No, the ship is named Elysium, as the opening blocks of text inform the audience. Okay, well, there are obviously going to be monstrous baddies prowling the shadows, so maybe that's the name of their species? No, the creatures aren't ever given a name. A mysterious cargo of some kind? A computer virus that infected the ship's computers and caused them to fail? The corporation that funded the ship and probably isn't acting in the protagonists' best interests? Nope, nope and nope, respectively. We aren't forced to wait long to find out what exactly pandorum is, but it's so hard to believe once it's revealed, through a clumsy as-you-know-bob conversational infodump, that it seems like it must be the setup for a twist. Pandorum, you see, is Space Madness. It is, in fact, the very purest form of space madness, a potent blend of hallucinations and paranoia that inevitably leads its sufferers to murder their friends, all without any kind of cause or explanation. I was expecting one of the characters to begin gnawing on a bar of soap at any moment.

The story follows a pair of crew members who wake up from their hypersleep pods suffering from intense amnesia, unable to remember much more than their names and their training. The plot of the film consists of these two characters exploring the decaying confines of the ship, dredging up their memories of where they are and what they're supposed to be doing, and realizing just how hazardous the situation in which they've found themselves is. Aside from the amnesia, a reasonably clever device which allows the film to present information to the audience in a somewhat more palatable form than is often the case in sci-fi film, this is all stuff you've seen before if you're bothering to watch this movie. Where Pandorum manages to succeed is in using these well-worn elements to create a foundational springboard from which to launch its own ideas, which are new enough (in filmic form, anyway) to carry their own weight. Even the monsters on the ship are eventually given a better reason to exist than those in Alien ("make a guess, because we're not going to tell you") or Event Horizon ("magic!"), the two most obvious precursors to what's on offer here.

The creatures here are look a lot like the genestealer hybrids from the Warhammer 40,000verse, with a light sprinkling of some elements from Giger's designs for the xenomorph in Alien. They look rather silly once they're shown fully illuminated, but the film is smart enough to keep them out of plain sight for as long as possible, presenting them instead as disturbingly off-kilter silhouettes moving through shadow and half-light. In spite of their somewhat unimpressive looks, there's a definite sense of visceral menace to them, a deadliness made all the more potent by the tight confines and poorly lit environments in which they and their prey are trapped.

The scenes of the monsters chasing our protagonists are effective in building a sense of tension and danger, but ultimately the creatures' deadliness creates some issues of believability. Without venturing too deeply into spoiler territory, there are other survivors hiding in the depths of the ship (which shouldn't come as much surprise since there are always other survivors hiding in the depths of the ship in this kind of story). What's problematic is that the creatures hunting those survivors are so lethal and outnumber the humans so greatly, and the survivors are so poorly equipped to deal with them, that it's difficult to believe that these people could have survived for any appreciable length of time.

These and a few other niggling concerns regarding the worldbuilding are just nitpicks, though, as the explanations behind what's actually going on in the ship, why the monsters are there and where they've come from, and why all the major characters are afflicted with omnipresent amnesia are surprisingly solid. The final act of the film is the strongest, as multiple revelations follow each other in quick succession, upping the stakes for the characters involved and broadening the scope from the standard question of who will survive and what will be left of them into something more profound. Pandorum even manages to pull off the difficult trick of using the obvious reveal of what seems to be at stake, which is given away during the first scene, to obfuscate the most important piece of information, which the film keeps squirreled away until its climax.

The score of Pandorum is well-composed, if mostly uninspired and generic. There are bits of it which sound a lot like the faux-metal of Clint Mansell's compositions for the Doom film score, and other cues which tend toward the abstract electronic minor-key soundscapes found in a lot of recent horror films. What's funny about the score isn't the music itself, which holds up well enough outside the context of the movie, but the way it's used in the film. It almost seems as though whoever edited the score into the movie wasn't paying any attention to what was happening onscreen at any given time, as there are quite a few loud action cues which play during moments of sneaky exploration and quiet conversation. As early as the camera crawl over the exterior of the ship which opens the film, the music begins pounding away in spite of a lack of any exciting action onscreen. It's probable that the editors were attempting to add a sense of urgency to the more restrained sequences of the film, but these moments of disconnect between image and sound come across as the filmmakers trying just a bit too hard.

That sums up the film quite well, actually: it's better than it has any right to be, and mostly succeeds in spite of hewing slightly too closely to its influences and being a bit impaired by too much earnestness, though it doesn't quite manage to achieve the genius of its forebears. I've got high hopes that the folks behind this movie will hone their craft with a bit of time, though, and will definitely be keeping an eye on any future projects they're involved in.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

[Film Review] Get Crazy

A human-sized, sentient marijuana joint. A villain who names a mouse after his enemies and then feeds it to his pet snake. A talking penis. Lou Reed playing the role of Bob Dylan. An alien drug dealer whose wares have supernatural properties. A Henry Rollins/Iggy Pop analogue who's impervious to bullets. A men's bathroom so flooded that a shark patrols its waters. What do all these have to do with the attempts of the plucky backstage crew of the Saturn Theater to put on the best damn New Year's Eve show that the venue has ever seen, and at the same time save it from a grasping industrialist who wants to tear it down to make way for office space? I can't come up with a coherent answer to that, but the sting of admitting my lack of insight is salved by the fact that the people who made Get Crazy probably can't, either.

I'm not sure when "spunky kids need to raise money to save their favorite place from corporate evil" first became codified in the Hollywood storytelling book, though I recall first seeing it in the mid-80s. But from the easygoing way that the cast of Get Crazy launches themselves into it, as if they only need to semaphore its high points for the audience to understand where the story is going to go, I can't help but suspect that this particular plot had already been institutionalized by 1983, the year it was released. This bare nod towards narrative structure works entirely in the movie's favor, since this is a pure species of rock and roll film, in which plot exists only as a vehicle for hijinks. And the hijinks here come thick and fast.

The scriptwriting and production process for this movie were obviously loads of fun. The amount of positivity in the room at any given time couldn't have been any less than stratospheric, since it's pretty clear that every time someone came up with an idea, any idea at all, the rest of the room didn't just agree to it but instead high-fived each other, did a little dance, and chopped off another line of blow on the mirror. The results of this unrestrained enthusiasm are as hit-and-miss as you'd expect. There are some genuinely funny lines of dialogue, but these are invariably followed up by clumsy attempts at slapstick which, even if they might've been funny way back when, haven't aged well in the post-America's Funniest Home Videos era.

The rules of the world here are straight out of Chuck Jones, so that characters who get blown up, run over by motorcycles, or pushed out of airplanes suffer no more than wardrobe damage and liberal applications of makeup. This fits in well with the general tone of the movie, which embraces its wacky surreality so ardently that it's impossible not to get carried along, even when that same bigger-louder-goofier aesthetic reaches groan-inducing levels of camp. It's obvious that the exuberance of the producers was shared completely by the cast, who are fearless here in their pursuit of Real Ultimate Kooky.

Nowhere is that more pronounced than in the long-striding, codpieced figure of Malcolm McDowell, who triumphantly steals every second of every scene that he's in. He plays Reggie Wanker, a kind of Platonic ideal of rock stardom. Weirdly, he's the only character who really goes through any kind of personal arc, moving from jaded to despondent to re-invested in his craft. There isn't much of any reason given for the first change, as once again the audience is supposed to be familiar enough with this kind of story that Get Crazy assumes that everyone will be able to fill in the blanks, but the last leg of Wanker's personal journey comes courtesy of the magical drugs of Electric Larry, an alien who looks like he's just stepped into the Saturn Theater while on a break from doing some intergalactic bounty hunting in any number of nameless '80s horror movies. Contrary to his appearance, he turns out to be one of the good guys, whose amazing extraterrestrial substances are capable of solving any difficulty.

Get Crazy sports a refreshingly pro-drug message of the kind that's very rare in film. Usually films deploy drug use as a shorthand way of letting its audience know that a given character is at least somewhat of a scumbag, even if the movie isn't an anti-drug platform along the lines of Requiem For a Dream. Here, in contrast, virtually every major obstacle that arises in the path of the Saturn's crew is solved by the timely application of one chemical or another, be that super-speed to get the sets for the show designed in record time, super-LSD to get the villain's spy to chill out enough that he switches teams to side with the good guys, or super-cocaine to get the many many members of the band Nada to keep themselves from self-destructing in boredom.

I caught a screening of Get Crazy at our local Sub Rosa Drive-In, where one of the organizers explained that the movie is out of print due to its sound masters being lost. As a result, it may take a bit of effort to track down a copy for viewing, given that it's never been released on DVD. Whether or not it's worth it for you to embark on such an endeavor should be obvious from what you've read here - there aren't a lot of surprises in Get Crazy, but on the upside it completely fulfills its own mission and certainly does what it says on the tin.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

[Film Review] Iron Man 2

The makers of Iron Man 2 decided not to go with a subtitle, but if they had, they could've chosen Echoes. Or Reflections. Or, maybe more in keeping with the rest of the movie, Super-Gloss Mirror Finish. As you can see from where I'm going with this, there's a lot of iterative doubling in Iron Man 2, all of it serving as a very tasty way to put together a sequel that actually has a reason to exist beyond asses-in-seats.

Virtually every major character in the movie is set up as a kind of what-if version of Tony Stark. Superhero stories are largely about what we would do if we had cool powers and the will to ignore the laws of the land, so it makes great sense for a sequel to explore other versions of the protagonist by using side characters as surrogates without sullying the integrity of the character we came to know in the first movie.

There's a character who embodies Tony as military-compliant. Rhodey, Stark's military buddy and tactical conscience, is thankfully given more to do in here than he had in the first film. Rhodey is still the most heavy-handed character in the franchise, a tendency taken to its logical-yet-annoying extreme when he first puts on one of Stark's suits to break up a party that Tony is throwing. Granted, the scene does an excellent job of creating the feeling that a drunken, power-armored Stark is about to make a huge mistake which will cost people their lives, but Rhodey acts in ways that aren't much safer. While this helps to establish Rhodey as the man Stark would be if he were disciplined enough to want to follow orders rather than write his own, it also felt a whole lot like Movie Logic, as Rhodey can't quite seem to figure out his motivation here.

Don Cheadle takes over for the role that Terrence Howard filled in Iron Man, and though no one is likely to notice it, Cheadle quietly pulls off the best acting in the movie. He manages to play Howard playing Rhodey, replicating Howard's verbal and physical mannerisms completely, while also managing to slip effortlessly into the verbal give-and-take that Howard seemed to have some difficulties with. There are some great character moments between Cheadle and Downey Jr., particularly during the climax, when the audience is reminded just how much fun it might be to pilot a personalized flying tank once you've worked through your angst at the consequences of doing so.

There's a version of Tony that explores what he'd be if he were less competent and, coincidentally or not, ethically bankrupt. Justin Hammer wants so hard to be as smart and capable and shmoove with the ladies as Stark that it's tough not to feel at least a little bit sorry for him, even when he's being a totally immoral scumbag. Being so comparatively pathetic keeps him out of the realm of mustache-twirling villains and puts him closer to being someone with whom the audience can empathize. He's not an everyman - the only character in the entire Iron Manverse who comes close to that label is Happy the chaffeur - but keeping one of the two antagonists grounded in mundanity helps to emphasize that this isn't a narrative about good and evil so much as it's one about conflicting agendas. That's a nice improvement on the first movie, which attempted a similar feat but failed due to its villains being, well, totally villainous rather than simply possessed of an opposing set of goals to the protagonist.

Sam Rockwell wears "slimy, somewhat desperate sleazebag" very well. He sells Hammer's inadequacy and arrogance at the same time, managing to pull off the latter at the same time that he makes it obvious that Hammer doesn't realize just how much he's compensating for a lack he can't recognize in himself. In every scene in which he's matching wills with other characters, which is every scene in which he's talking to anyone other than his personal toady, he's entirely incapable of getting his way and just as incapable of understanding why that is. It's not a super-nuanced performance, but Rockwell clearly has fun with it without needing to wink at the audience.

There's a third character who shows us how Tony would be if he hadn't been born with so much privilege and, definitely not coincidentally, in a country other than the United States. Iron Man 2 isn't as blatant about its exploration of the theme of America-as-world-cop as the first film was, but through the character of Ivan Vanko we get to see that Stark's proclamations about the ease with which he has ensured United States supremacy on the world stage aren't as true as he claims, even beyond the personal difficulties that he's experiencing as a result of his stint as Iron Man. Thankfully, we don't get any simple answers to the questions raised here, and the ramifications of what Stark is doing continue to ripple outwards. For every problem he solves, he creates at least two more, a principle which Vanko is more than happy to embody. Vanko's role here neatly buttresses that of Stark's father, both of whom serve to show that Stark's world extends beyond charisma and racecars and supermodels, despite how much he'd prefer it otherwise.

Mickey Rourke is pitch-perfect as Vanko, making what should be a completely ridiculous character seem like the most naturalistic person on screen. The secret to this is his choice to eschew any kind of theatricality; we only get to see small hints of what's going on under the surface, a display of emotional control that's much more frightening than any amount of bombast would have been. It's easy to believe in the methodical, elaborate plans for revenge which he eventually unveils. Rourke also injects a few lighter moments into the character, particularly with the restrained smiles he shows when other characters are trying to intimidate him. Really, after this, it seemed like the most obvious move in the world to cast Rourke as a supervillain, something which should've happened much sooner than it did.

The characters from the first film haven't changed much here, and the overall narrative feels like another story arc in a continuing series, neatly picking up where the last episode left off and moving the characters through different relationships with each other in a mostly organic fashion. That makes sense for a comic book movie. What's interesting is how little the rest of the movie follows comic book tropes.

War Machine, Whiplash and Black Widow are never referred to by those names. Iron Man is only referred to as such for the purpose of using the weight of that name to manipulate people and the press. Very little of the plot revolves around anything to do with hidden identities, and when it does, it doesn't matter much to the protagonist. We don't even see Iron Man doing anything heroic until near the end of the film. The theme of how much being a superhero costs the person behind the mask is important for a good chunk of the film, but here it sidesteps the usual focus on how having a secret identity affects the hero's personal relationships and skips straight to the physical cost, something which most superhero stories gloss over. All of this shifting of focus does a good job underscoring that the Iron Man of this movie franchise isn't like other superheros, in that he inhabits a larger world than most heroes and has a more troubled role in that world. He's more super-soldier than Superman, the kind of hyper-deterrent that Watchmen tried to make of Dr. Manhattan and failed, in spite of seeing just how godlike the scope of the latter's power is. Iron Man is the more believable protector-cum-superweapon, precisely because we see how the aftereffects of his actions affect the world rather than zooming in on his superpowers themselves.

All in all, Iron Man 2 succeeds at hitting virtually every target it aims for. It's an action movie that keeps the scenes between its action sequences at least as much fun as the 'splosions, a comedy that keeps its pacing tight between its dramatic beats, and a special effects fest that bursts with charisma and fun writing. It's not quite as perfect as its predecessor, which is still the finest example of the straight-ahead superhero film that's yet been produced, but it works its additions to the franchise into the story without needing much in the way of dull exposition or Movie Logic. It's not trying to be momentous or literary, but there's just enough pain under Stark's metal helmet to keep the character compelling in the face of all the lighthearted banter and robot action.