Dollhouse

Dollhouse 01Dollhouse is an action-adventure series in a science fiction framework that strives to be much more than it actually is.  Created by whiz kid Joss Whedon and produced by its star, Eliza Dushku, the beautiful and well acted series jerks all over the map while consistently delivering fun, action-packed stories that mostly work toward a semi-coherent ending.

The Rossum Corporation (named in homage to the 1920’s play about robots, RUR, Rossom’s Universal Robots) is a gigantic, powerful medical company that takes advantage of their knowledge to manipulate and control active brain function.  They have created a technology that allows them to wipe a brain of all of its permanent memories, recording it onto a “wedge.”  Into this vacant brain, they install an “active” architecture that allows the subject to be implanted with a temporary personality and skills, easily wiped away once their assignment is finished.  They recruit volunteers who wish to forget their lives for a period of five years, during which they will be housed in a secret underground location called a Dollhouse.  Located in major urban areas, there are a number of dollhouses around the world.  They are also not above forcing their enemies into performing this function.  Periodically, each doll is served up a new personality paid for by the extremely wealthy for purposes ranging from a night of steamy sex to enacting a personal fantasy to performing complex business moves or even criminal actions.

The series focuses primarily on the Los Angeles Dollhouse, under the leadership of Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams) and Security Chief Laurence Dominic (Reed Diamond).  Their principal technician is the brilliant, geeky Topher Brink (Fran Kranz).  Each Active is named according the Greek alphabet.  Unfortunately, Alpha (Alan Tudyk) suffered an accident in which all of his past personalities were imprinted simultaneously into his Active architecture, creating a schizophrenic, homicidal maniac.  He butchers many of the security personnel and some of the dolls before escaping.  Their primary female doll, Whiskey (Amy Acker), survives, but with her face mutilated.  Rather than waste her talents, they imprint her with the personality of a medical doctor (Dr. Saunders) and put her on the staff.  Alpha also spares Echo (Eliza Dushku) who then becomes the primary female doll.

Dollhouse 02Dushku is forceful in driving the series, not only as the leading actress, but also as the producer.  She has matured into a fine actress and her beauty is simply stunning.

The new number one male doll becomes Victor (Enver Gjokaj), who plays a number of roles throughout the series.  Gjokaj displays mad skills as an actor and his performances enhance the series considerably.  His love interest becomes Sierra (Dichen Lachman), a newcomer to the Dollhouse who also becomes a major player in the series.

Discredited FBI agent Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) attempts to locate the Dollhouse, aided by his beautiful neighbor, Mellie, who also turns out to be doll November (Miracle Laurie).  Rounding out the cast is Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix), an ex-cop who becomes Echo’s “handler,” the Dollhouse insider who watches over her to make sure she doesn’t come to harm during her assignments.

Almost every aspect of this is beautiful, from the actors to the sets to the kinetic camera work and direction.  Even the title music is truly memorable.  Every episode flows with a speed and symmetry that makes it almost impossible to turn away, frequently using flashback sequences to fill in the past and once using a flash-forward to show the future.  The series finale takes us into that future to see the effect of the technology on the future.

Dollhouse 04Great acting abounds throughout the series.  Although Dusku’s character Echo always fuels the action, terrific performances by Fran Kranz, Enver Gjokaj, and Dichen Lachman enhance nearly episode.  If you like really good acting, it permeates this show, from the leads down to the smallest recurring characters.  In Season Two, Summer Glau has a really great recurring role as Topher’s other half in the Washington D.C. Dollhouse.

That being said, the show does suffer from a lack of identity.  Whedon and his writing staff waver between science fiction, action adventure, and character studies.  They rely far, far too much on violent fight scenes, rather than serious thought, to propel the story forward.  The fight scenes are all done extremely well, but after a while there is a sameness about them that proves ultimately distracting.  Like many shows of this nature, there are some stand-alone episodes, but it mostly catapults forward toward its ending, building details that all come to fruition at one point or another.  There are times in some episodes, however, when the viewer is led to believe that there will be major changes, only to have the show reset at the end of the episode, leaving the viewer back at the status quo when the next episode begins, so there is a certain amount of cognitive dissonance about what is going forward and what is remaining the same.  In terms of the style, Whedon admits on one of the special features that he had once considered doing every episode in a different style, one mystery, one crime, one science fiction, one 1940’s throwback, etc.  He didn’t do it, but I think this ultimately leads to a confusion of style that keeps the show from becoming completely cohesive.

Dollhouse 05The 26 episodes that comprise the two seasons would neatly make one full season of Star Trek, either Next Generation, Deep Space Nine or Voyager.  In addition to the 26 full episodes, there is a pilot included on the DVD that was never aired on Fox.  A confusing mish-mash of scenes, the pilot was eventually carved up, some of it ending up on the cutting room floor and some of it wedged into the story line of Episode 1.

One thing I generally like about DVDs is the ability to illuminate a show or a movie through interviews with the creators and actors, but the Dollhouse DVD is mostly full of self-congratulatory interviews, which I never like.  There’s something about creators and actors just patting themselves on the back that puts me off.  If you’re going to talk about your show, please talk about the theme, the story, the style, and creative arc.  I know you’re good, you don’t have to keep telling me.

The first season ends with a show that takes the Dollhouse into the future and it is extremely compelling.  At first, it put me off, but the more I watched and later as I thought about it, I came to feel that it made a perfect ending.  If the series had been canceled after one season, I would have been extremely satisfied.  In fact, the second season, however, is quite good, if a bit jerky and it is worth waiting for the ending, when the show moves totally into the future.

I highly recommend this television show for all science fiction junkies, for fans of action-adventure and fight scenes, and, oddly enough, for fans of another television show, Quantum Leap, for having great stand-alone episodes that concentrate more on character and story than on fighting and series-building.  In spite of its problems there is a lot of stuff to be found in Dollhouse and it really does get a high recommendation.

All is Lost

All is Lost RedfordA man sleeps peacefully aboard his small yacht when it suddenly bangs into some sea debris, tearing a hole in the side.  This begins a great survival story where one problems piles upon another as he is tossed across the Indian Ocean toward shipping lanes and possible rescue.  But he must first face storms, sharks, and other menaces.  And even when he reaches the shipping lanes, will anyone see him?

Robert Redford gives a dynamic, riveting performance as the man fighting for his life in this 2013 film written and directed by J. C. Chandor.  With virtually no dialogue, the viewer is constantly engaged with the action, watching Redford’s eyes to see what he is feeling, trying to figure out from his actions what he is trying to accomplish in all of the little tasks that he takes on to try to survive.  It creates an inner dialogue that glues the viewer to the story, caught up in this extremely honest, thrilling film.

The cinematography by Frank G. DeMarco is extraordinary, catching all the moods of the sea and the storm.  The music, by Alex Ebert, is restrained, working within the overall sound created by Steve Boeddeker and Richard Hymns of wind, waves, thunder, rain, grunting, and gasping.

Although the movie won various awards worldwide, it was seriously snubbed by the Academy Awards, though I can’t figure out why.  Clearly, it is one of the best movies of 2013, with a brilliant, gut-wrenching performance by Robert Redford, skillful directing, terrific special effects, great sound, and a story that is completely engaging from beginning to end.

This is a great movie that should be seen by everyone!

Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of TomorrowUsing the same plot device as Harold Ramis’s temporal breakthrough script Groundhog Day, Edge of Tomorrow gives a more plausible rationale for a person living the same day over and over again, but couches the story in a science fiction action adventure format.

Sometime in the future, a meteor crashes into earth, unleashing a vicious alien fighting force.  These creatures, which look like a cross between an octopus and the creature from Alien, immediately take over most of Europe and then are stopped by the human allies, the United Defense Force (UDF).  The public relations spokesperson for the UDF, Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) announces that the forces have been halted at Verdun by a female soldier using a new fighting machine, Sergeant Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt).

When ordered to report to the commanding officer of the allied invasion force, British General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), Cage finds himself ordered to report to the front lines to cover the invasion.  A coward at heart, Cage tries to finagle a way to get out of it and finally resorts to blackmailing the General.  Brigham will have no part of it and orders Cage arrested.  He wakes up the next morning at Heathrow Airport.  He has been busted down to the rank of Private, branded a deserter, and assigned to Master Sergeant Farell (Bill Paxton).  He is marched to his new unit, J Company, a bunch of stupid soldiers dumber than any unit ever depicted in film history (and that’s saying quite a bit, actually).  The next day, he is strapped into his fighting machine and the soldiers are flown to Normandy.

Before the drop, they come under attack and the plane is shot down.  Dropping onto the beach, Cage is truly lost in a masscre.  He is attacked by an alien who is a bit larger than the others and of a bluish color.  Later, this creature will be identified as an “Alpha.”  He is killed by the Alpha and wakes up back at Heathrow, living the same day over.  He tries to convince the others that they are heading to a massacre, but no one will listen.  He is killed and the day resets.  This action prompted the advertising slogan, “Live. Die. Repeat.”  As the days go by, he learns more from each day’s events and finally meets Rita on the field of battle.  She watches him going through a very precise series of motions designed to keep him alive and she tells him, “Find me when you wake up tomorrow.”

This begins a new series of days where he gradually figures out how to find her at Heathrow.  Explaining the situation to her, she takes him down to a basement where Dr. Carter (Noah Taylor), a scientist in the guise of a worker reveals that the aliens are all linked to an Omega that controls them all, but that the Alphas control the time loop.  Rita had previously ran into an Alpha at Verdun and she went through the same process of living a day over and over again until she was badly hurt and they replaced her blood—that is what broke the time loop.  They know that eventually the looper will begin to dream about where the omega is and that his how they will eventually find and kill it.

Rita begins to train him to prepare for battle and they live the same day over and over many times as he begins to perfect how to find the Omega.  He dreams of a dam in Germany where the Omega is hiding and so they hatch a plan to get there.  Every day, of course, he has to re-educate Rita, Carter, and his squadron as to what is going on.  At one point, he and Rita make it pretty far, holding out at a farm house, but he tells her that this is the point where she dies and if he is actually going to kill the Omega, he doesn’t want her dead.  The next time he relives the day, he goes alone and makes it all the way to the dam, but the Omega isn’t there.  Instead, he finds an ambush and is killed again.

Carter has a device that he thinks will allow them to tap into the aliens and find out the real hiding place of the Omega, but part of his equipment has been confiscated by General Brigham.  This begins another series of days where Cage must figure out how to get to the general and convince the man to give him the equipment.  When he does so, he taps into the alien part of his blood and discovers that the Omega is actually hiding underneath the Louvre, but he is injured during the escape and wakes up in the hospital getting fresh blood.

His day will no longer reset and he will only have one chance to take out the Omega.

There are a lot of really good things in this movie. 

Based on the 2004 Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the screenplay went through a large number of writers to achieve its final form.  As directed by Doug Liman, this film really moves fast.  The trick in these time loop movies is getting the audience to quickly figure out that the same day is being lived over and over again so that each day can move ahead in plot and not get bogged down in too much repetition.  The film copies the techniques used in Groundhog Day to extremely good effect and it moves like a bat out of hell.  It uses a lot of humor to provide relief from the many violent scenes of warfare and it does so very effectively.  The fighting machines used by the soldiers remind me a lot of machines conceived of by Robert A Heinlein in his novel Starship Troopers, a terrific concept that wasn’t actually used in the movie based on Heinlein’s work.  The aliens are extremely well designed and executed.

This movie is a lot of fun to watch!

In addition to all the technical wizardry, the acting is surprisingly good.  Emily Blunt is always great and she really comes through brilliantly in this movie.  Tom Cruise begins as his usually dislikable self, but as the film goes on he gains considerable traction and ends up with a really fine performance.  I liked him for once!

But the best acting job by far is accomplished by Bill Paxton.  I didn’t even know he was in the movie until the credits rolled at the end and then I was stunned because I didn’t recognize him at all.  It is one of those breakthrough acting jobs like Cameron Diaz in Being John Malkovich or Christian Slater in The Figher.

Overall, I think most audiences will enjoy this movie regardless of some of the extremely violent scenes.  The comedy carries well and the film moves so quickly along that it all adds up to more than the sum of its parts.  Quick, fun entertainment.

Catching Fire

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Catching Fire, the second installment of The Hunger Games trilogy, is an excellent sequel. Like the first film, it’s based on the novel by Suzanne Collins. Although Ms. Collins co-wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games, she settles here for the role of Executive Producer. While that might have been a problem, I think that was really for the best.

For one thing, the novel Catching Fire has a few issues. Many times I felt kind of lost while reading it, mostly due to description. I couldn’t really see some of the action, especially in the Games arena. It felt rushed, as if the action was streaming by me, rather than keeping me actively engaged. The final problem in the novel is that the ending left me up in the air. I didn’t think it resolved–it seemed rather clear that it was only the first half of a book. The movie resolves all of these problems beautifully. Either that, or I was simply reconciled to the ending. It’s hard to tell.

At two hours and fifteen minutes from the opening to the final credits, there is plenty of time to see the action unfold. And while I generally don’t care for movies that long, some films are some noteworthy exceptions–where the action, story, and character all combine to keep me totally engaged for the entire length. Catching Fire meets all of those requirements.

A good example of how the movie took a generalization and graphically made it beautiful is in the look of the costumes. In fact, all of the visual flair of the movie makes the story come alive. The dress that Katniss wears to the President’s welcome party is stunning, interweaving the colored feathers of the mockingjay on her shoulders. The wedding dress that she wears for her interview with Caesar is beautiful. When she twirls and the fire engulfs the dress and turns it into a mockingjay, complete with wings, the effect is nothing less than astounding.

Jennifer Lawrence carries the film, as she did with The Hunger Games. There is something really special in the way she carries herself, the use of her voice and her eyes, that makes her one of those rare acting personalities that seem to reach inside you. Some actors have “it” and she has “it” in spades. Her body of work is already very impressive, considering her youth. Her acting in Winter’s Bone is amazing, as is her Academy Award winning performance in Silver Linings Playbook and I’m hoping that she chooses her scripts well and has one of those careers that is meteoric.

All of the supporting actors that were great in the first movie reprise their roles in this sequel–Donald Sutherland as President Snow, Stanley Tucci as Caesar, Elizabeth Banks as Effie, and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch are all perfect. The best performance of this group is given by Elizabeth Banks, who portrays a moving character arc as Effie, bringing her full turn from giddy capital gadfly to broken realist. In addition, there are a couple of new characters here that really make the story go. First of all, Phillip Seymour Hoffman plays Plutarch Evansby, the new Head Gamemaker, and secondly, Jena Malone is cast as Joanna, the misfit victor who joins the revolution along with Plutarch.. Both of them are really great.

All of the scenes inside the new Hunger Games arena are extremely well-done. They have visualized the arena from the book very precisely and it makes a terrific battleground. The clock dangers, especially the poisonous fog and the attack of the apes, are heart-pounding sequences and memorable filmmaking.

The final reason that the film is better than the novel is that the ending brought a feeling of resolution. I can’t stress enough how difficult this is, given that the ending is really (just like in the novel) a cliffhanger. I walked away from the movie looking forward to the final installment, but not feeling as if I had been left hanging. The final shot of Jennifer Lawrence’s face is way plenty to keep me going until Mockingjay finishes filming and is released. I loved the final graphic of the mockingjay’s twisting around from a silhouette posture and turning into something resembling a phoenix surrounded by flames in the circle. Beautiful.

If you loved The Hunger Games, I can almost guarantee that you’ll find Catching Fire to be a marvelous film and well worth the investment of time. Highly recommend.