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.

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About NothingIf you buy the cliché that young people who argue and harp at each other are actually flirting, then William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing might have been the first great play to use it.  In Joss Whedon’s modern dress adaptation, he has whittled the play to under two hours and presented it in a witty original format.

The story concerns two young lovers who are both possessed of too much wit for their own good and their sharp tongues frequently cut others to bits, but none moreso than themselves, for Beatrice (Amy Acker) and Benedick (Alexis Denisof) constantly cut each other to ribbons.  After sleeping together, the two part ways, then, when the victorious army returns from the war, they continue as if nothing had happened.

Beatrice lives with her uncle, Leonato (Clark Gregg), who is the Governor of Messina.  Although they are excessively wealthy, she shares a room with Leonato’s daughter, Hero (Jillian Morgese).  The Prince of Aragon, Don Pedro (Reed Diamond) comes to visit, bringing with him his disgraced brother, Don John (Sean Maher), and the celebrated war hero, Count Claudio (Fran Kranz) and Benedick.  No sooner have they arrived at this beautiful villa than Claudio reveals that he is deeply in love with Hero.  Now that the war is over, he wants to marry her and asks Benedick’s advice.  A confirmed bachelor, Benedick can only speak of himself, stating that he will never get married, that it is an odious state that can only ruin a man.  Unperturbed, Claudio tells Don Pedro about his love and the Prince volunteers to intercede with her at the costume party later that night.  He is successful and the marriage is set for a week later.

Don John has brought along two of his associates to help him plot revenge on the lot of them, his girlfriend, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and a vicious young man named Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark).

For his own amusement, Don Pedro hatches a plot to bring Beatrice and Benedick together: he and the men will have a conversation that Benedick will overhear in which they opine about Beatrice’s secret love for Benedick.  Meanwhile, Hero and her maidservant, Margaret (Ashley Johnson) will do the same for Beatrice, letting her know that Benedick is desperately in love with her, but is afraid to tell her because of her acid tongue.

When Don John hears of the intended marriage between Claudio and Hero, he tries to find some way to derail the marriage.  Borachio has the answer.  He has been involved in a relationship with Margaret and he can set up a scene where she dresses in Hero’s clothing and they make love in Hero’s room, so that Claudio will believe Hero is unfaithful.

The night before the wedding, local security chief, Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) has set out the night watch.  Claudio, Don Pedro, and Don John all witness what they assume to be Hero making love with a stranger and Claudio decides to humiliate Hero by exposing her at the wedding.  Later that night, Borachio and Conrade are smoking a joint outside as Borachio brags about how he set up the Count Claudio for a fall, when Dogberry’s watch finds them, having overheard Borachio’s confession of villainy.  Arrested, Borachio and Conrade are brought in for questioning.  Dogberry has a few problems with English in that he frequently says exactly the opposite of what he means, thus confusing the two during their “interrogation.”

Intrigued by what they have heard, each of the other’s secret love, Benedick and Beatrice come together and discover that they really, truly are in love.  They pledge themselves to marry.

At Hero’s wedding, Claudio goes through with his threat and roughly accuses Hero of infidelity before the entire assembled wedding party.  He and Don Pedro race away and Hero collapses of shock.  The minister comes up with a plan that Hero should pretend to be dead, then Claudio will regret his actions and when he finds out she’s alive, they’ll marry anyway.  Beatrice, livid with anger over Claudio’s actions, forces Benedick into a duel with Claudio to prove his love to her.  Benedick confronts Claudio, telling him that Hero is dead and challenging him to a duel which will take place later.

Before there can be more mayhem and mischief, Dogberry brings Borachio and Conrade to Leonato and reveals that Hero was not immoral on the night before her wedding.  And so, there is a double wedding at the end.

There are many things to be loved in this modern day version of the Shakespeare classic.  For one thing, many aspects of the story are clear as a bell, rather than buried in pages of language.  Whedon has created a beautiful black and white modern world for this play to be set in and it looks beautiful, more like a classic French film than anything American.  The actors are all extremely sharp and the characters are extremely well-drawn.  Good, young actors contribute a  great deal to the success of this movie.  Both the men and women are incredibly handsome or beautiful throughout the movie.  I don’t think there is one “normal” looking person in the film, which is something that normally bothers me a great deal.  Does everyone always have to be supernaturally beautiful?  Apparently so.

The movie is quite funny, for the most part, although at times the black and white medium makes it feel like the story is a bit darker than it actually is.  Some of the parts are a bit overdone, such as Benedick’s extremely foolish eavesdropping on the conversation that sets him up with Beatrice.  Fillion plays Dogberry a little low-key for me and many of the lines that are funny in Shakespeare just look a little dumb with Fillion’s dry delivery.

As with all modern dress versions of Shakespeare, language is a problem.  I give full credit to Joss Whedon for doing an excellent job of cutting and compressing the play to get it down into very good length, but when when someone who is apparently modern gives out with “thee” and “thine” and “by my troth” it just doesn’t remotely ring true and frankly, it seems ludicous.  From the DVD special features, it seems that this project was put together very quickly using Whedon’s friends who had often read Shakespeare together as a fun thing to do.  Perhaps if it had been given a little more preparation, Whedon might have rewritten Shakespeare even a bit further and brought the language into line with the way we talk.  But if they just wanted to film friends doing Shakespeare, I guess it wouldn’t be Shakespeare without the language.

This isn’t really Whedon’s fault.  Many others have attempted to set Shakespeare in a modern day environment and each of them ultimately fail because Shakespeare’s language is over 400 years old and it sounds archaic and looks dumb when spoken by people dressed like us.  Much Ado About Nothing is far more successful than most attempts and I found it to be a highly entertaining, well-acting, well-cut film.

Even so, it requires a willing suspension of disbelief that is way beyond my own rich fantasy life.

To Catch A Thief

To Catch a Thief 01This is Alfred Hitchcock’s most visually beautiful movie.  Filmed on the French Riviera, the gorgeous hills, dotted with old mansions overlooking the Mediterranean Sea vie with the stark beauty of Grace Kelly and chiseled features of Cary Grant to provide enough eye candy to last a lifetime.  The following review contains plot spoilers.

The story is simply an excuse for the beauty.  American ex-patriot John Robie (Cary Grant) is a former jewel thief who was known as “the Cat” before World War II.  He paid his dues by fighting in the French Resistance, killing over 70 Nazis proving his loyalty to France.  After the war, he put aside his thieving ways and lives respectably and very well, thank you, in a villa on a ridge overlooking the Mediterranean.  This idyllic life is disturbed when a copycat burglar begins stealing the most expensive jewels on the Riviera.  When the Police come calling, thinking he has renewed his life of crime, he evades them in a breathtaking car chase through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  Turning his car over to a woman on the street, he hops a bus and sits next to Alfred Hitchcock.

He goes to see his old friend from the Resistance, Monsieur Bertani (Charles Vanel), who runs a restaurant that is manned by head waiter Foussard (Jean Martinelli) and more of their old Resistance buddies, who are all suspicious that the Police are right about Robie.  Bertani helps him escape with the aid of Foussard’s daughter, teenager Danielle (Brigitte Auber) who has a crush on him.  She takes him across the water to the Hotel Carlton, where beautiful American tourist Frances Stevens (Grace Kelly) sees him.  He makes contact with a British insurance company representative, H. H. Hughson (John Williams), and pleads his case, that he is innocent and only wants to catch the thief to clear his name.  Caught by the Police, Robie is released due a lack of evidence and convinces Hughson to give him the names of his clients who have the most expensive jewels waiting to be stolen.  Abashed at having already had to pay out huge sums, Hughson agrees, also sharing the list with the Police to hedge his bets.

To Catch a Thief 02He begins by meeting rich American tourist Jessie Stevens (Jessie Royce Landis), mother of Frances, and posing as a rich Oregon timber man.  After a stimulating evening, he escorts the two ladies back to their rooms, but before he can depart, Frances gives him a passionate kiss and arranges to meet him the next day.  While swimming, he runs into Danielle and Frances becomes jealous.  She and Robie take a drive to look at villas and are followed by the Police.  When he asks her to drive a little faster, she speeds up considerably, taking a kind of devilish delight in tempting fate.  They safely evade the Police and find a nice spot overlooking the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean and she tells him that she’s figured out that he’s actually John Robie.  He denies it, but after lunch the end up kissing again.  She tells him to meet her in her room to watch the fireworks or she will reveal who he really is.

That night, she seduces him again, proposing that they go into business together as burglars.  He continues the façade of being a tourist, but when she goes to sleep, he keeps watch in her bedroom.  During the night, however, the burglar robs Jessie of all her expensive jewels and finally Robie reveals himself to them.  Frances calls the Police on him and he departs over the rooftops as they arrive to search for him.

Hiding out, he stakes out what he thinks is the next target, alerting Hughson and putting the Police on notice.  As he waits in the dark, he is attacked by a man dressed in black.  Struggling, he throws the man over the cliff.  The Police find the body of Foussard in the Sea and announce that he was the burglar, clearing Robie of charges.

At her father’s funeral, Danielle becomes distraught and calls Robie a murder.  Chagrined, Frances again hooks up with Robie and he tells her of his plans to capture the real burglar by attending a fancy costume ball.  The Police follow and also stake out the ball, which Bertani is catering, with Danielle’s help.  After changing disguises with Hughson, Robie waits on the roof for the burglar to show up, but when he does, it turns out to be Danielle.

To Catch a Thief 03On Robie’s hillside villa, Frances kisses Robie again, remarking that her mother is going to love the house.

From beginning to end, the cinematography is stunning, so much so that the film won Robert Burks, Hitchcock’s longtime associate an Academy Award.  Although nominated for her incredible costuming, especially of Grace Kelly, Edith Head did not win.

This film has a different feel than most of Hitchcock’s work.  Although it contains a lot of humor, the film is not a comedy.  There is certainly some mystery as to who the real burglar is, but the film lacks the tension and suspense that mark most of Hitchcock’s movies.  In truth, this is a feel-good romance, concentrating, as it does, so intensely on beauty.  This was the last film he made with Grace Kelly before she married Prince Ranier of Monaco and gave up acting and it is appropriate that she shows so well.  Stunning in an array of dazzling Edith Head costumes, the three gowns she wears are all breathtaking.

It moves at a really good clip, coming in at under two hours, and you never notice the time passing because there is always so much beauty for your eye.  It is a fun movie, something you can’t really say about too many Hitchcock films and it transports you to a time and place full of such charm that it can honestly be said to elevate one beyond the every day.

A stunning film!  I highly recommend this movie for all audiences.

Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful by Deborah Kay Davies

Grace Tamar and LaszloGrace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful, the 2009 Wales Book of the Year, is officially listed as a book of short stories by the acclaimed Welsh author Deborah Kay Davies, but it is much, much more than that.  In fact, I struggle to use the term “book of short stories” because the connection of the stories featuring the sisters Grace and Tamar is so tight and integrated that I am inclined to call it a novel.  This is a mature and powerful work of art intended for adult readers.

The first story, “Stirrups,” actually begins with their mother on the event of Tamar’s birth, showing how the woman’s fragile mind tries to deal with the baby girl who is Grace’s younger sister by two years.  She struggles to give her love to more than one person at a time, missing Grace and wondering if she can ever relate to this new child.  The next story, “Point,” finds Grace at the age of six already somewhat ethereal and hating her four year old sister, Tamar, for being so feral.  It is a relationship newly formed, but one that will be a part of their lives until they are adults.

From one story to the next, told in chronological order, the relationship between the two sisters dominates the book as the point of view weaves back and forth.  As a child, Tamar spends most of her time alone, creating strange games for herself, becoming fascinated with the weird neighbors, pushing her sister Grace to exasperation.  Grace lives in a world where she was the only child.  She can barely stand Tamar, yet there is a bond between them that is extremely tight.  Grace pushes Tamar from a tree, Tamar beats on Grace, they push each other back and forth and stand united in only two things: first, their amusement that their mother seems to be going insane (“Radio Baby” is a powerful reminder that their mother’s hold on reality is tenuous at best) and second, the great common dream that they share of being together as adults with their own baby.

As they grow up, Tamar’s perversity is intensified by an incident with a brutal pedophile in “Whinberries” that turns out much different than one would expect in the follow-up story “Stones.”  That perversity comes back out in her childish sexual display to her bedridden grandfather in “Fun and Games.”  Grace’s reaction is to pull back away, growing more and more distant.  In her adolescence, she seems to have difficulty understanding the banal, meaningless action of the boys around her, especially so in “Laszlo the Beautiful,” a story about her first crush.  Tamar also has difficulty relating to boys, but she is far more open sexually.  Grace acts out her sexuality in “Kissing Nina,” “Thong,” “Negligee,” and “Grace and the Basset Hound” while maintaining a strange distance from it.  She becomes engaged, gets married and divorced and seems untouched by the whole cycle.  Tamar reaches out for life in “Thong,” “Whatever,” and “Wood.” 

There is a stark parallel to Grace’s retreat from the world and Tamar’s reach to embrace it.  The importance of Tamar’s dream of the baby comes full circle in the final story, “Cords,” a taut, emotional reach between the two adult sister.

The writing throughout is beautiful, a real pleasure to read.  Lean and well-constructed, the stories are each absolutely compelling portraits of two sisters adrift in the world.  The sentences are spare, concerned only with what is most important.  Sometimes they drift, like the sisters, but they drift with a singular intensity that always reaches back to the heart of the book.

And that’s really what makes me think of this is a novel.

In a novel, one looks to see a compelling story arc, from one place to another from the beginning to the end, with an integrated theme throughout the book.  Even though Grace, Tamar and Laszlo the Beautiful jerks from one story to another, I see a very powerful, overarching story arc that binds the stories together into one, long cohesive tale that stands up to the highest scrutiny.

The jacket contains the following epithet:  “moving, hilarious and terrifying.”  I found the book to be less hilarious and more moving, but, yes, at times it is also terrifying.  I found it to be one of the more emotionally disturbing and satisfying books that I’ve read over the last twenty years.  The combination of such beautiful, powerful writing with such original, distinctive characters is quite unusual.  In fact, after I finished reading the book, I found myself drawn back to one story or another just to lose myself in the prose.  I haven’t had that feeling since I first read Salman Rushdie.

This is a great book that I highly recommend to all adult readers.

French Kiss

 

Sometimes the charm of two charismatic actors with great chemistry, combined with a smart, talented director, can make even the most banal of screenplays work to perfection. Such is the case with Lawrence Kasdan’s 1995 romantic comedy, French Kiss.

Kate (Meg Ryan) is a history teacher whose fear of flying goes far beyond what most of us would think of as terror, but she has a serious problem that involves flight. An American history teacher, she is engaged to Canadian Charlie (Timothy Hutton), residing in Toronto on a Resident Visa and waiting until her Canadian citizenship comes through before they get married.  Charlie is a doctor who is about to fly to Paris for a medical convention and he begs her to come with him, even though she isn’t supposed to leave the country because of citizenship issues, but the point is moot because Kate just can’t board a plane.  When a great house becomes available, they go to look at it.  Charlie fears it will be too expensive for them, but Kate reveals that she has a considerable savings that she hadn’t told him about yet.

A few days later, Charlie calls her in a drunken stupor and reveals that he has fallen in love with a French girl, Juliette (Susan Anbeh) and won’t be coming home. In spite of her fears, Kate decides to board an Air Canada flight and go to Paris to get him back.  The guy sitting next to her, Luc Teyssier (Kevin Kline) is a French thief who is illegally smuggling a small American grape vine back into France in order to create a new hybrid wine.  However, tucked into the cheesecloth padding the root ball is a stolen diamond necklace.  Luc begins an argument with Kate to distract her from her fear of flying, plying her with little bottles of liquor he has stolen from the flight attendants’ cart.  He hides his vine in her travel bag so he can successfully smuggle it back into France.  At customs, he meets his old friend Inspector Jean-Paul Cardon (Jean Reno), whose life he once saved.  Returning from a vacation, Jean-Paul gives him a ride with his family so he can inspect Luc’s bags to make sure he isn’t smuggling anything.

Kate goes to Charlie’s hotel to find him, but a smarmy desk clerk won’t reveal his room number to her. Another petty thief, Bob (François Cluzet), tries to hustle her as she sits on a sofa in the lobby waiting for Charlie to come down.  When she sees him kissing Juliette, she passes out and Bob steals her bag.  Luc arrives, passing Bob at the door, to discover Kate passed out on the floor.  He revives her and when he realizes that Bob has her bag, he takes her, steals a car, and drives to Bob’s apartment where they find he has already disposed of everything but her bag and the vine.  Thinking he has now recovered the necklace, they leave, but have an argument on the street and separate.  Kate goes to the American Embassy to get a duplicate passport, but they stonewall her because she is a permanent Canadian resident.  At the Canadian Embassy, they won’t give her a duplicate Resident Visa because she was once arrested for possession of pot.  Alone, penniless on the street, she reluctantly returns to Charlie’s hotel.  In the interim, Luc has searched the root ball of his vine and finds the necklace is gone, so he goes back to Bob who proclaims that he didn’t take the necklace, that it must still be in Kate’s bag.

When Kate makes a scene at the hotel, the desk clerk tells her that Charlie and Juliette have gone to the south of France where they intend to get married, so she sets off for the train station. Bob arrives at the hotel to fleece more guests, but is arrested by Jean-Paul who is interrogating him trying to find a “big fish,” a more important criminal.  At that moment, Luc arrives and forces the clerk to tell him where Kate has gone.  Bob points out Luc to Jean-Paul and tells him that Luc has stolen a diamond necklace.  Jean-Paul now chases Luc to the train station where they lose him.

Aboard the train, Luc finds Kate and volunteers to help her get Charlie back, so he can buy time to inspect her bag. Over the next few days, both of their affections begin to turn toward each other as Luc tries to help her reunite with Charlie, even though he now loves her himself.  She reveals that she actually has the necklace and slowly gives in to her feelings for Luc.

Although the screenplay by Adam Brooks is certainly not a ground-breaking story, Kasdan does a marvelous job of telling it. The cinematography and editing are both terrific and they aid determined performances by Kevin Kline, who is almost always brilliant, and Meg Ryan, who, despite a few hammy scenes, is her usual charming self.  The two of them bring a lot of chemistry to the romance, which is essential in a romantic comedy and their performances take a simple story and make it memorable.  France has never looked so good on film, not just Paris, with both gaudiness and grit, but the countryside and vineyards of Luc’s birth really shine, not to mention the French Riviera.

It is a tight, fast moving film that engages the viewer constantly during the one hour and 51 minutes of length. Colorful, skillfully directed, with wonderful, engaging cast, this is one romantic comedy that should be on your shelf.  I highly recommend it!