Friday, July 23, 2010

Eight Off-the-Cuff Thoughts on Salt (2010, Phillip Noyce)


SUMMARY: Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie) is a CIA agent who works with Ted Winter (Liev Schreiber) and is happily married to world-class arachnologist Mike Krause (August Diel). On her anniversary, a mysterious Russian named Orlov (Daniel Olbrychski) turns himself in and claims that Salt is, in fact, a Russian spy, whose mission is to kill the Russian president the following day. Salt claims this is false, but runs away, convinced that both she and her husband may be in grave danger, while Winter and fellow CIA agent Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) track her. Salt responds by jumping onto a lot of moving cars and trucks and other stuff.

  1. Salt & Gender: So Salt is Angelina Jolie, and she does the things that typically male action stars do--i.e., be the lead action star. It’s not like this is a first or anything, but it’s still more typical for a man to be the super spy on the run. Salt has the Loving Wife, er, Husband, whose role in the plot is to be threatened and discarded; he is smart and has his own life to live but his entire plot function is to serve her. What’s interesting is that the film actually plays with this a bit, beyond merely setting up the same situation as usual, but with reversed-genders. Every other spy we see is male; every other person who went through the Russian secret training program Salt went through is male. So there’s one sequence where Salt blows up all the other spies (getting revenge on them for killing her husband), and then, soon afterwards…she gets made up entirely a la garconne, with a short haircut and a male-body-tailored suit and I’m not quite sure if she’s supposed to just look different or if she’s actually posing as a man. Something about this seems to be a statement: Salt/Angelina Jolie has to beat up all the boys and then later pose as one as part of her general attempt to make it into action stardom. And she does; no female counterparts throughout the film. Salt’s gender is not a point ever made explicit in the film, but at the end there’s another exchange between Chiwetel Ejiofor (sadly underused) and Salt that seems to resonate: “How many others are there like you?” he asks. “There are no others like me. There are lots like him.” She’s not talking about male/female, but, well, she does seem to be the only female spy, and also the only spy who turns out to be OK after all, so maybe there’s some statement in there (probably unintentional, probably unfortunate) about how women are better than men because…um…because they fall in love and get married? (The spies weren’t supposed to get married, and she did because it was convenient to do so, but…she was also told to get married by Winter. It’s pretty tangled.)

    ETA: I checked it out on Wikipedia, and, guess what, the script, as originally written a few years ago, was about EDWARD A. SALT who would have been played by Tom Cruise. So Salt being a woman was a somewhat late script development, which perhaps explains why the film still seems to have the baseline assumption of all spies being male, except for the Angelina-shaped exception.

  2. Salt the Russian doll: A Russian doll is on the counter in Salt's apartment in one shot, and I think this is the essential image of the film--though Russian dolls should have gotten full motif status, rather than a one off. Salt's central identity is a Russian spy, outer identity is American spy, outer outer identity is devoted wife; it’s the outer identity she takes when she’s in North Korea at the beginning of the film, and it’s the middle identity that she takes in her day-to-day job. The story is that Outer Identity turns out to be the central one, even deeper than the Russian spy gig, because her husband showed her more love and kindness than anyone else by using his special arachologist powers (no, I don’t mean like Peter Parker, I mean like the powers of the world’s foremost guy who studies spiders which apparently is enough to convince the American government to push to trade for a spy, for, um, some reason) to release her, when her American spy colleagues and Russian spy colleagues don’t go for her. So, it’s ultimately about the love of a good man, and I’m not sure if this is something that would be pulled in a gender-reversed story; the love of a good woman does redeem cads a lot of the time though. Have to think about it. Still, given that the relationship is not developed except through flashbacks, the revelation that she actually loves him best and loves him enough to break out of her training-from-infancy doesn’t hold all that much weight.
  3. Winter & Salt: the words salt and winter are both associated strongly with the colour white, though winter only gets there by first going through snow. White = Russia? (There’s the White Russian drink, and Siberia and cold and, um, primarily Caucasian population.) Chiwetel Ejiofor is black, which is how you know he’s not a Russian spy.
  4. Salt & genetics: We have a firm stance on the nature/nurture debate right here: Salt’s parents were one of the foremost Russian wrestlers, and the only female chess grandmaster of the time. Which is why she’s so strong and smart. And is also once again the only woman in the room.
  5. Winter and Orlov’s plan: The basic plan was apparently to have Salt kill the Russian president to make it look like the Americans were assassinating him, so that the Russians would start threatening to go to war and start arming their nuclear missiles. Then, another assassination attempt is made, this one on the U.S. president, in order to convince him to go into his underground bunker. Winter then convinces the president that this may all be part of the Russian Day X, which Orlov loudly announced the day before the Russian Pres’ assassination; this, along with the Russians actually arming missiles, convinces the President to enter his pass-code to arm missiles. Then Winter kills everyone in the room except for the President, and then (this is the part that doesn't end up happening) nukes Mecca and while Salt also is sent to go after the President, presumably so that she can eventually be named as the patsy for Winter’s actions. Winter then loads the missiles. Then Salt ends up beating Winter by, like, shooting through a different part of the wall than the bulletproof glass and then beating up Winter so, um, good for her. The death of the Russian president was necessary to convince the Russians to arm their missiles, and otherwise the American president wouldn’t arm his missiles--unless the Russians knew their own plan, and were going to arm their missiles anyway, and so the Russian president was killed because he was inconvenient and it made the U.S. look bad--unless…well, I’m not sure. Similarly, Salt was set up to take the fall for killing the President’s men and nuking parts of the Middle East, because, um, people would otherwise suspect Winter who, um, is the sole survivor and could craft whatever story he wanted about Salt or whoever, and Salt is a loose cannon who he didn’t want near by but that’s what makes the plan so perfect! Right? Also, Winter encouraged Orlov to announce the whole plan to the CIA et al. so as to eventually finger Salt, even though Winter really needed Salt to be alive at least until the DEFCON situation which was after the Russian President’s death, so he needed to bank entirely on Salt getting away with killing the Russian President which would have been much more certain if the entire secret service wasn’t after her. But I guess he knows that she’s more badass than the entire Secret Service, which is, uh, why he made sure she had orders to go kill the President, where she was the only person who could reasonably have stopped him with his super spy skills, whereas if no one had told Salt to go there he definitely would have succeeded, so. Um. Right.
  6. Winter’s evil: I think, generally, I have a problem with superspies who are willing to commit genocide for nationalistic reasons, and are concerned about their reputation afterwards. Bond villains who kill millions for personal gain I can understand. But if someone is doing something for their country, then they should be willing to die. Winter didn’t need a patsy; it really doesn’t matter whether the U.S. found out after the fact that he was a spy to anyone but him. And even if it did matter, obviously thinking that a different Russian spy did it would look no worse on Russia. This sounds like a silly distinction to make, but the idea of a super spy who does things for purely nationalistic reasons and is trying to protect his own ass just seems like a lazy form of one-dimensional supervillainy, and not the good kind of one-dimensional supervillainy.
  7. Salt on the road: There’s a The Dark Knight type ending, whereby Peabody has a chance to let Salt go, even though people will believe that Salt is, in fact, the bad guy who tried to start a nuclear war. Who is going to believe Salt and not Winter, when Winter was claiming that she was the bad guy? Oh, woe is her. But no--Peabody believes her, and realizes that she can do good if he lets her get away. So presumably in Salt-sequels, she will be an avenging angel pursued by the US government, kind of like in this movie. Just one problem: the President of the United States saw Winter kill a bunch of people and threaten to kill him! The President of the United States is usually considered a reliable witness! He could totally, if not clear Salt’s name alone, at least confirm her story that Winter is a really, really bad guy and a major threat to national security and the real traitor! He’s the President, and everyone forgot about him?
  8. Conclusion: Angelina Jolie was pretty good. I think she carries the action star well and she does what she can with her emotional moments. Liev Schreiber was a great villain (my objections to his writing aside). I think the action moves at a reasonable clip, and there’s a near-assassination scene that involves the use of an organ in a clever way. The usual action-heroics are present, which means lots of defying the laws of physics, which is par for the course; that the movie doesn’t hold up as a spy movie, which it clearly wants to be, is a bit sadder, and probably ultimately makes it less worthwhile. But still, I think Jolie really does have the action star thing down, so hopefully she’ll be in better ones.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, Richard Hamer) - here be spoiers

The title is from a Tennyson poem, helpfully quoted for the slow, uneducated watchers like me: “Kind hearts are more than coronets, and simple faith than Normal blood.” The title is ironic here, because in fact the central character, Louis Mazzini, has neither. He is an heir to the dukedom held by the D’Ascoyne family, and would be acknowledged as such if his mother had not been cast out of the clan for having married a poor, lower class Italian opera singer. With both his parents dying by Louis’ young adulthood, he decides to avenge his mother’s death and to improve his social standing by murdering every member of the D’Ascoyne family (and the entire family is played brilliantly by Alec Guinness in a bravura, understated series of performances) who stands between him and the dukedom itself. In doing so, he offers friendship to his victims (“It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms,” Louis tells us in a typically droll bit of narration), ingratiating himself with them and pretending to be a good man that he emphatically is not: to the outside world he’s a kind heart sans coronet, but he’s really not that at all, either. Whilst he goes about his business of murder, he is torn between two women--his low-class childhood crush Sibella, and sophisticated Edith, the widow of one of his victims; he sums up his predicament by saying that “While I never admired Edith as much as when I was with Sibella, I never longed for Sibella as much when I was with Edith.” The whole thing is a black comedy about Louis’ juggling of his two lady-loves as well as his attempt to climb to the top, one dead D’Ascoyne at a time.

At one level, the film is a class system critique and satire, as we are given a tour of the various vices and flaws of the upper class through the D’Ascoyne family as Louis (aided, in a few cases, by happenstance) finds inventive ways to kill them, one-by-one. For consideration: there’s the incompetent admiral, who dies because his glorification of honour outstripped his actual ability to do anything (he goes down with his ship, after telling his navigator to move port when he should have ordered it move starboard). There’s young Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, so obsessed with his privilege that he has Louis fired from his job as a clothier for mild rudeness and then doesn’t remember him a few days later. There’s the parson who got into the job because he was too stupid, we’re told, to do anything else, and who is insulated by the rest of his family from his own ineffectiveness. There’s the photographer who has clearly never had to work, has no social skills whatsoever and who hides a private alcohol habit from his morally obsessed wife (the aforementioned Edith). There’s the general who plants several illegal bear traps throughout the gardens surrounding his estate to catch any poachers, stating frankly that they won’t dare charge him with the illegality because they will be arrested for poaching themselves. This is what the elite is, we’re told: ineffectual, bumbling, selfish, obsessed with and blinded by its own privilege.

(There’s also Lady D’Ascoyne, a suffragette, and I’m not entirely sure what the joke there is supposed to be: are suffragettes automatically funny? Is it funny that she looks like Alec Guinness but is a woman? I think the satire there might be a little misogynistic, where the fact that she’s a strong woman is made a joke, but I’m not quite sure. Still, regardless of the intent of the joke, her method of death is undeniably funny: she is in a hot air balloon up in the sky dropping pamphlets, and Louis shoots her with an arrow-- “I shot an arrow in the air; she fell to earth in Berkeley Square,” Louis notes.)
And yet, and yet: we’re also shown real kindness. The photographer may have no social skills, and may be a hypocrite and too afraid of his wife and his own weakness to be honest with himself--and in all probability, he would not be able to make due in the “real world” where his hobbies were not bankrolled by the whole clan. But he’s also generous towards his newfound friend and open-hearted. The pastor doesn’t follow his own advice and drinks and is an utter bore with no insights to speak of--but he’s also genuinely excited at the prospect of finding new knowledge from Louis’ visit. And the banker Ascoyne D’Ascoyne, Sr. (yes, that’s his name), for whom Louis goes to work, seems to have made some mistakes but treats Louis very well, and seems to care quite genuinely for his son, whom Louis murders; even Louis notices that the guy has treated him well. Some of the D’Ascoynes seem awful, yes, but mostly they’re just clueless, as the idle (or occasionally active) rich, cut off from the common folk, are bound to be. Some of them do have kind hearts, even if they haven’t been given much opportunity to use them.

Indeed, the vilest creatures in the movie are actually Louis himself (not a surprise), and his childhood friend/constant lover Sibella. Sibella has always been attracted by Louis, and in particular she tells him, bluntly, that she’s attracted to him when he’s a cad. She marries another man, Lionel (while not perfect and a little condescending to Louis, mostly a good chap) who in their youth seems likely to be more successful than Louis, but considers him too much of a dullard to spend any time with him. So she cheats on him regularly with Louis. Meanwhile, Louis proposes to Edith, and, well, continues to see Sibella. While Sibella is by all accounts a knockout (and a bit of a femme fatale), Louis describes her rather uncharitably as “the perfect combination of imperfections.” Sibella is so dedicated to her role in the film as the no-good opportunist that this constitutes a turn-on, and she asks him to repeat his speech about her imperfections as the screen fades to black and the two (probably) make love. Sibella’s scheming attempts to rise to the top eventually involve using her husband’s suicide and her affair with Louis as blackmail to attempt to get him to murder fiancee Edith and install Sibella as the future Duchess. If you thought the upper class was bad, what about the people who will kill to get there? Sibella is the perfect mirror for Louis in all his flat-out manipulations and desperation to climb to the top.

Just to complicate the film’s class politics even further, there’s a hint at class and social divide for those lower on the social food chain than Louis and Sibella initially are. A late conversation between the two where they use (unironically) the original, racial epithet-laden version of “eenie meenie miney moe” (look it up, if you will) as a grand metaphor for his murders, drives home their callousness, both about murder and about, well, using racial epithets--they have white privilege even if they don’t yet have, and desperately desire, class privilege as well. (I suppose it’s possible that the filmmakers weren’t aware that this was somehow inappropriate conversationally. I’m going to prefer to let it demonstrate the sense of privilege the two low-class English have about other races, because that ties in well with their overall Othering of, well, everyone who isn’t them.)

And if Sibella is who Louis is, Edith is who he wants to be: she’s more conventionally beautiful than Sibella, more refined, and staunchly, entirely moral. Married to her photographer husband Henry, she objects so strongly to any alcohol that he, desperately afraid of her, sneaks off and drinks for himself. Why such a woman would appeal to Louis, who has no moral fibre whatsoever, seems at first a mystery. But it’s very simple: for Louis, morality is an affectation of the upper class he wishes to join. (At one point, while out with the general hunting and planning to use the opportunity to shoot him, Louis remarks in voice over, “The next morning I went out shooting with Ethelred - or rather, to watch Ethelred shooting; for my principles will not allow me to take a direct part in blood sports.” The thing that’s remarkable is that the irony seems so understated that it’s not at all clear Louis is aware of it: I think he may genuinely believe his principles to be what he states they are, and not inconsistent with being a serial murderer.) Louis decides to wait the appropriate time for grieving before proposing to Edith, and he does, and while she seems appropriately shocked, she soon accepts his proposal. When, late in the film, he is accused of the murder of poor, suicidal Lionel (a bit of an echo of noirs like The Postman Always Rings Twice, where the anti-hero faces the gallows for a different person’s death than the one he actually committed) and his infidelity with Sibella comes to light. Edith doesn’t seem particularly upset about it, and merely indicates that she forgives him. The film doesn’t quite go there explicitly, but Edith’s casual accepting of Louis’ story seems to pass beyond naivete and into a wilful blindness--consistent with her early failure to notice her husband’s sneaking off to go drinking, or, as is implied in one conversation with Louis, her conscious decision to ignore the truth in favour of a version of events more in line with her moral worldview. And so here too Louis has an equal. Edith never murdered anybody, and indeed probably never did anything wrong, but her morality, I think, is much more based on ideas about sophistication and surface than any intrinsic concepts of right and wrong.

And so there they are--Sibella and Edith, Louis’ present and future, both remarkably empty. Goodness and kindness is a trait that the rich can afford to have, but it’s not genuine; and the poor, it seems, are vicious social climbers, at best polite because they can be crushed if they aren’t. There are some slight hints at people who feel real feelings and act like real people, but they are almost presented as dullards like the pastor D’Ascoyne or Lionel. I don’t think that the film’s heartlessness accurately represents the full range of the human condition--people really are capable of being good, for good’s sake, even it hurts them--but every once in a while it takes a really black comedy to remind us how close we all are, and can be, to that perfectly amoral abyss. And this one happens to do so without preachiness and while being a droll good time.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Little Mermaid (1989)

The equivalent of some Astaire and Rogers movies: a bunch of clichés and ciphers (or if you want, “archetypes”) for the most part, and then the musical numbers start up and holy God amazing. I’ve rewatched the original “Part of That World” about a dozen times in the past few days (though I wish it had fewer reprises); I love the singing French chef’s (played by René Auberjonois, Odo himself!) glee at stabbing and cutting and stomping in “Les Poissons”; and “Under the Sea” really deserves its endless fame. Of course, there are some uncomfortable racial dynamics at play in the “Under the Sea” when the otherwise-uptight Sebastian sings about how those people up on land have to work all day (remember: Jamaicans are lazy!), and which even has a blackfish who seems to be singing with an African-American voice; and even besides the unsettling way Ursula’s “fat-and-ugly while displaying some sexuality” image is used as clear footnote for moral decay, the movie by having Ariel almost woo Eric without speaking and without seeming to know anything more or less confirms Urusla’s “girls should be seen and not heard!” pronouncement, even if the movie tries to balance it out by having Eric love Ariel’s voice as well. (Voice, but not really speech.)

Whenever I see an adaptation of a fairy tale, I feel conflicted about the plot: this more or less follows the outline of the Anderson story (well, from the summary on Wikipedia, because I don’t actually know much of anything), and so one can justify a lot on adaptation. So if I say that the plot seems pretty thrown together, and not subtly but obviously, with rather nonsensical contrivances introduced when simply following the premise would have done just as well, am I being unfair to this film as opposed to Hans Christian Andersen? But really: Ariel’s going to have lots of trouble dealing with the huge culture shock of being on land right? Well, yes, but better to also put a clock on how long before she gets her Kiss of True Love. And then the idea of simply getting the prince to love her in three days is apparently not enough of a conflict, but the prince also has to have fallen in love with her voice and so think of himself as being unfaithful. Ursula is quite the stand-and-talk type villain anyway, but does a very poor job of trying to reach her goals, almost letting Ariel and Eric kiss a dozen times until she goes up above to stop the prince and her from kissing by, um, half having Ariel’s voice and half mesmerizing him, I think. And the way Ursula is killed by being rammed with a small boat seems to go pretty far against the God-with-a-trident imagery, rather like (sorry to geek out here) blowing up “God” with a space ship in the much-hated Star Trek V. There is so much set-up for a culture clash on the eating of seafood as well, which just fizzles, making Ariel seem like, frankly, a terrible (mer-)person: I guess Ariel’s fondness for clearly-sentient Flounder and Sebastian doesn’t extend to feeling any particular sympathy for the fish her prince devours. Which in turn reduces the power of the earlier songs: Sebastian sings his heart out about how it’s better under the sea where fish don’t get chopped up and eaten, but he was obviously wasting his breath.

I’m willing to forgive some of the true love elements, but it does make it difficult to be entertained when Eric is not fleshed out at all, and the entire romance is one in which the pair have true epic love etc. without knowing a thing about the other one. I do want to say that it is cool about this story generally that it’s the man who is sought after, the prize to be won—here it’s the prince who turns the “frog” into a princess. Anyway, the next few films in the Disney renaissance made much more effort to flesh out their central romances: Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin took great care in setting up the slowly building feelings between the two, as well as giving both characters agency; and The Lion King deals with its romance by putting it on a friends-for-life plotline. The Little Mermaid really does have amazing songs, and is splendid in animation, and kicked off the major Disney renaissance which means we may have it to thank not only for its immediate successors but Pixar films as well. So it’s definitely important, generally entertaining, and almost a great movie.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Buffy Season Eight, satire and genre: a tentative defence

Major spoilers. If you are reading or plan to read Buffy's season eight comic books, read no further.

So there are mostly two camps about this latest issue online: swoon and hate. An example of this is the Whedonesque thread for it, where I was going to post this and then thought I wouldn't because I can't be bothered to defend my position to either camp. The reason this issue provokes such extremes is pretty obvious: the issue was over-the-top, more so than I really expected. The "Twilight" arc (which is not named after Stephanie Meyer's books, but which does reference them) seems to be deliberately written to provoke reactions. It's supposed to be silly, feel like a retcon, feel like a comic book.

It's obviously meant to be artificial.

Tim Minear talked in his commentary on "Home" how he and Joss love Douglas Sirk movies and see their shows as owing a great debt to Sirk melodramas. Sirk famously combined compelling emotional drama with artificiality. Here's Ebert talking about it in the film Written on the Wind--not definitive but it's a good start.

I think all the comic book references and some of the silliness of the B/A confrontation (which is still on some level emotionally true) is because this arc is about the fact that this is a comic book. The way Dollhouse is partially about being a TV series, and "Once More, With Feeling" is partially about being a musical. Let's talk about the latter: that episode has Anya referencing breaking the fourth wall, a few dozen people gathering outside the Magic Box to sing to some imaginary audience in the sky, Tara waring a beautiful corset unlike anything she wears at any other point (the whole cast chooses gorgeous clothes and pastel-bright colours). Xander summons the demon because he wants to get a happy ending with him and Anya (emotional truth), but he doesn't come forward because of the conventions and artificiality of musicals (commentary on the medium). I think it's the wrong choice; the other universe-undermining bits in OMWF don't threaten to damage characters the way this bit threatens to damage Xander. It bugs me to no end. But this is what Joss is going for. Similar examples: "The Zeppo," the way the ticking clock at the end bounces back and forth on the times, because we're being reminded we're watching a TV show (one that's parodying itself).

So let's look at the "Twilight" arc. The fourth wall is being broken constantly with the comic references (and Andrew!) in this arc and in this silly titles for individual issues ("Buffy has #$*@ing Superpowers," "The Master Plan," etc.), in the reference to Stephanie Meyer's Twilight books both with the line and with the glowing. The covers for the arc are mostly references to other comic books. The appearance of Angel-as-Twilight signifies a break in the narrative because he's supposed to be on another company; it's a crossover which again highlights the artificiality of the whole thing.

So Buffy and Angel acting like comic book characters at the end is obviously a 100% deliberate choice; otherwise there wouldn't be pages of Superman jokes from Xander, Andrew and Warren (and Buffy herself) to emphasize that's who she is now. The real question is why, of course. Thematically, it's because Joss is setting Buffy and Angel up as being as powerful as Gods, as stepping into the comic book genre and owning it that way. The glowing indicates that characterization shouldn't be taken seriously in this issue--right now. Buffy kisses him because she's under glowy thrall, and is under magic comic book powers thrall. But why tell this story? Where is it going, and how does the metacommentary and the reductive characterization play in? Dunno. We'll wait and see.

Just to clarify: I'm not trying to justify the narrative integrity of Buffy and Angel acting weird and glowy. I do think it's a deliberate choice, though. It might be a terrible choice. But it is one.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Dollhouse 2.12, "The Hollow Men" (MAJOR spoilers)

Just watched it for a second time. So after reading hundreds of comments on the episode, here's what I think works and what doesn't.

The good:

* The male protector is the villain of the piece, and going back trough the series Boyd's sense of detachment, and perhaps his vague sense of moral superiority, fit in with the conception of a man convinced that the world was going to be ending soon (the tech can't be uninvented), and the slow build of his relationship with Echo, as well as Topher and Adelle, is still maintained but highlighting the uncomfortable elements that were already there. Boyd's protection of Echo from the world has always been implicitly criticized; here it is much more explicitly.

* The idea that the tech can't be uninvented is consistent with the show's overall themes, dating back to (especially) Ballard's conversation with Victor/Lubov on the roof of a building and the professor's speech in "Man on the Street." The episode both proves Boyd right in a way at the very end--with the Apocalypse come--but also comes down against his deliberately creating an end-of-the-world reality.

* The "I love you guys" reverses the found family trope by pointing out smartly that love for one's own is not sufficient to care about the world. The themes of family love and trust are well developed and explored in the ep.

* The explanation for Caroline's specialness is purely physical; what she has accomplished as Echo, she is in Hollywood, er, I mean, in the Dollhouse because of what her body can do. Darkly cynical and wonderful.

* The end to the Paul/Mellie story didn't move me as much as maybe it should have, but it is appropriate. On the one hand, Mellie proves her personhood by fighting the sleeper programming; on the other, Madeline dies because of her program, via Mellie, telling her to prioritize Paul Ballard's life over her own. Paul's complex relationship with this woman, who victimizes herself regularly for him, is dealt with very well.

* The continuing undermining of the ostensible heroes' moral convictions works well. The characters continue to object to the technology only to use it a moment later. This culminates in the one-two punch of Topher zapping Boyd (right after he said he would destroy the tech--and after, earlier, Boyd had fake zapped Topher) and then Echo reversing the handler/active dynamic by answering Boyd, "For a little while." Echo sending Boyd to kill himself is haunting and represents both the final loss of innocence and the loss of righteousness on Echo's part, as she breaks her vow to protect the dolls and gets her revenge.

The bad:

* I like some things about the Boyd reveal (see above), but he also mostly acts like a Bond villain. "Do you want to be the destroyed or the destroyers" is not a sufficient explanation for mass-enslavement, except of someone absolutely seeking power. There's no indication of why Boyd started doing research in this field in the first place if he believed it would signal the end of civilization. No explanation of his cop skills. No explanation of his side of the Boyd/Clive 1.0 feud/atticking. Very little sense of what his moral views are, in reality--how can he plan this mass enslavement, lock his best friend up forever, plan to kill Echo if she gets in his way, and yet also talk about loving his "family," praising Adelle and Topher's morality? Boyd both appears simultaneously as a cliche and an enigma, and some aspects of his previous behaviour still make sense but it's hard to understand how his character fits together now. When Boyd refers to Echo as the saviour of the world, there's a sense that he genuinely believes it--that he believes himself justified. I wanted to see more of that, and more of how this tied in with the man who helped found the freaking wiping company in the first place.

* The plot makes no sense. Adelle thinks they will be able to walk into the Rossum building because they have Echo, but they are obviously immediately captured. Boyd wants to bring everybody to Tuscon through super elaborate plotting, rather than just sending in a few waves of security men (he can afford it!). Anthony and Priya find Echo in the building without having any knowledge of where she is. Boyd uses the disruptor on Echo but then doesn't have it later. No one is remotely concerned that the tech might be somewhere else in the world, even though Clyde and Ambrose have backups everywhere around the world. The building is apparently understaffed by Boyd's choice, I guess (he says some line to Topher mentioning that the building seems empty so I'm going to assume that's the case), but, er, um, why?

* The dialogue is repetative and often leaden. Priya and Anthony repeat how they don't want to lose each other. Boyd and Clyde repeat how Echo is their saviour. And remarkably, often times the iterations of the same line contradict each other. Boyd says she's the saviour of the world, after Clyde says explicitly she isn't.

* The explosion and editing at the end is terrible. Really, really terrible.

* There's no explanation for what happened to Claire, leaving an Amy Acker-shaped hole in the show.


There's more, on both sides. But this covers the major points of it. I do hope eventually that I can figure out what the episode is trying to say about Boyd--and I really, really hope there's an interpretation that doesn't destroy the man we saw before now.

And if there isn't, I might just have gotten sucked in enough to (gulp) consider writing some fanfic.

I'm a little bit scared.

Monday, January 4, 2010

End of 2009, Part 2: Television

I watch probably too much TV. Here's what I enjoyed most this year.

SERIES, overall:

1. Mad Men: Funny, touching, incredibly painful, and completely unpredictable; this season devoted its first half wisely to setup before knocking it out of the park just about weekly starting with episode six, the practically surreal Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency. All the characters have been deepened (some with very little screentime), and the dissolution of Don and Roger’s friendship, and later Don and Betty’s marriage, made for compelling watching. Wonderful.

2. Dollhouse: My opinion of the show overall changes from week to week; it’s so hugely ambitious, and so constantly walking a delicate tightrope between gutless moral equivocation on the one hand and didactic moralizing on the other—how well I think of season two may well depend on the last three episodes. But nothing engaged me quite on the level of this show this year (even if I do think Mad Men is a much better, more consistent show), and I have grown to love these characters quite well. Only three episodes left!

3. The Office: The show is more up-and-down lately than it used to be, but season five’s Michael Scott Paper Company arc made sense of the show’s handling of Pam post-art school and provided some of Steve Carell’s high points for the series. And since the fifth season finale the show’s handling of the falling apart of Dunder Mifflin has provided additional tension for the cast. The cast is still strong, and the handling of Jim and Pam’s wedding is one of the most memorable events of the year.

4. Parks and Recreation: After a bit of a forgettable start, the show has moved into position as one of the most consistent laugh riots on TV, wonderfully anchored by Poehler whose Lindsay Knope has moved well beyond the female Michael Scott of season one. Special props to Chris Pratt and Nick Offerman, who are pretty much the highlight every single week. (I’m also hugely fond of Aubrey Plaza, incidentally.)

5. The Daily Show/The Colbert Report: I only catch these occasionally, but I always enjoy them greatly. Stewart and Colbert are two of the funniest men on TV, making us laugh two hours a week. The often savvy political commentary is mostly a bonus.

And now, my favourite EPISODES of the year--maximum 1 per series.

1. The Gypsy and the Hobo (Mad Men) – I could pick probably about half this season for this spot (the key runner-ups for me are Guy Walks into an Advertising Agency and Shut the Door, Have a Seat) but the actual Betty/Don blowout, maybe the greatest dramatic sequence in the show’s history, just nudges this one up.

2. A Spy in the House of Love (Dollhouse) – Well, Epitaph One beckons (as well as Belonging and The Left Hand) but this episode, while packing less of a whallop emotionally, is probably the stronger hour, hugely playful in its combination of different genres (one per engagement, one per act) while presenting different violations of trust at different levels along the Dollhouse chain. And the ending is killer.

3. Niagara (The Office) – Jim and Pam get married. I cry. Let’s not tell anyone. I’m a bit tempted by something from the Michael Scott Paper Company arc as well, but this one gives a lot of material for the entire cast while capping off five years of careful character work.

4. The Oath (Battlestar Galactica) – Gaeta stages a mutiny on board the Galactica while everyone else is busy looking the other way. If the entire season were played with this level of precision and care…well, for one, I think the finale might not have happened. (My favourite scene of the show of the season, though, is from the otherwise weaker part two: Gaeta and Baltar having a final dinner together before the former faces the firing squad. Brr.) Extra points for the Roslin/Baltar scene, building nicely on The Hub.

5. Unnatural Love (Flight of the Conchords) – The funniest episode of the season, along with one of the funniest songs (“Too Many Dicks”) as well as maybe the best song in the FotC oeuvre in “Carol Brown”—funny, cutting, unexpectedly moving. And lovely visually from Michel Gondry.

6. Apollo, Apollo (30 Rock) – Lizzing, “He’s gonna Jack!”, Tracy being convinced he’s in a space suit, Liz in an old phone sex commercial. Pretty terrific.

7. Greg Pikitis (Parks and Recreation) – It’s a toss-up between this and Ron and Tammie (which has Ron Swanson’s monologue about women and breakfast foods), but this one has better material for the whole cast and showcases Amy Poehler’s comedic strengths. PIKITIS!

8. The Getaway (Dexter) - I am not entirely happy with the execution of this (and felt that the season's execution generally was pretty lackluster). But this episode has at least one genuinely great scene (Dexter and Trinity and trains) and several important ones (Deb telling Dex about his mom and brother, and, you know, the last one).

9. Dances with Smurfs (South Park) – As if the Glenn Beck parody weren’t enough (and, yes, I think it is), the episode ends with a great and simple attack on Cameron’s latest output. Well played, boys.

10. The Variable (Lost) – I’m really on the fence about this show this season, which after the somewhat somnambulent and silly first half became entertaining and silly in the Dharma parts. This episode narrowly beats out another favourite from this year, The Life and Death of Jeremy Bentham, in which Locke’s decision to commit suicide is pretty extreme and seems a bit much even for Lost-psychology. (The season finale, The Incident, is exciting and has a few amazing reveals, but depends basically on the entire main cast agreeing to erase their entire history either because of their petty romantic squabbles or for no reason at all, which left a sour taste in my mouth.) This episode is a lot of sound and fury and wonderful acting that may not actually mean anything, but it’s a nice complement to The Constant anyway, and may, depending on how season six goes and whether any motivations are explained, be a moving story of a woman willing to raise and sacrifice her son to, maybe, restore the timeline or satisfy an Island God or some other abstract principle.

11. (This list goes to 11.) Chuck vs. the Ring (Chuck) - I’m not as fond of this as some people are, particularly since I felt Chevy Chase’s character going on a vague revenge mission didn’t work for me, and that killing off Bryce just reminded me how annoyed I was that the show made him so unlikeable to begin with. But Jeffster, and “I know Kung Fu,” certainly did make me smile.

EDIT - after further consideration I felt that the DEXTER finale, for its flaws, was exciting enough to get a placement on the list. Rather than bumping LOST, I decided to bump the CHUCK episode ("Chuck vs. the Ring") down from 9 to 11.

End of 2009, Part 1: Top Movies

This is a few days late, but I think it's still early enough to do a top movies/tv roundup. I haven't actually seen many movies this year, so it's only ("only") a top five, with five other movies that I liked in some way, with caveats.

Top five of 2009:

1. Inglourious Basterds – Long scenes of tense dialogue as setup to short bursts of action, characters delightfully laughing off idiotic plans that would have passed unnoticed in most movies, heroes and villains obsessed with image creating new reality until a giant face on a movie screen changes history that happened sixty years ago. I’m not sure if I agree with Lt. Raine at the end, staring into the scren (into us, in the position of likable Tarantinoesque monster getting his, perhaps, just deserts) and declaring, “I think this is my masterpiece,” but it’s not a bad pick.

2. The Hurt Locker – “War is a drug,” the opening declares, and this possibly simplistic statement becomes a framework for understanding the film: it’s about one man’s experience with war and it’s about his addiction. Death is everywhere, the few attempts to make human connections prove more destructive than bomb defusals, and two hours of counting down to the final day and the freedom it holds are tossed away as the end reveals the lie behind such end goals and the hope—both in narrative and in life—that they represent.

3. The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans – The second best drug movie of the year (see above), like The Hurt Locker it just happens to be one of the strongest movies made about its tragic setting (here, New Orleans, during and post-Katrina) without making any effort to be about it. On The House Next Door, someone pointed out how the movie is kind of a simple love story between Cage and Mendes’ characters, who love each other and have a kind of real relationship in spite of having sex with other people and doing anything for drugs. The movie also exists simultaneously as a police procedural, a domestic drama, and a can’t-look-away portrait of a monster, with Cage playing all modes at about the same level, his character trying to do his job as a (good) cop, as a boyfriend, as a son and as an addict and maybe even succeeding.

4. The Informant! – Cognitive dissonance is the name of the game here, and Damon gives a wonderful performance as a man whose left hand and right hand not only don’t know what each other are doing but seem to be on different planets, and whose brain never stops puzzling over realities that only occasionally intersect his own. The man is too complicated to be summarized in the film, and too obscure in his desires and motivations for he himself to seem to understand them; the kind of mania that allows him to be a whistleblower on his company seem to drive him to be a thief himself, and the movie complements his constant feelings of righteousness and rightness with hilarious dialogue and a catchy, ever-upbeat score. (How do polar bears know to cover their noses, anyway?)

5. Up – The odd thing is that with movies primarily aimed at teenagers and below, it seems kind of odd to imagine anyone making a story about a sad, angry old man’s slowly coming to move on from his wife’s death, let alone one made in great part for children. But Pixar does this sort of thing yearly. The first half-hour in particular is one of the most effective love stories I’ve ever seen, a tour through an ideal life and heartbreaking death. Then it moves into an adventure about knowing when to hang onto one’s past, and what one should sacrifice for it; blogger Wax Banks pointed out the beauty of the central metaphor (holding onto his house with Ellie on a string, not quite letting it, and by extension her, float away). I feel that the presentation of Peter O’Toole’s explorer as purely evil was a missed opportunity (what was that supposed to be—selfish adventure vs. adventure-as-love?), and some of the dog material is just a bit too silly. But it’s still very good.

Some other movies I liked:

District 9: The movie starts off so well, achingly beautiful in its presentation of a sci-fi version of the Apartheid, smartly asking us to take the position of the oppressors to avoid easily dismissing the actions of the characters as something we wouldn’t do. I think the central performance by the actor who plays Wickers is great, as well. The movie kind of lost my interest partway through, when Wickers teamed up with an alien and his plucky kid and this was a sci-fi buddy movie about the Apartheid, suddenly; it’s possible this genre-switch, and the surface clichés, obscured me from some great moments in the second two-thirds, so I might want to revisit this.

(500) Days of Summer: I wrote about this earlier on the blog, and still quite like it, thinking about it, although I think the shine has faded a bit. The movie’s ending on a positive note, in spite of the main character’s seeming failure to learn his lesson genuinely (i.e. that you shouldn’t expect idealized perfect love, that you should get to know a person as a person rather than a symbol) does seem a bit of a cop-out, and I feel a bit like the presentation of a woman as cet obscur objet du désir would have been nicely counterbalanced by an actual woman character allowed to speak for herself, outside of Summer’s few moments of such; the closest, really, is the protagonist’s kid sister, but this just underscores how little role adult women have as characters rather than as distant symbols. I do still like it, though.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince: I’ve heard a few Potter fans lambasting this one, and it may well be true that this one, like Yates’ Order of the Phoenix, leaves out so much of the book as to make it incomprehensible. And I didn’t remember how much of the movie was set up in the previous film. I will say that I did quite like this, anyway, particularly the interaction among the three kids and the scenes between Harry and Dumbledore; the scene with Harry forcing Dumbledore to drink was as chilling as any in the series. I joked to my girlfriend, though, that the film series does fail to provide proper context to some things. Snape’s good side has been presented so little in the movies that I suspect someone watching this one would simply see the plot as Snape taking an Unbreakable Vow, and then not breaking it. Not much arc there.

The Invention of Lying: Ricky Gervais’ directorial debut (co-written and directed with Matthew Robinson) wasn’t particularly popular, and I do understand why to an extent. It presents a world so ridiculous on its face that few could get past the premise (not only do people not lie, but they also tell the truth at virtually every opportunity), skips some of the justifications for its assertions based on the premise (because people don’t lie, even to themselves, they are obsessed with good genetics and physical appearances), and seems to be aiming for something higher before “settling” for a traditional rom-com plot. But the movie’s ambitions are, I think, deliberately scaled back to make the film more subversive: the movie’s argument that white lies, self-delusion, and, yes, religion (which is mostly a part of the first two) are necessary for society to function and for people to behave selflessly is so bitter a pill that it had to be sugar-coated with a rom-com story in order to be digestible—you know, another pleasant lie to help the truth. Contrary to what I’ve heard, this is not at all an anti-religious film, although it does take as premise a Godless world, and its funniest scene owes as much to Life of Brian as it does to anything else.