Sunday, January 31, 2010

Academy of the Underrated, TV Version: Dollhouse

Dollhouse cast photo and Amazon link
So, to the sadness of some and the outright joy of others, the series DOLLHOUSE came to an end this Friday. Joss Whedon’s latest was a polarizing beast, to put it mildly, and while some of the issue seems to be that the geek favorite was due for a backlash, it was also a weird and uneven show. It was the mutant product of a deal between Fox and star Eliza Dushku that produced a show that would not have been greenlit otherwise, on a network that the showrunner had previously been badly burned by. Its cancellation was anticipated well before it aired, and its survival to a second (albeit brief) season was received with shock. On top of it all, there’s a whole host of gender politics and sexual issues invoked by the subject matter, which leads to fun times and accusations for all.

But what about the show itself? Well, I liked it. I liked LADY IN THE WATER too, so take anything I say with enough salt to kill a man, but I feel weirdly compelled to speak about what I think made this show worth watching. The premise was creepy, the tone jumped from 80s action series to cyberpunk mindfuck and back and forth without much warning, and arguably Ms. Dushku was in over her head, but just about every time the series seemed on the verge of total breakdown, something came along and prodded it back into engaging weirdness. I’m not sure what kind of piece I’m writing here, it’s got the bones of a review but there are various extratextual thingies I want to get into as well, but if you bear with me just a moment I’m sure we’ll have this sorted by the end.

So, the Dollhouse is a project put together by the Rossum corporation, home to all sorts of brain-breaking technology. Clients pay exorbitant amounts of money for the service of one of their “actives”, people programmed with a specific personality for the situation at hand. Many use it for a high class, highly specific brothel, others use it to hire bodyguards, negotiators, midwives (though that’s a weird story), surrogates for dead loved ones, etc. Dushku plays Echo, the most popular active, who has a habit of retaining bits of memories and skills from every imprinted personality she’s ever had, as well as flashes of her original self, who’s stored away on a hard drive as part of a contract signed when she needed to disappear for a few years.

The first few episodes in both seasons focused on individual jobs Echo took on, a “bottle show” approach that seemed to backfire on the show pretty quickly. On the one hand, it’s the obvious approach- the gimmick of the show is that the protagonist can become anyone, do anything, so throw them into some standard action show situations and have fun. Honestly, I did not hate these kinds of episodes, for the most part. I even have a soft spot for “Stage Fright”, the admittedly goofy as Hell installment in which Echo becomes a bodyguard for a pop star whose life has been threatened. It hit a weird nostalgia that I don’t even have for shows I never even watched, shows like KNIGHT RIDER and CHARLIE’S ANGELS where the point was to see which basic story concept got picked out of the pile each week (“Angels, I need you to go undercover... at Las Vegas' newest casino resort!”) I dunno. The basic problem was, Echo is usually tabula rasa without a specific personality, so there’s no character to get attached to, and while the second season established more of a baseline personality for her based on her accumulation of imprints, the bottle shows felt more like an anthology than anything else. And anthologies have not played well on TV for a while.

(As a side note, it’s worth investigating why that is. Seriously, we used to have THE TWILIGHT ZONE and PLAYHOUSE 90 and ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS but now every show has to have continuing characters and an ongoing storyline. What happened there? Changing the subject, sorry.)

In any case, the bottle shows did start to feel rather uninspired, and eventually the show got around to the more popular (critically, at least- commercially the show was dead in the water more or less the whole time) approach of episodes focused on the machinations of the Dollhouse itself. From the start you had the subplot of a former FBI man named Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) obsessed with revealing this clandestine operation, and with Caroline, Echo’s original self, who apparently found out way too much about Rossum. And of course, the technology to reprogram people can be used for a lot more than just prostitution and temp jobs, and it’s suggested that the Dollhouse is basically a moneymaking machine and R&D house used in support of whatever Rossum really has planned.

This raises some very weird issues. In theory, all the actives have joined the program by choice. They serve 5 years or so on a contract, and are released back into their normal selves with a ton of money and whatever unpleasantness drove them there erased somehow. Clean criminal records, selective memory wiping to remove traumas, that sort of thing. But even if you were to overlook the coercion involved in getting some of the actives hired, the question is whether or not you can pre-emptively consent to indentured servitude, without any way of backing out in the middle if you change your mind. (In fact, since your mind is on ice, you can’t change it.)

So it’s uncomfortable, and that the show did not immediately come out and say that this was bad, bad, bad made some people argue that it was a glamourized prostitution fantasy. Not that the Dollhouse was ever unambiguously positive either- rather, its manager, Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams), about whom I will say more later, was a morally conflicted figure trying to justify the sleazier engagements by balancing it out with pro bono work.

Now, there’s a lot of additional stuff that comes up here, regarding Joss Whedon’s own reputation as either a feminist or not-really-a-feminist and whether sights like Eliza Dushku in bondage gear have any place in “feminist” work for whatever definition that has, and it’s all very inflammatory and impossible to discuss because it’s more polarized than a pair of 3-D glasses, and so on. I’m tempted to dismiss this with the old David Cronenberg adage of “an artist has no social responsibility whatsoever”, which may seem like an extreme statement but did you ever make VIDEODROME, but in this case I think it may be enough to say that the subtle wrongness of everything fit the material quite well. The Dollhouse has a pleasant veneer; it’s the appealing face of a company out to control your mind, after all. Every character is dealing with difficult and morally uncertain situations, so it makes sense that we’re made a little uncomfortable alongside them. And if it’s problematic, well, so’s any work worth discussing.

Cronenberg seems like an appropriate authority to appeal to here, because DOLLHOUSE evokes a lot of the themes and concepts that he’s dealt with as a filmmaker. You’ve got identity and transformation thereof, massive corporate conspiracies, sex and violence, and as we just talked about, moral ambiguity up the wazoo. I’m not sure if Whedon was specifically influenced by anything Cronenberg did, but I would wager money that at the very least he’s drawing on Philip K. Dick.

Of course, similarities aside, the show does trade a bit more on moral certainty in the end; the unaired DVD-exclusive episode “Epitaph One” (the result of some weirdness between Fox and the show over how many episodes were ordered) reveals that the Dollhouse tech is ultimately responsible for bringing about the end of civilization as we know it, Adelle’s attempts to keep her Dollhouse ethical put her at odds with Rossum, and the emotional toll all this takes on the characters is not ignored.

Still, the discomforting nature of the show was probably what, more than anything, doomed it commercially. The success of Whedon’s BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER (and most other genre shows) was partly due to fans’ identification and empathy for its main characters. He could and did put them through the emotional wringer, but there was still a certain safety in their friendships and our knowledge of them as fundamentally good people. While FIREFLY was a commercial failure, I’d argue that the reason it has such a fiercely devoted fanbase is because the crew it created is so damn likable, and even the ship itself took on a certain “safe haven” quality, even when invaded by bounty hunters and the like.

DOLLHOUSE doesn’t really offer that- every character is morally compromised on some level, the place’s Zen garden quality is a mask for the ugliness of what gets done, and even if this show had gotten good numbers, dark intense conspiracy thrillers really only work for a few years before they inevitably lose focus. (David Duchovny, early in the run of THE X-FILES, said it shouldn’t run for more than five seasons. He may have been right.) Heck, even BATTLESTAR GALACTICA had more of a comfort zone.

Eliza Dushku took a bit of criticism for her work as the lead. It’s funny- I remember that when she was on BUFFY, people liked her performance a lot, but she is apparently now a terrible actress who couldn’t carry an infomercial let alone a series. (This kind of hyperbole is intrinsic to fandom- I have pretty much heard the same about every DOCTOR WHO companion, everyone on TORCHWOOD, every Bond Girl since I started paying attention to Bond movies, etc.) Now, I do think she’s limited, and in the first aired episode there are a couple of very obvious, very stagey moments where she doesn’t quite convince. But if she got pushed out of her zone now and again, I think she held up most of the time. The overall ensemble fares better; in particular, Enver Gjokaj, playing the active Victor, steals the show on several occasions, and someone needs to cast him in something now because he is awesome.

And as long as this is getting, I want to talk about one more thing.

Adelle. Fucking. De Witt.

Olivia motherfucking Williams as Adelle motherfucking DeWitt

In retrospect I could just mention her and that would be all the defense this show needs. She is arguably one of the very best characters that Joss Whedon has created. Indeed, for those who say that he doesn’t *really* write strong women, well, there’s Adelle. True, she’s got issues. She’s got trade paperbacks. She is conflicted from the start, the pleasant face of the Dollhouse, the ruthless protector of it, and the jailer of a whole alphabet’s worth of men and women. But her moral journey is the show’s most compelling arc, and Olivia Williams plays it superbly. What I said about the show not having the most identifiable ensemble is true, but Adelle- I love Adelle.

Also, whoever is responsible for the character’s fashion needs, if not an Emmy, some sort of medal for distinguished service. I normally don’t notice these things, and Williams would look good wearing a potato sack, but not only is Adelle reliably fabulous, her wardrobe and hair reflect character and mood in the most wonderful way. Whether it’s the gentle look when she’s setting up deals with clients, or a black power suit when the gloves are off, she’s like a mature, morally conflicted Emma Peel.

The whole thing ended on an understandably rushed but still satisfying apocalyptic cyberpunk bash-up, which brought the characters’ various arcs to mostly satisfying conclusions. When the show was renewed for a second season, I took it as a gift, and apparently the showrunners did as well, and we got to have closure. The whole thing was a freak, a mutant that got away from Fox, Whedon, and everyone else and did some neat stuff in its short time. It won’t go down as a classic, but it’s one of the most idiosyncratic things I’ve seen on network TV in a while, and that should guarantee it a minor place in history.

In other words, Grade: B+.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Frasierquest 1.18: And the Whimper is...

Frasier, Roz, and Fletcher Grey in a post-awards discussion.
Frasier: I thought you were bringing Brad MacNamara?

Roz: Well I was, but he got called out on a story at the last minute. Some
hospital went up in flames. Do you know anyone who has worse luck
than I do?

It’s awards season, I think, and I ask you, is there any greater pinnacle of media acclaim than Seattle’s coveted SeaBea Award? The answer is yes. But for Frasier and Roz, it is temptation enough to engage in the most unprofessional behavior they can. Like the prank wars with Gary’s Old Town Tavern in CHEERS, the SeaBeas are a perennial competition both entirely meaningless and intensely important to the protagonists. “And The Whimper Is...” kicks off an annual tradition for the show itself, lampooning some of the silliness of awards show campaigning along the way.

The plot to this one is fairly simple. Frasier’s show gets nominated for a SeaBea (short for Seattle Broadcasting, and I’m not clear on how that works either), and Frasier and Roz get it into their heads that they should do some hardcore schmoozing in order to win. They send gifts to everyone on the voting committee in hopes that they’ll outdo the competition, but when the ceremony rolls around, Frasier starts to feel bad about what his father thinks is outright bribery. Especially since this may be the last chance at the award for Seattle broadcasting institution Fletcher Grey (John McMartin). Roz, having been in the radio game for ten years, is feeling nothing resembling remorse and is ready to crawl over several corpses for the prize.

Bebe Glaser has a short appearance in this one, but ironically she has nothing to do with Frasier and Roz’s downright Weinstein-esque publicity campaign. The two want that award badly all on their lonesome, and it’s an opportunity to see the pair at their least flattering. Frasier at least starts to question whether he’s doing the right thing- he is nothing if not self-searching, sometimes to a fault- but Roz is more cutthroat than we’ve ever seen her (and to the best of my recollection, will ever see her again.) There’s a weird way in which this helps her character; she’s shown her ugly side, and that rounds her out as a person. She’s humbled somewhat by the way events turn out, so it’s not much of a mark against her.

The episode also develops Roz by showing how much closer she’s become to Frasier’s group (Niles excepted.) She shares some leering (and a push-up bra) with Daphne over her SeaBea date, hunky anchor Brad MacNamara (he doesn’t work out and Noel steps in, but that’s another story), and greets Martin with a friendly peck- she’s now moved to the status of friend of the family rather than just being Frasier’s co-worker. Well into the season, it’s good to see the characters bonding.

On the professional end, things don’t end up going well for Frasier and Roz, though I’m glad the show resisted the easy joke of having them be overlooked year after year. This time, it falls to Fletcher Grey to remind them of what’s important- that awards are nothing compared to the body of work you build up. It’s an interesting dip into the ethics and lessons of a life in the media, something that the show occasionally touches on now and again- and no doubt reflects some of the experience of the writers and showrunners.

FRASIER itself would be no stranger to the awards circuit, so I guess it’s appropriate that they would revisit the SeaBea ceremony year after year. This first visit gives us some good character development for Frasier’s lovely and talented producer, which is arguably enough to sustain the episode, but Frasier also gets in one of his trademark moral dilemmas. If there’s one thing to learn from this episode, it’s that guilt is a powerful story driver.

No Guest Caller

Written by Sy Dukane & Denise Moss
Directed by James Burrows
Aired February 17, 1994

Frasier: So, where's Maris?

Niles: Well, we were just getting ready to leave the house, when Maris got a
glimpse of herself in the hall mirror...

Frasier: Niles, at the end of this story, will I roll my eyes?

Niles: I did.

[Again, quotes come from John Masson's transcript at]

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Frasierquest 1.17: A Midwinter Night's Dream

Niles and Daphne in a potentially compromising situation
Daphne: “Dr. Crane, your glockenspiel has sprung to life!”

As I’ve mentioned earlier, the “Niles and Daphne” element of the series started as a running gag: a high-strung, fastidious psychiatrist married to a brittle heiress finds himself smitten by a lower-caste fusion of earth mother and Eliza Doolittle. But then, something happened. The people making the show noticed that David Hyde Pierce and Jane Leeves, and their characters, had a real chemistry. Niles was so vulnerable it was hard to hold his adulterous thoughts against him, and his insecurity matched up to Daphne’s perkiness was nothing if not very cute.

“A Midwinter Night’s Dream” is where the gag becomes a subplot, albeit one that required 7 years to bring to fruition. Focused on Daphne and Niles to the extent that Frasier is very nearly sidelined, the episode marks an important transition point for the show in that it’s able to not be about its protagonist for once. It’s also very sweet and romantic, and manages to reaffirm the status quo while also advancing the OTP ever so slightly.

At the Café Nervosa, Daphne gets chatted up by a hunky redheaded barista named Eric (Dean Erickson), and she falls for him hard. This upsets Niles, but Frasier gets him to admit that this may be more because of ennui setting in between him and Maris. Sadly, an attempt to spice things up in the bedroom goes awry, Maris leaves for the weekend, and Niles decides to try and put together a romantic dinner for when she comes back. Daphne helps out, and heads over to his spacious house in the midst of a rainstorm. Maris decides not to come back that evening, a newly-dumped and heartbroken Daphne changes out of her wet clothes into a silky nightie, and the power goes out, leaving the two to keep warm by the fire. The clock is ticking, and Frasier races over (with Martin in tow) to keep Niles from doing something he’ll regret.

Just as a side note, Erickson’s turn as Daphne’s beau is actually something of a field promotion; he’s visible as a worker at the Café in earlier episodes, notably “I Hate Frasier Crane”, “You Can’t Tell A Crook By His Cover” (where he has a few lines), and “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back.” It’s a nice bit of consistency, and though we don’t see him afterwards, Daphne does say that he dumped her in an attempt to concentrate on his music.

As firsts go, this is our first sight of Niles and Maris’ home, or rather its living room (the show doesn’t do exteriors much.) In keeping with its purpose in this episode, it’s big, elegant, and old-fashioned, with a fireplace, grand piano, and other melodramatic accouterments. It’s fitting that this is the setting for the start of the show’s flirtation with Niles and Daphne as a romance.

In a way, this is an important development for the series overall, because I’ve always got the feeling that among other things, FRASIER is a romantic comedy. Secret crushes and marital troubles and heartbreak are key elements, whether for Niles, Daphne, Frasier himself, Roz, or even Martin. It’s almost Shakespearean in the treatment of love as a subject; it’s adult, urbane, and acknowledges the many disappointments that love involves, but never rejects the romantic ideal. The trajectory of the Niles/Daphne subplot is a good reflection of this tone as a whole; it acknowledges both our desire to see these kids together, but also shows what’s keeping them back.

Of course this is necessary for pacing reasons as much as anything. The writers didn’t want to rush into a romantic subplot, and it was still fun to have him flirting and her oblivious (Jane Leeves said in an interview that she viewed Daphne as being in denial; there were signals being sent, but why would someone like Niles be interested in someone like her?) And Niles wouldn’t be half as sympathetic if he left Maris for a younger girl at the first sign of marital dullness. And so, the episode is about Niles realizing the value of his marriage, and that he still deeply loves his wife. The ultimate contrast is between Daphne’s exciting-but-short-lived relationship with Eric, and the stable comfort of Niles and Maris’ relationship.

At the same time, the show isn’t gonna throw this plot away. A key dynamic in the early Niles/Daphne episodes is the retreat to normality vs. laying the foundation for later development. We see that Niles’ marriage has its troubles and that Maris’ oversensitivity is a key one, something that gradually becomes its own subplot. More importantly, we see that Daphne likes Niles, and she grows closer to him in the course of the evening. By the end, they’ve bonded and become good friends, and she’s not even trying too hard to cut it off there: a key moment in the script reads, “They are very close to a kiss. If Niles made his move right now, she’d probably be his.”

It’s one of those things you have to see to understand; Jane Leeves and David Hyde Pierce just bounce tension off one another, and in the space of a few scenes they convince anyone not already on board that Niles and Daphne have something special, that neither of them fully understands. For the time being, nothing comes of it, but it doesn’t matter. We can wait.

No Guest Caller

Written by Chuck Ranberg & Anne Flett-Giordano
Directed by David Lee
Aired February 10, 1994

Daphne: Dr. Crane! You have some nerve to imply that your brother would do anything so deplorable. Why just moments ago he made a beautiful speech about how much he loves his wife. How he cherishes her excruciating little face and how they laugh at white people. (to Niles) That didn’t sound right.

Niles: Close enough.

(Also: First time on record that Niles is transfixed by Daphne's rear end.)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Random Movie Report #73: Frankenstein Conquers the World

DVD cover and Amazon link
Enough of this! Politics begone! Time for monsters!

Despite having one of the greatest titles you could possibly give a film, FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERS THE WORLD is surprisingly obscure. It’s one of Toho’s lesser-known monster epics from the mid-60s, another Honda film; this is becoming a thing with me, and why not? Like I said, they consistently made good genre flicks with a lot of imagination, and the films hold up astoundingly well. Anyhow, this one rumbled around on TV for a while but was hard to find on video, but the Tokyo Shock DVD gives us both the American and Japanese versions of the picture, plus extras. The film itself is engagingly weird, if not very well paced, and it features some interesting twists on the classic formula.

The film opens in Germany in 1945, where Axis scientists studying the heart of the Frankenstein monster (yep, he was real), have it transferred to Japan just ahead of the Allied advance; there, they hope to use the creature’s apparent immortality to grant a similar condition to soldiers. Unfortunately, the lab is in Hiroshima, and the first A-Bomb is dropped before any work can get started. Over a decade later, Dr. James Bowen (Nick Adams), Dr. Yuzo Kawaji (Tadao Takashima), and Dr. Sueko Togami (Kumi Mizuno) are working at Hiroshima’s institute for studying the effects of radiation, which includes ministering to people who still have lingering sickness from the original blast. Togami runs across a strange feral child (Koji Furuhata) running through the city, and helps bring him in to the institute, where the big forehead eventually gives him away; he is somehow the result of the irradiation of the Frankenstein heart, and apart from eating by the truckload and being easily angered, he’s also growing constantly. He breaks free, and near the same time, a series of strange disasters are reported around Japan. Ironically, most of these are not Frankie’s fault, but can be blamed on a subterranean dinosaur monster named Baragon, who’s taken to eating people, livestock, etc. It’s not really until the end of the film that the two actually face off, but suffice it to say it’s an epic confrontation.

Takes a while to get there, though. The film suffers from a strangely bloated feel, moving along very deliberately as the new Frankenstein monster is suspected of causing various horrific incidents around the country. We know better, and so did the original audience, as this was billed in Japan as “Frankenstein vs. Baragon”. There is some conflict between Bowen and Togami on one side, who think the Frankenstein child is fundamentally non-aggressive, and Kawaji who sees him as a danger, but even with this to sustain the plot it feels unnecessarily slow. The film isn’t that long, but the rhythm is a little languid. I actually wonder if the American version, which I haven’t watched yet, isn’t a little tighter- Henry G. Saperstein, who supervised the import of this as well as many other Toho films, understood that his audience expected things to go a little faster. I may update the post if I get around to seeing it. Watch this space.

On the upside, the film features some decent character work, the three scientists having a nice dynamic. Having an American in the lead in a story that directly builds on the Hiroshima bombing makes for an interesting dynamic; Bowen is an idealist, trying to make some good come of this situation, and even in the monster he sees something like hope, since the creature can regenerate tissue and regrow lost limbs. It’s bound to end in tears, but the dedication of the main characters does help drive the plot.

Baragon is an oddly popular beast, considering how infrequently he’s worked; after this he made a short appearance in DESTROY ALL MONSTERS, but that was it until 2001, when he rounded out the cast of GODZILLA MOTHRA KING GHIDORAH: GIANT MONSTERS ALL-OUT ATTACK. Though he’s not that far off from Godzilla himself, what with the fire breath, scaly skin, and hatred for humanity, he does develop his own personality, and the design is interesting as well. I like the ornamentation that the classic Toho monsters have, frills and horns and all- for some reason this has fallen out of fashion.

The Frankenstein monster (who is just referred to as Frankenstein throughout, but dammit, I have standards) is well-acted, and it’s neat to see a human being traipsing around Eiji Tsubaraya’s elaborate miniature sets, even under makeup. Both monsters are actually smaller than most of the Toho stable, which means the sets can be built to a larger scale and detailed more closely, and that Furuhata isn’t sweating under 200 pounds of rubber means the fight scenes are more kinetic than usual. A lot of the slowness of the film can be forgiven by the fiery awesomeness of its final battle, as well as the eerie mood created throughout.

Toho’s Frankenstein monster never resurfaced, though the story formed the basis for the earlier-reviewed WAR OF THE GARGANTUAS; I guess the problem with classic horror characters is they’re hard to slap a trademark on. Still, his one appearance is a memorable one, a genuine curiosity of a film hampered only slightly by being a bit dull in places. It’s not so much a “must-see” picture as a “this I gotta see” one, and on that level it delivers.

Vaguely inspired by the novel “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley
Screenplay by Kaoru Mabuchi
Directed by Ishiro Honda

Grade: B+

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Another Bad Idea (Political Version)

I haven't really disguised my political beliefs in the past, you may have already gathered I lean to the lefty side, but I try to keep the really polarizing and un-fun stuff out of here. It's a club, we like not being too serious. But right now, with a special election in Massachusetts meaning potentially very bad things for a concern of mine, I have to vent a little. It's kind of useless, but I have no choice. In retrospect, I'm putting this behind a cut, because srsly. This thing would clutter up the front page somethin' fierce.

At 13 I was diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. I'd previously been considered as having ADD, but that didn't quite encapsulate the weird stuff my brain was doing. I'm basically just explaining this to make clear that I'm not one of those people who self-diagnosed myself with the syndrome to explain my lack of social skills.

It's a condition I've more or less made my peace with, and I've got it under control with medication. The problem is that it also makes me uninsurable. When I became ineligible for my family's insurance, and then graduated and became ineligible for student insurance, I decided to apply on my own. I was rejected, because Asperger's is a pre-existing condition. I was screwed.

Now, the current health bill is nowhere near perfect. But one thing it does do is make it illegal for insurance companies to discriminate against people with pre-existing conditions. This is in both versions that have been passed so far, it'll almost certainly be in any final version. So I kind of need this. I can afford to pay, I just need to be allowed to give them my money so I can not worry about being in an accident and paying off medical bills very slowly for the rest of my life.

The GOP, for whatever reason, has continually refused to put this very simple clause in any alternate health care bill they've proposed. I can't have the slightest confidence that Scott Brown or anyone in that party cares about people like me- or rather, if they do, the whips have convinced them that unity in opposition is more important. I admire the discipline, but guys, seriously.

So there's the chance this could be killed after all, thanks to a Mass. special election that, as a Missourian, I didn't have the slightest say in. I do appreciate that the Democratic candidate ran the worst campaign possible and all, but...

I'm through equivocating. A majority of people now apparently don't care about giving people like me a chance at health care, and that apparently includes a majority of voters in Massachusetts. I don't care how badly this bill was presented or what your utopian ideal is, I can't afford for you to say "Let's start over and do it right this time", I need the ability to buy insurance like yesterday. If you want this bill to die, you're saying I don't matter. So, in other words, go. Leave. Get out. Don't want your business. I can no longer abide the company of people who think that it's okay to let the status quo continue, whether it's because they want single payer instead (and that would be great, but seriously, how long am I supposed to hold out?), or they just think of themselves as Randian supermen.

I've got the free clinics for now, am volunteering in hopes of eventually landing a job that would provide benefits, I've written my representative, I'm looking at homes in countries that aren't quite so fucked in this department, I can hold out. Other people with the same pesky conditions don't have my support network. We can't let this end for them. This is going to be our last shot at the problem for a while, in all likelihood. We make it, or people continue to suffer.

And because you've been good and patient enough to at least scroll down, here's Julia Sawalha to lighten the mood:

Goodnight, will try not to do this again.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

In Theaters: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Imaginarium poster and IMPAwards link

The critics aren’t exactly raving over Terry Gilliam’s latest film, but they’re being kinder to it than his last couple of films, so I guess that’s encouraging. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, which also happens to be Heath Ledger’s last film, is a bit of a spiritual sequel to THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, both stories of old age and imagination, only this time smaller and more intimate. It’s sometimes opaque in its storytelling, and like all Gilliam’s work a tad undisciplined, but it’s not just a collection of pretty images; the film explores some fascinating thematic territory and can be seen, in a way, as the filmmaker’s commentary on what he does and what drives him.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) is a millenia-old storyteller, immortal due to a deal with the devil (played by Tom Waits, a victim of typecasting if there ever was one.) His Imaginarium is a rickety traveling stage show, the sort you don’t really see much at all ever, but it has a twist; participants dragged into his “mirror” find themselves inside their own imaginations, confronting their own desires and nightmares. Inevitably the devil shows up to tempt them towards their basic instincts, winning souls when he succeeds, though Parnassus tries to steer them towards the right path. Parnassus does the show with an assistant named Anton (Andrew Garfield), a little person named Percy (Verne Troyer), and his daughter, Valentina (Lily Cole). Valentina is just about to come of age, which presents a problem, since unbeknownst to her, her father promised the devil his child some time ago. However, one night the travelers happen upon and rescue a hanging man (Ledger), who apparently doesn’t remember who he is but is running from something nasty in his past. Parnassus takes it as a sign, and the devil offers another bet- first to claim 5 souls wins, and his daughter’s freedom is at stake. The man, Tony, decides to help out with the show and offers some ideas for its modernization, but his affection for Valentina creates a triangle with Anton, and Valentina herself still doesn’t realize what’s at stake. Making things even messier, the problems that have dogged Tony haven’t gone away at all...

It’s nearly impossible to ignore the reality of Heath Ledger’s tragic death while watching the film, as his passing left several of his character’s scenes unshot. Most of what was left was, apparently, Tony’s journeys into the mirror, and here three actors- Johnny Depp, Jude Law, and Colin Farrel- stepped into the role, one for each journey, with the explanation that Tony’s appearance changes whenever he’s inside. Fortunately the majority of the character’s scenes- all of those in the real world- are Ledger’s, allowing him to establish the bass line. The others don’t imitate him, precisely, but put certain spins on the core character according to each flight of fancy, while the personality remains coherent. Ledger’s work isn’t nearly as show-stealing as it was in THE DARK KNIGHT, but one still can’t help but be struck by his intensity, and I think it’s become clear that he was first and foremost a remarkably versatile performer.

Fantasy sequences are something of a trademark of Gilliam’s (not counting ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN or TIME BANDITS, where such sequences were effectively the entire picture minus one or two scenes), and his latest visions don’t disappoint. Whether it’s the candy-colored but still dangerous realms of the Imaginarium, or the glimpses of Parnassus’ distant past, the film offers some amazing visuals that are loaded with metaphors and poetic images. The fantasies feel organic, but never random; Gilliam frames each one as a kind of morality play, suggesting that we use art and imagination to define ourselves. Parnassus’s dreamscapes are neutral- he offers salvation, the Devil offers the cheaper and easier pleasures, and it’s ultimately our decision. But it’s possible that my analysis is just throwing my own perception of art/imagination onto Gilliam’s and co-writer Charles McKeown’s, because they don’t hit you over the head with a message. Still, certain passages seem almost autobiographical, reflecting a knowledge of the joys and sacrifices of a life devoted to creating fantasy.

The film definitely has a lopsided feel at times; Gilliam’s work is always a little chaotic, though this is not an entirely bad thing. There could stand to be more characterization, particularly of Valentina, who wants to get away from all this but feels loyal to her father. Some of the finer details of the story could also use explaining; it’s one of those cases where you can understand the thematic intent, but concrete details aren’t worked out. Of course, Ledger’s death may have necessitated that some scenes be discarded rather than recast (and there is something sad in that the character’s last scenes belong to another actor.) Then again, we can’t be sure unless/until a script is released.

But it’s one of those cases where the more you think back to the flaws, the less they matter, and the more the good parts stand out. This is a film rich in mystery and ambiguity, one which seems to compel repeat viewings. I don’t consider this a comeback for Gilliam, because I’m on record as being in TIDELAND’s corner, but that film did represent a sort of experiment on the extreme fringe of filmmaking. THE IMAGINARIUM OF DOCTOR PARNASSUS, while not really mainstream, is more accessible, seductive, and just plain fun. It feels like old times, while exploring some new territory. Don’t just see it because it’s Ledger’s last work; see it because it’s a tribute to anyone who thinks stories are important.

Written by Terry Gilliam and Charles McKeown
Directed by Terry Gilliam

Grade: A-

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Frasierquest 1.16: The Show Where Lilith Comes Back

Lilith, snarking as usual
Lilith: Congratulations, Frasier, you’ve done it again.

So, after the holidays and starting something that is like work but without the money, I’m ready to start back on Frasierquest before everyone thinks I’ve abandoned it. Rest assured, I have no intention of stopping.

And what an episode to come back to. I really loved Frasier and Lilith as a couple on CHEERS, and was disappointed that they divorced off-screen before this series, as hilariously as it was handled. Of course, the main reason for this is that Bebe Neuirth is first and foremost a stage actress, and wasn’t willing to abandon Broadway for L.A., but thankfully, she was available to visit every year or so. Something about Lilith forces the writers to bring their A-game; her appearances are pure gold, and her first guest shot is no exception.

Lilith drifts back into Frasier’s world first by calling into his radio show to counter his advice to the previous caller; she’s apparently in town for a psychiatric convention, but she couldn’t help it. As it happens, though, she’s there because of a letter she discovered, in which Frasier implores Lilith to give their relationship a second chance. Frasier wrote that letter over a year ago, now he’s starting to think maybe it would be worth a try. He goes to see her at her hotel room, and inevitably, mistakes are made.

A common thread in Lilith episodes is that her arrival is something the other characters dread. Her first appearance in Seattle is heralded by Daphne getting the mother of all psychic headaches, and dark spiritual portents crop up in subsequent episodes. But of course, she’s not that bad. She’s a good person at heart, just with a very dry wit and an oddly blunt approach to social situations. The contrast between the legend of Lilith and the reality is arguably one of the things that makes her appearances so much fun; her intelligence and charm becomes more disarming, and she gets to be a foil for the regular cast while still being sympathetic.

Part of the fun is also just watching Neuirth in the role. I’d say she has the ease that comes with having played a character for years beforehand, but honestly, she had Lilith down from early on. (Arguably it was her second CHEERS episode, “Abnormal Psychology” from the fifth season, where she found her groove.) The biting sarcasm, the deadpans, the occasional sexiness, there’s an entire essay that could be written about this performance.

This time around, though, Lilith’s visit serves a specific purpose, which is to give closure to a relationship that ended offscreen. By flirting with reviving their marriage, Frasier and Lilith get to show why it ended in the first place; not because they hate each other, all jokes aside, or because of any specific character flaws. They’re just in different places. We never do find out what the catalyst was that ended things once and for all, but it doesn’t really matter. And of course, there’s a nice redemptive note, in that they’ll always be connected by Frederick.

The Lilith episodes are really a good example of the depth of characterization that sets FRASIER apart. There’s something classical in the way these two people who just can’t get along keep getting pulled together, but at the same time it reveals a Hell of a lot about both of them. “The Show Where Lilith Comes Back” is a great kick-off to the tradition, and one of the first season’s best episodes.

And the next one is even better, folks.

Guest Caller: Timothy Leary as Hank

Written by Ken Levine & David Isaacs
Directed by James Burrows
Aired February 3, 1994

Frasier: Well Seattle, we have a celebrity of sorts on the line. This is my ex-wife Lilith.

Lilith: What do you mean by celebrity?

Frasier: Oh, they know you.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Random Who Report: The Sea Devils (1972)

Sea Devils DVD cover and Amazon Link
As much as I enjoyed “The End of Time”, the Tenth Doctor’s fiery swan song, all that apocalypse stuff and tear-jerking goodbyes call for a palate-cleansing. “The Sea Devils” is a tricky story to review because it’s a sequel to one I haven’t reviewed yet; “Doctor Who and the Silurians” had the Doctor encountering a race of reptile men who inhabited Earth before man and now wanted it back, and here he meets their cousins with the same agenda. Malcolm Hulke (arguably the old series’ most socially conscious writer) manages to mix things up, though, and it’s a respectable sequel with just enough action and adventure to justify its six-episode length.

The Doctor (Jon Pertwee) and Jo Grant (Katy Manning) head out to check up on the Master (Roger Delgado), currently being held in an island prison. Ships have been disappearing in the area, and the Navy’s getting nervous. The Doctor tries to make contact with the Sea Devils in hopes that he can work out a peaceful solution to their displacement, but they’re not much for words and more for killing people with heat rays. It doesn’t help that the Master, with the cooperation of his jailer who hopes to get the credit for flushing out “enemy agents”, has made contact with the Sea Devils and plans to help them in their goal of destroying the human race, just to get back at the Doctor. (Some things never change.)

The original Master, Delgado is always a treat to see in the part. His is probably the most understated take on the character- not yet maniacally driven to survive at all costs, the Master is simply interested in gaining power and putting one over on his old friend/foe whenever possible. He’s more the sane evil mastermind, witty and urbane and with a twisted respect for our hero.

Essentially the story has two major plots; the Sea Devils wanting to take over the Earth, and the Master playing them to his advantage. By alternating between these two elements, the story generally avoids the feeling of padding most six-parters get; it’s probably a little longer than it needs to be, but there are no obvious plot cul-de-sacs or red herrings.

Instead, there’s quite a lot of action, here with the participation of the genuine Royal Navy. There are some very nice stunt sequences and battle scenes, but the highlight has to be the authentic working combat hovercraft that plays a key role in a few scenes. It’s interesting that the Navy’s participation was secured for a story which calls into question our rush to solve problems with violence, but it does put the blame for human escalation not on the sailors, but an amusingly spineless government functionary who just wants the business to be over with as quickly as possible.

The Sea Devils are an interesting design, undermined slightly by the execution- they have stiff, inexpressive heads perched upon long necks which conceal the heads of the actors, resulting in some awkward movement to say the least. That said, they can be a chilling sight rising from the water in groups, and their turtle-like faces are almost charming.

The social commentary that formed so much of “Doctor Who and the Silurians” is here mostly reduced to a couple of scenes, but the moral ambiguity of the situation still adds a lot to the story. It plays up the Doctor’s altruism against the Master’s self-interest, as well as pitting our desire to see humanity win out over our knowledge that it’s not necessarily the most just outcome. “The Sea Devils” is a fun story overall, and rumors seem to indicate that the monsters (and their Silurian cousins) may return to the show for Matt Smith’s first season, so this isn’t a bad time to catch up.

Written by Malcolm Hulke
Produced by Barry Letts
Directed by Michael Briant

Grade: B+