Sunday, May 31, 2009

Up



Only Pixar could make an animated film about a man who soars above the rain forests of South America in his own house realistic. Up follows two of Pixar’s biggest successes to date in Ratatouille and Wall•E, and anyone who thought the streak might end has another thing coming. The idea of an old man flying his house may sound straightforward on paper, but in the hands of director Pete Docter it becomes Pixar’s most subtly moving film to date, even as it is also one of its most action-packed.

The flying house in question belongs to Carl Fredricksen (Ed Asner), who grew up a fan of explorer Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer). He befriended his future wife, Ellie, through a mutual love of adventure, and they pledge to one day move to Paradise Falls in Venezuela. But, as it so often does, life gets in the way. Before you know it, the pair grow old and Ellie dies. As contractors buy up all the land around Carl’s home to turn into high-priced condos, Carl decides to pay tribute to his wife and ties thousands of balloons to his house to fulfill their dream. The floating house calls to mind the great Hayao Miyazaki, the primary influence on Pixar's films, and his Castle in the Sky, while the scene where the house lifts off the ground for the first time reflect that legendary moment in Herzog's great Fitzcarraldo in which he successfully drags a boat across land. It's a moment of pure euphoria, a fulfillment of everyone's fantasy of just leaving it all behind.

Unwittingly accompanying Carl is Russell, a young scout who happened to be on the front porch when the house lifted. Russell is your usual cartoon kid: plucky, motor-mouthed and pudgy. But his purpose here is not, as is usually the case, to remind Carl of forgotten youth and to reinvigorate the spirit; the man tied balloons to his house to live on a waterfall in South America, for Pete’s sake. For once, the child doesn’t have all the answers, but then neither does Carl.

At this point the film moves from a quiet tearjerker into a full-bore adventure, a multi-colored ode to old-fashioned serials and jungle treks. Carl and Russell befriend a gigantic tropical bird Russell dubs “Kevin,” as well as a talking dog. Yes, there’s a talking dog, but the way in which he speaks is rather clever, and he says what a dog might say if one could really talk. Much of the comedy comes from these animal compatriots, but this is one of the more dramatic Pixar films yet produced.

Up is the second film directed by Pete Docter, who also gave us Pixar’s heretofore most heartbreaking number, and he pulls out all the stops here. The opening, nearly silent segment won’t leave a dry eye in the house, but it’s by no means the only touching moment of the 96 minutes. Pixar films famously do not pander to the audience – which is impressive, considering the median age is below puberty – but Docter visually explores the themes and characters more subtly and elegantly than ever before. Often he pauses on a small, framed photograph of Ellie located next to the helm, and he beautifully captures the majesty of the rain forest that Carl dreamed about for decades.

That love of nature inspires Carl when he discovers that a familiar face has also taken up residence at Paradise Falls solely to capture rare creatures. Docter, who came up for the story for Wall•E, clearly cares about the environment, but the message here is neither as pronounced nor as didactic as Pixar’s previous hit. At last Russell and Carl must face down the villain in an aerial showdown that would make Indiana Jones proud, a ten-minute battle that mixes breathtaking animation, high comedy and exhilarating action effortlessly.

But for all its extravagance, Up succeeds because of its intimacy. Like the very best of Pixar’s productions, it’s concerned not so much with gags but drama, and the incredible animation only fleshes out the characters more: every bit of Russell moves in perfect harmony with his incessant speaking and Carl, giant square head and all, personifies the gruff and the charming aspect of that Walter Mathau-esque Grumpy Old Man. This is not a film about lost youth but of acceptance of loss and the courage to move on, and few characters in Pixar's ouevre display Carl's strength. While the much-hyped 3-D aspect of the film is, by the sheer nature of the technology, a gimmick, Up is an iridescent, eye-popping adventure that gives itself enough space to breathe and reflect, and in many ways it’s the film Steven Spielberg might have made if he had been an animator. At this point I can’t even act surprised that Pixar yet again have given us the warmest, most human and most original film of the year.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Wire — Season 4



Every season of The Wire ends with a quiet cataclysm, a massive breakdown on both sides of the law that drastically alters the direction the show will later take. Yet these events, despite their epic impact, are dwarfed by a world that functions as if all these players never even existed. Even a microcosm like Baltimore slides further into decay unfazed by all the deaths, drugs and arrests that accompany every storyline. David Simon and his writers let neither the characters nor the audience bask in a sense of victory, as the real world does not allow such luxuries. The situation can only worsen, and any personal sense of accomplishment is soon buried under the world's indifference.

The third season finale was particularly devastating for the many characters who populate Simon's world: Major Colvin's Hamsterdam crumbled, an initially successful experiment that went horribly, horribly wrong, and with it went Colvin's career as well as clean streets in the rest of Baltimore. The Barksdale organization dissolved under the weight of betrayal and a massive police crackdown, resulting in the death of one beloved character and the arrest of many more. The dissolution of the Barksdale clan ensured Marlo Stanfield's rise to power, and he sets about creating a monopoly throughout the new season.

The end of the Barksdales also shifted the Major Crimes Unit severely. McNulty, satisfied with the bust, returns to life as a newly-sober patrolman and plays only a tangential role throughout this new set of episodes. Daniels inherits Colvin's position as much for his race as his competence, which is unfair as Daniels has more than proven himself by now, while Kima moves into Homicide. Only Bunk and Lester Freamon continue to slave away at the MCU, now pursuing the growing Stanfield organization.

But Marlo doesn't offer the same thrill that Avon and his crew did: Bunk and Freamon bemoan the fact that their new target doesn't burn disposable cell phones as quickly as their old foe, but the dealers also never discuss anything more serious than minor trafficking. Strangely, murder rates are down, and anyone who does die cannot be traced to Stanfield. This seems even odder when you consider the character of Marlo, a borderline psychotic who spent most of last season viciously forcing his way into Barksdale territory to make some hostile takeovers. Then we see two of his soldiers, Chris and Snoop, take a man into a vacant house, execute him, then board up the place. No witnesses, no body, no problem. Soon we learn that Marlo is every bit the sadist he was last season, but he's not as dumb as the cops think.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the darker tone, former enemies come to admire one another.

The new drug trade is one of three main narrative threads that tie the overall message of the season together, one that serves as the flip side of the economic decay. This season is all about morality, and how memories of the past -- a part of which is, naturally, the first three seasons -- serve to embitter its victims and beget even worse conditions. The transition from Barksdale to Stanfield reminded me strongly of Michael Corleone's ascension to his father's throne: Avon, though vindictive and a self-confessed thug, knew how to make friends and buy allies, and he treated loyalty like family. Though Stringer ultimately called a hit on a family member, he always tried to know beyond shadow of a doubt that the organization was in danger before condemning someone. Marlo, in contrast, is a loner; he has no family, treats his soldiers like soldiers and survives on a cold sense of rational evil. Anyone Marlo even suspects of snitching will soon be the owner of his very own boarded-up vacant home. It's certainly no Godfather-ripoff, but it displays with shocking clarity how dark the business is becoming even compared to its inherently seedy nature.

The second thread takes us in the opposite direction from the streets and goes right to City Hall. We met ambitious yet conniving councilman Tommy Carcetti last season, where he used Hamsterdam's failure to catalyze his budding mayoral campaign. Carcetti becomes a major player now, as his campaign opens up the political side of Baltimore to its closest inspection yet. Carcetti seems less like an arrogant prig this season, as the stress of the primary campaign against incumbent Royce takes its toll and makes him more sympathetic. Then again, he might only seem better by comparison: Royce always wore his corruption on his sleeves, but the deluge of new politicians only serve to reveal that Royce's ilk, though more exaggerated than the rest, is the rule, not the exception.


Even as Carcetti comes to believe his own rhetoric as his city tours engender a sense of civic responsibility in him, he still knows how to play the game, and much of his scenes involve setting himself up to be a white mayor in a black town. He looks for competence in his positions, but he and his advisors constantly consider the race of any potential ally. Meanwhile, Royce uses his access to big funds to run devastating smear campaigns. After the election ends, the backroom meetings only get more devious, as old alliances are severed and new people receive promotions. The politicians reflect the decline of Baltimore and, to a greater extent, America as they do everything in their power not to keep the city clean but their reputation. They pressure the police to keep crime rates down so it looks good for re-election. As the cops cannot handles the horrific crime rate as is, they simply do not pursue any lead that does not actively fall in their laps, allowing rape, burglary and murder cases to go unprocessed, which really only allows crime to increase.

The final strand, and the backbone of the season, concerns the next generation. We follow a group of neighborhood kids, the children of Barksdale dealers and common users, as they duck school and rebel when a truant officer finally brings them in. Chief among them are Namond Brice, Wee-Bay's son, who must deal on the corners practically because her mother demands he live up to his father's "example"; Randy Wagstaff, who unwittingly plays a part in one of Chris and Snoop's executions and spends the rest of the season under suspicion as a potential snitch; and Duquan "Dukie" Weems, a bright young boy who wears fetid tatters as his family pawn all of his possessions for drug money and don't pay utlities bills for running water. There's also Michael Lee, whose mother is also a junkie and who cares dearly for his brother, doubly so when their shady father returns after a years-long absence.


In class, they meet their new math teacher, Prez, freshly discharged from the police force due to the scandal over his accidental shooting of a fellow (black) officer. Prez hopes to really teach these kids but soon learns that the schools, like the cops, must "juke the stats to make the government look good. They don't teach the class, they teach the standardized tests, as one knowing teacher advises. But Prez deviates from curriculum in an attempt to find a bridge with these children, most of whom have already resigned themselves to a life on the streets. They shout profanity at the teachers, disrupt any exercise and some even attack each other with weapons.

As Prez attempts to relate real-world scenarios to appeal to the children, Bunny Colvin also finds himself at the middle school, and it appears he's not entirely out of crazy schemes. Along with a group of counselors and psychologists, Colvin proposes separating the calmer students from the ones exhibiting behavioral problems, allowing the teachers to have a more productive classroom while studying and helping the more rambunctious kids. Last season, Colvin addressed the elephant in the room when it comes to the drug trade by proposing a semi-legalization of the practice, and here he confronts us with the brutal truth of No Child Left Behind: it has failed our children miserably.

The depiction of the children demonstrates that the sins of the father are passed on to the child: Namond's twisted mother uses her husband's name to get her son prime corners to shuffle product, and she becomes infuriated when Namond shows any inclination that he hates dealing. The increased violence both terrifies and hardens the boys, and Colvin soon realizes that many of the kids in his special program use school as a safegrounds to practice their street attitude: the worst that can happen in class is suspension and expulsion, but it can toughen them against authority figures to keep them alive on the street.

Each of the main boys carries so much baggage and spends so much time teetering on the edge of falling into a life of crime that, unlike previous seasons, no one character serves as the personification of the message of that season. Dukie is the only one who clearly could have a successful future, but extreme poverty forces him onto the corners and his insecurity prevents him from making the most of his intelligence. Randy and Michael live in fear of incurring Marlo's wrath, and they react to it in wildly different ways. Of the main boys, perhaps Namond comes the closest to fully embodying the themes of the season; the only one of the group placed in Colvin's program, Namond tries desperately to act tough and deal to please his mother, but slowly he comes undone and wee see the child's potential, as does Colvin.

And through it all, there's still Bubbles, the backbone not only of the first season but the entire series. He's back to using full-time, but he also attempts to care for a young man he finds on the streets named Sherrod, going so far to put him back in school. Bubbles, erstwhile the most innocent and endearing of the characters, faces the increased coldness of the world as he must deal with a vicious addict who beats and robs him almost on a daily basis. Eventually Bubbles can't take it anymore, and we see him resort to drastic measures.

Aside from the depiction of the moral decay of American life, the fourth season of The Wire widens the scope to its most ambitious level yet after the third season narrowed things down back to the cops vs. dealers original format. It posits that the government's aid programs, though they come from the right place, became disastrous in their execution. It has not ensured every child a good education, it has condemned the smart ones to flounder with the children who need such programs to stay in school. Simon does not point the finger at any one party but instead highlights the flaws of the system, which self-perpetuate and expand with each dumbed-down, increasingly violent generation. In contrast to the scale of the season, the finale, the masterful "Final Grades," ends on the show's most personal note yet: previous seasons of The Wire used conflict as a microcosm for crime in America, but here the tables turn. This season takes the overarching themes of the first three seasons (drugs, economic hopeleness, government) and applies them all at once to the characters as if to dump the weight of the world onto them at last. Ergo, it comments on everything that's happened before while still devoting time to moving in a bold new direction. They even manage to end on a shot of a crossroads without seeping into cliché. Angel's fifth season might still hold the top spot in my personal list of television favorites but, as objectively as I can state, the fourth season of The Wire is the single best piece of T.V. ever produced.

Friday, May 29, 2009

The Insider

Michael Mann deservedly earned himself a reputation as one of the preeminent action directors of the last 20 years, but that unfairly typecasts him. He brings the same attention to detail to his dramas that he does to his action flicks: Ali, heavily, heavily flawed as it was, was as interesting outside the boxing ring as it was within it. His experience with more visceral fare allows him to maintain a steady pace while maintaining an ability to capture every shot in pristine clarity. That precision makes every shot seem necessary, and it has a way of creating tension, as it leads the audience to believe that something important is on-screen, that anything cast in such detail will have some bearing on the narrative later in the film.

Ergo, while he may have superior films, The Insider best showcases Mann's talents. Making an actual thriller as opposed to shooting an action film like one gave the director license to make moments almost unbearable in their suspense. Even the scenes in which the corporate aspect of this corporate thriller come to the fore do not lessen the tension of Jeffrey Wigand's paranoia, for they expose a much deeper corruption than Wigand can uncover. Like the best of the old newspaper thrillers, The Insider pits intrepid whistle blowers against faceless enemies with unlimited resources as they desperately try to tell their story without dying.

Wigand, head of research for tobacco company Brown and Williamson, loses his job when he discovers that the tobacco industry used a chemically-altered form of nicotine in their cigarettes that made them more addictive while also increasing the risk of cancer and never informed the public in order to make bigger profits. Even though the company fired him, he must still honor his nondisclosure agreements or face a multi-billion-dollar lawsuit; fearing he might take his knowledge to the news anyway, executives attempt to force Wigand into signing an even more stringent agreement by threatening to withhold severance benefits, including the medical insurance he needs to cover his asthmatic daughter's medical fees. An outraged Wigand tells them where they can shove it and takes up a job as a high school teacher to get healthcare.

By random chance, Wigand crosses paths with 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino), who was referred to the former executive to decode some information regarding health and safety-related documents concerning cigarettes. Worried that any involvement with a journalist could place him in a courtroom, Wigand initially refuses, but eventually capitulates and agrees to meet him at a hotel. The two begin a correspondence, and Wigand slowly reveals more and more details about the "Seven Dwarfs," the seven leading tobacco corporations, and how the CEOs of each perjured before Congress concerning their knowledge of nicotine's addictive properties.

The more Wigand divulges, the more he starts noticing strange things. A man spies on him at a golf course. Someone leaves a bullet in Wigand's mailbox. Eventually, his wife opens an email containing a death threat. Mann shoots these scenes in a style highly reminiscent of that great whistle blower film All the President's Men: shadow doesn't so much bathe the frame as wash over it like a tidal wave, all of it contrasted with the cold, artificial light he likes to use to play up his urban elements. That sickly faint-green hue only exacerbates that feeling in your gut that something terrible is about to happen.

Russell Crowe gives what may be his finest performance as the older Wigand: he walks with the slack gait of a desk jockey and delivers his lines with alternate boredom and frenzy. Sadly, Crowe seems to use that same characterization for any American role these days, but despite his self-typecasting, his Wigand stands out. He provides a nice foil for Pacino, playing against type as the more subdued of the leads; indeed, Crowe seems to be playing what would usually be the Pacino part, though Al excels in his "straight man" role.

Even as the threats pour in and his family begins to crumble, the strong-arming only strengthens Wigand's resolve. He agrees to testify in a Mississippi state case against Big Tobacco for Medicaid costs covering those affected by smoking, only to find himself served with a restraining order that the industry's elite lawyers cooked up. At last, Mann reveals the real thrust of the story: this is not the story of Jeff Wigand so much as a commentary on the monetary structure of news groups. CBS interviews Wigand for a 60 Minutes segment, only to censor the interview because the station receives ad money from the tobacco industry and can also be sued for billions. Mann and writers Eric Roth and Marie Brenner uncover the irony of journalists striving for integrity and truth when corporations known for their corruption have a stake in major journalistic avenues.

That's what makes The Insider so enraging: though Wigand succeeds in getting his message to the public, how many people in how many fields have been silenced in one form or another by corporations that seem to have sway over everything? Whistle blowing always takes a degree of courage, but it's downright suicide in some cases. But Mann never beats us over the head with this theme, allowing us to spend more time gripped by the plot. For all its talkative scenes held in boardrooms and surreptitious meeting places, The Insider is Mann's most involving film. It may not reach the heights of his epic, Heat, but I can think of no better argument for the man's greatness than this 2-1/2 thriller that passes in half the time.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

My 20 Favorite T.V. Characters

As much as I love a select number of television series, I spend a great deal more time with films. They're easier to digest, more thematically stable and the budgets tend to be much higher. Yet, when television is good, it's often better than all but the most masterful films. Why? We can spend more time with characters, writers can flesh out initial themes and introduce new ones. For example, The Wire started out as a standard if more realistic-than-usual police procedural and evolved into the greatest depiction of America's decline ever put on screen. Cinematic characters, well-written as they may be, work better as archetypes and icons even as the best characters subvert such images, but a well-written, well-acted character on television can become something more: a consummate hero, a comic genius, even a sort of friend. So, without further ado, here are some of the characters who continue to entertain me no matter how many times I sit down with them. Note: with a few exceptions, I chose no more than one character from a single series.

20. Bill McNeal (NewsRadio)


NewsRadio sadly slipped under the radar after its cancellation, to the point that, before I stumbled across the series last year, I'd honestly never heard of it. Not that I'm the arbiter of television knowledge, of course, but I can't understand how such a great series doesn't get more recognition. Of all the loopy characters populating WNYX, Bill McNeal was the loopiest. While he may not have been as eccentric and unpredictable as billionaire owner Jimmy James, McNeal more than made up for it in pure egoism. All he did was read news headlines out loud, but dammit nobody read things out loud like Bill McNeal, or so he thought. Phil Hartman played him with manic glee, and just enough childish charm to make him endearing despite his officiousness.

19. General Sir Anthony Cecil Hogmanay Melchett (Blackadder Goes Forth)


World War I doesn't have quite the same impact on Americans as it does the rest of the world, by virtue of the simple fact of our brief involvement. We don't care about an 18-month tussle in a war started over some political nonsense involving a duke; nope, we'll stick to talking about fighting the most evil man in history, thanks very much. But World War I marks the great divide in the modern outlooks between us and the Europeans and, funnily enough, a sitcom managed to trace the famed British cynicism to its source and make it painfully clear why British comedy is so dark, all in 6 episodes. General Melchett, played with wonderful madness by Stephen Fry, parodies the incompetence of generals in the face of technological advances like machines guns and tanks, but more than that he sums up the insanity of the war, in which the landed gentry behaved as they always did and sent the working class to die in their millions.

Melchett, always courteous and dignified, was so evil in his obliviousness that the writers actually softened the title character, whose previous incarnations were power-hungry and egocentric. Nearly every battle plan consisted of throwing wave after wave of soldiers at the Germans until no one was left to continue, and for once Blackadder schemed not for gain, but for mere survival. That Fry buried so much darkness under the ridiculous mustache and a penchant for shouting "Baah!" at random is not what makes the character so great. No, it's far more impressive than he somehow made such a man absolutely hysterical.

18. Spike (Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel)


O.K., I know I said I wasn't going to pick multiple characters from one show, and I assure you a characters from both Buffy and Angel will appear later, but I will make an exception for Spike. As with so many great characters from countless series, Spike should have been little more than a guest star; originally, Whedon meant for Spike to plug the gap between the beginning of the season and the emergence of Angelus. Yet James Marsters was so good and Spike so popular that the character stayed on, and wound up the most developed character of the show. Spike started as little more than a fun Johnny Rotten-wannabe of a villain, sporting a slick coat and a killer accent. Then someone put a chip in his head (I know, I know), a slowly he set off onto the path to redemption. The more we learned about Spike, the more unique he became; even without the chip, he always had a soft side. And his relationship with Buffy went from hilarious to tragic to horrific and ended up being one of the most noble acts to ever come from the mind of a man who sent a number of people to an honorable death. Oh, and then he came back. Joss isn't stupid, you know.

17. Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers)


Nobody teeters on the edge of murderous rage like John Cleese. Many of the best moments of the show centered on Cleese playing a straight man who eventually became so frustrated that he exploded, and the final series of Monty Python's Flying Circus suffered noticeably from his absence. After all the Python movies came and went, Cleese went on to write Fawlty Towers, ensuring that he spent all of eternity not only at the top of the sketch comedy heap but the sitcom as well. Cleese played hotel manager Basil Fawlty like all of his great sketch characters rolled into one: a writhing, condescending, caustic bag of nervosa who spent all of the time not occupied by genuflecting for anyone who might win his hotel some credence disparaging everyone he felt was beneath. And everyone was. Basil ignored customer requests, routinely assaulted his Spanish waiter Manuel, bungled each and every opportunity to get rich and waged the latest battle in the passive-aggressive war that was his marriage. Cleese had a Cambridge-instilled sense of acerbic humor, but he could also do physical comedy like a silent pro, and Basil Fawlty was the perfect blend of the two.

16. Barney Stinson (How I Met Your Mother)


The only truly great part of the Harold & Kumar series was Neil Patrick Harris' demented coke-and-hooker using self-parody, and somehow he managed to take that character, clean it up for primetime T.V., and turn him into the best sitcom character since Michael Scott. Barney grew up a virginal hippie with a gay black brother (I don't care what anyone says: I love Wayne Brady) until his true love broke his heart and the shock metamorphosed him into a sex-crazed yuppie Hitler. Barney has just enough of a heart to help his buddy Ted through his darkest moments, but the rest of the time he's considering the easiest way to have sex with someone without ever having to see her again. Even when he finds love, Barney is so adorably evil that I don't know whether to look forward to him failing or to hope he succeeds with his latest conquest.

15. Benjamin "Hawkeye" Pierce (M*A*S*H)


While the show may have devolved into bleeding heart mawkishness in the last few seasons as a direct result of Alan Alda's input, but that doesn't affect his performance as the loopy doctor that kept the show running nearly four times longer than the war in which it was set. Hawkeye was a ladies' man, a drunk, a raging liberal and a man-child, and he also just so happened to be "the best surgeon in whole darn shootin' match." He could spend an entire episode teetering on the edge of insanity, only to pull it together in the final moments and save dozens of lives. Pierce, like the rest of the series, often jumped too wildly between comedy and drama, but he's still the first character on an "adult" series to ever entertain me.

14. Archie Bunker (All in the Family)


Before Homer Simpson, Archie Bunker was the perfect T.V. dad. He was racist, sexist and just plain ignorant, but he also cared deeply for his family. His constant quarrels with his liberal son-in-law allowed his prejudices to ironically comment on what were still socially acceptable views, but they also belied the tragedy of the working class of the Greatest Generation: Archie resented Mike not only because of his ideology and for taking his little girl away but because the collegiate only reminded him of the opportunities he lost when he dropped out of high school to care for his family in the Great Depression. Spinoffs tarnished most of the characters, but nothing could keep Archie from being anything less than one of the all-time great television creations.

13. Willow Rosenberg (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)


I love just about every major character on every single Whedon show (and that includes Dollhouse), but I can easily pick one character from each of them. Except Buffy. After juggling Buffy and Xander for a while, I finally went with Willow. Like Xander, she held the group together, serving at first to live in constant jeopardy to give Buffy someone to rescue but eventually becoming the backbone of the series. Xander may have been the one who saw everyone for who they really were and why they were really strong (which is why omitting him was especially hard), but Willow kept the group going when Buffy was overpowered.

Eventually, she grew into a wonderful foil for Buffy, using the power of Gaia, the goddess, to become far more powerful than Buffy, who fought in a more masculine manner (going so far to use phallic objects to dispatch her foes). So, not only was she the emotional backbone of the series, she became the ultimate embodiment of its feminist vision. Though the equation of her magic use to drug addiction was forced and heavy-handed, her arc in Season 6 was gloriously dark and threatened to rip apart the Scooby Gang forever, and indeed they never were quite the same. No one else could affect the group with such magnitude, and Hannigan's sense of comic timing and that natural ability to break hearts with a single lip quiver makes her every bit as important and iconic as the title character.

12. Kara "Starbuck" Thrace (Battlestar Galactica)


The original Starbuck was effete, fey and a man. But Ronald D. Moore decided to completely overhaul the character, and we wound up with the best badass female character since Buffy herself. And like Buffy, Starbuck had a hell of a lot of problems. But problems are what made these characters great: where Buffy was an adolescent who had the weight of the world unfairly thrust upon her, Kara dealt with an abusive childhood, a complex relationship with the brother of her dead fiancée (who died because she gave him undeserved pass marks on his flight exams) and a crippling alcohol addiction, all while taking it to the frakking Cylons at any opportunity. As the series wore on, her storyline became increasingly cryptic, which lead to a few weak moments (the incessant "I'm not a Cylon" screaming was a bit much) only to make these shifts work as more events unfolded. While she may not have gone out on the best note, Kara was the perfect mix of piss, vinegar and a dollop of sugar, and she could pound the old Starbuck's face in any day of the week.

11. The Tenth Doctor (Doctor Who)


I don't cop to being a big Doctor Who fan: apart from a few older episodes, my only exposure to the series has been with the rebooted version, and that's far from perfect. Yet, despite my lack of knowledge of the Doctor, I found David Tennant to be the perfect fit for the new Who. His ability to turn on a dime and his excellent gift for body language made him a wonderfully eccentric Doctor who also had a keen grip on the tragedy of the Doctor's existence. Tennant knew how to anchor the role with an emotional core while still living up to the camp that is Doctor Who, chewing some scenes with relish, only to switch into "proper" acting in a flash. Just try not to cry at the end of "Doomsday" when you see the Doctor visibly destroyed by tragedy.

10. Omar Little (The Wire)


The Wire is the only show I've seen that not only poses the first serious challenge to my love of both The Simpsons and Joss Whedon's programs but actually exceeds them. Each character, even the minor ones, brought something to the table, advancing the story as well as embodying some piece of the greater thematic puzzle. But the most intriguing of them all must surely have been Omar Little. A gay, witty stick-up man with a strict code of conduct, Omar made a living robbing drug dealers, and he certainly wasn't above killing someone, but he never swore and he mourned every fallen member of his crew like family. And for a robber, material wealth meant very little for him; instead, he stole drugs to stop dealers from bankrupting communities. Like Robin Hood, but with crack. But the linchpin of his character, and one of the best of the moments of plain-spoken honesty in the series, comes when Omar, who agrees to testify in a murder trial to ease the heat on him, compares his work to the Barksdales' lawyer's, noting that both are profiting from the work of criminals in their own ways. As funny as Omar was, he brought a much needed warmth to the series that spent so much time in rusted urban squalor.

9. Tobias Fünke (Arrested Development)


Limiting myself from choosing too many characters from the same show has plenty of drawbacks, especially since many of my favorite series are ensemble pieces. Picking just one character from the savagely brilliant Arrested Development was even tougher; after narrowing it down to either GOB or Tobias I finally went the latter. David Cross plays Tobias with the perfect mix of stupidity and even more stupidity, an actually gifted psychologist who gives up that profession to make it as an actor, despite a supreme lack of talent. His dwindling savings and tumultuous relationship with his wife are played for merciless laughs, and his perennially inability to recognize the slew of double entendres he makes are a delight. And, like Buffy's Andrew, he is hilariously unaware of his own sexuality.

8. Eric Cartman (South Park)


Lucifer in the body of a pudgy child. Cartman started off as the prick of the group, always stuffing his face dropping anti-Semitic remarks casually, but things really turned when a fed a teenage boy a chili made from the kid's own parents. From that moment, Cartman became the character who could get away with anything, an anarchic force of pure hate that would take it out on anyone within striking distance. I don't understand how some people seem proud of the fact that they identify with this beast.

7. Malcolm Reynolds (Firefly)


No show canceled before a full first season should be this fleshed out, but then Firefly made all of its characters interesting. But that does not take away from the impressive achievement that is Mal: with less than one season under his belt, he leaped into the upper echelon of Joss Whedon's finest characters, alongside Spike, Fred, Willow and Buffy. He's got enough demons to start a rival Hell, but he's funny and oddly charming despite his boorish ways. And no matter how many times he makes a good situation bad and a bad situation worse, he still proves himself a capable leader of a surprisingly adept crew. It also doesn't hurt that Nathan Fillion has cool to spare.

6. Agent Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks)


There's a certain cliché in crime films, in which the FBI descends on a small town caught in a terrible crime spree, only to assume authority immediately over the oafish locals. Imagine my surprise, then, when David Lynch -- who's made a career out of tearing apart the idyllic image of suburbia and "quaint" life -- crafted a character who arrives in town to investigate a grisly murder, only to fall in love with the place and to treat the local authorities and citizens with respect and admiration. Kyle MacLachlan plays Cooper with the perfect mix of charm and intelligence, outthinking everyone else on the case but never showing off when he does it. His trademark love of the town's coffee and doughnuts steered clear of lapsing into a cop stereotype because A) he never rested on his laurels and B) they indirectly won him a great many friends in the small town. It's nice to see Lynch can create such a nice character and not make that niceness a front for inner sadism.

5. Daisy Steiner (Spaced)


Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Jessica Hynes clearly liked Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- Pegg's character even erected a shrine to the character in his closet -- but the most fitting tribute-that-isn't-really-a-tribute at all was their creation of the greatest nerd chick ever put on screen. Daisy was every bit the slacker that the male characters were, and she knew all the pop culture references as well as the lads. But she was also slightly more mature than the rest, never getting worked up over the betrayal that was Episode I and occasionally becoming exasperated with her friends' childishness. Like Fred, Daisy never shouted her strength from the rooftops, and instead she casually walked into every geek's heart before melting it in a flash.

4. President Josiah Bartlet (The West Wing)


He may have been a Democrat, but Jed Bartlett would make a great president regardless of which aisle you rested in. He was liberal without being soft, religious without being judgmental, and diplomatic without ever hesitating to use necessary force. He also had all the natural charm so many politicians hire entire teams to help impersonate; in the era of "folksy" images, this upper crust Governor from New England could interact with "normal" people better than the most loyal Dixiecrat. Numerous challenges befell his administration, but Bartlett faced them all with resolve and an ability to achieve goals no matter what it cost him personally.

3. David Brent (The Office)


Everyone knows David Brent. Whether you work in a dead-end office job, retail, or even just pass through an office in your latest failed attempt to land gainful employment, you've met someone exactly like Brent. While he may be more incompetent than the U.S. business system would tolerate, he's still utterly relatable on both sides of the pond and elsewhere, as evidenced by the umpteen spinoffs of the original all over the world. He's annoying, stupid, (unintentionally) cruel, and he lacks even the faintest trace of a sense of humor, yet through all of it he desperately wants a friend. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant never shy away from the worst of David, but damned if you don't feel sorry for him from the start, and when he begs to keep his job at the end of the second series, it's hard not to root for the poor sod. As great as the U.S. Office and Steve Carell are, they never did capture the character as perfectly as Gervais.

2. Winifred "Fred" Burkle (Angel)


Joss Whedon created almost as many strong female characters on television as had existed in the 40 years of T.V. that predated him, but for my money, Fred was his best character. If you asked a nerd to describe his dream woman, he'd probably end up listing all of Fred's attributes, whether he'd ever seen Angel or not. She's adorable, sweet, brilliant and vulnerable, yet strong and pure enough to anchor a group of people who constantly struggle with their morality. She comes to view the Fang Gang as her new family, to the point that one of the few times she loses her cool is when she discovers that someone betrayed them. The other characters went out of their way to keep her innocence, particularly Gunn and Wesley, who both loved Fred because, hey, they're only human.

And as much as I loved characters like Buffy and Willow being endowed with strength and magic to serve as a metaphor for female power, Fred never needed to kill something with a phallic object or by aligning with Mother Earth to be a strong character, and that kind of resonated with me more. Combined with Amy Acker's subtle and imbibing acting -- go back and watch the series: she goes through about 4 transformations so subtle that you don't even pick up on it until the drastic change that comes with a tragedy in the final season -- Fred makes the case for Joss' writing brilliance without ever flaunting what makes her great.

1. Homer Simpson (The Simpsons)


A no-brainer, really. Homer Simpson took all the great sitcom dads from T.V. history and packed it into a single pudgy, yellow frame. Who else could routinely place his family in terrible jeopardy, nearly cause a nuclear meltdown on a daily basis, and throttle his pre-pubescent son for the slightest provocation and still be such a likable character? I mean, this is a man so dumb he once forgot to make his own heart beat. Yet, for the first 8 seasons at least, Homer could make an ass of himself for twenty minutes and melt your heart in the last two: he was even willing to give up his prized possession -- the T.V. -- to try to bring his family together. While The Simpsons may have drifted into a Family Guy-like version of The Simpsons -- and considering that FG is little more than a tawdry knockoff in the first place, that's saying something -- Homer still stands as the ultimate T.V. dad, and the most nuanced cartoon character ever made.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Fanboys



For all the controversy surrounding the release of Fanboys, the Weinsteins inadvertently made it the perfect companion piece to the source of its parody. Die-hard fans waited for the Star Wars prequels for nearly two decades after Return of the Jedi, eagerly awaiting news in a time before the internet. As with Episode I, Fanboys earned itself a fair amount of discussion amongst legions of people who hadn't seen it: news of re-edits, pushbacks and its eventual limited release only riled up potential viewers more and more. It all created a heaping slab of hype and Fanboys, just like Episode I, couldn't live up to the pressure.

Episode I itself plays a major role in the film: set in 1998, Fanboys charts the quest of a group of Lucas-obsessed buddies to make it to Skywalker Ranch and a steal a print of the prequel so that their dying friend might see it, as he will not live to the theatrical release. Apart from the cancer-ridden Linus (Chris Marquette), there's Windows (Jay Baruchel), who spends his time communicating online with a cyberdate who claims to be "a cross between Sarah Michelle Gellar and Janeane Garofolo;" Hutch (Dan Fogler), a Trekkie hating, Rush loving madman; and Bottler (Sam Huntington), the only one of the group who grew up, and who must get in touch with his repressed nerd in the course of the 2,000 mile journey.

Writing the script for this must have come easily for Ernest Cline and Adam F. Goldberg; after all, the entire trek is cobbled together using classic Star Wars lines and clichéd notions of superfans. This of course mimics the actual dialogue of such people, who, as Roger Ebert rightly noted, fall back on scripted conversation when they feel too unsure of themselves to come up with one of their own. God knows I spent my formative years letting George Carlin and Monty Python do all the talking, and I still fall back into pop culture referencing with alarming frequency.

But that sort of communication, as befitting lines stolen from films and comedians, is acting. We're meant to identify with these characters -- and the film paints them in nothing but a flattering light -- yet they can't even identify with themselves. Had this been played up with a bit more of a sardonic edge, this element could have scored some big laughs, but this film is in total service of the fans. The filmmakers clearly wanted George Lucas's stamp of approval (which they got), so they keep the entire thing light, which is strange considering the backbone of the story revolves around a young man dying of cancer.

That reminds me: did anyone on set have any idea what a terminally-ill person looks and acts like? Just because the character was diagnosed too late for chemotherapy and thus never suffered the ravages of that treatment doesn't mean he can be running all over the place with rosy cheeks when he's weeks away from death. In retrospect, the entire controversy over whether or not the cancer plot stayed in the film is moot, as it has no real impact on the story. Sure, without their friend to serve as motivation, the gang would look like self-serving fanboys, but that's how they look anyway. They're trying to keep the tone so light that, apart from delving into these characters to poke fun at them, they omit any moment of potential pathos involving the disease, except for a brief moment in a hospital that barely pauses for breaths before trying for more laughs.

And when the dialogue fails (and it does. Often.), director Kyle Newman trots out every cameo he can muster. Everyone from Billy Dee Williams to Kevin Smith shows up at some point, but few of them have anything to add other than name recognition. One of the few cameos that offers anything of substance is Carrie Fisher's, as it gleefully inverts the famous Han-Leia exchange in The Empire Strikes Back. It's not a blistering send-up or anything, but I'll take what I can get with this movie. But the one cameo that definitively works is a hilarious appearance by William Shatner as the man who gives the group "classified information" to help them break into Skywalker Ranch. The rest of the time, however, Fanboys uses its non-stop stream of nerd celebrities simply to perk up viewers bored by the actual narrative.

The one bright spot in all of this is Kristen Bell as Zoe, the equally geeky female friend who joins the adventure halfway through the film when she has to bail the guys out of some local jail. Bell, who portrayed Veronica Mars, already has geek cred to spare, so she never looks out of place as the dorky-yet-mature (by these standards anyway) girl, though some will doubtless say she's too attractive or some such nonsense. There are plenty of attractive nerds out there, especially when it comes to enjoying one of the most popular movie franchises in history; why can't people who go outside occasionally also love sci-fi?

But she can't buoy this flaccid comedy, because nothing ever really happens. The hijinks are so repetitious they even put Seth Rogen in two of them as entirely different characters. And the lack of any satiric bite makes the parody mundane; I mean, come on, it's Episode I. The fact that a die-hard fan wants his last memory on this Earth to be what would become likely the biggest and most infamous gut punch in the history of cinema is ripe for dark comedy but, apart from a few winking references (the best of which being a man who tattoos Jar-Jar on his back, assured that the character will be huge), they never really lay into the irony because they needed Lucas's approval. Compare this film to that other sci-fi parody Galaxy Quest, and you see why the latter remains such a great film: the filmmakers ultimately pay tribute to superfans, but they don't shy away from teasing these people. Also, it used its cast to play around with the show: for example, Sigourney Weaver is perfect for the role not because she played Ellen Ripley, but because Ellen Ripley helped break women out of the sort of "space secretary" role that she plays in the film. It adds a nice, subversive touch without calling attention to itself. Though it occasionally makes its endless references work and it boasts a great final line, Fanboys is so desperate to underline every moment of cribbed dialogue and every cameo to the point that it only highlights how weak the film truly is.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Dear God No: Joss-less 'Buffy' Film in Works

Wrapping up Serenity and, on a larger scale, a multi-month retrospective of the work of my favorite T.V. auteur gave me a sense of bittersweet release. I will certainly watch it all again, much of it before the year is up, but working through his series takes an emotional toll on viewers. I actually spent my Sunday in a funk because I felt almost directionless after reaching my goal. And just as the gloominess finally lifted, I went on over to Whedonesque to make my daily check-and-see-if-I-can-register-finally look around, only to spot an article that chilled my blood more than ever before.

According to The Hollywood Reporter:

A new incarnation of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" could be coming to the big screen.

"Buffy" creator Joss Whedon isn't involved and it's not set up at a studio, but Roy Lee and Doug Davison of Vertigo Entertainment are working with original movie director Fran Rubel Kuzui and her husband, Kaz Kuzui, on what is being labeled a remake or relaunch, but not a sequel or prequel.

Just when I think I'm out, they pull me right back in.

You read that right: Fran and Kaz Kuzui, the people who brought Joss Whedon into the limelight only to jeopardize his career at the start with their neutered take on his vision with the 1992 original film of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, are planning a reboot. Without Joss' involvement. And here we all were thinking FOX was terrible.

I'll be perfectly honest, I'm still not sure this isn't just a good prank, despite quotes from Fran Kuzui that confirm the story. Ergo, I don't want to completely lapse into a fanboyish rage lest I look like a fool. Then again, I'd look like a fool if I did so regardless of the article's merit -- it's since been corroborated on several publications, notably EW -- so let me instead rationally iron out why this is, as objectively as I can process it, one of the worst ideas I've ever heard and why it should never be brought up again.

Right off the bat, the justification for such a move seems ludicrous. Several have pointed to recent, highly successful reboots of such disparate series as the Batman, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica franchises to suggest that this Buffy remake might not be as terrible as your brain -- and your heart -- might lead you to believe. The problem with this line of thinking is that the franchises cited all had strong followings, but the franchises themselves were deeply flawed. The original Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica, for all their charm, were overly campy with low production values (BSG wasn't that bad, though), and they aged terribly. Even JJ Abrams' optimistic take on Star Trek introduced a darker tone than the one that underscored the original and even The Next Generation, while the post-9/11 take on BSG made what had originally been little more than a Star Wars knockoff into one of the most complex dramas on television.

Buffy doesn't have that problem. For one thing, it's barely over a decade old, and it's yet to age. Now, I'm not promising that the series will never seem dated, but I am confident that the subtlety of the acting and the quality of most of the scripts will give it a much longer shelf life than the old sci-fi series. The only thing that potentially could use a touch-up are some of the demon costumes (the same holds true for Angel). But effects will always date; the important thing is that the stories were as fresh for me when I watched the series for the first time last year as they must have been to fans back in 1997. Furthermore, the show itself was a reboot of the original movie: when Joss got the T.V. deal -- admittedly with the help of the Kuzuis -- he took the light, campy tone of the film and spun it into a dark, thematically rich series with enough character development to fill ten normal programs. At the end of the final season, the characters wouldn't even recognize the people we met in the first episode, having been through so many upheavals that only the core of their personality remained constant.

What, then, could a reboot bring to the table? Kuzui says she'd like to make a "darker, event-sied movie" to carve out new territory in the Buffyverse; I assume she means "darker" in comparison to other event movies, because how on Earth could she make Joss' series any more dire? Put them all in a concentration camp? This is the man who killed off characters with an almost casual coldness, yet never made any of them feel unnecessary nor like a ratings ploy. He ripped apart Buffy's world more times than most could bear to endure, to the point that she actually sacrificed herself to keep the last thing she had in this world alive. Willow suffered tragedy and went mad, and poor Xander was maimed. The idea that you could make a two-hour film that could contain all this and more borders on the insane.

Of course, they at least don't have to worry about upping the ante on our favorite characters, because none of them will be in it. Yes, supposedly the film "would have no connection to the TV series, nor would it use popular supporting characters like Angel, Willow, Xander or Spike." It would also not feature Sarah Michelle Gellar. No, the focus would be on either a recast Buffy or another slayer entirely, in a different place, in a different time. Why call it a Buffy remake then? Kevin Beaumont, the webmaster of Dollverse and a regular contributor to Whedonesque (under the name gossi) puts it succinctly: "$$$$$$$$$$$$." Buffy has name recognition, and tying it to the franchise avoids allegations of plagiarism as this is really nothing more than a Buffy knockoff.

However, Beaumont underestimates, in my opinion of course, fan reaction. He alleges that the average viewer will not understand what Joss' absence means as they do not recognize his name over Buffy's. While to some extent I believe he's right, I also think that the internet, which has yet to sustain hype, could conceivably get people to steer clear. If this project is not shut down -- and to be honest, Fox's lawyers will likely make mincemeat of Vertigo Entertainment -- Whedonesque and every other fan site on the web will organize "boycotts" and do their best to spread the word.

But fans won't be the only ones against this: Buffy the film was justifiably dismissed by most critics, but the T.V. series stands as a cultural landmark and one of the most praised series of the last 20 years. Only a few critics seem to outright hate the show, and many of those people for arbitrary reasons; the rest recognize it for its superb character growth and its examination of feminist themes. They're going to rail against this as well, and people will trust a professional critic more than us nerds and bloggers. They'll have their claws out months before this film could hypothetically make it all the way to a theater and, combined with what is sure to be a terrible word of mouth, they'll destroy this movie's box office potential.

Now, in fairness, I'm reacting quite strongly to something that hasn't even been written yet. Who's to say that it will be terrible? I mean, the furor over the BSG re-imagining was huge, but that didn't stop it from mopping the floor with the original. While I don't think anyone, even the haters, think that this could possibly beat out the series, surely it at least stands a chance to be interesting? Well, maybe, but the central problem with all of this does not come from Kuzui's comments, but the Reporter's own take on things. They rightly kept opinion out of the news piece, but they throw in a poll at the end of the article that sums up exactly what's motivating this and exactly why it will fail:


It's long been a misconception that Joss had a weak eye for casting, and that he really picks his actors based on how he gets along with them. With the exception of Fillion as Mal, the leads for all of his shows have been routinely criticized by people as flat without ever noticing how perfect for the part every major character was. SMG changed with Buffy, and if people don't like her in the later seasons it's because the character has become so different than the person they met in '97. When I watch Dollhouse, I can't understand why people insist on bringing up Faith when Dushku has yet to play any of her imprints as such, even the ass-kicking ones (in fairness, the previews for some episodes suggested this, though), nor did she play Faith on True Calling: while she may not always connect with her shifting personalities, she's played Echo differently than the other Dolls because Echo is different. I saw an article recently, one of the umpteen stories that inexplicably pits Whedon against JJ Abrams, and it said that Abrams had a gift for casting where Whedon fell short. Hogwash; Whedon can take a total unknown and make them live and breathe the part. Abrams, though not one to pick star names, focuses on making the characters iconic and memorable over letting the actors explore their characters (he's still got some fantastic characters, mind you, and I'm not at all turning this into a Whedon v. Abrams debate).

This poll shows that people really just want to put a "star" in the role. That's what it's all about: not a desire to explore a universe that is still being explored and fleshed out by its creator, it's an attempt to cash in on a beloved franchise. And of course Kristen Stewart brings up the inevitable truth that when Kuzui says "Everything has its moment. Every movie takes on a life at some point, and this seems like the moment to do this," what she really means is that vampires are hot right now because of Twilight, and there's a fat paycheck in it for them.

The Kuzuis have gotten rich off of Joss Whedon: they received executive producer status on every episode of both Buffy and Angel and they retain the rights to the core character (but not Xander, Willow, etc. which is why the film won't feature them). While they don't rule out Joss' involvement, it's a slap in the face that they would enter talks without consulting him. But all of this opens up a very strange, very interesting possibility: in the same year that Fox renewed Dollhouse (though they tampered mightily with it, of course) despite abysmal Nielsen ratings, opening up the possibility that time-shifted numbers might finally play a role in shows' fates, how wonderful would it be if they also killed this unholy beast before it ever came to fruition? It'd be like Spike getting a soul. Well, more like a chip that lets him still be an ass as often as he pleases. But now he doesn't kill the things we love, at least not outright, and that's a start.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Withnail and I



Playing drunk is, famously, one of the hardest things an actor can do: all too often they simply slur their speech a bit and fall down. If that's true, then Paul McGann and Richard E. Grant are the finest actors of their generation. For just about the entirety of Withnail and I, the leads stumble about in various degrees of inebriation (McGann far less so than Grant), and somehow by the end of it they personify the end of the '60s and its effect on those who didn't know where to go from there.

The "I" in question is Marwood (McGann), who lives with Withnail (Grant) in a squalid flat in London. Unemployed actors both, the only time of the day they do not spend drinking is when they collect their Social Security -- ostensibly to pay for their drinks. As the filth builds around the addled roommates, Withnail, the more impulsive of the two, decides a change of scenery is in order, presumably to introduce new splotches of color into their blurred vision. Withnail, who constantly rails against the injustices of the world despite his affluent background, rings up his rich uncle Monty (Richard Griffiths) to fund their expedition. To ensure Monty, a homosexual, will let them use his village cottage, Withnail informs his uncle that his strapping young flatmate is a "toilet trader." A winking Monty steals a sly glance or two and sends the men to Chelsea to enjoy themselves.

The rest of the film stems from the pair's misadventures as they drive to their vacation and settle in for the season. Grant's performance is the very definition of tour-de-force: Withnail is never sober, only less drunk than normal. He spouts nonsense and Shakespeare recitations in his drunken rages, and a good chunk of his lines should be memorized by any American trying to avoid looking like just another tourist in England. "Warm up? We might as well sit round this cigarette." "We've gone on holiday by mistake." "I deny all accusations." He's a punk rocker without the punk to give him a sense of belonging, so he tries to drown his frustrations in booze. But Marwood is no straight man: he trades barbs confidently with Withnail, and he's no more active. Yet he's clearly maturing more quickly than his friend, even if he's not approaching anything like maturity.

Their holiday retreat soon turns into a disaster. They arrive to a dusty, poorly-insulated cottage in the middle of a bitter cold. The locals spurn the lads and only sell them some food and necessities to get rid of them. And things manage to get even worse when a lovestruck Monty shows up attempting to win young Marwood's love. Marwood lets the poor man down gently by "explaining" that he and Withnail are involved, and the situation begins to break Marwood of his closeness to Withnail. You can tell the two are drifting when Marwood rushes straight from his awkward encounter to his friend's bedroom to announce his decision to return to London, and Withnail is so plastered that it barely registers.

When they separate at the end, with Marwood winning the lead part of a play, their final moment plays as a clear depiction of the end of the '60s. Marwood seems to be freeing himself from his rut, finding a job and lessening his alcoholism, while Withnail remains on the track to becoming Britain's first punk, a man who has nothing to cling to despite being relatively well-off. It's a moment of poignancy in no way spoiled by Withnail's subsequent monologuing Hamlet to a pack of wolves in a zoo, a moment that underscores Withnail and I's capacity to mix highbrow comedy, farce and tragedy into a seamless whole. Writer-director Bruce Robinson draws from his own experiences for the film, but he never gives in to the wistfulness nor the bitterness of nostalgia; instead, he allows his camera to capture the two friends without judgment. The '60s wasn't all acid and love-ins, and Withnail and I is just about the best portrait I've seen of the flip side of the coin.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Serenity



It's perhaps somewhat appropriate that I wrap up my 7-month Whedon binge with the film that got me into the man in the first place. I never saw Serenity in the theaters; I even remember regarding the commercials as promoting some sort of Star Wars knockoff -- it didn't help that it came out the same year that George Lucas finished destroying his own legacy. No, I didn't watch it until it hit DVD, and a friend brought a copy to some sleepover in late '05. I had know idea who or what a Firefly was, I didn't know that Joss Whedon was the fella that made that Buffy the Vampire Slayer I made such a point of ignoring; I just sat down and watched the thing.

What I got was one of the most original, hilarious, and heartbreaking science fiction films I'd seen in years. The entire two hours was chock full of action, wit and those little moments that make everything so much better -- be it a conversation or even just a fleeting change of body language. Even though Serenity picks up where the show left off, it made me care enough about these character that I was moved when tragedy befell them. Which it did. A lot.

Serenity opens with a flashback, depicting Simon Tam's rescue of his sister, River, from whatever indoctrination center is experimenting on her. The scene ends to reveal it was all a hologram playback, viewed by a mysterious Alliance assassin known only as The Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor). He kills the men in charge for allowing such a prized possession to escape, and sets about hunting down the modified psychic.

So, he seeks out Malcolm Reynolds' beloved rust bucket, run by the same kooky crew, minus a few hands who have settled elsewhere in the interim between the show's events and this narrative. He even takes River on a job, now aware of her ability to read minds, over her brother's loud protests. It is on this heist that we see our first Reavers on-screen -- either here or the T.V. show -- terrifying creatures who rape and eat anyone they capture alive. They give Mal and co. a thrilling chase, yet we still get some choice lines in the middle of the harrowing ordeal.

For the rest of the movie, Mal must contend with Reavers, The Operative, and even River, whom we discover can be triggered into becoming an incredible fighter with the right subliminal code. For a film based on such a sprawling series, Serenity wastes no time getting down to the nitty-gritty, moving from witty, interactive early scenes into some nice political satire in short order. Inara and Shepherd Book reemerge as The Operative chases down any lead to lure Mal out of hiding, though sadly their parts were cut down in editing. As The Operative attempts to... extract information from those unlucky enough to cross paths with him, we seem him come to stand for the Alliance he blindly follows: he says he believes he is helping to create "a world without sin," yet he is perfectly willing to cast aside his humanity to achieve it.

As Mal leads the ship into the depths of Reaver space to discover just what secret The Operative is trying to bury with River, the assassin's mission comes to match a terrible piece of the Alliance's past that serves as an intriguing attack on Big Brother-esque governments, examining the idea that an attempt to create utopia through force and bloodshed with never succeed. Whedon has to pack an entire season's -- and maybe even more; in the commentary, Joss mentions that the discovery of the Reaver planet about 2/3 into the film marked the end of the planned second season -- worth of theme and exposition into a film, yet he never lets his directorial debut feel like a retread of the show.

Whedon, of course, has directed a number of episodes of each of his series, and in those episodes he displayed an ability to get the very best out of his actors and to balance humor and bleak drama better than almost any "real" director you'd care to mention. Even if does, as he put it, "amp" it up for the big screen, he never loses track of his characters, to the point that, in some ways, this is as good an introduction to the series as the series works to establish the film. Under his direction, Fillion and the rest look like they've always been movie stars, even though Ejiofor is the only one who regularly appears in major features. He even pulls off his low budget, imbuing the frankly iffy special effects with such energy that you're too exhilarated to care. Then again, the giant space battle near the end is a true sight to behold, with so many ships piled into the screen you'd swear someone was magnificently overcompensating. Really, every single frame burns with the excitement of a man who knows that, by all accounts, he shouldn't be making this movie, and that's what makes Serenity such a perenially-rewarding journey.

The only real flaws of the movie are that, by nature of running length and an attempt for universal appeal, the Western element is somewhat lost, and we just can't spend the kind of time with these characters that T.V. allows. But Whedon turns the project into a deftly-constructed space opera, just about the most entertaining since the original Star Wars films. For all its political and social undertones, the movie is about faith: not in God, but in humanity. As dark as Whedon's scripts can be, he has a fundamental understanding of human emotions and interaction, and that sensibility makes Serenity a joy every bit as much as the action sequences. The only science fiction film this decade that I think can best it is the superb Children of Men (also starring Chiewetel Ejiofor).

After I saw this for the first time, I went out and grabbed Firefly a few months later and was blown away. I didn't get around to Buffy and Angel for years -- owing to my general avoidance of horror -- but I watched this crew tool around the 'Verse so many times I more than made up for it. When I finally got around to Joss' other work, I couldn't believe what I'd denied myself. Now, as his latest series gets off to a rocky yet ultimately rewarding start, I can't help but regard Serenity even more fondly than when it first rocked my world. Without it, I might never have come to discover the man who has since become far and away my favorite writer in entertainment. So if that colors my perspective, makes me subjective, even fanboyish, I don't care; Serenity surpasses every possible expectation you can place on the spinoff feature film of a canceled T.V. series, and I'm living proof that it's as capable of winning over new fans as any one of his excellent programs.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Firefly



You know, every so often I find myself wondering what all the fuss over Firefly is about. It was a show canceled almost out of the starting gate, and viciously tampered with in its brief run on the air. When the suited monkeys at FOX pulled the plug after airing only 11 of their initial 14-episode order -- and most of them wildly out of sequence -- they received an astonishing amount of fan reaction, given that they did everything in their power to prevent this show from gaining a following. Why then did it resonate with people? Why did it sell so many DVDs that Universal bought the rights to make a proper blockbuster out of it? And why do fans continue to hold conventions to express their appreciation for the actors and crew who barely got the time to establish their characters and the universe they inhabited?

Then I sit down with it for a few days, and all those questions just seem silly. Yes, it never got to build on its potential, and as such remains no more than a fascinating experiment, but I firmly believe that Firefly, not Buffy, would be Joss Whedon's defining creation had things worked out differently. It may have only had 14 episodes with which to set down some sort of Orson Scott Card-cum-Western universe, but damned if it didn't work. Frankly, I don't know how something this ambitious even made it to the air in the first place, especially on FOX.

Whedon sets the bar impossibly high with the two-hour premiere, titled "Serenity," an episode that did not air until 9 others preceded it, because -- you know, what, if I stop every time to point out where FOX did this show wrong, I'll never get through this review. Suffice to say, it makes no sense to dump this pilot, as it is one of the best and deepest series premieres ever made. Then again, I didn't get the full impact of its brilliance until at least the third time I watched it, so perhaps the decision wasn't made entirely out of greed and stupidity.

I don't know why exactly it took so long for the pilot to click with me, as Whedon doesn't waste a single second of its two-hour length. The opening battle introduces us to then-sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and Zoe (Gina Torres), two rebel soldiers on their last legs as something called the Alliance sends in ships to bomb them to oblivion. Whedon drenches these moments in shadow, lighting the scene up only when a bomber puts another crater in the planet. Six years later, Malcolm's the captain of his very own ship, a deteriorating, Firefly-class cargo ship, Zoe's married the pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk), and an innocent little pixie named Kaylee (Jewel Staite) keeps the hunk of metal running. They may not have much, but this ragtag crew will follow their captain to the ends of the 'Verse. Well, except for mercenary Jayne (Adam Baldwin), who will happily sell the rest into slavery if the money's good.

Mal and co. make their living salvaging derelicts and delivering smuggled goods to buyers and sellers. When an Alliance cruiser busts their raid, the Serenity has a hard time offloading their booty, and they stop on a planet to pick up some passengers: a "shepherd" (preacher) by the name of Book (Ron Glass); Simon Tam (Sean Maher), a young doctor looking to get off-world without Alliance attention; and some mystery dude who is bound to cause some sort of trouble. Also accompanying the crew is Inara (Morena Baccarin), a member of the ultra-high class escort class known as the Companions, who uses the Serenity's built-in shuttle to meet her engagements. When mystery dude turns out to be a Fed, we discover that Simon smuggled his sister River (Summer Glau) on-board, and the two are fugitives running from the Alliance.


The pilot wastes no time fleshing out these characters. Despite a story that takes some big turns, "Serenity" is so great because it's really made up of countless tiny moments, from Wash at the helm playing with toy dinosaurs, to Book quickly disabling the Fed: Whedon, the man responsible for a great many of the best-developed characters to ever grace television, makes hs earlier efforts look like child's play. There's more development in this single pilot than the entire first season of Buffy.

But the pilot is no fluke; Whedon and his writers packed each episode so full of character development that attempting to discuss the show on an episodic basis is futile. Believe me I know: there's a 5000-word version of this post that's as much a tribute to wheel-spinning as it is a review of this show. The plots, good as they are, come a distant second to the characters; this is true of all of Whedon's shows of course (well, not Dollhouse, but that's new and not yet fully explored), but Firefly plays like 5 seasons worth of Whedon T.V. rolled into one.

Book, the kindly preacher, has a murky past, bits of which surface in was that simply make the details even fuzzier. Jayne loves his guns so much that, when Mal somehow finds himself married to a subservient farm girl, he offers the Cap his most prized possession -- a gun he dubs "Vera" -- to trade for the attractive stowaway. His loyalty to the highest bidder comes into play when he betrays the Tams for a fat bounty in the gripping "Ariel," and even in Mal's oxygen-deprived flashbacks in "Out of Gas." Simon, who comes off as foppish and sheltered, reveals a deep love for his sister and a willingness to lose everything to protect her. Zoe and Wash have just about the most stable relationship ever seen in the Jossverse, but occasionally Wash can't help but feel jealous over Zoe and Mal's extremely close -- and extremely platonic -- relationship.

Mal, of course, is another beast entirely. As objectively as I can view a piece of entertainment, I'd without a doubt rate Mal as one of the best-written, most interesting characters in Joss' or anyone else's shows. (Personally, I'd rank him second only behind Fred in my list of favorite Whedon creations). He's always interested about getting the job done and isn't at all afraid to make some seemingly heartless decisions, yet he cares for anyone under his charge like family: when Simon and River are kidnapped by zealous hill folk in "Safe," Mal comes to rescue them and, when Simon asks why the Captain came back for them, he simply responds that Simon and River are a part of the crew. But for all his professionalism, he has an unflinching ability to turn even the calmest situation into a brawl, at which point his ability to take an obscene amount of punishment benefits him: these altercations range from hilarious (the duel in "Shindig") to terrifying (the torture in "War Stories"). Even more interesting are the moments when his steely resolve comes to the fore, such as the downright fearsome coldness in his eyes when he breaks free of his torturers in "War Stories."

As with the rest of Whedon's "families," one person keeps everyone else together, no matter how bad things get. Buffy had Willow, then Xander, Angel had Fred, and Firefly has Kaylee, an irrepressible ray of sunshine who just so happens to be a mechanical genius. As Mal so rightly puts it, "I don't believe there's a power in the 'Verse that can keep Kaylee from bein' cheerful." When the Fed shoots her in the gut in the pilot, the entire crew rallies to save her and no one seems a mite concerned about killing Simon for indirectly causing it all -- as with Willow in the early seasons of Buffy, Joss isn't above putting her in jeopardy constantly to ratchet up the drama. Though Jayne makes a number of crass jokes at her expense, everyone clearly cares for her, particularly Inara, who constantly fields Kaylee's doe-eyed wonder without a hint of condescension.


As a matter of fact, my single favorite scene in the series involves Kaylee. In "Shindig," Kaylee spots a, frankly, gaudy dress in a window shop but nevertheless regards it as she does Inara's finest clothing. When Mal needs to sneak into an upper crust party to speak with a potential client -- the fact that Inara's there has nothing to do with it, of course -- he shows up with Kaylee, frilly dress and all, in hand. Now, I'm a very empathetic person: pretty much everything but non-Whedon television can move me to tears, and I feel shame for those too drunk or dumb to feel it for themselves. I literally watch Ricky Gervais' shows through my fingers as if they were horror films. Yet when Kaylee stumbles into the middle of high society wearing what looks like a pink Christmas tree, it never once occurs to me to be embarrassed for her. Jane Espenson turns the cliché on its head, instantly shutting down the snotty aristocrats who jeer her and making her the star of the ball without resorting to some insulting Pygmalion-like "transformation," with men listening rapturously as she gives them the skinny on the best and worst ships you can buy. I can't tell you how thrilled I was that they never paraded such a sweet character around for a cheap laugh.

As I've already noted, picking highlights from this set is a fool's errand. If you're in the mood to laugh, try "Jaynestown," in which Jayne returns to a planet he raided years ago, only to find out that the money he unwittingly dumped to break out of the atmosphere made him a folk hero. Or you can go with Whedon's own "Our Mrs. Reynolds," in which Mal wakes up from a drunken celebration to find himself betrothed to the sort of woman Joss has made a career to "liberate." Quotable lines abound as the rest of the crew reacts with various degrees of amusement and disgust, but the choicest quote has to go to Book warning Mal of taking advantage of the girl who seems so anxious to please her new beau: "You'll go to a special level of hell reserved for child molesters and people who talk at the theater."

But, as with all Whedon, the cream of the crop comes with pitch blackness. The de facto finale, "Objects in Space," casts River's madness and bounty hunter Jubal Early's sadism against the cold nothingness of space, giving the whole thing a certain existential feel without ever letting itself get too smart to neglect the well-paced plot. Early himself is a masterstroke of a one-off villain, providing a nice contrast for River but with a terrifying lack of morals -- he casually threatens to rape Kaylee if she, and later Simon, do not help him. The aforementioned "War Stories" turns Niska from the somewhat cartoony Bond-esque villain from "The Train Job" and makes him truly frightening, though not as scary as Mal when we meet his "true" self (though the attempted group therapy Mal and Wash hold as they're being electrocuted is pretty gorram funny). Jayne's betrayal in "Ariel" sets up one of the best thrillers in the Jossverse; one of the chief problems of Joss' shows is that the writers hold back as much information as they can so they can sucker punch you all at once, but by knowing that Jayne is selling out River and Simon long before it happens, the entire episode is chilling, and it only gets better when two mysterious agents start killing everyone in their path to get to their targets -- including fellow Alliance personnel).


If I must pick a favorite, though, I'd have to go with Tim Minear's hallucinatory "Out of Gas." Kaylee spent the first few episodes casually mentioning something about a faulty catalyzer, and it dies at last, leaving the ship with no power and no life support. Pieced together out of sequence, in some ways it strikes me as representative of the constant tampering with the show, only here it's put to artistic use. And now that I revisit the show after going through Joss' other series, I can't help but think of it as Firefly's version of "Fool for Love" or "Selfless": it acknowledges the Serenity as a character all its own and, like Spike and Anya, charts its evolution, though instead of clothes or relationships, it advances as each person joins the crew.

For many people, the show's mixture of cyberpunk and classic Westerns made it unpalatable, but I fail to see the problem: at their cores, science fiction and Westerns are about explorations, of lawless, unexplored frontiers where man is only answerable to his conscience, or the conscience of a mob. The characters certainly fit easily into Western archetypes: Mal as the ex-Confederate (though he never fought for the right to keep slaves) making his way in the desert -- or space, as the case may be; the Alliance the bureaucracy seeking to tame the wild beauty even as it also conforms to an Ender's Game-like evil government; and Book, the man of God with the terrible past. The Reavers of course stand in for the "savages," though you could truly call these men savage. Even the guns are a throwback, with Zoe's weapon in particular being a direct rip from Steve McQueen's rifle in Wanted: Dead or Alive (the actual gun was the same prop used for Brisco County, Jr.). While it can be jarring to go from mining dead ships in space to a dusty frontier town, the overall tone never shifts wildly enough to create a disparity between the two styles.

So yes, Firefly will go down as the greatest "what if?" series in T.V. and not the best show ever made. Its fans will eventually give up entirely on the possibility of a sequel to either the series or the spinoff film, though they'll still host convention after convention (good). I don't know how it could have ever run for more than a few seasons, even if its massive budget wasn't an issue. Nevertheless, I've never seen a show so abused and so short make such a good argument for its greatness. As much as I can't simply dive into the middle of Buffy or Angel, I find myself glued to my TV for a few days every time I break this out (and I've been watching Firefly a great deal longer than the rest). The show's rich tapestry of character interaction and an ingrained sense of continuity only made Dollhouse's disappointing failure to establish a solid mythology for itself with its first season more glaring -- I'm not casting aspersions, mind you; Dollhouse is an entirely different show. Dollhouse might be Joss' most ambitious show thematically and stylistically, but Firefly more than matches it in scope. What a shame it only got to be the martyr.