Jason Bourne

Here’s one sequel I was actually looking forward to this year: the new Bourne movie!

The creatively named Jason Bourne takes place now, years after our amnesiac hero got his memories back and took down the corrupt CIA agents who ruined his life. These days, he’s making a living as a semi-professional fighter, while Nikki Parsons is still on the run, trying to expose more of the secrets behind Treadstone and its related programs. She contacts Bourne when she finds some new info about his past, which takes him on another globe-trotting journey in search of truth, revenge, and car chases.

I love the Bourne movies. Far more than any instalment of James Bond or Mission: Impossible, they’re my standard for all spy thrillers. Part of the reason is because they’re so simple. I don’t ask for much in my Bourne movies–just Matt Damon fighting people with things that aren’t meant to be weapons, some smart stuff with phones, and at least one epic car chase. So on the surface, Jason Bourne has everything I could have asked for. Some of the things that get used as weapons in this movie include: weights, a chair, a gas can, and several cars (by which I mean a statistically unlikely number of cars get dropped onto people from great heights in this movie). JB doesn’t get quite as clever with cell phones this time around as he has in the past, but he does give and receive several unwanted calls, and records at least one conversation without permission. The car chase at the end defies every law of U.S. traffic and several laws of physics. And Matt Damon is as perfect as ever in the title role.

Nobody else can point a gun quite like him.

But now I’m thinking maybe the original movies weren’t so simple after all. Because, despite fulfilling all my basic criteria for a good Bourne movie, this one felt disappointing. Maybe because it  was a bit too familiar. Instead of moving on to a new plot with new enemies, Jason is back uncovering more about his past, facing more corrupt CIA agents and fighting more of their ruthless assassins. Tommy Lee Jones is barely distinguishable from the last few evil black ops directors (I’m actually kind of surprised he didn’t get that role earlier), and Alicia Vikander plays a younger, hipper version of Pam from Supremacy. This year’s model of the ruthless assassin at least gets a little illuminating backstory, but he’s still not as cool as any of his predecessors.

Maybe it’s because I’m getting tired of action movies trying to be relevant by incorporating current anxieties about privacy on the Internet. They’re so terribly bad at it. A major threat in this movie is that the CIA is poised, through a secret deal with a social media mogul, to unleash a new program that would give them access to the personal data of pretty much everybody on the planet. Except it’s hard to play that as a threat when numerous scenes in this movie and the previous ones make it clear that their version of the CIA is already “watching everyone, all the time.” If they can do the “zoom and enhance” thing to security footage from all the way around the world, it’s hard to imagine what more harm they could do with John Smith’s profile picture.

Maybe they’ll selfie us to death?

Maybe it’s because this movie uses Nikki to motivate Bourne in exactly the worst possible way. In the original trilogy (can I call it that now?), she had lots of character development and was pretty cool in her own right, as well as being a handy partner for Bourne. Here she’s reduced to a plot point, much the way Maria was in Supremacy. And it made me angry. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.

Mainly, though, I think this movie was disappointing because it was so hollow. Without Bourne’s amnesia driving the plot, there wasn’t any real sense of urgency behind his feats of derring-do. In earlier movies, JB had a clear goal: recover his memories and expose the people who turned him into a killing machine. Each movie peeled back more layers of the conspiracy, until we finally got to the source and Bourne finally got some closure. In this movie, it wasn’t all that clear what he was fighting for–to get some more revenge? To expose more evil CIA programs? We’ve already seen him do all that, and it was incredibly satisfying, but now this movie is telling us it wasn’t enough. Several CIA agents in Jason Bournetalk about how he has “lost his purpose” ever since he left Treadstone, and I’m inclined to agree. Bourne needs a new purpose–a reason to beat up assassins with furniture that goes beyond bad memories and dead girlfriends. Maybe he’ll find one in the next sequel…but I’m not holding my breath.

Catch ya later, Jason.

On the bright side, at least he’s still better than Jeremy Renner.

Grade: B

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Monthly Movie Rant: What other heroes can learn from Batman

Welcome to my first Monthly Movie Rant! (I’ll try to make this a monthly thing, anyway–we’ll see how it goes.)

I’ve been thinking about superhero movies lately. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about Batman movies. Mainly because I watched five of them last week. (Yes, I am aware that I have a problem.)

But he’s just…so…cool…

Batman is arguably the most enduringly popular superhero of all time, at least when it comes to us film fans. Sure, he hasn’t been around quite as long as Superman (though it’s very close), but he has, like, three times the number of good movies. And now that Marvel and DC have enough superhero films planned out to last my entire lifetime, I think it’s time the other heroes started learning from the master. So, heroes, here’s how you can be more like Batman:

1. Don’t be so high and mighty and powerful.

In a metaphorical sense.

Batman’s only superpower is the ability to have a plan for all possible situations, and several impossible ones, at all times, which is really just a basic survival skill if you live in the DC universe. And I think that’s a big part of his appeal. I believe a superhero’s main job is wish fulfillment, and a hero without powers is perfect for that. Batman is rich, powerful, handsome, and has ninja skills. But there’s nothing supernatural about him, which means, if you dream really big and come from a wealthy family, even YOU could be Batman! But seriously, who hasn’t calculated the exact amount of money and training they would need in order to be Batman? That’s part of his whole shtick even in-universe: “The Batman could be anyone.” It also makes him more relatable. Here’s a superhero who can’t just fly away from his problems, even if he wanted to. He’s more down-to-earth (both literally and figuratively) than your average man in tights. I believe it’s possible for powered heroes to achieve this kind of dynamic–after all, even they have weaknesses–but the only other one I can think of who really comes close is Iron Man, and, well, he can still fly. Plus, Iron Man is a jerk.

2. Have a heart.

Pictured: heroism.

And Batman is not a jerk! This is, hands down, my favourite thing about him: in most portrayals (certainly all the best ones), Batman is a big softie underneath all that scary bat imagery. In Batman Begins, he takes time out of an important mission to cheer up a poor kid. In the Year One comic, which helped inspire that movie, he punches a corrupt cop through a wall, not because he had just tried to kill him, but because he shot at a cat. And he constantly hangs on to the belief that all the people in his wretched hive of a city can be redeemed, no matter how hopeless it gets. It’s those little things that make a hero, in my mind. Lately a lot of heroes are always fighting such big battles, or are so busy battling each other, that we lose touch with what made them heroic in the first place. We’ve got enough movies about superheroes stopping alien invasions and what-not. I want more heroes who cheer up little kids.

(No, I didn’t like Batman vs. Superman – why do you ask?)

3. Find better villains.

“I’m not a monster; I’m just ahead of the curve.”

As awesome as Batman is, he would never have come this far without his rogues gallery, particularly the Joker. But even ignoring those guys, consider who Batman fights in between encounters with mutated freaks: regular, run-of-the-mill gangsters and crooked police. In other words, exactly the kind of villains we have in the real world. This ties back to the wish-fulfillment thing. For me, the most effective heroes are the ones who deal with semi-realistic problems. It can be very nice to imagine a powerful guy in a cape swooping in to bring child abusers and bribe-takers to justice, because justice sure ain’t happening in real life. And the Joker, in his own way, feels even more real. He’s not just some random evil guy. He’s the embodiment of evil, especially the kind of mindless, chaotic evil that’s becoming terrifyingly common in the age of terrorism and school shootings. And in a Batman movie, you can watch somebody beat him. I would argue that the reason Marvel has yet to produce a compelling villain in their movies (the Netflix shows are, admittedly, a different story) is because they insist on having the heroes fight gods and mad scientists who bear no resemblance to regular, everyday evil. I mean, would it kill the Avengers to take a day off from the space battles and beat up some drug dealers? Daredevil could sure use the help!

4. Find better directors.

He’s not the kind of hero Hollywood deserves, but the kind it needs.

Batman has appeared in countless excellent stories, across all forms of media, but I’d be lying if I said my obsession with him isn’t Christopher Nolan’s fault. And is that so surprising? Nolan is easily the most respected director who has made a superhero film, at least in my lifetime. Okay, Joss Whedon was already famous–for cult TV shows. Zack Snyder was kinda famous–for a long string of comic book movies that all looked exactly the same and featured naked people as their primary selling point. But Nolan has yet to make a movie that isn’t highly artistic, philosophical, and critically acclaimed. That’s the kind of director you want for a superhero movie, because when you come right down to it, a good superhero movie is good for the same reasons as any other movie: well-rounded and likable characters, tight editing, a coherent story, and cool visuals. Hollywood clearly has the money to spend on A-list actors for their comic book movies; why not hire A-list directors as well?

5. Do your own thing.

Hey, everybody’s gotta start somewhere.

Part of the reason Batman became so popular in the first place was because he was so unique. Superheroes in general were pretty new back then, and the Bat’s darker world and more pragmatic crime-fighting style provided a nice contrast to Superman and his ilk. In these post-Nolan days, a lot of superheroes have tried to copy Batman, but they do it in the wrong ways. Marvel looked at the Dark Knight saga and thought, “Hey, evil laughs and motiveless villains really DO work!” DC looked at them and thought, “These movies are really dark. Audiences must like dark superheroes.” And then they hired Zack Snyder and put a ban on jokes and bright colours for all future movies. People didn’t like Nolan’s Batman trilogy (or any other Batman fare) because it was dark. They liked those movies because they were good movies. Other heroes, you can find your own ways to be great! Just follow the general advice above and put your own spin on it. Some of you are already trying. Keep it up, and one day you may step out from Batman’s shadow, just like Nightwing did.

Speaking of which, can anyone give me a good reason why there isn’t a live-action Nightwing movie in the works? I would watch that until my eyes bled.

Stranger Things

I spent my summer vacation watching all of the latest Netflix show, because why not?

Stranger Things is a sci-fi/horror Netflix original that currently sits at a breezy total of eight episodes. Set in 1983, it opens with something nasty escaping from a secret government research facility near the Midwestern town of Hawkins. Soon after, a young boy named Will Byers disappears from the town. When his three best friends go out looking for him, they find someone else instead: a frightened, nearly bald girl of few words and many mysterious abilities, who only answers to the name Eleven. Meanwhile, Will’s mom is certain he’s alive, despite mounting evidence to the contrary, and starts searching for him in her own unconventional way, with support from the town’s troubled police chief. Will’s older brother Jonathan starts investigating, too. None of them have any idea what they’re getting into.

Lots more money spent on flashlight batteries, for one thing.

The show leans heavily on nostalgia for the “kid adventure” movies that were popular in the ’80s, which means most of those cliches and stock characters make an appearance. We’ve got a gang of bicycle-riding, D&D-playing middle-schoolers, a bunch of bullies, a gaggle of ghastly teens, a convention of clueless parents, a duo of dumb deputies (okay, I’ll stop) and, of course, the ominous Men in Black. The whole thing is so Spielbergian in tone that it’s actually a bit jarring at first to hear a spooky electronic soundtrack instead of something by John Williams (not that I’m complaining–the music is excellent).

But under the surface Stranger Things is entirely its own story, and it’s a good one. It’s suspenseful and, at times, genuinely scary. The mystery unfolds at just the right pace, tying up enough loose ends to bring some closure to the finale, and leaving enough dangling to make sure Season 2 has plenty to work with. While some of the main characters start out looking like cliches, they all undergo lots of development that pays off over the course of the season. It helps that they’re all played by excellent actors, even (especially?) the kids. Will’s mom spends a lot of this season crying or otherwise being hysterical, but she’s got her own kind of toughness that never fails to come out when it counts. His friends (Mike, Dustin and Lucas) sometimes seem a little too unfazed by what’s happening around them, but their loyalty and friendship feels genuine, and it’s the emotional heart of the show. The teenagers are, as aforementioned, ghastly, but even they step up their game when disaster strikes.

She’s sweet when she’s looking at music boxes, but if her nose starts bleeding, RUN.

 

The most memorable character, by far, is Eleven. She utters maybe a few dozen words in all eight episodes, but still manages to be equal parts creepy and vulnerable, innocent and  monstrous. One minute she’s shyly learning about waffles and television with Mike, and the next she’s snapping people’s necks with her mind. I loved her. The police chief, Hopper, is also a wonderful, complex character who gets in a lot of cool action over the course of the show.

The show does have its problems, one of the biggest being its reliance on the “clueless parents” trope that is so common in stories that focus on kids. I can buy a couple of bad parents, even downright stupid parents, but a “perfect suburban housewife” who fails to notice a strange child living in her basement for a week has gone beyond mere stupidity. All the kids, except the missing Will, seem to have parents who don’t care about them at all (I realise this set in the ’80s, when people were less paranoid, but I think even an ’80s mother would be a little worried if her kids were constantly roaming outside town by themselves, at night, right after another child’s disappearance). And none of them ever think to talk to any adult about their investigation, even when it turns life-threatening.

Not even this adult. I mean, come on!

It’s probably worth mentioning that, while 12- to 13-year-olds drive much of the show’s plot, it’s clearly not meant for young children. The monster from the research facility is truly terrifying, people die in pretty gruesome ways both on- and off-screen, and there’s a fair amount of language and sexually suggestive content. E.T. this ain’t, despite the homages.

That being said, it does promote some good values. Friendship and loyalty are major themes. The heroes are people who fight to protect and care for their loved ones, never giving up on them no matter what. The villains, and even just the more unpleasant characters, are those who use other people as tools rather than human beings and are willing to betray them in order to save themselves. Some of the “good guys” don’t treat their friends very well early in the season, but this always comes back to bite them, and the best characters learn their lesson by the end.

Friends have each other’s backs, whether it’s in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign or an actual monster fight.

Overall, I enjoyed Stranger Things. So far I think it would make Spielberg proud–it’s got the same mix of suspense, mystery and fun that I enjoy in his earlier movies. And while the season finale was satisfying in a lot of ways, it left me hungry for more. I’ll definitely be tuning in for Season 2.

Grade: A

Ghostbusters

I take it back; Finding Dory is not the most unnecessary movie of the summer. That title goes to the remake of Ghostbusters.

Let me begin with a huge, embarrassing confession: I have not watched the original Ghostbusters all the way through. I saw the beginning and the ending, enough to understand most of the references, but even that was rather a long time ago. If you believe that disqualifies me from having an opinion on the new one, feel free to quit reading now. I won’t even disagree. But the way I see it, even a remake should be able to stand up on its own if it’s going to be, in any sense, a good movie. So here’s the fairly unbiased opinion of a newcomer to the franchise.

The new movie starts with two childhood friends, a science professor and a paranormal investigator, reluctantly teaming up to investigate a haunted house in New York City. The team-up becomes permanent after they actually meet their first ghost. Together with an unbalanced particle physicist and a street-smart subway attendant, plus a pretty-but-brainless secretary, they form the Ghostbusters and start seeking out spirits to send packing. But their job becomes a little bigger when they discover that someone is plotting to release millions of ghosts into NYC in an attempt to take over the world.

Without a doubt, the biggest problem with this movie is that it exists. The fact that a studio felt the need to remake a beloved classic like Ghostbusters to fill their summer roster, instead of coming up with a new idea, is yet another depressing sign that originality no longer has a place in Hollywood. Nobody asked for a Ghostbusters remake, and judging by the amount of hate it got on YouTube before the real trailers even emerged, most people weren’t happy to see one (especially not an all-female one). And I can’t really say from personal experience, but I’m guessing the new movie doesn’t live up to its predecessor. How could it? The idea just isn’t fresh anymore.

Meh. Seen it.

But if you can ignore that problem, there really aren’t too many others to find. I enjoyed this movie. It made me laugh. The main cast does a great job in their roles–particularly Kate McKinnon as Jillian Holtzman, the crazy physicist, and Chris Hemsworth as the brainless secretary. (Heh.) You can argue all you want about whether the new actresses are as  good as the all-male ’80s cast, but I found them hilarious in their own right. And most of the laughs come from the characters’ goofy personalities rather than toilet humour, which I appreciate. The only time when the action dragged a bit was at the end, when an overabundance of CGI made the climactic battle look too much like a noisy laser light show. Other than that, though, it was fun. It didn’t blow my mind, but it was an entertaining two hours.

It did strike me, as I was watching, that this is the first female-driven comedy I’ve seen in a long time that wasn’t all about sex or romance. There are a million buddy movies out there about guys just being best friends, but it’s rare to see a movie about female friendships that isn’t also about their dating lives. So this movie, which features exactly zero romantic subplots (unless you count Kristen Wiig’s character’s crush on Chris Hemsworth), was kind of refreshing in that way.

Hunting ghosts is always an excellent bonding activity.

I don’t know if Ghostbusters will make enough money to spawn the sequel it teased at the end of the credits, but I do hope it spawns the right kinds of imitators. Namely, more female-driven buddy movies. They really can work, especially with good actors, as this movie demonstrates. But no more remakes, please. We don’t need any more ghosts from the ’80s haunting the box office.

Grade: B

 

Finding Dory

I swear, every movie coming out for the next three months is a remake or a sequel. Every. Single. One.

*Sigh* Must be summer.

Anyway, out of all these unnecessary movies, possibly the most unnecessary is Finding Dory, the sequel to that great family movie about fish that came out more than a decade ago and wrapped up its whole story with a nice happy ending. Not much has changed under the sea since then (apparently it’s only been a year in fish time). Marlin, Nemo, and Dory are living happily in the coral reef, and still going on field trips with Mr. Ray. But during one of these trips, a sudden flashback overcomes Dory’s short-term memory loss, and she remembers that she has a family. So it’s time for another journey across the ocean, with the destination this time being an aquarium in California.

I’m calling it right now: Baby Dory is going to be the cutest thing to hit the big screen all year.

Much of Finding Dory plays out just like its predecessor: the characters go on a journey, meet other friendly fish, almost get eaten by a nasty creature in a shipwreck, endure the horrors of human children, and end up reuniting with their lost loved ones, just before initiating a crazy escape back to the ocean. The difference, of course, is that this time around, the focus is entirely on Dory. Marlin and Nemo, in fact, are pretty useless. They don’t do much, and, disappointingly, Marlin doesn’t seem to have learned anything about over-protectiveness since the last movie.

But when it comes to Dory, there’s not much to complain about. Ellen DeGeneres does a brilliant job voicing her, as always, and it’s kind of refreshing to see her as more than just a comic relief character. While the last movie mostly treated her short-term memory loss as a quirky running gag, this one treats it like a serious mental illness. Dory can’t remember her own parents except in brief flashbacks, and she has a full-blown panic attack every time she’s asked to go anywhere alone, because she knows she’ll get lost. While the search for her parents forms the main part of the plot, the movie is really about Dory coming to grips with her condition and learning how to do things on her own even when she can’t remember where she is. And she ends up saving the day in even more awesome ways than Marlin did in the first movie (to the point where it feels a little over-the-top at times).

In addition to the protagonist we all know and love, this movie introduces some fun new characters, like Destiny the near-sighted whale shark, Bailey the ditzy beluga, and a pair of sea lions who more or less fill the role of the friendly sharks in the first movie. But my favourite of the new characters was Hank, a grumpy octopus who camouflages himself anywhere, moves freely on land, operates his tentacles with human-like dexterity, and generally confirms my long-held belief that octupuses will take over the world the instant they become self-aware.

Fortunately, our future overlords don’t like touching humans. This could end up saving our lives.

Overall, the movie has a much more “kid-friendly” feel than the first one, not that Finding Nemo was in any way inappropriate for kids. It’s less scary and has more silly and/or gross-out moments, like Hank “inking” a pool or Marlin throwing up during a turtle ride. It also doesn’t pack the same emotional punch. Dory’s relationship with her parents is shown entirely through flashbacks, which isn’t quite the same as letting us see their relationship play out for five minutes before the conflict kicks in. It’s well done as far as it goes, and her desire to see them again feels genuine, but it also feels sort of tacked-on after the first movie’s happy ending.

If Finding Dory has a “message,” it’s that people with disabilities are just as capable of great feats as anyone else, and that no one should ever apologise or feel inferior for having a mental problem. Which is, I must admit, slightly more inspiring than the first movie’s “over-protective parents are wrong” aesop. There are some very powerful moments toward the end that show Dory getting over her fear of forgetting things, and learning how to use her own unique strengths to get out of trouble.

But in the end, whether it’s because of the storyline’s familiarity, the more childish atmosphere, or something else, the movie just didn’t stick with me like the first one did. It was decently entertaining, for a sequel, but it didn’t really offer anything surprising or new.

Look. Look how beautiful it is. The whole short is like this. I could cry.

The opening short, “Piper,” is a different story. The almost photo-realistically animated story of a baby sandpiper overcoming his fear of the ocean, it’s worth the price of a movie ticket all by itself. I didn’t think it was possible for me to be blown away by 3D animation anymore, but Pixar keeps on proving me wrong. This is a gorgeous bit of storytelling done without any dialogue, possibly their best short yet. It’s just a pity they can’t seem to bring the same level of originality to their feature-length films anymore.

Overall, I can whole-heartedly recommend Finding Dory to anyone wishing to take their young child/sibling/cousin/etc. out for a fun evening. For a single adult like myself, it may not be worth the ten bucks.

Grade: B

10 Cloverfield Lane

Disclaimer: I did not watch the original Cloverfield before this one. But, as far as I can learn from the interwebs, the two have hardly anything to do with each other besides the name and J.J. Abrams. The original was a straight-up Godzilla-style monster movie, and this is…well, a different kind of monster movie.

It begins with our heroine, Michelle, hurriedly packing up and fleeing her apartment, leaving an engagement ring behind. As she’s driving on an empty country road, ignoring calls from her fiance, she is suddenly struck from behind by something and crashes. When she wakes up, she’s hooked up to an IV in a small, cell-like room, where she’s soon greeted by a man named Howard. Howard claims to have saved her life by bringing her to the bunker underneath his farmhouse, just before a chemical or nuclear attack contaminated the air outside. Another man, Emmett, also managed to take shelter in the bunker in time. The rest of the world as Michelle knows it, Howard says, is gone.

Would you actually want to spend the apocalypse with the kind of person who is prepared for an apocalypse?

But nothing in this movie can be taken at face value. From the beginning, the central question on both Michelle and the viewer’s mind is: Can we trust Howard? He’s clearly anti-social and a little odd from the beginning–as you’d expect from someone who spent years building a doomsday bunker under his house. But is he a crazy-prepared survivalist who took pity on two neighbors when his doomsday prophecies came true? Or is he just crazy? What, if anything, is really going on above the reinforced concrete ceilings of the bunker? And what secrets might be hiding on the inside?

The movie delights in dancing around the answers to these questions, which keeps the suspense high throughout the first two-thirds of the action. The three-misfits-stuck-in-a-room-together premise certainly allows for some lighter moments, but the claustrophobic setting, the hints of an unknown danger, the eerie soundtrack, and especially John Goodman’s acting as Howard, all combine to create a creeping sense of dread that gets stronger almost by the minute. Seriously, I never realised how amazing John Goodman is. Who knew the voice of Sulley and Pacha could carry a movie like this so effectively?

I also have to take a moment to talk about Michelle, though, because she’s one of the best horror/thriller heroines I’ve ever seen. Even though she starts the movie as a wannabe fashion designer with a history of running from her problems, from the moment she wakes up in the bunker she starts being endlessly resourceful, brave, and determined. Injured leg, creepy armed host, possible apocalypse–nothing stops her, at least not for long. It goes beyond mere survival instinct, too, as she consistently goes out of her way to try and protect others. She’s basically Ripley without the power armour.

Never thought I’d say that about the chick from Scott Pilgrim, but there you go.

And, since this movie only has about three characters, I gotta say something about Emmett, too. He’s great, both as much-needed comic relief and as bona fide hero when the chips are down. I also appreciate that the movie doesn’t try to shoehorn a romance in between him and Michelle, even though they might possibly be the only young man and woman left on the planet. You have to respect any product of Hollywood that avoids a romantic subplot with that kind of set-up.

And now we come to the hard part of this review. See, this is one of those movies where the ending is likely to change the way you feel about everything that came before it, for better or worse. And the Movie Reviewers’ Code forbids me to give away the ending. Plus, I’m a little conflicted about it myself. I will say this, though: if you’re familiar with J.J. Abrams’ other original work, you will probably be able to guess certain things about the ending pretty far in advance. As for whether it’s good or bad–I can’t decide, but I’m leaning towards good. On the one hand, it does drastically change the tone of the movie, which feels a wee bit like a cop-out. But on the other hand, it gives Michelle a great chance to show off her character development, and the tone it switches to is one which I generally like in a movie, especially at the end.

It’s definitely better than whatever they’re watching here.

You, the viewer, will have to decide for yourself. But however you feel about the last 15 minutes of 10 Cloverfield Lane, everything leading up to them is fantastic. In a heart-palpitating sort of way. For sensitive viewers: there are very few moments of violence or gore on-screen, but when they do occur, the movie really makes them count. Then again, this movie can also make a game of Taboo scary. If you live in a basement, as I do, you may not want to watch this alone. As I did.

My dreams have been just fine, thank you very much.

Grade: A-

Dollhouse

This is mostly going to be  a movie blog, never fear. But I happen to like television quite a lot, too, so once in a while I’m gonna have to review a TV show.

“Dollhouse” is a cyberpunk show by Joss Whedon that aired on Fox six or seven years ago. As you might guess from the combination of “Joss Whedon” and “Fox” in that sentence, it was cancelled after two seasons. But before it got cancelled, it was about a version of the present day in which a technology has been invented that can wipe out a person’s personality and memories and replace them with new ones. A very shady company called the Rossum Corporation uses this technology to run “dollhouses,” where the very wealthy can rent out mind-wiped people who will (temporarily) become whoever they want them to be–from secret agents to bodyguards to…well, more traditional roles. Each “doll” is re-set to a child-like state after every assignment, but one, named Echo, is starting to remember her previous selves. Meanwhile, an FBI agent is getting close to the truth in his investigation of Rossum, a rogue doll named Alpha is trying to take down Echo’s dollhouse in a more violent manner, and the shadowy heads of the corporation may have more sinister long-term plans than anyone suspects.

Unlike some of his other swiftly-cancelled projects, Joss actually got to wrap this one up pretty neatly before it ended, so it doesn’t suffer from the lack of closure that caused so many Browncoat tears. But while it has some good characters and great storytelling moments, this show has two big, loud problems, which, surprisingly, have nothing to do with Fox.

*sigh* A tiny supermodel in skimpy clothes who beats people up a lot. Some of Joss’s tricks get old.

First of all, the central character was not cast very well. For a show whose premise requires the main character to be a completely different person every episode (and sometimes several people in one episode), you need a stellar actress. Eliza Dushku, who plays Echo, is just a decent one. All her personalities seem more or less the same, and since this is one of those shows where minor characters spend a lot of time calling the main character “special,” that gets annoying.

What makes it even more annoying is that she’s surrounded by AMAZING actors. There’s the great Alan Tudyk, in one of his most impressive performances ever; there’s Summer Glau, who manages to put a completely different spin on “cute psycho” than she did in “Firefly;” there’s Dichen Lachman, who plays a doll 10 times more interesting than Echo despite getting less screen time; and there’s Enver Gjokaj, an actor I had never heard of before watching this show, which is a crime against talent and art. How is this guy not landing major roles in big movies and getting showered with awards? To say he has range is like saying the Empire State Building has floors.

Just a few of the characters he plays on this show.

The second problem is that “Dollhouse” is every bit as dark and unsettling as it sounds. The parallels to real-life prostitution and slavery are all too obvious. There aren’t many truly good characters to root for, and when they do pop up, awful things happen to them. An atmosphere of apocalyptic gloom hangs over the whole series starting near the end of season 1. Don’t get me wrong–there are plenty of funny and heartwarming moments, but the context often made me feel a little icky for laughing at them. The show’s premise allows for some interesting discussions on the nature of free will and what makes a person human, but it’s not a fun show. If it was any longer, I probably wouldn’t have finished it.

That said, I must take a moment to highlight one of the bright patches. His name is Topher Brink, the surprisingly adorable mad scientist who programs the dolls. His character arc, which takes him from an arrogant, childish brat to a broken-hearted hero, is the kind of beautifully tragic storytelling I’ve come to expect from Joss. Even when the rest of the show was just making me angry, I could always relate to Topher (I’ll admit that worries me a bit). Topher gave me many feelings, but none of them were angry.

Topher feels may include laughter, nervous laughter, sudden urges to hug, and soul-crushing misery.

If  you’re a die-hard Joss Whedon fan, you will probably like “Dollhouse.” If you’re just a mild Joss Whedon fan, like me, it may or may not be worth your time. Either way, fair warning: there are quite a few sexually suggestive scenes, most of which do not take place between mutually consenting partners (unless brainwashing counts as consent), and there’s a fair amount of violence. Proceed with caution.

Or just re-watch “Firefly.” I find that’s usually a good idea in any situation.

Grade: C+