Monday, 14 September 2009

The Blog Is Dead, Long Live The Blog...

Regular readers of Shades of Caruso will have noticed that posting has become patchy of late. All three contributors -- myself, Canyon, and Masticator -- have had the usual Real Life complications stand in the way of regular posting, which is probably the way most blogs end up. There have been a vast number of posts I've started but not been able to finish, and the sight of them in my dashboard is like torture. The aborted Face/Offs (Knowing vs. The Day The Earth Stood Still; 28 Dresses vs. I Could Never Be Your Woman; The Fountain vs. Southland Tales), the unfinished Sci-Fi Through Time And Space entries (Charlie Jade, Dante 01), the incomplete BBC Breakfast Watch posts (so much fear of the future), the unstarted CSI: Miami recaps (dropped so long ago when they turned this blog into a weird battleground for some very very angry people)... Oh how I wanted to finish them. But I didn't. If I'm not going to write about all of the things I'm passionate about, what's the point?

And yet, at the risk of sounding unhinged, I need this in my life. It's the place where I keep my thoughts on pop culture straight. That's something that Twitter and the various message boards and comment threads I inhabit cannot do for me. Nevertheless, this unlovely blog template and the crappy functionality, which make me feel so depressed whenever I see it, have got to go. I know I'm not alone. One regular reader's very first comment on the blog was, "It's ugly". She did eventually said she liked some of the content. Still, the hurt remains.

So, I'm trying something out. Though I'm not going the whole hog by sorting out servers and downloading WordPress 2.8.1 or whatever the hell it's called (hours have been wasted trying to figure out what an FTP Client is. Embarrassing), I've started the new Shades of Caruso in a new, prettier place. It's still under construction, but I've been putting off doing this for way too long. Consider this blog an archive of the old stuff, and this the final post (unless something weird happens). The new stuff is over at, and to commemorate this, I'm announcing the winners (and losers) of the annual Shades of Caruso TV Awards for the 2008-2009 TV season. Incentive! That's how these things work, right?

Bye bye Blogger. Hello Wordpress...

Monday, 7 September 2009

Rock Band Wish List #4: (Addendum)

Recently I praised Activision and Neversoft for their eclectic range of songs in Guitar Hero 5, but today I come to bury them. Because this shit just isn't acceptable.

It might be hard to believe, but I do try to avoid preciousness or excess fragility when dealing with pop culture ephemera, and not get my knickers in a twist about, say, JJ Abrams coming along and making Spock and Uhura a couple (I thought it was quite sweet, actually), but with music, it's different. Music is more personal, and the connection to certain creators is more direct. When Kurt died, it fucking hurt. Hurt me, hurt my friends. I still remember the night his death was announced like it was yesterday. Years earlier my mother had been reduced to tears over the deaths of Elvis and John Lennon, and I hadn't understood why she would do that. When Cobain died, I got it.

This Rolling Stone article -- or should I say retyped press release -- claims that this only came about once Courtney Love (that brave defender of Cobain's legacy) signed off on it, along with Primary Wave Publishing and Dave Grohl, but it's unclear whether they're talking about the music or the image.

The licensing deal had been in the works for years, but Activision’s Vice President of Music Affairs Tim Riley is still pinching himself. ” ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ is a song that we’ve had at the top of our wish list ever since I came to Guitar Hero,” he tells Rolling Stone from his office in Santa Monica. “So it’s been a while.”

Indeed, securing the proper approvals was no small feat. Not only did Cobain’s widow Courtney Love have to sign off on behalf of the estate, so did former drummer Dave Grohl and Primary Wave Publishing, which administers the Nirvana catalog. “There’s a lot of moving parts to something like this,” Riley explains. “But it was about timing, not an issue of resistance. We almost did it for World Tour, but we couldn’t get it together. Then after three years of working with the different parties, it was like the perfect storm.”

Naturally, Love did have some concerns. Namely, Cobain’s physique, Riley reveals. “Courtney supplied us with photos and videos and knew exactly what she wanted Kurt to look like,” he says. “She picked the wardrobe and hair style, which turned out to be the ‘Teen Spirit’ look, then we went back and forth over changes — some subtle, some not so subtle.” In column B? Love’s reference to the Greek God Adonis, whose youthful good looks made the male deity an object of desire. “She certainly had a physical image in mind,” says Riley. “She wanted him to have that sort of athletic definition but not overly so.” And while Love has long had a reputation for being difficult, Riley’s experience was anything but. “She was actually great to work with,” he says. “She got back with comments pretty quickly.”

I'll bet she got back to them quickly. Milos Forman hasn't been rushing to cast her in another movie, I'll wager. Would Grohl have any say in image control rights? He can't have thought this was a good idea, surely. And what about Krist Novoselic? I'm unclear about how the Nirvana estate has been handled, but doesn't he have a say?

Whatever. I'm pissed, and I'm not the only one. I'm coming in late to the game complaining about this, but it needed to be said, my recent excitement about the game was done before I realised this had happened. Shades of Caruso does not endorse this bullshit.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Rock Band Wish List #5: The New Pornographers

The Beatles: Rock Band's imminent release means I'm neglecting Rock Band II, which could well be a first for me. It doesn't help that three days ago I downloaded Drop7 to my iPhone and am now hallucinating numbers like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind.

Nevertheless, as addictive as that game is (it's like crack and heroin got spliced in a telepod with a heap of bacon bits), it's not going to feature Here Comes The Sun, so it will have to take a backseat soon. As I've said before, I'm not the biggest Beatles fan, which makes my enthusiasm for this game all the more surprising. I'm so eager that I've decided against buying Batman: Arkham Asylum, instead saving those pounds so that I can belt out Back in the USSR a week from now. The Batman-loving part of my brain is very angry at the Rock-Band-loving part of my brain.

Until the day TB:RB comes out, or is superseded by potential follow-ups such as The Rolling Stones: Rock Band, The Beach Boys: Rock Band, Radiohead: Rock Band, or Dewey Cox: Rock Band...

...I can still keep wishing on a star for new Rock Band DLC. The recent additions to the library have been superb: ten Spinal Tap tracks, an assortment of Tom Petty and Fleetwood Mac songs, and the one Kaiser Chiefs single I like (I Predict a Riot, predictably). Even better than that, tomorrow will see the release of a five song Talking Heads pack, comprising Girlfriend Is Better, And She Was, Take Me To The River, Crosseyed and Painless, and Once in a Lifetime. All we need now is a Big Suit peripheral, and it's gonna be Stop-Making-Sense-HQ up in this bitch.

Of course, filling this blog with wishes is one very unreliable way to get my favourite songs on the game. The Rock Band website, however, is just fantastic, linking with the game and allowing you to make requests for future Rock Band songs on your own home page. Of course, I really doubt that my exhortations will be heeded, just as they probably won't here, either, but it's a lovely feature, as is the photo gallery, which allows you to create photos of your band members. Here is the full roster of The Vic Mackeyz, with (left to right) Daisy Hellcakes, McJoggah, Jen Sanity, and George Murderer:

Sadly, I am currently unable to rescue our Oscar night band -- Illitaritt Natzys -- from Rock Band I obscurity. Shame that. Also a shame I won't be able to customise the Beatles line-up in TB:RB, otherwise I'd have Stuart Sutcliffe, Pete Best, Yoko Ono, and Will Oldham (for variety).

Anyway, what do I want on Rock Band now? One song occupied my head completely during a recent trip to the States. From Electric Version -- an album I listened to after falling for the title track in Rock Band, aptly enough -- it's The Laws Have Changed, which is a strong contender for Greatest Pop Song Ever Recorded. (And yes, that is indeed Nicki "Cally from Battlestar Galactica" Clyne going mental in the video.

And then Harmonix can follow it up with all of Neko Case's magnificent album Middle Cyclone. For my forthcoming birthday. Thanks in advance, chaps.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Cinema In 2009 Just Got Real

Blogs have many uses, and some of those uses might actually benefit humanity. Compared to Ben Goldacre's Bad Science, or the very wonderful Daily Hate Myself, this blog often feels like it does little more than allow me to list my likes and dislikes at painful length, when not harping on about Rock Band. Last week, I whined about Stephen Sommers movies. This week, I will be rather boring about Michael Mann.

Though I don't want to do a Harry Knowles and spend the next fifteen paragraphs talking about how I'm the biggest Michael Mann fan ever so there, there's no way I can talk about Public Enemies and not admit that I am, as Canyon called me yesterday, a Mann apologist. I liked Miami Vice. I forgave Collateral its flaws. The Keep is a misunderstood and flawed classic that deserves to be seen in its full glory. Heat is the best crime film of the last twenty years. Yes, I like it more than Goodfellas, though not by much. Tracking the practically incremental alterations in his style is as fascinating to me as assessing Spielberg's late-period career reinventions, or Zemeckis' technological experiments, or Scorsese's slow descent into what would be termed irrelevance in any other filmmaker.

And yet Public Enemies didn't excite me that much. Middling reviews and a boring trailer did little to increase my enthusiasm, though part of it was disappointment with the film year so far. Only a couple of films have really impressed me: In The Loop, Kathryn Bigelow's haunting Iraq movie The Hurt Locker, the few minutes of Up I could concentrate on between disturbances by the kids behind me. Public Enemies was on my must-see list just because of Mann and Depp, but the played-out subject matter and my annoying ennui conspired against it. Case in point: it was released weeks ago, and I only saw it yesterday. This is not my usual behaviour.

For the first hour, I struggled to commit to it. Much comment has been made about Mann's decision to use the same digital processes he used in Collateral and Miami Vice (That piece being one of the most interesting articles about it), with criticism aimed at it for being muddy and ugly. Personally, I love the look of Mann's digital movies, but am aware that debate about his use of this technology in his previous films has sometimes come down to a matter of personal taste. In Public Enemies, the argument has altered slightly. It's no longer a debate about whether it looks nice or not. It's more about why Mann would use what some see as alienating and anachronistic digital photography in a period piece.

If anachronism is meant to be avoided, then surely it should be filmed in black and white on analogue film, but I do get the point. This technology is modern enough that only a few filmmakers are committing to it, and the novelty of seeing this startling and textured imagery has not yet disappeared. Shots of Depp and Cotillard (playing Dillinger's lover Billie Frechette) together in bed are dizzying, with cinematographer Dante Spinotti getting the camera in so close you can see every pore on their faces, lighting the scene with one stark light mimicking the brightness of the moon. The look of the movie is a world away from even John Milius' Dillinger, let alone the monochrome of William Wellman and Raoul Walsh.

So why do it? Partially because Mann is attempting to create a continuum between now and then. The movie already explores contemporary issues, such as the use of torture and technology to fight a threat to the nation, the march of progress leaving behind those who are unwilling to adapt, the cult of celebrity, and the narcissism of those who become addicted to the limelight. Instead of cracking out old film, Mann is saying that was then and then was now. We've barely moved on from those times, a point that is especially affecting considering that we're watching a film set during the Great Depression while teetering on the brink of our own economic collapse. The timing of this film's release couldn't have been better.

If you're going to use a historical crime setting to highlight failings in our own modern culture, why not use a visual template that is utterly modern? Plus, it is one of many aspects of the movie that connects with Mann's other movies. The visuals remind one of Mann's last two projects. The look of Billie's cell in the final scene, the reliance on technology to pursue lawbreakers, and the beautifully shot night-time raid scene are all reminiscent of Manhunter. The portrayal of a man who ended up shaping the world around him comes from Ali. Elliot Goldenthal's stirring soundtrack is occasionally reminiscent of the more grandiose moments of Last of the Mohicans. And then, of course, there are the myriad similarities with Heat.

A friend of the blog has already made an arch comment to me about how Mann has been making the same movie for the past twenty years, which is harsh but obviously not far from the truth. The parallels between Public Enemies and Heat are many, with Mann showing two "professionals" engaged in a battle against each other from opposite sides of the law. As with Heat, they have similarities. Hanna and McCauley are both perfectionists, surrounding themselves with similar professionals, whose personal lives are affected by their determination to do what they do as well as they can do it.

Dillinger and Purvis (Christian Bale's ambitious and ultimately deluded crime fighter) have a similar attitude to their work, and surround themselves with a tight group of compatriots, but they are also forced to work with people who cannot match up to their standards. Though McCauley is brought low by the failings of his team, Dillinger distances himself from the losers in his crew, and is eventually undone by events outside his influence. More surprisingly, while Hanna is never compromised by his team, Purvis is forced to watch as his team becomes ever more desperate and foolish. Billie is tortured, innocent civilians are gunned down (he is directly responsible for at least two grisly deaths), and it is late in the movie before he realises how low he is willing to sink in order to get his man.

Heat also shows the toll this life takes on a man. The most memorable scene is the beautifully played meeting between Hanna and McCauley, a scene so powerful that not even the wretched Righteous Kill could not retroactively fuck it up. (Note that Pacino and De Niro share the frame, wearing similar grey suits, though with different coloured shirts).

Their realisation that they are so similar is enough to create a bond between them. At the end, Hanna guns down McCauley, and the final shot has them sharing the frame again, Hanna comforting McCauley as he dies (and yes, I cry every time I see it). From the beginning of Heat to the end, the two characters converge. Public Enemies is different enough that the criticism that it is a remake of Heat can be dismissed, though I appreciate there is enough similarity there to raise eyebrows. While McCauley and Hanna become closer in spirit, Purvis and Dillinger start off similar and become more different, and never reach that moment of reconciliation.

In the first half of the film Dillinger is a shallow popinjay who thrives on public approval, and Purvis, who is more buttoned-down, is more than happy to milk the attention he gets after shooting Pretty Boy Floyd by attaching himself to J. Edgar Hoover, quickly adapting to his role as Eliot-Ness-style G-Man hero. At film's end, Dillinger has lost the love of his life, but has achieved a kind of immortality. He infiltrates (with no effort at all) the Dillinger Squad office in the Chicago Police Department building, and sees first-hand the efforts made to capture him. He walks through the room in what looks like a state of rapture, delighted by his importance and his ability to dodge capture even at the heart of the web. Following that, the superb finale shows him watching Clark Gable playing a Dillinger-esque gangster in Manhattan Melodrama, a smug grin spreading across his face.

Purvis, on the other hand, has seen the law compromised and broken, his own morality dented, and his partner murdered. He too is alone, but doesn't even have someone who would sacrifice their own freedom for him, and though his team is responsible for catching Dillinger, it is Charles Winstead who fires the killing shot, and he is forced to watch as this event unfolds in front of him. The look of misery on Bale's face is ambiguous. Is he sad to see Dillinger die, as Hanna is to see McCauley die? Is he jealous that he didn't get to kill his nemesis? Or is he selfishly thinking about how he has lost everything, and all he has to show for it is the tawdry sight of a corpse on a high street, a brokenhearted but noble woman left loveless by his actions, and a career that forces him to be the stooge of a boss who doesn't believe in him?

Unlike Heat, criminal and cop do not share the screen in the final moments. Whereas Mann used colour to show play up the similarities between Hanna and McCauley, in Public Enemies he uses it to show the contrast. Bale's scenes are almost exclusively rendered in gun-metal grey, filmed in impersonal concrete buildings filled with drab, unglamorous furniture. Depp's scenes are mostly brown, occasionally rich and warm, but mostly muted, as if the glamour and lushness has been drained from the screen. One short scene at a racetrack is almost sepia tone, evoking memories of the past as Bale, surrounded by metal, machinery, and flashing lights, references the inevitable future.

Nevertheless, Dillinger is aware that by maintaining the public image of a dashing outlaw he will become a legend, and Depp plays up to that subtly, walking with a confident swagger and adding an Elvis-like twinkle to his speech. In one of the film's highlights, we see how thrilled he is, after being captured by Purvis' men midway through the film, to be transported from a flare-lit airport along a gauntlet of adoring bystanders, lauded by the public as a man of the people fighting against the monolithic banks. That confident mask only ever slips when members of his gang screw up (Mann's protagonists are perfectionists, as ever), or when he loses Billie and cannot get her back without jeopardising himself. Tragically, he never finds out that she protects him from capture at the risk of her own life.

These little glimpses of the scared boy inside the man leak out more as the film progresses, just as we see Bale's frustration and confusion manifest in expressions of despair and panic. Even as his quarry lies dead on the floor, Bale's face shows no relief, merely pain, lit by another flare as Dillinger's notoriety generates one last media frenzy, the same kind of berserker rage from a public who never cared if Dillinger was alive or dead, just that the outlaw tale was being told right in front of them.

As I mentioned earlier, it took me a while to settle. Parsing Mann's choices distracted me so much I foolishly lost track of the plot and performances. After an hour the movie began to grip, but even so, I didn't expect what happened next. Good movies can make me forget my troubles, but great movies transport you out of your body. Closer to the end of the film, Mann's visuals become ever more abstract, and his lighting more and more stark. The third act begins with a motel raid that ranks with the bank raid and subsequent street battle in Heat, or the nightclub shootout from Collateral. Its impact is visceral and terrifying, battering the audience with beautifully edited sound: one gunshot was so loud and clear that it rattled my chair and drew a shriek of terror from someone sitting behind me. During this scene we see Purvis crack. Losing his partner sends him momentarily over the edge, and he abandons his search for Dillinger to go after the truly awful Baby Face Nelson. Their showdown is breathtaking.

By that point, my previous qualms were forgotten. As Dillinger and Purvis approach their destiny outside the Biograph theatre, all of the careful set-up that I had mistaken for distraction pays off with astonishing cumulative power. As the final scene unravels, with Goldenthal's beautiful soundtrack rising over Marion Cotillard's moment of heartbroken revelation, I succumbed to awestruck tears. Mann did it to me again, that talented bastard.

Yesterday I thought I was all alone in this. Critical opinion seemed to range from dismissive to strongly negative, with some blogs picking it apart for not being The Roaring Twenties. The AV Club had one of the first reviews I read, and it made my heart sink.

In a parallel with my experience during the film, opinion might be swinging back in its favour. This brilliantly perceptive second look is far more in step with my own experience (and contains way more insight than this blogpost, so do yourself a favour and check it out), and these reviews by Nigel Andrews and Manohla Dargis make me wonder whether it will be reappraised by the end of the year.

I hope so. In a year that has provided so little of interest, and some thoroughly contentious toy-movies, this is one of a very small group of films that has generated passion in me. More than that, Public Enemies actually overwhelmed me in a way nothing else has since I saw Rachel Getting Married earlier this year. If things go right, by the end of 2009 critics will have had a chance to mull over this intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging work of art, and will shower garlands and rose petals over Depp, Cotillard, and Bale, co-stars Jason Clarke and Branka Katic, writers Ronan Bennett and Anne Biderman, and especially Mann, who just made his best film since Heat. My head is still ringing like a bell 28 hours later. Goddamn, I love cinema.

Friday, 7 August 2009

Some Thoughts On G.I. Joseph, AKA The Cobra Also Rises

Today I saw Stephen Sommers' first film since Van Helsing threatened to kill his career in a flurry of poorly CGI'd werewolf hair. As G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra bombarded my eyeballs with a seemingly endless parade of gloomily-lit bases, bland outfits, and incompetently filmed carnage, several thoughts flitted through my brain. I suspect these thoughts were my brain's self-defence program, to prevent my sanity from tumbling, unhindered by rational thought, into a swirling vortex of suicide-inducing ennui.

Things I liked about G.I. Tract: Cobrasonic:

  • The tech is often a lot of fun. There's a lot of force-gun action that's great for throwing people and jeeps around the screen, and for at least the first hour there isn't a single scene that doesn't have some peculiar technological madness kicking off in the frame. For a while, this was enough to make me think I would love the movie on some gut level.

  • It's mostly set in underground or underwater bases, and the antagonists are gleefully supervillainous. It's so unapologetically broad that it wins you over at first.

  • Sienna Miller has never been used well in a popular movie until now. She's oddly endearing as the tortured villain The Baroness.

  • Actually, the cast is very impressive, for the most part. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Christopher Ecclestone, Jonathan Pryce, Dennis Quaid, Saïd Taghmaoui, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (yes, Cesar and Mr. Eko finally meet beyond the grave!)... Some of them are actually good, as well. (Taghmaoui wins out.)

Things I did not like about G.I. Bill: The Rose of Cairo:

Unfortunately, those great actors are not only forced to play second fiddle to Channing Tatum -- who appears to be an especially inexpressive golem of some kind -- and Marlon Wayons¹, but also to gabble the most flat and silly dialogue at a speed that must have required some kind of fourth-dimensional voice-coaching. Every scene featuring dialogue is packed so full of exposition that there is no room for nuance, inflection, or emotion. It's just a long scream of "DUKE WE NEED TO LOCATE THE BASE AND FIND THE KILLSWITCH FOR THE NANOMITES I'M ON IT SIR WE HAVE TO GET TO PARIS BEFORE THEY WEAPONISE THOSE WARHEADS YOU GOT IT DUKE SUIT UP SOLDIER!" The action scenes should be a respite from the hectic shouting, but they're nothing but a tumult of shattering planet. By the time the credits rolled, I was draped across my seat, utterly defeated by the barrage of aggressive nonsense. Imagine being verbally assaulted by a gamma-irradiated Jerky Boy. That's G.I. Joe.

Why do that? Partially because Stephen Sommers, while having some expertise at handling the technical aspects of his movies, has absolutely no idea how to modulate scenes. As with everything else he's made, every scene is played like a big finish, with everyone operating at full tilt. This is, of course, a lot like Michael Bay's modus operandi, but even though Bay's movies are poorly paced, they are at least paced in some form. As I've said on here before, Sommers just does FASTslowFASTslowFASTslow, with the only variation being the length of the FAST scenes. In G.I. Joe, the first action scene is about eight minutes long. The second is thirteen minutes long. The Paris sequence feels like it lasts an hour. The big finish in the underwater base might still be going on. I left the cinema ten hours ago but the room was still shaking. THE JOES HAD TO FIND THE KILLSWITCH TO DEACTIVATE THE NANOMITES BEFORE THEY DESTROYED WARSHINGTON! I hope they did. Regrettably, I needed to put my head down somewhere.

That's why the dialogue gets rattled out like minigun rounds. Sommers is presented with a script containing 108 pages. That's 108 minutes. The action scenes probably account for 40 pages, which is not enough action for Sommers, who is like a little boy playing with toys, contriving ever more silly ways to keep his playtime going². So, those 68 pages of dialogue are squished down to 48 by making everyone talk like they're on fast forward, and the action is dragged out for 20 extra pages. There is approximately an hour of things blowing up. That shit even tires me out, and I usually thrive on this stuff.

Of course, Sommers also cannot film action properly. The camera is way too close, the explosions are shot in such a way as to obstruct what is happening, and the fighting is poorly choreographed. The swordfights between Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are too short, set in spaces too small, and keep stopping and starting. No flow, no thrill.

There is also a poor use of environment, with every setting being used the same way (jeep flips over ten times, man flies through air, other man crashes through wall, another jeep flips through the air, thing explodes as jeep hits it, man flips through air and hits jeep, jeep hits man in mid-air, etc.). The main action scenes are in a forest, the G.I. Joe base, Paris, and the Cobra base, but they're all completely interchangeable. There are only one or two elements that differentiate them (a train in Paris, water in the Cobra base), but otherwise it's the same clanging bullshit. Plus, he underlights everything. I say this with all honesty: Bay the action director pisses all over Sommers the action director. It's not saying much, but I stand by that.

The effects are all over the place. Digital Domain are doing a lot of heavy lifting this year, now that Michael Bay runs the show. Their effects are generally very very good, and have a very distinctive textured feel, but they over-reach at times here. The Accelerator suits looked so cool in previews, but onscreen they're boring to look at (those glum colours are shown up by Iron Man's red and gold), and move really haphazardly. I know they're like mad exo-skeletons and make their wearers more agile and whatever, but in the Paris scene they just seem like ragdolls. There's no sense of weight or power. It's just circus flipping and stuff. The effects on Snake Eyes are marginally better, as he is not meant to be augmented like the other "Joes"³, but even then he's on a truck that doesn't even seem to be a part of the scene. None of them do. It's like Sommers got hold of some holiday footage in Paris and clumsily stuck some exploding ragdolls in the middle of it.

Plus, stop hurting Paris, you dick. Seeing some of the very streets we recently walked along get treated like a warzone made me surprisingly angry. When the Eiffel tower got wrecked, I felt the red rage. Leave the beautiful city alone, you crass douchebag.

Going back to the script problems for a moment, the majority of the important character beats are revealed through flashbacks, with the modern settings used primarily to display explosions of various size. That's not very sleek storytelling, but I wouldn't really have a problem with it, were those flashbacks not ushered in with the relevant character breaking off from yelling about NANOMITE TECHNOLOGY to stare into the middle distance. All it needs is the wobbly dissolve to be one step below Falcon Crest. Maybe Lost has ruined this old flashback cliche, but whatever it is, most of the laughs I got from this was from the use of this hoary old trick. If I were more generous, I'd say Sommers is having a laugh, but as the movie is devoid of intentional humour (don't forget, Marlon Wayans is in it), I strongly doubt that.

Anyone who has seen Ray Park act, as Toad in X-Men or Gurning Cockney Wanker in the Bertolucci-homage Ballistic: Ecks Vs. Sever, knows that you're best off hiring him for his prodigious martial arts skills, and for anything else you hire Peter Serafinowicz to voice him, or figure out a way to shut him up. This movie casts him as a silent ninja-type in a full body suit and weird visor, which is fine for me, but why oh why did they ruin the effect of the mask with a weird rubber mouth?

Those full rubber lips, perpetually in a half-open pose of surprise, make him look like a half-ninja/half yokel cyborg man. Remember the bit in The Man With Two Brains where Dr. Hfuhruhurr puts wax lips on Anne Uumellmahaye's brain jar so he has something to kiss? It looks like someone did that to Snake Eyes.

As for the rest of the costumes, the only ones that make an impression are the skintight leather catsuits on Sienna Miller and Rachel Nichols. Not because I'm a big horndog, but because the rest of the outfits are either bland Accelerator suits or generic camo gear. Sadly, Miller and Nichols appear to have the same sexytailor, but then Sommers apparently doesn't see a reason to differentiate (their hair is different colours, after all).

It's the same with the vehicles. The big underwater finale features a battle between Joeboats and Cobrasubs, with both kinds of vehicle looking almost identical. At the start of the battle they're on either side of the screen, so you know one is bad, the other is good. Two seconds later and it's just pixels swimming about. This is not a joke: I honestly longed for the Star Wars prequels. At least there the vehicles are distinct, and eccentric too (Naboo ships are just so pretty.)

So yeah, Nichols and Miller show much cleavage during the scenes where they are running around shouting "WE HAVE TO GET TO THE BASE BEFORE THE TERRORISTS FIRE THE ROCKETS!" or "WE HAVE TO FIRE THE ROCKETS BEFORE THE JOES GET TO THE BASE!", so I can imagine they will be popular with the millions of pubescent boys in the audience, but even though this is the usual shit, G.I. Joe is far less objectionable than Transformers 2. The leatherclad ladies of Joe are at least given personalities of a sort, and do stuff to further the plot, unlike Megan Fox in Bay's movie. Plus, there aren't two robots called Step and Fetchit or whatever they were called. So Joe has that on it's side, and I'm sort of grateful for it. This belongs in the "Good Things" list, FYI.

Things I wasn't sure about in Sloppy Joe: That's So Cobra!:

  • Midway through the movie, in Snake Eyes' flashback -- which, if I recall correctly, starts with the same "looking into the distance" thing even though Snake Eyes' eyes are hidden behind a bulbous visor -- we're treated to the sight of two twelve-year olds kicking the shit out of each other, kung fu style. I really don't know whether that was sick genius or deeply fucked up.

  • I was thrilled to see two of the most respected actors of their respective generations clad in silly masks or poorly animated metal heads walking around their submarine base and intoning dread words of purest evil. It was even better when they got captured two seconds after reaching their pinnacle of superevil, and then hastily shoved away in a hi-tech prison the end. Even with the SHOCK CODA that is utterly unshocking, it felt like Sommers just got bored of his toys and put them down to go and play Dropzone on his Commodore 64. By then, I knew how he felt. That it is left open for a sequel with shameless desperation just ruined my day. Probably because I know I'll see the damnable thing as well.

Luckily for Sommers, this has probably been my worst ever week for movies, what with Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li giving X-Men Origins: Wolverine a run for its money as worst film of the year. As a result I think better of G.I. Joe than I usually would, but it's still shit, because Stephen Sommers is a terrible filmmaker, and even if you get Stuart "Collateral" Beattie to script it, Sommers will still do his best to wreck it in the name of improvement.

I've said this before elsewhere, but it sums up why I don't like his movies, so I have to repeat it. When I was a kid, I hated when action movies would feature talking and boring stuff when they should surely just have wall-to-wall action. Now that I'm older I look back on those movies and feel deeply ashamed for doubting the wisdom of the directors. For example, I'm currently rewatching and loving a lot of Walter Hill movies, and those long, action-free passages are more thrilling than most action movies made in the last ten years because Hill's approach, imbuing his films with unapologetic machismo, raises tension levels through the roof. Sommers, on the other hand, has only one setting: GO JOES GO! It's too much and not enough, simultaneously.

¹ Sadly operating in Dungeons-and-Dragons mode, not Requiem-For-A-Dream mode.

² "I've finally killed you, Cobra Commander, after an epic two-hour battle!"
"Ah hah! Your bullet was deflected by my armour again. Now we shall fight to the death once more!" Etc.

³ The use of the term "Joes" to describe the soldiers causes much unintentional laughter, though it's an uncomfortable laugh when it's Dennis Quaid forced to talk about how "WE'RE GONNA GET ALL OUR JOES BACK!" I was hoping that, if he got some bad news from Ripcord or Duke, he'd growl, "SAY IT AIN'T SO, JOES!"

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Rock Band Wish List #4: I Am PWNed by Activision

Like Orly Taitz in the grip of another craziness-burp on national TV, I've gone on about Rock Band with off-putting regularity over recent months, which makes me feel bad after Canyon was kind enough to buy me Guitar Hero World Tour for Christmas. For the record, I think Neversoft have done a terrific job of taking over the Guitar Hero brand from Harmonix, though their note-placements on some tracks are kinda weird, especially on Guitar Hero III. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes it can ruin a song. That said, I think their Medium level is more of a challenge, which is nice for me at my current skill level (bored by Rock Band Medium, taxed almost too much by Rock Band Hard), and there are some innovations on Guitar Hero World Tour that Harmonix should seriously consider adopting. Having a five-second pause after you restart a level is a brilliant move (how many times have I had to pause a Rock Band level and then missed six notes when I pressed Resume?), and I found their noteless Beginners level very useful for getting used to the drums. Also, the Music Studio is a superb addition, and though I've not had enough time to really give it a workout, even just a cursory attempt shows how much depth it has. My kudos to all involved. I'm sure they will all appreciate my fragrant and robust kudos.

Still, Rock Band is my religion music game of choice. The interface is cleaner, the flow of the note-placements is far smoother, and the songs available for download are incredible. At least one guest to our house has been converted to the Rock Band cause after seeing the awe-inspiring selection. Guitar Hero's selection is deeply disappointing, apart from the odd highlight: Born to Run and My Lucky Day by The Boss, an Eagles of Death Metal pack containing Cherry Cola, lots of Jimi. That's fine, but some of their selections are utterly overshadowed by Rock Band. Example: You can get Debaser and Monkey Gone To Heaven, but with Rock Band you can get all of Doolittle. Rock Band FTW. Even so, I know I'll be getting Guitar Hero 5, because the song selection is genuinely surprising, and has given the franchise a shot in the arm. The final list was released last week, and some inspired choices have made me very excited.

  • 3 Doors Down - "Kryptonite"
  • A Perfect Circle - "Judith"
  • AFI - "Medicate"
  • Arctic Monkeys - "Brianstorm"
  • Attack! Attack! UK - "You And Me"
  • Band Of Horses - "Cigarettes, Wedding Bands"
  • Beastie Boys - "Gratitude"
  • Beck - "Gamma Ray"
  • Billy Idol - "Dancing With Myself"
  • Billy Squier - "Lonely Is The Night"
  • Blink-182 - "The Rock Show"
  • Blur - "Song 2"
  • Bob Dylan - "All Along The Watchtower"
  • Bon Jovi - "You Give Love A Bad Name"
  • Brand New - "Sowing Season (Yeah)"
  • The Bronx - "Six Days A Week"
  • Bush - "Comedown"
  • Children Of Bodom - "Done With Everything, Die For Nothing"
  • Coldplay - "In My Place"
  • Darker My Love - "Blue Day"
  • Darkest Hour - "Demon(s)"
  • David Bowie - "Fame"
  • Deep Purple - "Woman From Tokyo ('99 Remix)"
  • The Derek Trucks Band - "Younk Funk"
  • Dire Straits - "Sultans Of Swing"
  • The Duke Spirit - "Send A Little Love Token"
  • Duran Duran - "Hungry Like The Wolf"
  • Eagles Of Death Metal - "Wannabe In L.A."
  • Elliott Smith - "L.A."
  • Elton John - "Saturday Night's Alright (For Fighting)"
  • Face To Face - "Disconnected"
  • Garbage - "Only Happy When It Rains"
  • Gorillaz - "Feel Good Inc."
  • Gov't Mule - "Streamline Woman"
  • Grand Funk Railroad - "We're An American Band"
  • Iggy Pop - "Lust For Life (Live)"
  • Iron Maiden - "2 Minutes To Midnight"
  • Jeff Beck - "Scatterbrain (Live)"
  • Jimmy Eat World - "Bleed American"
  • John Mellencamp - "Hurts So Good"
  • Johnny Cash - "Ring Of Fire"
  • Kaiser Chiefs - "Never Miss A Beat"
  • King Crimson - "21st Century Schizoid Man"
  • Kings Of Leon - "Sex On Fire"
  • Kiss - "Shout It Out Loud"
  • Love and Rockets - "Mirror People"
  • Megadeth - "Sweating Bullets"
  • Motley Crue - "Looks That Kill"
  • Muse - "Plug In Baby"
  • My Morning Jacket - "One Big Holiday"
  • Nirvana - "Lithium (Live)"
  • Nirvana - "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
  • No Doubt - "Ex-Girlfriend"
  • Peter Frampton - "Do You Feel Like We Do? (Live)"
  • The Police - "So Lonely"
  • Public Enemy Featuring Zakk Wylde - "Bring the Noise 20XX"
  • Queen & David Bowie - "Under Pressure"
  • Queens Of The Stone Age - "Make It Wit Chu"
  • Rammstein - "Du Hast"
  • The Rolling Stones - "Sympathy For The Devil"
  • Rose Hill Drive - "Sneak Out"
  • Rush - "The Spirit Of Radio (Live)"
  • Santana - "No One To Depend On (Live)"
  • Scars On Broadway - "They Say"
  • Screaming Trees - "Nearly Lost You"
  • Smashing Pumpkins - "Bullet With Butterfly Wings"
  • Sonic Youth - "Incinerate"
  • Spacehog - "In The Meantime"
  • Stevie Wonder - "Superstition"
  • Sublime - "What I Got"
  • Sunny Day Real Estate - "Seven"
  • T. Rex - "20th Century Boy"
  • The Killers - "All The Pretty Faces"
  • The Raconteurs - "Steady As She Goes"
  • The Sword - "Maiden, Mother & Crone"
  • Thin Lizzy - "Jailbreak"
  • Thrice - "Deadbolt"
  • Tom Petty - "Runnin' Down A Dream"
  • Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers - "American Girl"
  • TV On The Radio - "Wolf Like Me"
  • Vampire Weekend - "A-Punk"
  • Weezer - "Why Bother?"
  • The White Stripes - "Blue Orchid"
  • Wild Cherry - "Play That Funky Music"
  • Wolfmother - "Back Round"

Of course, while that's a tasty list, Rock Band has already stolen some of the thunder by releasing some of those songs as download content. Over the last year, we have downloaded Nearly Lost You by Screaming Trees, Wolf Like Me by TV On The Radio and Sex on Fire by Kings of Leon, and The Rock Show by Blink-182 came out last week (how long until we get all of Dude Ranch or Enema of the State, sans stupid "comedy" tracks?). Many more of these songs will become available soon, I'm sure. Still, hats off to Activision for making Guitar Hero more inclusive than it has been in the past. As I've always maintained, these games can do more than rock out. They can bring different genres of popular music into the fold, and Guitar Hero 5 is definitely doing that.

I cannot even begin to express my joy at seeing Stevie Wonder represented in a game so often determined to plough a very boring pure rock format. It makes me wonder if there's any way to get all of Talking Book into the game or, even better, all of Innervisions (my favourite Stevie album). Indie nerds everywhere must be psyched at the appearances by Band of Horses -- with a track from their incredibly moving sophomore album -- and Elliott Smith. Actually, someone questioned the inclusion of the latter on the AV Club, worrying that Smith's family have become lax in holding onto the rights of his songs. To be honest, while that commenter has a point, I'd hope his family gets a chance to profit from his songwriting genius in a way he never really got a chance to. It's not because I'm eager to "play" one of his songs. Honest.

Other highly anticipated tracks in that list (for me, at least) include Bullet With Butterfly Wings by the Pumpkins¹ and Incinerate by Sonic Youth (the highlight of their last Geffen album Rather Ripped), but the songs that inspired the title of this Wish List post are Plug In Baby by Muse, Blue Orchid by The White Stripes, and A-Punk by Vampire Weekend. Muse are a band with a sound that usually makes me want to remove my skin and stamp on it, I hate it that much. Nevertheless, Plug In Baby is a madness-inspiring rock anthem I am unable to resist, even if I were to use protective enchantments from ancient Cimmeria, and had planned a Wish List entry about it. I'd even found the video out and everything. Here it is. It's a monster song.

I'm not sure I would have picked those songs by The Stripes and The Weekend - I'd plump for Seven Nation Army and Oxford Comma - but I'm thrilled anyway, especially by Blue Orchid. So far the only Jack White songs available are his Bond theme with Alicia Keys (and it's great fun to play), some Raconteurs stuff, and three songs from the Dead Weather album Horehound. Treat You Like A Mother is like Bohemian Rhapsody re-written and performed by a sleazy old tramp who has broken into your house and hides under the stairs with his collection of doll hair, and thus is one of the greatest songs of our time. The other two are excessively boring. That's why we need primo Jack White music in our music games, thank you. Preferably White Stripes stuff. What with The White Stripes being the best band in the world, and all. Just sayin'.

So, where next for the Wish List? As a lazy way to maintain the blog while I work on other stuff (by which I do not mean using Twitter to bitch about bad movies), I intend to keep going, especially because -- in these days where laziness and stress battle it out for dominion of my soul -- the game that once was just a pastime has now become a passion, so much so that I will almost certainly be buying DJ Hero even though dance music doesn't excite me as much as a well-gamified bit of Silversun Pickups². More than that, I see further scope for expansion of the songs available for download, branching out into unexpected genres. More on this as the year progresses.

¹ This song was included because eleven out of ten rock fans polled expressed a wish to whine the lyric "Despite all my rage I'm still just a rat in a cage" in a voice that sounds just like an angry rat in a cage. A bald angry rat in a cage. A bald angry rat in a cage wearing an ELO t-shirt and being chased around said cage by Courtney Love.

² That said, DJ Shadow worked on the mixes, the song list includes Herbie Hancock's Rockit (!!!!), and you can play the game as Grandmaster Flash or DJ Jazzy Jeff. If that doesn't make you want to play the game, well, fair enough. But it should make you want to play the game.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

Be Seeing You, With Reservations

Comic-Con San Diego happened a few days ago. It's an event I have heard so much about that it has filled my envy-tanks with enough spleen-fuel to send me to Neptune, especially as it featured what was sure to be the final Lost panel (I doubt they would do another next year just to wrap things up, though I can dream). Among all of the hype for high-profile projects like Iron Man 2: The Ironing, and James Cameron's epoch-shattering masterpiece Avatar (Steven Soderbergh wouldn't lie to us, would he?), was the The Most Anticipated Television Event Of 2009. No, not Community, starring Joel McHale. I am of course talking about the latest show from the mind of the man who brought us the bone-searing thrill-machine known to millions of fans as Lark Rise To Candleford. Yes, the world has gone crazy over The New Adventures of The Prisoner!

As a British sci-fi fan of a certain age, I adore the original Prisoner, and have been nervously watching the development of various remakes and adaptations in much the same way that a houseowner keeps checking the size of the crack in the kitchen wall for signs of imminent subsidence. Kevin Costner was going to be in a film version, back when people liked him, and Mel Gibson was going to be producing a version. Maybe even starring in it. That would be right up his alley, seeing as how he is obsessed with being seen as a tortured martyr (the man's psychology is so open to display you don't need to be Freud to see what's going on in his head). Neither happened, but it's funny that Jim Caviezel is in this remake. While Keanu has captured the market for confident post-Resurrection Messiah, Caviezel seems to be slowly accruing some credits as the pre-death tortured Christ-figure. Mel would approve, I'm sure. He might even get down from his cross long enough to mention this at some point.

As a nerd, I am gripped by the usual nerdly personality disorders: obsession with - and attachment to - trivia, condescending behaviour towards non-nerds, preciousness over the treatment of nerd properties¹. This is a terrible and debilitating disorder to suffer from, and I do try to get over it. As this is merely a short trailer for the mini-series (six episodes), and a lot of information is being held back, it could be a great show, but two things strike me immediately, and it's two things that I knew would happen but dreaded nonetheless.

1) The new Number Six is not defiant enough. Patrick McGoohan personified rebellion, playing a man with the ability to withstand coercion to an extent no human being ever could. As The Prisoner was about resisting the command of (directly) the bureaucrats of the Village and (metaphorically) society itself, he was inspirational. Yes, he was practically a metaphor for a mental state instead of a fully-rounded character, but it was beautiful to see someone triumph over and over again, even though, technically, he spent the entire series failing. Maybe that was the key to his appeal: transforming failure into a kind of victory, because all he needed to win was keep rebelling, even if he never left the Village. It was the kind of story that made you feel better about life, all while making you feel worse about the state of the world. Every episode was a rollercoaster of emotion.

Through it all, McGoohan's Six was cocky, obnoxious, tempestuous, hardcore, and utterly defiant. In short, one of the great characters in modern fiction. From what we can see in this short video, Caviezel's Six spends most of it looking shit-scared. This is not appealing. You can see him becoming more defiant as the trailer progresses, but the plot seems to show an arc for his Six. The original didn't have a namby-pamby arc. He just punched people, had tantrums, and smirked when he won a small victory. You just can't top that kind of swagger.

2) The new Number Six seems to want to help his fellow Villagers. Yes, McGoohan's Six sometimes felt the urge to help others, but of course they are working for Number Two, and betray him. Always. Who knows, maybe this will be the case in the remake, and I keep my fingers crossed that this is the case². A traditional hero will help others, but that implies he is in a position to seek help from them as well. If the story you are telling is one that hints that society is an enemy that wants to strip you of the ability to be whoever you want to be, or do whatever you want to do, and that every person in that society will consider you their enemy, then your character has to be alone. With other people around to save or be saved, it becomes a more formulaic tale of man vs. institution. The reason the original Prisoner still chimes with audiences is that McGoohan's Six is one man against everything, against even the concept of society. Turning it into "Everyman rebels against baddies" removes that metaphorical richness. If this is the way it turns out, it becomes an adaptation of just a précis of the original show.

Of course, this is a first impression, filled with entitlement and whininess. The show could be terrific, and I'll definitely be watching it with as open a mind as possible. My love for Sir Ian McKellan is so total that I will enjoy his presence enough to mitigate a lot of flaws. It's also fun seeing Brit actresses Hayley Atwell and Ruth Wilson appearing in something so expensive and American³ instead of the usual costume-drama nonsense, not to mention the presence of the excellent Lennie James. The Rovers look suitably dramatic while being the same as the originals, though the big bouncy balls of old were effective because of other elements, such as the eerie sound effects and peculiar behaviour of the Villagers whenever the Rovers appeared. Whatever. It's a terrific visual, and it's nice that they kept it.

If I knew nothing about the original series, I'd probably love the trailer. However, I know too much, and even though I'll give the new series a fair shake, I can't imagine that the story they tell using this framework will be anywhere near as interesting as the original. I'll respect the showrunners' choices, but already I can see they're promoting the show as something - a traditional Man Against His Superiors fable - that the original transcended. I enjoy those stories well enough, and they have their own metaphorical power, but let's hope they have found a way to make this more daring, otherwise it will have a tough time replacing the memory of the original, a show that genuinely made you think about the world you are living in, without giving easy answers.

One more thing. They got the "Be Seeing You" thing wrong.

That's more like it.

¹ Oh how I whined when Peter David made She-Hulk boring after Dan Slott had done such good work with the character. I deleted the post about that, you'll be glad to know.

² I'm quite happy to see a Christ figure in this tale: less so a Moses metaphor.

³ That said, apparently it is actually produced by Granada and ITV, and only distributed by AMC, hence the predominantly British cast.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Rock Band Wish List #3: Phoenix

A lot of the songs I want made available as Rock Band download tracks appeal to me as possible challenges, probably because many of the tracks I looked forward to most have turned out to be depressingly easy. That's not the worst problem in the world, but just as some gamified songs have revealed levels of songcraft that I hadn't fully appreciated, simple songs make some of my heroes seem like charlatans. This is a mistake on my part, as Nirvana's talent often lay in the oppressive atmosphere and visceral impact of their sound, not in intricacy. Only when repurposed for acoustic did their songs become nuanced. When in their raw form, they were often a barrage of sounds, which is not as much fun to play, though still great to listen to. (N.B. I'm not just picking on Nirvana because I'm impatient for a future release of Lithium, Come As You Are, and Smells Like Teen Spirit, plus all of In Utero. Not at all.)

Nevertheless, when I spend precious Space Dollars (© Warren Ellis) I want the songs to tax me. That's probably why I play Blue Sky by The Allman Brothers Band so much. That enormous solo is pure joy from start to finish. A lot of Nothing's Shocking by Jane's Addiction is a test of dexterity, and my current favourite purchase is Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan, where all of the guitar tracks are difficult to finger-annihilatingly hard. Coughing up the big bucks for that whole album is the smartest frivolous purchase I've made in a while.

And then there are the songs I want just because they are outrageous fun. We recently fell in love with Green Day's Know Your Enemy after seeing them play some blistering versions of it on The Tonight Show With Conan O'Brien and Saturday Night Live. This would definitely have been on the Wish List, but we don't need to now that the imminent release as part of a three song track pack has been announced. And this excitement from someone who never took Green Day seriously? That's how much fun that song is. So, with that sorted out to our satisfaction, I'm exhorting Harmonix and MTV Games to make 1901 by Phoenix available as soon as possible.

I never got the appeal of Gallic popsters Phoenix before, but their latest album, Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix, is undeniably the album of the summer. It's a multi-hook pile-up on the joy highway, and I'm begging all readers to chase it down immediately. Just like previous summer albums from my past, like I Should Coco, Ill Communication, and Dig Your Own Hole, it feels like it's made of pure sunshine, and 1901 is the track that immediately caught my ear on first listen. Buy that album and you get a free suntan just by standing in front of your speakers. It's that good. Here's 1901 as a taster.

Gamify this immediately, gaming people, and I'll be playing it as often as other grin-inducing uplift-providers as Nine in the Afternoon by Panic At The Disco, Use It by The New Pornographers, and Dead on Arrival by Fall Out Boy. And that's a promise.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

(Sort Of) End Of Season Review: Dollhouse

::Disclaimer - It's hard to write a definitive End of Season Review for a show that, technically, has not aired all of its episodes. The thirteenth episode of Dollhouse has been held back for DVD release as a result of Fox's meddling with the original pilot, with the hint that it would be shown in foreign markets. That means England, right? And it's on Sci Fi UK? Hence my tardiness with this, waiting to see if it would air on UK TV. Of course, I won't know until Sci Fi updates its website, which is still saying they're only showing nine episodes. Well done, website.::

When I was trying to figure out how to begin writing about the almost completed season of Dollhouse, the only approach that seemed to give the proper background seemed to be the "Harry Knowles Approach", where I recount a long and disjointed series of anecdotes (linked by ellipses, of course) proving that whereas you, the reader, for example, might think that you are the biggest Joss Whedon fan, in fact it is I who is the biggest fan, and have the most Whedon-related memorabilia, and so I am more qualified than anyone to take on this task so there. If you don't believe me about Knowles, this is just one example of his weird impulse to be the biggest expert on every subset of fandom going. Or the man who has the biggest obsession with oral sex and defecation.

Of course, I'm not the biggest Whedon fan in the world, as I have yet to stalk him or name one of my children Xander or Illyria. I do have a cat called Zoe, named after Gina Torres' character from Firefly, but naming cats after TV characters, products, concepts, or smells is not weird or stalkery. However, I would not be here writing this blog about various TV shows if it wasn't for Whedon. Who knows, I might be doing something more constructive, like snowboarding, or rock-climbing, or being an alcoholic. So I owe my bones and my liver to Whedon, at the very least. At the very most, there is my immersion in the TV-obsessed corner of the internet, which has given me good friends, lots of interesting chatter, and a wonderful wife [who is also obsessed with Whedon -- Canyon].

I'd long been excited whenever a show ventured into long-form territory, but before Buffy, DVRs, and DVD boxsets, it was rare to see it in anything non-soap opera. Star Trek: TNG did it every so often, and of course there was Murder One, which was pioneering and unpopular. Buffy was lucky enough to have it both ways, with your monster of the week format plus a close-ended arc running through the season. Around the time that I fell in love with Buffy (a few years after smarter people than I had already figured out how good it was), 24 came along with the same approach to season arcs, and with The Sopranos mopping up awards everywhere, the format finally got enough critical, popular, and nerd acceptance to become the next big thing. N.B. Babylon 5 did it as well, with a five-year plan not dissimilar to that of Lost. I'm aware of that. Despite its rabid fanbase, it never captured the popular imagination. Though Buffy was a show with only a cult audience, it is still referenced by popular culture maven in a way J. Michael Stracsynski's show isn't. By the way, "maven" is the plural of "maven", right?

However, it's been a long time since Whedon did any TV stuff. Angel was cancelled about five/six years ago, and since then I've become obsessed with a number of different shows, some of which are more "respectable", but less fun. I've also been bitten by the Lost bug, a show that has become so complex and ambitious that almost everything else feels like Dallas in comparison. Happy though I was about Whedon's return, I felt a certain amount of ambivalence, partly because of concern that his style of show would seem clunky after experiencing the scope and eccentricity of Lost, but also, of course, because of the Curse of Whedon. A high-concept sci-fi show on Fox? As soon as the pilot was reshot and the show was relegated to a Friday night slot, in an echo of the way Firefly was treated, it was obvious that getting attached to it was a really bad idea.

To make things worse, the pilot left me totally cold. As part of the infamous Fox Fuck Five episode stretch, with Whedon apparently spaying his show at the behest of Fox executives, it looked cheap and poorly conceived, a world away from his last major directorial effort (Serenity), and in terms of audience satisfaction, not a patch on his last "minor" directorial effort (the epoch-shattering masterpiece Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog). The next four episodes were worse, with episodes two and five vying for worst of season. Or is it two and three? Or four and five?

What was so bad about them? Many of the negative points of that opening stretch of episodes have been picked at for months now, but I have to say I agree with pretty much all of them. Dushku-as-lead was never going to work out, even with the formidable Sexy Faith Dance on her side (she cracked that bad boy out in the pilot, just for sexiness fans everywhere). As a dramatic guest star she worked wonders on Buffy, but with zero range and saddled with the part of an identity-shifting woman of many faces, several early scenes felt like pranks being played either on us or on Dushku herself.

As Canyon said many times while we were watching Dollhouse, Sarah Michelle Gellar was no Streep (hell, she was no Jennifer Garner), but at the very least she was appealing and could sell a joke, and even had a few stand-out episodes (I think she did some great work in Buffy seasons five and six). Dushku has an even more difficult job: making the audience care about someone who has no personality for us to empathise with. There are some skillful actresses out there who might have stood a chance, but Dushku does a terrible job. From what I gather, we weren't the only viewers who tuned out whenever she appeared.

She wasn't the worst thing about that opening stumble. For a while the show feels like some kind of bizarre hybrid of Alias and Joe 90, an adventure show about secret operatives operating secretly, doing various odd jobs around LA. As we're to assume our characters will be working for some benevolent organisation, it's jarring to see the Dollhouse staff doing things that are morally repellent. With Boyd Langton (the ever-excellent Harry Lennix) representing the conscience of the show by questioning the motives of the Dollhouse, we realise we're meant to be rooting for the Dolls, not their bosses, but the show doesn't go far enough with that at first. We just get a sense that this is something the show will address in good time, once the benevolent adventurey stuff slows down a bit. Though Whedon does a good enough job of introducing some of that moral complexity in the pilot, the next four episodes are so formless that our disgust over the concept of removing the "self" from a person and replacing it with another isn't allowed to crystallise earlier. It didn't help that the first thing we see is Dushku willingly signing herself over to the Dollhouse. If that's the way it works, then it can't be that bad, right?

The "monster" of the week concept didn't work either. With Echo traipsing off to do various good things (such as saving a hostage, or infilitrating a cultist compound), we get hints that there is a bigger story to be told, especially as we see FBI loser Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) investigating the mysterious organisation. Perhaps it's because we also tuned out whenever Penikett and his Scrunched Up Face Of Impotence lumbered onto set [with his Constipated Ken Doll Walk, no less - Canyon], but this thread felt malformed as well. Hints and winks were one thing, and it was great to know the show was obviously building to something, but I got the sense that Whedon, after years of watching Battlestar Galactica and Lost gain the nerd fanbase he once owned so completely, realised that the old format, of a large amount of MotW episodes sprinkled with liberal amounts of long-form soap operatics and season-arc revelations, was due for a spruce up. Dollhouse's greatest early flaw was that it didn't get the season arc moving fast enough, which we can lay at the feet of Fox.

With only thirteen episodes, Whedon needed to get cracking, and instead we got museum robberies and bodyguard duty for some obnoxious singer. Fringe was luckier with more episodes, and still squandered about 65% of the season on nonsense. Dollhouse didn't get that luxury, and yet for almost half of its run it danced on the spot. That episodic format was a poor fit from the outset, a piss-poor attempt to attract viewers who enjoyed the week-by-week simplicity of pre-Buffy TV, which is why I couldn't help but compare early episodes with Bionical Woman (please forgive me for that, but it's true).

Sadly, Fox didn't realise that we're not just post-Buffy now: we're post-Lost. That show has rewritten the rules for what audiences are willing to tolerate. Yes, the show has lost a lot of the viewers it had in its first season, but as Cuse and Lindelof have said in interviews, Lost was never meant to be a ratings-crusher. And yet, despite that shrunken audience, it's still a bona-fide hit, watched around the world by millions, and discussed and debated more than any other show on TV. The likely audience for something as wilfully peculiar as Dollhouse has been watching Lost and Galactica for years and is not interested in that old way of telling a tale any more. Dollhouse could have been setting itself up for the long haul right away, and would have retained its modest initial audience. Instead, the show felt outdated and slight straight away, and that loyal audience departed in droves. A singularly depressing outcome for those of us who were still hoping the show would come good.

And yet there was hope. Early on in promotional interviews, there was talk of the mythical Sixth Episode, the game-changer that would make us all feel bad for doubting Whedon. This made me feel very uncomfortable, coming as it was from people involved with the show. In addition to thinking that playing up chatter about how the network had finally stopped meddling with the show was, to put it mildly, ballsy and suicidal, I just couldn't see how the show could pull itself out of its tailspin. Whedon had always managed to weave comedy and drama brilliantly, but Dollhouse's first five episodes were clunky, lifeless and laughably unmoving.

And yet it was I who was the fool, as Whedon -- who, I should never forget, is one of my five favourite writers in any medium ever for the very good reason that he's a trillion times smarter and funnier than me -- slapped me in the face with that sixth episode like a fish (though a fish with Patton Oswalt attached to it), and showed us all what the show was supposed to be after all. Viewers had several criticisms of the show, and after Man on the Street, almost all of those criticisms blew away like the chaff they were. Here's a quick rundown of what I thought were the failings of the show, and how they were addressed in the second half of the season.

1) You can't care about the Actives because they are just shells.

This was, for the first half of the season at least, a major concern, and seemed like the major dealbreaker for the series. Whedon may have started the pilot with Caroline giving herself up to the Dollhouse, but this glimpse into who she is before having her personality extracted isn't enough to create a bond with her. Dushku's flat performance certainly doesn't help. If anything, prior to episode six, the only real reason to give a damn about her is because Boyd does, and Lennix nails that caring mentor role so well we want Echo to prevail just so Boyd's day isn't ruined. As for Sierra, Victor, and the others, they're shit out of luck. For instance, Victor's affection for Sierra just seems creepy, especially as we realise how she is being abused.

The miraculous second half of the season solves that brilliantly, but not straight away. Episode six makes Echo seem like even more of a puppet, and episode seven adds confusing detail to Caroline's past, but episode eight, Needs, shows the core attributes of each Active and finally generates that empathic core we need in order to care for these people. Echo was heroic already, Victor was caring and traumatised, November was unable to cope with grief, and Sierra was defiant, though it was this trait that doomed her to a horrific fate.

That episode was so strong, and so brilliantly conceived, that from that moment on it was impossible not to root for these characters, but just to make sure, we see that the "soul" of the Active can bleed through the construct downloaded into their brain, as both Alpha and Echo become what they were always meant to be in the final episode. And yet people still complained about not caring about the characters by the end! I find this utterly baffling.

2) The show doesn't seem to be about anything, or know what it's about.

In an interview conducted after the show began its rise, Whedon uncharacteristically and undiplomatically carped about the interference with his show while it was still airing (he usually waits for his work to be finished and released before complaining). Even more surprisingly, he admitted that he was upset that some episodes of the show hadn't been about anything, and singled out Tim Minear's True Believer, saying it wasn't about anything. He later explained that his quote was taken out of context, and said he had to apologise to Minear, but even so, he hit the nail on the head, albeit inadvertently.

Up until the sixth episode, Dollhouse ironically suffered from an identity crisis. It wasn't just that the show had turned out to be a hodge-podge of action/adventure sub-genres (she's a bodyguard! She's working with the ATF! She's a cat burglar!), though that was confusing. It also had an ill-defined core idea. For the first five episodes it was a caper show that left a bad taste in the mouth, hinting at the ethical and scientific ramifications of Dollhouse technology but burying that enquiry under A and B plot business, as well as using up valuable TV real-estate setting up hints about the future. A lot of effort was being expended, but with the empathy gap listed above, Dollhouse needed to grab the mind while the heart was out of reach. Sadly, the first five episodes were unfocused and over-complicated, and without a sense of conceptual continuity from week to week, it felt as unsatisfying as late-series Battlestar Galactica, except with the added narrative complication of trying to get Dushku into as many fetishy costumes as possible.

Again, the sixth episode saved the day. With unusual but welcome directness, Whedon used a series of vox pops in which people discuss the urban myth of the Dollhouse, and its ramifications for society and humanity. Even though we had seen the Dollhouse through the disgusted eyes of Ballard, we're seeing his reaction, and therefore have our own reaction to his reaction. Is he just in this because of a fixation on Caroline? How much of his search for the Dollhouse is motivated by a need to prove his superiors wrong? With the sixth episode, we get context to realise that the Dollhouse truly is an awful place, and the tech is evil, to the extent that it could possibly poison the human condition irrevocably. Such a thought is available if you ponder it long enough, but having a fictional scientist say, out loud, that this is the worst thing in the world, and will ruin everything, is a sobering moment. Of all of the things I loved about this first series, it was that moment I remember most clearly. It shook me up.

3) Hold on. So, the Dollhouse is actually evil?

It's inevitable that sci fi action/adventure shows on network TV will focus on the heroics of a bunch of photogenic ladies and gents, as that is the acceptable story we identify with the most. Though villains and anti-heroes have their place, it's rare to see something from the point of view of the bad guys. Of course, Whedon has, in the past, explored dodgy morality in his heroes. Angel in particular explored the pros and cons of doing business with evil, and former show producer Shawn Ryan based an entire show (The Shield, obvs) around a bad man, and that resulted in seven brilliant seasons of TV.

However, the seemingly incomplete explanation of what the Dollhouse does meant we were never really sure if the Dollhouse was doing something good or bad. I'm not sure if this was intentional or an unwanted side-effect of the pilot reshoot. Ballard might maintain, from the very beginning, that the Dollhouse is a bad place, but he's such a self-righteous blowhard that it's difficult to side with him. Plus, Tahmoh Penikett has one facial expression -- extreme disgust -- so for all we know, he thinks PopTarts or living room furniture or friendly neighbourhood hotties are sickening.

Over time we begin to understand that the Dollhouse almost certainly is evil, but that jibes with the idea that we're watching an action adventure series, certainly in the early episodes. Thankfully, with the sixth, the action adventure format mostly drops away, leaving us with a fascinating moral puzzle to unravel. Brilliantly, the show keeps pulling the rug out from you, making sure the viewer remains unsure about those motives in a way that would make Lost showrunners Cuse and Lindelof proud. Painting ostensibly evil characters like Adele and Topher as lonely souls who use the Dollhouse to connect with other people humanises them, making it harder to see them as carton villains, though Fran Kranz' performance is so irksome that I only "sympathise" with Topher at a remove. Olivia Williams' performance is so much more nuanced that it genuinely becomes hard to see her saddened in later episodes.

Other characters are shown to have weaknesses. Dr. Saunders is obviously a tragic figure, disfigured by Alpha and seemingly appalled by much of what goes on in the Dollhouse, though later revelations about her character call some of those feelings into question, not to mention the actual workings of the Dollhouse tech (I'm trying really hard not to spoil here). As for Ballard and his relationship with Mellie, you can see that the writers had great fun making Ballard as big a douchebag as possible. Even though Angel was a character capable of good and evil, he always had a nobility, even when he became Angelus. Ballard is just a sleaze. For those who have yet to see the entire series, there is a great fight scene coming up. If you dislike Ballard as much as I do, you'll enjoy it greatly.

So, our notions of good and bad are tossed up in the air on a weekly basis, but even then, I cannot get Needs out of my head. When I found out why Sierra is in there, it settled something for me. No matter what the purpose of the Dollhouse is, I want to see it burn to the ground just for what they've done to her. Of all the things I've seen on TV this year, even including the finale of The Shield, nothing has upset me as much as that revelation. Fuck the Dollhouse, and fuck Adele for going along with it.

4) Is this actually going anywhere?

More than anything else I've said here so far, it hurts to admit that, in the first five episodes, I got the distinct feeling that the show had no plan for the future. It wasn't just the confusing concept, either. Even Whedon admitted in those interviews linked to earlier that he had not come up with a good enough reason for people to hire Dolls when they could just hire normal people. I remember fanwanking that, in the pilot, someone would want not just a good hostage negotiator but the bestest negotiator EVAH, but midwives? That just made no narrative sense, other than to have an action adventure show with a greater variety of possible scenarios, instead of just a spy show (how many times can we see Sydney Bristow trying to recover a MacGuffin of some kind? Hence, double-triple-agents and Rambaldi devices).

After episode six, the episodic format pretty much faded away, not just to provide some momentum heading into the season finale, but also to show that the Dollhouse writers were telling a different story. Instead of Bionical Woman resets at the end of each episode, it became apparent that a mythology was being created, with clues being littered everywhere. Things that seemed ambiguous early on began to be addressed, such as the revelation of the mole's identity, the reasons why the main Actives are in the Dollhouse, and what Alpha is. Even though we don't get the answers to everything, we now get the sense that things will be revealed at a pace somewhere between Fringe-fast and Lost-slow, especially as the introduction of Omega suggests that this season was merely prologue to the real story.

5) Is this format too much for Eliza Dushku?

Upon hearing about the concept behind the show, many people joked that Dushku would not be up to the task of playing multiple characters, as much of her work had shown she had minuscule range. Regrettably, the first five episodes did nothing to dissuade viewers' fears, with Dushku playing the various personalities with little tweaking other than changes to the level of sassiness or concern on her face. Thankfully, the sixth episode came along and...

...Sorry, don't know what I was thinking there. Not even that episode could fix her performance, which continued to be the weakest link in the show. What it could do was allow the other actors on the show to take up some of the slack.

Sadly, this is a mixed blessing. Scenes involving Tahmoh Penikett and Miracle Laurie are painful to watch, with her line readings garbled and his face scrunched up in eternal anger. Fran Kranz' Topher starts out obnoxious and overplayed, and continues to be obnoxious and overplayed right to the end. Dichen Lachman has difficulty projecting anything other than half-hearted sexiness or vulnerability a la Dushku, which is annoying and limiting especially when Needs reveals her tragic backstory.

Thankfully there are some terrific actors onboard who save the day. The ever-dependable Harry Lennix is superb as Echo's handler, effortlessly projecting machismo, authority, and tenderness. Olivia Williams' performance as Adele starts out well and becomes more and more compelling as new and unexpected character traits are layered on. Reed Diamond's Dominic has less to do at first, with some peculiarly broad villainy early on, but by the time Needs rolls around, he is firing on all cylinders, and is the only cast member who walks out of the egregious "comedy" episode (Echoes) with his head held high.

The real revelations are the performances by Enver Gjokaj, as Victor, and Amy Acker, as Dr. Claire Saunders. I was always a fan of Acker on Angel, even during her early, unsubtle hours with the broad accent. Though her character, Fred, annoyed many (including Canyon, who has never been able to fully accept Fred into her heart [she's not Jesus! -- Canyon]), Acker silenced a lot of her critics in the final episodes of Angel, as she became Illyria. Sadly, she only had a few episodes to show what she could do, but in Dollhouse she does excellent work as the agoraphobic medic. It's depressing to see her paired up with the fidgety and "quirky" Topher, though her sour stillness is a nice contrast. She particularly shines in the final episodes of Dollhouse's first season, as we find out more about Saunders and how Acker's character came to be the way she is.

And where the hell did Gjokaj come from? His laughable accent in the first couple of episodes made me ignore him whenever he appeared onscreen, but with the third-episoode reveal of his Dollhood, Gjokaj began to pretty much own the show, especially in Needs and Omega. As for his "impersonation" of another actor on the show, all I can say is wow. Of all the Dolls, Gjokaj is the only actor who has figured out how to make them sympathetic and distinct even though he is required to play different people each week. It's always a pleasure to see someone break out, and if Dollhouse had failed to get a second wind, I would still have been grateful to it for alerting me to the presence of this actor. Let's hope that, if the show only manages one more season, we get to see a lot more of Gjokaj.

There is another terrific actor on the show, though not for long. I shall keep quiet about that, even though the majority of the Internet knew about his casting about four seconds after it happened. Suffice to say, Mutant Enemy fans in the UK will be thrilled out of their minds when they see him.

6) Is this show going to be worth sticking with?

If the points above don't convince you that I think it is, then nothing will. I cannot deny that, even after the sixth episode, there is some shakiness. Echoes is embarrassing to watch, and desperately misconceived. Whedon fans know that he likes to challenge his actors and make them do things they wouldn't normally, but we don't know these characters well enough to respond to their "wacky drunk" selves. Other than Reed Diamond's unexpectedly funny turn, I'd much rather that episode didn't exist. Tim Minear's finale is also disappointing, with only the memorable scene showing Alpha's "Frankenstein's monster"-esque birth working well. Though it is packed with fascinating revelation and intriguing set-ups for the second season, there is some unforgivable reliance on cliche and coincidence, much of which neuters the drama. Also, Dushku is forced to share the screen with two actors who make her look even more foolish than usual.

However, this is nothing to be concerned about. The second half of the season features at least three instant classic episodes, filled with philosophical enquiry, rug-pulling narrative trickery, and action. Though all of Whedon's shows have had depth, this could turn out to be his deepest and most thought-provoking show yet. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself that it's going to be worth the effort, because months ago, I was despairing. Considering how I once unironically compared this to Bionical Woman and Knight Rider, it's testament to Whedon's formidable storytelling and showrunning skills that I now think that -- if allowed to continue for more than one season -- Dollhouse has the best shot of replacing Lost as the smartest and most challenging sci-fi show on TV. Let's hope it stays around long enough to prove me right.