Monday, March 30, 2009

Dollhouse episodes 6 &7: the plot thickens

In fact, it's even starting to congeal. But is that good or bad? Is it just too little too late, or is it the beginnings of awesomeness? Difficult to say, really. I always find it hard to write about this show, if for no other reason than because it's just so gosh-darn complicated. There hasn't been a single episode thus far that could be reduced to a 20-words-or-less explanation, and you can just forget about summing up the whole series' premise in one sentence. Anybody who's tried to explain this show to an ignorant friend knows exactly what I'm talking about. On the one hand, this is good; Dollhouse is not a stupid show. It's not hackneyed or cliché or simplistic. On the other hand, there are definitely reviewers and critics who think the show's trying to be so many things at once that it ends up being nothing much in particular. Yet Joss Whedon's creations have never really been tailored to the expectations of the casual viewer. They're much more suited to cult followings than to mainstream audiences. All in all, some people might scoff and ratings basically suck, but I'm officially invested in the rest of this season, and I'm kind of hoping there will be more in the future.

So, episodes six and seven contained some major plot developments. Firstly, Mellie, Paul Ballard's neighbor and the closest thing he has to a friend, is actually an Active herself (her Doll name is November). Also, there's somebody else on the outside (other than Ballard) who's trying to bring the Dollhouse down. And unlike Paul, this person seems to have considerable knowledge of the Dollhouse's inerworkings, and has even managed to plant a mole on the inside who can tamper with the imprints if necessary. I can only assume at this point that this person is Alpha, and I'm betting the mole is Topher's sacrastic assistant, but who knows. Thirdly, we find out that "the" Dollhouse is actually only a Dollhouse. There are apparently Dollhouses in major cities all across the globe, all run by a single corporation for an as-of-yet unknown purpose. We've been lead to believe up till now that the actives' engagements are the main purpose of the Dollhouse, the actual reason for its existence. But now it seems that the engagements merely provide funding for the organization's true purpose, whatever that may be.

Episode six proved that the show is not afraid to tackle some pretty ugly themes. The sexual abuse of a Doll by a handler, for example, I found particularly disturbing. It was sick, really, the way Hearn would tell Sierra it was a game, and that she had to be very quiet because "noise is upsetting", and of course she wouldn't think to resist, but she would cry and say that the game wasn't fun. Talk about your abuse of power. Ugh. The violent scene with Mellie/November was also pretty intense. It was upsetting without being graphic, and kind of creepy. This episode in particular had some really great plot-twist revelation moments, not the least of which was when Adelle dropped the "trigger" to turn the choking Mellie into a very scary kick-ass November.

While episode six was pretty gritty, episode seven gave us a healthy dose of humor while still maintaining much of that intensity (in general this is not a very light or jokey show). The best thing about the whole cast being affected by a wierd drug that breaks down their natural inhibitions is that we get to learn lots of interesting things about these characters. Boyd plays the piano, for example. More shockingly, Adelle has a conscience. And so does Mr. Dominic! And Topher - well, actually, he pretty much acted the way he always does. Anyways, it was pretty frickin hilarious watching him and Adelle blunder around together and argue about British-ness and eat chips on the floor and cower in the corner to hide froma potentially violent November. Additionally, this episode also revealed some more information on who Caroline was before she became Echo, and it wasnt' exactly the sort of thing I would have expected.

Anyways, the more I watch this show the more I like it, so I'm sticking with it. So, check out this montage style recap of episode seven, "Echoes", and be excited for episode eight.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

First volumes of Fire Investigator Nanase, The Name of the Flower

Ah, nothing more satisfying than starting two brand-new, promising manga series. I ordered the recently released first volumes of these two babies from CMX, and I'm very satisfied with my purchases. These two series are very different from each other, and they each present fresh and interesting-seeming premises even within their own individual genres.

The Name of the Flower, by Ken Saito, falls somewhere in the middle ground between shoujo and josei, relying more on the strengths of its story and characters than on the standard devices and trappings of either genre. The art is rich and appealing without being gratuitously fantastical, and the story is poignant and reflective, but with enough touches of genuine humor to keep things from getting too slow or heavy. The main characters are both misfits in their own ways: flawed, damaged, but desirous and deserving of love.

Chouko is a girl who's sustained severe emotional and psychological damage after losing both her parents in a car accident. She completely shuts herself off out of grief, unable to connect with the people around her, or even to speak at all. After being passed around rather unceremoniously from relative to relative, she's finally ended up in the care of her father's cousin, Kei. Kei is a successful but gruff and reclusive author, and a man twelve years her senior. He brusquely tells her he'll pay her college tuition in return for her cooking and house keeping, and that she must above all refrain from moping around like some kind of melancholy lost soul. In order to keep her active and occupied, he casually suggests she tend his neglected garden, but for the most part he lets her alone. Slowly, gradually, in caring for the flowers and for her surly and cynical guardian, Chouko begins to emerge from within herself, to smile, and to speak. What I especially like about Chouko is that while Kei is instrumental in her recovery, she ultimately pulls her own self out of whatever dark, destructive place she was in. He silently watches over her and provides her with the necessary tools, but she is the one who must use them. She sort of learns that nobody can help you if you're unwilling to help yourself, which I thought was kind of cool.

Kei, meanwhile, has his own issues. He's achieved a degree of literary success and acclaim, but his dark, almost disturbing work seems to hint at a deeply troubled soul. He gives off the vibe of someone who doesn't feel like he deserves love, but his feelings manifest themselves as curtness and standoffishness rather than melodramatic moaning and groaning. He's gruff and anti-social, but he does genuinely care about Chouko. In fact, he cares a little bit too much. Painfully aware of the huge age difference between them, of Chouko's own inexperience, and the inappropriateness of his feelings given his role as her guardian, he does his best to keep his distance and to care for her from the background. Overall, I love this series already. I love both main characters, and I even love the comic-relief-friend Akiyama. There's lots of love; I can't wait for volume two to come out.

The first volume of Fire Investigator Nanase (story by Izo Hashimoto, art by Tomoshige Ichikawa) wasn't quite as much of a slam-dunk for me as TNotF, but it still promises to be a very enjoyable and entertaining series. I was initially drawn to it because it was likened by reviewers to one of my favorite movies of all time, "The Silence of the Lambs". The comparison is pretty apt, at least as far as the premise goes. We've got the young, driven female rookie in a male-dominated crime fighting organization who's got talent and guts, but is often held back by her self-satisfied superiors. We've got the brilliantly insane criminal who alone seems to recognize her potential, and who enjoys guiding and coaching her in solving crimes. At the same time, FIN is manga, so it's a whole different kettle of fish.

As the title would suggest, Nanase is a trainee in the section of the fire department that investigates the origins of fires, identifying and solving arson cases. As she sifts through various cases of mysterious fires, Nanase receives helpful hints (and some brutal trials) from the still-at-large serial arsonist known to the authorities only as Firebug. This Firebug character is pretty certifiable, but he knows his stuff better than anyone on the other side of the law. His motives for helping Nanase remain as of yet unclear, but we do seem to find out that he was the arsonist responsible for the fire that killed her parents. One can only imagine the mixed-ness of Nanase's feelings on receiving help from him. (I actually just now realized that both TNotF and FIN feature orphaned heroines. It just goes to show how different the two series are that I didn't notice such a huge similarity right away.)

I thought FIN was exciting and entertaining, and I think it'll be a great series, but I did have a few reservations about it. I didn't really like how it toed the line between fantasy and realism. It would start off seemingly grounded in a very realistic world, but then suddenly something really far-fetched would happen to make me question the parameters of the characters' reality. Maybe once I get a little more used to the series I won't find it so jarring, but it felt a little weird on the first reading. The author also relies pretty heavily on some scientific fire jargon that flew right over my head. It's kind of difficult to evaluate a scenario's plausibility when I can't even understand the language used to describe it. So maybe I should just stop trying to figure out how realistic FIN is supposed to be and just go with the flow.

I really liked the whole theme of the investigation of fires. I think it's a very mysterious and intriguing subject, but then again that might really be because of my lingering associations from reading the Lemony Snicket books. And while Nanase's department is a far cry from the cultish Volunteer Fire Department of those books, she's certainly got enough unsolved mysteries (both private and public) to be getting on with.

Now for the wait until May when the second volumes of these two titles will be released by CMX. Sigh.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Dollhouse, episodes 2-4: hope springs eternal

Note: I wrote this before I watched the most recent (fifth) episode. After watching the fifth episode the general impressions I expressed in this post remain unchanged, so I'll leave what I've already written. Also, I'd just like to say that I wrote this in a very sleep-deprived state.

So a few weeks ago I wrote about my belated discovery of Joss Whedon's new show Dollhouse, and about my mixed reactions to the first episode. Now we're four weeks into the season's run, with the fifth episode soon to air, and although I'm not completely hooked (yet) I am still watching and hoping for great things to develop. The first four episodes were undeniably flawed, so maybe I'm just clutching vainly at straws and putting too much blind faith in Whedon's name. But still, I'll try to artiulate my reasons for believing that this show has lots of (as of yet unrealized) potential.

Thus far in the series, each episode consists of a different engagement for Echo that inevitaby goes awry in some way, forcing her to deal with situations for which Topher's imprints have not quite prepared her - something that goes against the very definition of what an active is/does. As Boyd, her handler, observes to Dr Saunders (the Dollhouse's resident physician, played by Amy Acker), "She seems to have the ability to think outside of the pieces we give her and create." So far this strange proactivity (remarkable in an active), as well as brief flashes of almost awareness in her eyes, and subtle hints of her retaining traces of her experiences in the engagements - these are the only things providing any sort of continuity to Echo's character. But I'm sure that will change as we learn more about her former (true? original?) identity as Caroline.

Meanwhile, the solitary, relentless FBI agent Paul Ballard continues his seemingly hopeless search for clues about the Dollhouse. He's continually finding his way blocked by the higher-ups who dismiss the Dollhouse as an urban legend (or who perhaps wish to keep him from exposing its existence). The clueless Russian mobster whom Ballard seems convinced has access to Dollhouse-related info actually actually turns out to be an active named Victor, no doubt imprinted planted to put Ballard off the trail. We also learn about the existence of a rogue active named Alpha who escaped from the Dollhouse at some point in the (recent?) past, but not before going on a bit of a killing spree first. This Alpha guy is very mysterious, and he's got "big bad" written all over him, but he also seems somehow to be connected to Echo/Caroline. He's even ananymously sent Ballard photos of her before she became an active, along with the cryptic message "keep looking." Oh, and I read somewhere that Alpha's going to be played by Alan Tudyk. Psych!

And that doesn't even cover everything that's already going on in this show. There's definitely some pretty complex, intriguing, mysterious stuff just beginning to evolve, but a show can't survive on this alone. It must also be thoroughly (not just mildly) enjoyable to watch, and so far each episode's been hampered by lackluster scripts and scenarios. There's also been a conspicuous lack of that quircky, quippy dialogue one customarily associates with Whedon' s works, and the stand-alone storylines of Echo's individual engagements have been decent enough, but nothing really extraordinary. There have been hints at really interesting things starting to percolate, but that's it - hints sprinkled throughout episodes that for the most part fall a tiny bit flat. But I still think this is just a show that hasn't yet reached its full potential. There's so much backstory (for Echo, Alpha, Ballard, and probably many others) that's so clearly being witheld at this point. There's so much that could be explored that isn't yet.
There are also certain other factors that give me hope for this show's future improvement, and many of them concern network politics. If one is optimistic enough, the disorganized pilot and the not-completely-satisfying first few episodes could possibly be chalked up to Fox's meddling. The original preview for the show (the same one I included in my previous Dollhouse post) consisted entirely of clips from the original pilot, which was yanked by Fox and never aired. After giving the show the green light, the network apparently wanted so many changes and redirection done to that first episode that Whedon decided to scrap it and start from scratch. And that wasn't the end of it either, because it supposedly wasn't until the sixth episode that Fox really gave Whedon free creative reign over the show. And word on the cyber street is that things really take off in that sixth episode. And while all this talk might come to nothing, I'm somewhat inclined to believe it won't. Why? Well, optimism for one thing, and also the fact that I read the script of the unaired pilot (penned by Whedon) and noticed a huge difference from what I've seen of the show so far. That script was, in a word, awesome. I guess I can understand Fox wanting to make the show more "accessible" to people, but I really don't think they're going to score big ratings (on Friday nights, no less) by stiffling Whedon's wierdness. Because he is an evil genius after all, but in a decidedly good way.

As far as acting goes, Dollhouse's got a pretty good supporing cast, and I kind of love the side characters already. It's still a little difficult to really connect with Echo as a character, what with all the constant changes and everything, but I think Dushku's doing a pretty good job, regardless. Especially with Echo's more fragile, vulnerable moments. I'm used to a seeing a more kickass Faith-type from her, so it's nice to see a bit of range in that department.

Just one final consideration: all of Whedon's shows that I've seen (Buffy, Angel, Firefly) had more or less shaky starts. Considering how they all turned out, I'd say a little bit of faith and patience is justified with his latest endeavor. That being said, if that sixth episode doesn't turn out to be a real knockout I'll be sorely dissapointed.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"I want more" Claudia: Interview with Lestat the Musical

Ok, so funny thing happened to me this weekend. I'm minding my own business, going about my life, when BAM! I'm suddenly sucked up into the magnetic vortex of Anne Rice's vampire universe. Why do I let this happen to myself? Why? WHY? I wasn't even looking for it or anything. It's like stepping out into the street when you think the coast is clear and getting blindsided by a huge truck. The truck of fandom. The fan van, if you will.

Oh, well. First, a sort of disclaimer: I've never actually read any of Anne Rice's books, but I now have an actual interest in possibly doing so, thanks to the 1994 movie and the musical. Am I planning on going out and reading them right away? Probably not right this second, what with school and everything. But whereas before this weekend I'd never have even thought of picking up one of these books, I can now see myself doing so sometime in the future.

So anyways, it all started with Youtube, the evil sucker of time. I was looking something up, and I sumbled quite by acident onto a clip from the '94 film "Interview With the Vampire". So I watch the scene, in which Claudia (played by a 10-year-old Kirsten Dunst) argues heatedly with Louis (Brad Pitt), and I though to myself, Huh. This is kind of interesting. And wouldn't you know, some evil person has uploaded the entire film on Youtube? So I somehow mysteriously end up watching the whole thing from start to finish. What can I say? I am weak, and cannot help myself, and I shall never ever learn.

Parts of the film were weird and icky and gross, but then other parts were very strongly and strangely compelling. Especially the character of Claudia, the eternally ageless vampire child, whom I found really tragic and fascinating. And boy did Dunst do an awesome job of portraying a person of great age as such a young actress, not to mention Claudia's intense pain and anger. I don't think I've seen Dunst act better in any other role she's taken on since. Brad Pitt was also awesome as Louis. (Who knew the sexiest man alive could look so delicate - all flowing hair and big eyes. Me like.) My very favorite part of the movie *spoiler coming* was towards the end when Louis rejects Armand after Claudia's death. I shall not deny that a part of me was saying Boo ya! In your face, Armand, take that! Sooooo, anyways. For the record, I'll also say that I thought Antonio Banderas was poorly cast as Armand, and although Tom Cruise did very well as Lestat his character was way too creepy and gross for me. All in all, the film went a little too over the top at points, but nevertheless managed to pull me in and make me care.

So, I watch the movie and end up getting pretty into it. But wait, there's more. Youtube's not quite finished with me yet, oh no, because one of the 'related videos' that pops up on the side of the page is a bootleg from the musical version, Lestat. I just so happen to be a musical theatre fan, so here we go again. Turns out, the show draws a lot from at least one other book in the series in addition to Interview, so there was a lot in it I didn't fully appreciate. It got pretty horrible reviews, and closed early on Broadway (although that doesn't always mean anything), but there were a few scenes/songs that I really liked. The best, in my opinion, was "I Want More", sung by Claudia. (She is the best character, after all. Great performance by Allison Fischer, by the way.) I also liked "I'll Never Have That Chance", "Kill Your Kind", and "After All This Time". The score's by Elton John, whose musicals in my opinion tend to range from bland to beautiful, but HE NEVER RELEASED THE SOUNDTRACK. It was recorded by the cast, but its release was postponed indefinitely and, as far as I can tell, no real reason was given for this. That was three years ago. Wtf? Grr, arrg, frustration. Oh, well. In scouring the internet for some kind of clue, the only thing I managed to find was a partial press demo of some of the songs from the live try out runs in San Francisco. Totally not good enough.

So thank you Youtube. Thank you for sucking up a significant portion of my weekend and giving me one more thing to be all fan-y about, and for seeing to it that I spend my entire Sunday with "I Want More" stuck in my head. I hope you're happy.

Mansfield Park: not so much with the liking

So, after reading a bunch of manga and lighter novels recently I was in the mood for something a little more antiquated, and decided to tackle Mansfield Park. I’d told myself at the beginning of the year that by the end of 2009 I would have finally read all six Austen novels, and I happened to have this one lying around in my room, so there you go. Now the only ones left are Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. Yay me.

It’s funny, but whereas most people I encounter tend to either love or hate Jane Austen’s novels across the board I myself have a pretty evenly split opinion of them thus far; I’ve read two that I really liked (Emma and Pride & Prejudice) and two that I really didn’t (Sense & Sensibility and, now, Mansfield Park). It’s not that I downright hated this book (or S&S for that matter), but it just left me decidedly underwhelmed. In comparison with some of her other works, I found the characterization in Mansfield Park to be artificial and unbelievable. And at the end of the day an Austen novel is pretty much all about the characters.

As I was reading the book, I kept thinking of this one line from the film “The Jane Austen Book Club”. It’s the part where Allegra says to the others, “Aw, I hate Fanny Price, she’s such a goody-goody,” and I gotta say I totally see her point. Fanny is sweetness and goodness and incorruptibility personified, but she’s also dull as a doormat. Shy and soft-spoken, pure and virtuous, meek and humble and … not at all like a real, solid person of flesh and blood. (Does that make any sense at all? I think I’m having a little trouble articulating my meaning.) I wouldn’t even mind her quiet meekness so much if she only had the tiniest spark of something going on underneath the surface to make her the least bit interesting to readers. But, sadly, such is not the case. Now, I don’t mean to belittle Fanny’s virtues, which are considerable. If Fanny Price were a real person (which would not be remotely possible) I’d hardly be able to criticize her. In fact, she’d be so high above reproach she’d already be in Heaven. But as a fictional character, and the heroine of a novel, she is sadly lacking.

I guess I just like characters that are a little off beat, that have some quirks. With Fanny, it’s not just that she’s off beat; she doesn’t even have a rhythm. But just for the record, I don’t dislike her (as a heroine) because she’s shy. Jane Eyre was shy and diffident and reclusive, but underneath that exterior she was passionate, and she knew her own worth and when to assert it. Fanny, on the other hand, seems to have true self-esteem issues, which Austen moulds into a model of feminine virtue. If only Fanny would just once stand up for herself to her aunt or to Mary Crawford, or even to Edmund when she knows he’s making a terrible mistake! Would that really be too selfish of her? Would it diminish her goodness in any way? Apparently so, for she’d rather sit back until the very end rather than come forward and speak for herself, ready to sacrifice her happiness and Edmund’s as well. In the end, a change in circumstance, rather than her own initiative, results in her happy ending. I suppose we’re meant to understand that she’s been rewarded for her patience and silent suffering, but I say she just got lucky.

I was not particularly enthused about our romantic hero in this book either. For all that the narrator keeps reminding us how admirable and decent Edmund is, I rarely saw it reflected in his actions. He seemed to me to be pretty dense, self-absorbed, self-deluding, and (occasionally) hypocritical. Until the last three pages of the novel, of course, when he the clouds are lifted from his eyes and he sees the error of his ways, all thanks to a last-minute turn of events. Yeah, I was not impressed.

I’m glad I didn’t read Mansfield Park first out of Austen’s novels because it seriously might have turned me off the rest. Fortunately I know that she’s equally capable of turning out well-rounded, interesting characters as well. In spite of everything, I didn’t completely hate reading MP. I still really enjoy the language of it, and I appreciate Austen’s skillful mode of expression, even when what she’s expressing isn’t especially to my taste. I just hope that next time around I like the actual story and characters a little better.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Memories of Inu Yasha, and of falling in love with manga

Ugh, school’s been a bitch recently. I don’t know when all the professors got together and decided that March was the new April, but it’s starting to tick me off. My course load was just as heavy last term, but I don’t remember being this swamped in the first half of the semester. Sigh, it’s almost as if they wanted me to actually learn stuff. They can be like that sometimes. Anyways, enough whining for now.

Inu Yasha (by Rumiko Takahashi, creator of Ranma ½, One Pound Gospel, Maison Ikkoku and others) is a series that I’ve read most of, but own very little of. I never buy the new ones when they come out (the series is really long and it’s been quite a while since I’ve read it), but I recently acquired the first four volumes in a trade, and I really enjoyed rereading them. It evoked pretty strong feelings of nostalgia for me because Inu Yasha was basically like my first manga love from way back when. So rather than try to review these first four volumes, or even (God forbid) the series as a whole, I’d like to reminisce a bit about what it was like to get sucked into the wonderful and strange world of manga when I was just a clueless kid.

I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I think I was in middle school. It was summer vacation, and I’d stayed up watching television after everyone else in my family had gone to bed. Flicking randomly through the channels, it was the anime version of Inu Yasha, playing on Adult Swim, that captured and held my attention, probably because it just seemed so strange to me at the time. What exactly was this weird, un-cartoonlike cartoon? And why was it so intriguing? I don’t think I even really knew what anime was at that point, and I certainly hadn’t any interest in it. To me, anime was Pokemon and Yu-gi-oh, and it was for boys. But this Inu Yasha stuff was way different, and became almost immediately engrossed in the story. When the half-hour episode ended, the story was cut off abrubtly. I stayed up the next night to watch the continuation, but I didn’t talk about it to my parents or to any of my siblings.

It didn’t take long for my piqued interest to make the connection between the anime and the funny little backwards books in the back of the bookstore. So the next time the weather was nice, I asked my mother if I could go for a bike ride. I rode to the nearest Barnes and Noble, found the Inu Yasha books, and started at the very beginning. I read for hours, and I came back the next day. I came back as often as I could. I think my mom was vaguely pleased that I’d taken such an interest in bike riding. For my part, I liked the manga of Inu Yasha even better than the anime. I loved the art, the demon/ghost mythology, the backdrop of feudal Japan, the romance. I found it all irresistibly new and different and appealing.

I think I read over twenty volumes of Inu Yasha in that way, without anyone buy myself being the wiser. (I don’t even know why didn’t share any of this with anyone, but I think it has a lot to do with the fact that from the very beginning I always had the distinct sense that manga and anime weren’t exactly mainstream, and a part of my kid self didn’t want to admit that I liked it. There was a reason that Inu Yasha only played on TV after midnight, at least that’s how I saw it. I’ve always had a secretive, reclusive streak in me and this just really brought it out.) Although my obsession with Inu Yasha eventually died down a bit, though not before I’d read all the volumes in the bookstore, I wouldn’t soon forget the experience. From then on, manga has always been an interest of mine, which has grown with me over the years and which I don’t think will go away anytime soon.

Given our history together, I probably am not capable of judging this series with anything resembling objectivity. I know that it’s flawed, of course. The plot becomes very repetitive and endlessly cyclical as the series goes on, and it drags on way too long. Yet it was so thoroughly captivating for me when I first encountered it that I’ve never been able to regard it with anything less than fondness and affection. As the first manga I ever read and truly loved, I think it’ll always hold a very special place in my heart, and, now, on my shelf.