Saturday, August 15, 2009

Review: District 9

Every once in a while, a movie comes out with a lot of buzz around it and yet not all that much "hype" (in the form of ubiquitous trailers and/or set reports that have given away every little detail about the plot already). When that happens, if the film's subject matter looks interesting to me, I like to see it on opening weekend before hearing too much about it online or through the grapevine. Such was the case with District 9, from producer Peter Jackson and director Neil Blomkamp. Thus I ventured out, on Opening Night, in search of what all the indistinct chatter was about.

Watching District 9 was an experience unlike any other, for at least one reason: it manages to combine many of the attributes usually associated with an independent film - unknown actors, unconventional style, absence of a comfortable and obvious through-story that assures you that you know exactly where things are headed, and heavy doses of quirkiness - with some top not-notch CGI work that you'd expect from a $100+-million dollar release (District 9 apparently cost $30 M). And even beyond the special effects, all of the acting is rock solid, if not spectacular, and with not a single wink to the camera regarding the offbeat storyline.

And for those who don't know, what District 9 is ostensibly "about" is the continuing fallout from an arrival nearly 30 years earlier that just sort of... happened. A large alien ship appeared over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa 28 years before the film begins, we're told in flashback-documentary fashion, and when we humans got tired of waiting for the visitors to show themselves, we cut our way in and found a million or so intelligent, man-sized "Prawns" making like your typical huddled masses inside: dirty, tired and hungry. They were then brought down to the planet and set up in a makeshift ghetto directly below their seemingly-useless vehicle. Now, after years of them causing problems large and small in their interactions with the residents of Johannesburg, they're about to be relocated several hundred miles away. That's where District 9 moves from documentary style to more of a ground-level, sometimes shaky-cam action flick, though at that it's far from conventional in its approach.

There are a handful of characters who take centre-stage by the time we're halfway through the proceedings, and I was amazed at the film-makers' ability to manipulate our emotions toward several of them. I was reminded of The Lives of Others - a very different indie sort of offering - and the way I was constantly forced to re-evaluate my take on its main figures as it went along. We're so used to cardboard cutouts for movie heroes and villains, I guess, that it's still refreshing to meet up with something different now and again.

I liked just about everything about District 9, including the fact that it provides more questions than answers. I wanted to know a lot more about the fascinating backstory - Why did the aliens come to Earth? Why did their ship malfunction immediately upon arriving, or was it actually doing exactly what it was supposed to (and if so, what was that)? Why did the mysterious fuel have the effect that it did on a human? And why didn't the Prawn do more about their plight over those 28 years, given the weaponry they brought with them? - and yet I still left the theatre highly satisfied with what I'd been given over the two hours. (The movie certainly left itself open for an intriguing sequel, should it prove to be a blockbuster in terms of ticket and/or DVD sales.) Perhaps most importantly, it raised the uncomfortable question of, Would we really treat a second intelligent species as badly as we did in District 9? I suspect the answer to that one isn't as sunny as some of us would like to believe.

Rating: *** 1/2

Monday, July 13, 2009

Review: Mystic River

Mystic River is one of those movies where, as I neared the end of it, I was fairly impressed... until the final credits rolled and I really started thinking about it, at which point my opinion of it fell off quite a bit.

The biggest asset of this Clint Eastwood-directed motion picture is the acting. With a cast made up of heavy hitters like Sean Penn, Marcia Gay Harding, Lawrence Fishburne, Tim Robbins, Laura Linney and the sometimes-interesting Kevin Bacon, that's hardly surprising. While Penn seems a bit over-the-top at times here, virtually every one of the actors provides a note-perfect portrayal of a complex character. Penn and Robbins both won Oscars for their work (Lead Actor and Supporting Actor, respectively) and the latter, in particular, really shines.

Where the movie really goes off the rails, at least upon reflection, is in the storytelling. There are simply too many coincidences and convenient lapses of judgment as the events roll along. Mystic River revolves around three men (Penn, Robbins and Bacon) who were childhood friends in a poor part of Boston. One day they had mischievously begun writing their names in a fresh slab of sidewalk concrete only to caught in the act by two men in a car, pretending to be police officers. One of the kids - Robbins' character - is forced into the car and taken away. Four days later, after suffering hinted-at but never specified abuse at the hands of the men, the kid escapes and returns to his family. He's regarded as "damaged goods" by one of the adults in the neighbourhood at the time, and it's pretty clear that he never fully recovers from his trauma.

Thirty years later, the three have drifted apart to varying degrees but all still live or operate in the same part of Boston. Bacon's now a cop with relationship issues, Penn is an ex-con "gone straight" and Robbins has a wife and child but is living within a mental shell that he's constructed to allow himself some small measure of peace after what he went through during those four days. Penn's eldest daughter, and the apple of his eye, is brutally murdered, and that tragedy (in the first of many contrivances) brings the three of them back together. Suspicion begins to fall on "damaged goods" Robbins as the result of yet another series of events which, by film's end, you can't help but realize were completely implausible. Bacon and his cop partner (Fishburne) are the detectives investigating the murder (no conflict of interest there, I guess) and at one point they get their hands on a particular piece of evidence that, in any cop show I've ever watched, would have sealed the deal one way or another in terms of Robbins' involvement... and yet nothing comes of that. Somewhat later, though, the pair do break open the case, but just as they do so another terrible mistake occurs elsewhere that makes their discovery both ironic (I suppose) and moot. Because, you know, things that important always happen at the same time as each other... when they're written really badly!

It's a little difficult to convey just how gripping Mystic River was, as I watched it. I wasn't really questioning anything that happened in it, because the acting was so tight and the direction was top-notch. But it definitely suffered from a lack of coherence and needed another draft done on the screenplay. When I think of the revelation at the end of John Sayles' Lone Star, how that forces the first-time viewer to reconsider earlier events in the film in a new light and realize that all of the bizarre choices made earlier by one of the characters actually makes complete sense now, then I can't help but be disappointed with something like Mystic River. It felt, at times, like it was building up to that same sort of crescendo, but completely failed to deliver on it.

And, to make matters worse, there's a very unsatisfying epilogue that leaves you wondering why you bothered investing as much time in it as you did. It probably needed to end one scene earlier, although even that would only have redeemed it slightly.

I recommend Mystic River for the acting alone. Just don't go in expecting too much of it to hold together by the time it's all over.

Rating: ** 1/2

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Review: Changeling

Changeling is occasionally hard to get through, because of the heart-wrenching nature of the subject matter, but it's well worth the perseverance. Both a well-structured, fascinating story and a great (Oscar-nominated) performance by its lead actress reward the viewer's willingness to bear witness to a set of circumstances that no parent would ever wish on anyone.

I didn't know a whole lot about the film before watching it on DVD last night, and I think that's just about the perfect way to go into this (and therefore I won't spoil it - much! - for anyone else). Here's what I went in with: The screenplay is by J. Michael Straczynski (TV shows Babylon 5, Crusade and Jeremiah, along with comic series Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Rising Stars, The Twelve, etc.), the film is directed by Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and Flags of Our Fathers, among others) and it stars Angelina Jolie in the lead role of a mother in the 1920s whose son goes missing. When the police tell the distraught woman a few months later that they've found her lost boy, she's overjoyed... until she sees him and declares that he's not her son! That's the setup, and you really shouldn't need anything else - except maybe a few tissues - to enjoy this very entertaining tale.

OK, I lied (a little bit). I'd also heard that JMS spent months researching the details of the true story upon which Changeling is based. He had hit the various archive locations in and around Los Angeles, and was struck by just how much information about the events was on record, nearly 80 years later. Again and again he came across news clippings or court transcripts that contained kernels of data that, had he made them up, no one would have believed could ever have happened. Having seen the film, I can say that it really is quite an amazing story!

Jolie is fabulous in the role of Christine Collins, to the point where I had to continually remind myself that it was actually her under that hat. She's given the daunting task of presenting a quiet strength as Christine goes about the thankless and frankly quite embarrassing chore of convincing people that this youngster isn't her son. Theories abound that she's an irresponsible single parent who enjoyed the freedom that his disappearance gave her, or that she's psychologically unequipped to deal with the changes that several months of unknown experiences have wrought on the young boy. Against all of that, Jolie is superb in her ability to convey true anguish without tearing up the scenery or losing track of her own need to be persuasive in the process. It could so easily have gone off the rails, and it's a testament to Jolie, Eastwood and Straczynski that it instead worked beautifully.

There are a lot of tear-jerking scenes in the film, and I can easily imagine that it was probably a tough script for Straczynski to write. But one moment in particular practically took my breath away. A child was recounting an especially poignant series of events to a hard-boiled, initially-disinterested police detective, and for several minutes we're shown what he's describing in the form of a flashback. As the boy finishes his tale, we're brought back to "present day" (actually, 1928) by way of a shot of the detective's previously-lit cigarette... now just one long ash, still held between his fingers as they rest on the tabletop, indicating that he hadn't moved one inch while the youngster spoke. That shot perfectly sets up the follow-up that shows the look of sheer horror and disbelief that's now etched across the face of the man who thought he'd seen and heard it all by that point. I'm sure the "long cigarette ash shot" has been done before in cinema, but perhaps never as effectively as it was in this graphic context, representing, as it does, one of the major turning points in the story.

JMS also stuck in what I assume has to have been a conscious tip-of-the-hat to Alan Moore's V For Vendetta comic series, as it exactly echoed Evey's final moments of captivity and signaled loud and clear that her transformation out of victimhood was complete (and serves the same purpose here in Changeling).

This is a very strong film that probably didn't get as much attention as it deserved when it made the theatre rounds.

Rating: ****

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Review: Let the Right One In

Let the Right One In is one of the oddest films I've seen in a while, but also one of the most interesting. After watching it last night, my entire dream cycle was occupied with variations upon what I'd just experienced, and it was the first thing I thought of when I woke up this morning.

I'd never heard of this Swedish film (based on a Swedish best-selling novel) until my daughter Tammy gave me a copy on DVD last month for my birthday. She wanted to see it with us, and so it took nearly a month before we had an opportunity where all three of us - including Vicki - were together and in the mood for a vampire movie. As it turns out, Let the Right One In is unlike any other vampire flick I've ever seen. The closest comparison I can draw, and it's not a particularly good one, would be how I felt when I watched Salem's Lot on TV in 1979 (as a 16 year old). At that point in my life, I thought that I pretty much knew what to expect from vampire fiction (having read Bram Stoker's Dracula, dozens of Dracula comics, and seen many schlocky vampire movies), and yet that quirky TV event threw me for a loop. While the quality may not have been all that high, it definitely made an impression on me and opened my mind up to just how much more potential existed in that sub-genre than I'd imagined up to then.

In the case of Let the Right One In, I think the film-makers succeeded on both fronts: delivering superior craftsmanship, and expanding the range of vampire lore. It's all presented in a way that expects the audience to figure things out, rather than having it all delivered at the end of a spoon. Many of the relationships shown have to be inferred, with the implication being that you may, of course, come to the wrong conclusions in some cases. Because so much is going on, and yet so little is being provided to the viewer in a paint-by-numbers fashion, I found myself drawn more and more into the story because I wanted to make the connections myself. That's always a sign of an outstanding work of fiction, in my mind.

One of the most fascinating reactions I had, as the event rolled along, was trying to decide whether I could really justify rooting for the bloodsucking co-lead. I realize that that sort of dilemma is at the heart of much of the recent and current Nosferatu-fic (Anne Rice's work, Twilight, and even Spike and Angel of the Buffyverse) but here it's done in such a matter-of-fact manner as to make those others look almost cartoonish, by comparison. There's drama in Let the Right One In, but no melodrama. "I live off blood," says the undead creature at one key juncture, neither apologetically nor with any sense of pride. In order for her to live, others have to die. (And, in fact, if she doesn't kill them after feeding, she simply ends up making more like her! Therefore, is her act of murder actually one of compassion?)

At the center of the story is a 12 year old boy named Oskar, who's being bullied at school while the adults around him remain oblivious to it. He befriends a new neighbour named Eli, who describes herself as being "around 12." As we learn later on, she means that she was 12 when she was turned into a vampire and has been "around" - frozen at that physical age, though it's difficult throughout to get a good read on her emotional development - for an indeterminate number of years, decades or even centuries since. She knows all about sticking up for herself, and is therefore just the right type of person for Oskar to meet at that "coming-of-age" point in his young, beleaguered life. Except, of course, that she's exhibiting her "right to survive" by killing people in Oskar's town and thereby casting a pall of terror over the region. What's a 12 year old boy, experiencing love for the first time, expected to do in a head-scratching situation like that?

It took me a while to warm up to the film, as I spent the first 15 or 20 minutes bothered by some of the directorial choices. Some scenes are maddeningly-framed such that it's hard to even tell who's speaking, but eventually you either get used to that or come to realize why it's being done. It also didn't help that the DVD defaulted to "English dubbing," which featured some of the worst voice acting this side of a 1950s Godzilla groaner. Fortunately my brain eventually unfroze and I realized that I had the technology to switch us to the original Swedish audio track with English subtitles, after which the experience was exceedingly more pleasant. By the halfway point, I'd decided that I liked what I was seeing. By the end, I thought that I might just have loved it. I'll probably have to watch it a second time, in a year or two, to really know for sure. It's definitely worth watching, though, and I heartily recommend it to anyone looking for something a little different than the standard fare.

Rating: *** 1/2

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Battlestar Galactica finale

So Galactica was the B-Ark?

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Review: Watchmen

It wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that I've been waiting for this film for most of my adult life. I was 23 years old when the 12-issue miniseries by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons debuted on the comic shelves in the late Spring of 1986, and it wasn't long after it wrapped up the following year that the talk of a Watchmen movie began. Just to get my credentials - or, rather, the details of my intense relationship with the subject matter over the intervening 23 years - out of the way up front: I own 4 different printings of the comic series (original serialized format, two different trade paperback editions and the oversized Absolute Watchmen volume that came out a few years ago); I've read Watchmen, in one form or another, nearly 10 times over that stretch; I place it, along with Alan Moore's other magnum opus, V For Vendetta, at the very top of my favourite comic stories of all time; and I own a page of original artwork from the book. For all of these reasons, and many others, this is not just another movie for me.

With a running time in excess of two and a half hours, I knew going into the viewing last night that we wouldn't be shortchanged, at least. This was not going to be "Watchmen Lite", in which most of the secondary arcs were excised in order to focus our attention on just one or two plot lines and get it to fit within a comfortable ninety-seven minutes. As it turns out, screen writers David Hayter and Alex Tse, along with director Zack Snyder, retained about 80% of the original material and something like 90% of its spirit.

Not surprisingly, what's missing is much of the ironic nature, subtlety and complexity of the Moore/Gibbons masterpiece. The first clue that I got to that fact came early: several times in the first half hour of the film, various members of the "superhero fraternity" refer to themselves as "the Watchmen." Anyone with only a passing familiarity with the comic series or less would probably say, "Uh... no duh! That's what they're called!" But in fact, that's not the case. Despite the series being titled Watchmen, there is actually no group within its pages who go by that name. Instead, it refers to the spray-painted slogan that begins to show up in the mid-1970s, once public sentiment turns against the costumed adventurers as the result of a police strike (which comes about when the cops decide that vigilantes are making their jobs too difficult). When long-haired hippies cover tenement walls with crimson red graffiti asking "WHO WATCHES THE WATCHMEN?", it's not a literal reference to any super-team in existence (as would be the case if someone scrawled "WHO AVENGES THE AVENGERS?" in the Marvel Universe, for example) but rather an alarm bell sounding in the words of the poet Juvenal (who wrote, "Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?" in Latin), from nearly two millennia ago. It essentially demands to know, "If they're operating outside the law to guard against our misdeeds, then who's guarding against theirs?" That's one of the central themes throughout Watchmen, and yet I can't help but believe that you water that message down considerably if you make the mistake of believing that "Watchmen" is simply the group name for the heroes (and again: it's not, simply or otherwise). Either the film-makers didn't get this distinction, or they decided that their audience was too stupid to. In any event, something was lost in the process.

If that seems like nit-picking, well... it is! What you'll likely find, if you happen to come across reviews of this movie by fans of the comic (like me), is that much of what we'll devote our attention to are nits. I could point out, for example, that Rorschach's backstory is weakened, ever so slightly, by the change imposed upon it in his fateful scene with the child-murderer. In the comic, Rorschach handcuffs the wretch to a furnace pipe, leaves him a hacksaw with which to cut off his own arm, and then starts the man's home on fire. He thereby gives him a chance to survive, albeit with ridiculous odds. In the film, however, he uses a cleaver to kill the man. Again, as with the point noted above, this suggests a lack of understanding on the part of the film-makers. Watchmen is a very dense piece of literature. Every single thing in it happens for a reason, and an adaptation that (out of necessity) removes or alters bits needs to do so very carefully. My reading of that scene has always been that it was that encounter, that moment in which Walter Kovacs had no choice but to stare into the abyss, only to discover that "the abyss stares also," that transformed him from "Kovacs dressing up as Rorschach" to "Rorschach posing as Kovacs in order to move through the city unnoticed." That metamorphosis, from a world view that allowed at least some grey areas in it to one that could no longer abide them, required more than the swing of a meat cleaver to complete. It was his choice to torment the killer with his own slim chance at salvation, and then to stand on the street outside and watch it all burn, that completed his rebirth. (Fire as a transformative elemental power also shows up in V For Vendetta, when V emerges from the concentration camp while it all goes up in flames around him.) Less of that breath-taking energy comes across in the film version, unfortunately. And I can think of at least a half dozen other places where I similarly winced to see an impact lessened by what I'd characterize as an unfortunate tweak.

So yes, there are details aplenty for die-hard Watchmen fans to complain about (and we will!). But there's also a whole lot to love about this adaptation. Moore and Gibbons were geniuses at creating a fully-realized, internally-consistent world of 1985 in which to tell their tale, and that aspect is on display here as well. It's not really the same look and feel as you'll find in the comic book, as the electric cars, hover bikes and funky cigarette holders are nowhere to be seen when the story begins. But a very effective credit sequence, under the always-welcome sounds of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A Changin'," sets up the premise that men and women decided in the 1940s that dressing up in gaudy costumes and catching crooks might be fun, and that makes it easy to just roll with that conceit as the story progresses. The divergence between our history and the events in the Watchmen universe become poignantly apparent when the god-like Dr Manhattan ends the Vietnam War in a matter of days. In one of the most spine-tingling lines from the comic series, the Comedian tells Dr Manhattan, "I mean, if we'd lost this war... I dunno, I think it might have driven us a little crazy, y'know? As a country." Seeing that sequence, in flashback form, even the Watchmen-neophyte has no choice but to conclude that "This is no version of history that we've ever seen!"

As far as creating the physical world with that history, I'd say that the special effects were somewhat hit and miss. I loved seeing Archie, the owl ship in action, and most of the visuals involving Dr Manhattan worked for me (and for the women in the audience: full frontal male nudity!) but several of the costumes looked ridiculous and I simply couldn't buy most of the Mars architecture. I had expected to hate the "slow mo" scenes but I take my hat off to Snyder and the rest: they actually dazzled me, seeing them in context like that.

Less dazzling were some of the performances by the ensemble cast. First, though, I want to say: every single one of them seemed committed 100% to their part, and that's not always the case when dealing with the dreaded "comic book material." There were no winks at the camera, no one hamming it up or going over the top... but there were also no "star turns" that I could see. Now, it's more than possible that Heath Ledger's mind-boggling take on the Joker in The Dark Knight has raised the bar to the point where I simply now expect some sort of break out performance when the material is so strong. Don't look for that here! Jeffrey Dean Morgan ("Denny", for Grey's Anatomy fans) was fine as Edward Blake/The Comedian, but he didn't really fill out the larger-than-life, completely-amoral character that inhabits the comic book. I wanted to see a man who truly didn't give a shit what anyone thought, and instead I saw what looked like a man who wanted us to believe that he didn't care. Again, though, maybe the fault here is really Ledger's... so to speak.

On the flip side, I thought Jackie Earle Haley completely nailed Rorschach, both in and out of costume. Fans of the prison scenes in Watchmen will be delighted to see Haley's affect-free delivery during his interview with Dr Malcolm Long and his encounters with Big Figure and friends. His gravelly, Christian Bale-like narration style bothered me at first, but then I came to enjoy it and eventually realize that he had to sound like that. He's Hill Street Blues' Mick Belker on steroids, after all... as shown in the flashback scene where young Walter Kovacs bites off part of a bully's face!

Matthew Goode, as Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, seemed to strike the wrong note from his first appearance on, and at no point came across as "the smartest man on the planet." I was surprised to see Matt "Max Headroom" Frewer in the role of Edgar Jacobi/Molloch, but he made the most of his limited screen time. Both Malin Akerman (Laurie Juspeczyk/Silk Spectre II) and Patrick Wilson (Dan Drieberg/Nite Owl II) sold me on their characters, but they suffered from the same problem that most of the cast did: it felt, for most of the film, like they were more focused on the words that they spoke than the emotions behind them. If anything, perhaps the actors held the source material (which all of them supposedly read, and re-read) in too high a reverence... after all, it wasn't just the dialogue of the original Watchmen that fascinated us, but also what it revealed about the people at the bottom of the speech balloons. Too often, the people on screen didn't seem to get that. Or, maybe this criticism, as well, stems from what Heath Ledger showed us in last year's comic book blockbuster.

I loved the famous faux-cameos throughout, which must have kept the casting director busy, searching for celebrity lookalikes. You'll easily spot JFK and Jackie, Mick Jagger and David Bowie, Ted Koppel and Henry Kissinger, as well as an unimpeached Richard Nixon, of course. There are others, as well. I thought that their inclusion worked well at re-anchoring us, reminding us at different points that while this is an alternate history on screen, it's still the planet Earth and some things didn't change (including Glam Rock in the 70s and early 80s, apparently!).

If anything worries me about someone viewing the movie without having read the book, it's that both of the big revelations toward the end of the film seem to come almost entirely from left field. To avoid spoilers, I won't give them away here. But in one case, an unknown relationship is revealed, while in the other it's the villain's motivation and master plan that are laid bare. Unlike in the printed version, though, we don't get the slow build up to them here. We aren't provided all of the clues, as Moore and Gibbons did so effectively, to make us slap our foreheads at the moment of reveal, and say, "Of course! Why didn't I see that coming?" Instead, I imagine that many will react with, "Huh? Where did that come from?" Which is too bad, because those were a couple of Watchmen highlights for me, even on subsequent re-readings where I could pick up on new examples of foreshadowing that I'd never noticed before.

I suppose, "inna final analysis," (as Bernie the news agent says in the comic), while we didn't get a perfect Watchmen movie, we probably got about as close to one as we could reasonably expect. Gone is the symmetry of opening and closing the story with Rorschach's journal (ruined by the addition of a largely unnecessary sequence showing the Comedian's death as the film begins); lost is much of the incredible juxtapositioning of dialogue to visuals; removed for the sake of brevity are many of the third-tier character bits that would have made us care more about the climatic world events that occur near the end. But what's left is still a very large chunk of a literary masterpiece. It's a very good film adaptation of perhaps the greatest comic book series of all time. Anyone intrigued by the film who seeks out the source material will find layers and depth not even hinted at within the frames of Zack Snyder's production... and that's not necessarily a bad thing!

I'm not sure that I'll view Watchmen the movie as many times as I've returned to Watchmen the comic... but at the moment, at least, I'm looking forward to seeing it a second time.

Rating: *** 1/2

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Dollhouse Isn't All Fun And Games

Last night finally brought the premiere of the eagerly-anticipated new Joss Whedon series, Dollhouse. Thanks to previous creations Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and, to a lesser degree, Firefly, Whedon has developed a small but devoted fan base that will follow him anywhere (something that he shares with J Michael Straczynski and J.J. Abrams, but which is far from the norm in TV circles). I like each of those earlier Whedon-vehicles enough that I'd try practically anything that came out with his name attached, and so I was there, butt in seat, for last night's 9:00 debut on Fox. (I continue to be amused by the rather-clever marketing move of combining Summer Glau from Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles with Eliza Dushku in promoting Fox's Durable Dame Doubleheader.)

Many of the reviews that I'd read beforehand were pretty rough on Dollhouse. One of the most common complaints expressed - that the audience can't bond with or invest in a main character who's essentially a cipher in terms of personality (i.e. she doesn't have one of her own) - is something that I think probably will hurt the series, over time, if it's not addressed. Sure, it's going to be fun to see Eliza Dushku take on vastly different characters as Echo every week. In the premiere, she first plays a lovestruck party-girl who's convinced that she's just met "the one" in the person of some spoiled rich brat (ironically named "Matt") who really just wanted a perfect weekend of sex and adventure with a disposable hottie. When the clock runs out on Matt's birthday present to himself, Echo's de-programmed and then later re-built as a super-competent, no-nonsense hostage negotiator who's being rented by an ultra-wealthy Mexican expatriot whose 12-year old daughter has been kidnapped. The two Echo imprints couldn't be less alike (although even an all-business attitude, updo and glasses do little to diminish Dushku's hotness in the latter role) and so the show very quickly establishes its premise. But we're still stuck with the original problem: we want to, but can't, get to know the real Echo. (In story terms, there is no "real Echo," but you know what I mean!)

We do learn that Echo is far from unique in her existence as a new rewritable memory format, though. When not out "on assignment," she resides with the rest of the "agents" in "the Dollhouse," which is some shadowy organization that's run by Adelle DeWitt (Olivia Williams, who you may remember as Bruce Willis' wife in The Sixth Sense). Ms DeWitt's motivations, as well as her resources and credibility, are suspect as the show begins, but her stated stance, at least, is that she's "helping people." We see other men and women in various stages of "dollification" (I just made that word up!), making it clear that having your original memories and personality ripped out of you and tossed in the garbage isn't actually as easy a process as... well, a really stupid person might believe it to be! Each agent gets "dolled up" in a high-tech chair that's (I'm sorry) way too similar to the one used in NBC's My Own Worst Enemy (which not only beat Dollhouse out of the 2008/09 gate by about 5 months but also managed to get canceled before the Fox show had even debuted!). They also get reset to semi-blankness in the same impressive-looking recliner after completing their assignment, at which point they apparently get to wander around the Dollhouse aimlessly, engaging in coed showering and mindless chatter until climbing into slots in the floor and going night-night.

There's a line early on about how the authorities would surely shut down the Dollhouse and toss its management into jail if its existence was ever found out, which of course means that there's already an FBI hunk Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett, "Helo" of Battlestar Galactica fame) on the case. Whedon's sometimes a little too "by the book" for my tastes, and the pilot of Dollhouse suffers more than a little from that weakness. Besides the various points of conflict being immediately established and beaten over the head with a hammer - not only is the FBI agent in conflict with his own superiors over his pursuit of the mysterious "Dollhouse" urban legend that he's tracking with unprofessional zeal and career-limiting tactlessness, but as that conversation plays out, we're shown shots of Ballard in a boxing ring with another man! and no, I'm not making that up! - there's also one flashback scene with a pre-Echo Dushku voicing the Whedonistic refrain, "every action has consequences." It's the sort of thing that seemed fresh and exciting on TV 10 years ago but which comes across more like a crutch when I see it used by the same guy, over and over again. (One bit of Whedon schtick that was mostly absent from the pilot, and which I didn't miss at all, was the use of humourous dialogue to undercut, and sometimes undermine, tension. I personally hope that it makes no more than cameo appearances as the series progresses, as I find that it takes me out of the scene more often than not.)

There are also some credibility gaps that need to be filled, if the show is really going to last. We need to find out why these people would agree to essentially commit suicide in order to become tools-for-rent (which I imagine we will), how any private organization could ever expect to pull off an operation of this size in total secrecy when they're renting their services out to anyone who'll pay (not exactly a top-secret approach, that!), where the ground-breaking technology itself comes from (and I'm hoping that we're not really expected to believe that it's the work of the one annoying hot-shot genius that we've seen so far) and why anyone wealthy enough to afford the Dollhouse's services wouldn't simply hire actual experts instead of "dolled-up" ones.

Those criticisms aside, I actually quite enjoyed a lot of what Dollhouse offered up in its debut. Amy Acker (Fred Burkle/Illyria in Angel, as well as Kelly Payton in Alias) plays Dr Claire Saunders, a scarred woman with what's certainly going to prove to be an interesting backstory. I'll freely cop to being a big fan of the actress, as I think she's lit up the scene every time I've come across her. Rather than trading on her good looks to play the same character each time, Acker has ranged from Southern small-town science nerd (Fred) to cold-blooded killer (Kelly) to other-worldly god-in-human-form (Illyria), and I've bought it each time. I can hardly wait to see what Dr Saunders has in store for us in future episodes.

I also liked that there's some moral ambiguity in place right from the start. One of the handlers (played by Harry Lennix), for example, is already beginning to question the neutral stance that the organization takes in matters involving innocents in harm's way. That sort of thing may get tiresome quickly, though, if there isn't any evolution. And as I said to my wife at one point, viewed one way the Dollhouse is really nothing more than a high-priced whorehouse. If I'm rich and can therefore rent Eliza Dushku to use as my sex toy before tossing her back, how is that anything other than prostitution? Hopefully the show will deal with that angle before long.

Overall, I'm intrigued enough by what I saw, as well as trusting enough in the Whedon track record, to sign up for more Dollhouse. I think I read that 13 episodes were ordered by Fox, so we'll at least get that much. Whether the show follows in the footsteps of Buffy (7 seasons) and Angel (5 seasons) or goes the way of the late, lamented Firefly (13 episodes) remains to be seen. I think that it needs to step its game some to stick around, but at least it got off to an interesting start.