Chris Columbus' 'RENT' (2005)

Cast of 'RENT'
I knew that RENT was in trouble from its first scene, a rendition of "Seasons Of Love" (whose chorus consists of singing "How about love?" a bunch of times) set in an empty theater. Note to director Chris Columbus: the goal of making a musical film is not to duplicate the experience of watching a stage musical. That's why we have film and theater. There's both, you see, because they are different.

But RENT's problems go deeper than a misguided director's attempt to recreate a theater atmosphere in a movie. None of the characters leave much of an impression, because actual characterization has been reduced to mere labels. Mimi? Heroin-addicted stripper. Tom? Anarchist, HIV-positive, um, professor? Grad student? Something academic. I'm still unsure. Mark? Jewish filmmaker. Roger? HIV-positive, former addict musician... You get the idea. These peoples' passions, fears, attitudes, and motivations remain largely unexplored, reducing them to one-dimensional caricatures. At the end of the film, I didn't feel as though I really knew any of these people nor had much investment in their fates.

If a character succeeds at distinguishing themself from the pack, it's usually due to an actor being likable rather than having the opportunity to show much depth. Tom has almost nothing of a storyline, but Jesse L. Martin is charismatic so he is enjoyable to watch. 'RENT' posterI like Tracie Thoms and Rosario Dawson from other work, so I had more interest in their characters, though I struggled to remain interested in Dawson's storyline for which I fault the script and a miscast romantic foil rather than her. Idina Menzel is the only actor previously unknown to me who really caught my attention with her energetic and fairly nuanced performance as Maureen.

Thoms and Dawson are the only actors who did not appear in the original stage production, so many of the actors have been occupying these characters' skins for years. But that doesn't necessarily mean that they can make the transition to the big screen. While Adam Pascal is the only actor carried over from the play who seems completely out of his element, Anthony Rapp and Wilson Jermaine Heredia are only decent, and Taye Diggs is fine but unexceptional in his very small role. Pascal offers at best a lukewarm performance as Roger and fails to generate much screen presence. But as I said, I think Martin and Menzel are good, the former perhaps benefiting from his years on Law & Order. The chemistry amongst the ensemble is pretty good – the cast fares better when they are all together – but it fizzles between some of the pairings. Thoms and Menzel have great chemistry, making Joanne and Maureen one of very few fictional couples who manage to seem like they would have some fun in the sack without the inclusion of a sex scene. Martin and Heredia never really sell the romantic aspect of their relationship but do seem genuinely affectionate. Pascal and Dawson, however, couldn't generate heat with a flame thrower.

I cannot say much that is positive about Jonathan Larson's music and lyrics. Granted, most of the songs are catchy and fairly memorable, but I find the lyrics poorly written, often saccharine, mostly melodramatic, and in some cases laughable. They offer some modest character moments, but Joanne is the only one who actually gets some character development out of a song (and, indeed, in the entire film) when she walks down the stairs singing, "Take me for what I am," shedding her insecurities about needing and keeping Maureen. The music sounds straight out of the early nineties, which may not be inappropriate given that the story is set in 1990, but the music does really date the musical, which I found to be detrimental. Larson based RENT on Puccini's opera La Bohéme, which might explain the melodramatic tenor of many songs. But that operatic emotion never really gels with the grim realities of addiction and AIDS that color the film, resulting in an uneven tone and giving an artificial quality to the weightier scenes.

Part of me wants to love RENT, because it's the only musical that features HIV-positive characters, lesbians, gay men, even a drag queen. But even though those types of people might make up my community, it doesn't mean that I find these characters relatable or even recognizable. Visibility in the media does matter to marginalized groups, but I'm still not going to embrace every shallow, inadequate portrayal that comes along.
Adam Pascal & Rosario Dawson in 'RENT'

Larry Clark's 'Kids' (1995)

Like Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's Jesus Camp or Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Kids is one of those movies free of monsters, blood, and gore that is absolutely terrifying. In fact, Kids is like the Thirteen of the last decade, a wake-up call to youth and adults alike of how some adolescents lead their lives. 'Kids' posterThese kids are portrayed as self-involved, amoral, and hedonistic, willing to beat a man nearly to death out of boredom with little afterthought and even less remorse. The film garnered as much controversy as critical acclaim upon its release, earning an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, due to its depiction of teenage drug use, explicit sex acts, date rape, and graphic violence, and director Larry Clark films this content in a very matter-of-fact, documentary-like manner. I've noticed from reviews I've read that some people have mistaken this tone as Clark condoning this behavior, but those who draw that conclusion may have seen the film but didn't really watch it.

Kids depicts 24 hours in the lives of New York teenagers. For two of the main characters, Telly and Casper, it's a seemingly average day, but for Jennie the day is anything but. On first glance, Telly probably would seem harmless to both girls and their mothers: he is pasty, skinny, and a little nerdy-looking. But Telly uses his innocuous exterior to hide the fact that he is an adept liar, mostly employing his skills to sleep with young virgins, whom he prefers because he doesn't like to use condoms. During the course of the movie, he seduces two young girls and brutally deflowers them, completely ignoring their discomfort, health, and well-being in his unswerving pursuit of pleasure.

One of Telly's many conquests, Jennie discovers she has HIV when she goes with a friend for moral support to get tested. Since she has only had sex with Telly, she knows that he is also infected and spends her day trying to tell him and to save his next partner, a 13-year-old girl named Darcy. A shy girl, Jennie seems to have become immersed in a world of which she wants no part. She is constantly being coerced by boys to do things she does not want to do.

Like Telly, Casper also pursues self-gratification, spending the entire day drunk, high, or both and always looking for his next fix. Because he lacks much of his own, Casper envies Telly's sexual experience, oblivious to the moral repugnance of how Telly obtains it. Even though he cruelly attacks a man with little provocation, Casper (unlike Telly) still shows a spark of humanity, giving a stolen peach to a little girl and his last few coins to a legless man in the subway. Even as he rapes Jennie, he misguidedly assures her in an almost tender way that, "It's just [him]," as he takes advantage of her in her disoriented state.

Kids could have easily been called Boys. Though girls certainly play a part in the proceedings, the film ultimately provides a detailed portrait of these teenage boys' lifestyle and explores how they become indoctrinated into a culture that turns them into sociopaths. All of the conversation between two or more boys in this movie has something to do with sex. Young boys, nine- or ten-years-old, are grilled by older boys on their sexual experiences, ridiculed if they admit or even insinuate that they have none. They are audience to older teens' and early twenty-somethings' discussions of sexual conquests and assessments of girls' attitudes toward sex, all of which encourages them to understand that masculinity is completely tied up in having as much sex with as many girls as possible and that girls are merely objects with which to have sex. During the few minutes that they are not talking about sex, the boys talk about drugs and alcohol, which they get with ease from stealing or from older acquaintances, and the booze and drugs are then passed down to even younger boys. All of the posturing, proclamations of sexual potency and experience, denial of homosexuality through the harassment of gay men, all of it is for the sake of other males. The boys spend more time with their shirts off around each other than around girls. They have created a culture in which they constantly have to prove their virile heterosexuality lest they fall victim to the mob mentality that nearly kills one man in the film.
When interacting with the boys, most of the girls seem like guests, and sometimes more like prisoners, of this different culture. In fact, Jennie's search for Telly to tell him about being HIV-positive could also be seen as a journey into the treacherous underbelly of the boys' world. She starts in the relative safety of a friends' bedroom full of other young girls talking about their sexual experiences. In comparison to the boys' rap session about sex, the girls seem less like they are performing a codified sexuality for each other and less like they are keeping each other's femininity in check. Jennie says that she has only had sex with one guy and Ruby admits to more sexually promiscuous behavior than the other girls. Ruby is teased a little, but neither girl is humiliated or rebuked in the way that the boys keep each other's sexuality under control. Ruby and Jennie are able to take action to take control of their sexuality by going to a health clinic together, but this trip precipitates Jennie's traverse into Boys' World, which slowly takes away her power to choose. During her first interaction with a male in the film, the boy tries to coax Jennie into coming up to his apartment, his sexual interest apparent in his voice coming through the intercom, but Jennie, separated from him, is able to say no with relative ease. In her first face-to-face contact with a male, a middle-aged taxi driver makes demands of Jennie in a way females of the film do not, asking if he could cheer her up so that her pretty face would not look so sad. His comments suggest that rather than having a real concern for her well-being, the driver wants her to stop being sad so that she would be better to look at. Her journey only grows darker and each encounter with boys more sinister as another harmless-looking, nerdy boy feeds her Special K. She finally catches up with Telly as he is deflowering Darcy and, defeated, leaves them to their business without saying a word. Having failed to save Darcy, Jennie passes out on a couch only to be raped by Casper in her drug-induced stupor. In the boys' world, girls are victims, objects that are acted upon and incapable of action.

To fit with the documentary tone, the actors were picked by Clark for their naturalness and had limited, if any, acting experience. All of the actors succeed in giving very candid performances, and probably for many of the supporting actors there is little distinction between where their character stops and their true self begins. Of the cast, Chloe Sevigny has catapulted to the biggest stardom, and Rosario Dawson has achieved similar success. Leo Fitzpatrick and Justin Pierce, who probably receive the most screen time, have not been as lucky, though Fitzpatrick has done regular work over the years, most recently in television. Pierce sadly committed suicide after making a dozen or so films to little commercial success. I don't know if Sevigny shows any more talent in Kids than her two fellow leads, but her look is certainly more "studio-ready" than Fitzpatrick and Pierce, which might explain why she was more quickly cast in lead roles. Even though Dawson appears in maybe 10 minutes of the film, she really does distinguish herself from dozens of supporting actors, with the energy and intrepidness that she brings to every role on full display.

Even though I am just now seeing Kids for the first time, I have owned its soundtrack for years because I'm a big Lou Barlow fan. One of Barlow's many side projects, Folk Implosion provides a lot of the "score" and it's some of Barlow's best work. The official soundtrack also includes tracks from Daniel Johnston, Lo Down, Slint, and one of Barlow's other bands, Sebadoh. It's an excellent collection of lo-fi tunes from the early nineties. In addition to these great songs, the film's soundtrack also features songs by the Beastie Boys, A Tribe Called Quest, and other New York hip-hop groups from that period.

All kids are not like these Kids, but this perhaps heightened (perhaps not in some cases) portrayal of youth culture makes very astute observations about how gender roles become codified and reinforced and about adolescent culture in general. As uncomfortable of an experience as it might be, parents should watch this movie with their teen-aged kids. The discussion it would provoke could change people's lives.

'Dollhouse': "Ghost"

Some initial thoughts about the pilot:
  • It didn't seem very piloty. I tend to think a pilot's purpose is to establish the characters and the environment that make up the core of the show. This episode was mainly client-based and took place outside of the Dollhouse for the most part.
  • The kidnapping plot functioned well in revealing the boundaries and limitations of the actives' programming. I like that the actives seem to have free will to an extent: they choose how to act based on their imprint. The only command that seemed to override the imprint was the suggestion that they need a treatment, and Echo's motorcycle-riding, tiny-dress-wearing persona seemed to be aware of a time limit to her assignment.
  • The quirky dialogue that I've come to expect from Joss was not present, but that's not to say that the dialogue was bad, merely straightforward.
  • I was happy to see that the show had credits, but they were disappointingly generic as was the theme song. They also contained an inordinate amount of shots of naked or mostly naked ladies. Based on the credits and the promos broadcast during the show, including one featuring Eliza Dushku and Summer Glau from The Sarah Connor Chronicles, FOX is using sex to market the show, which concerns me for several reasons. First, Joss managed to create on Buffy some of the unsexiest, unsettling sex scenes ever so I don't relish the thought of Dollhouse featuring a lot of them. Second, clients hiring actives to fulfill sexual fantasies is just so banal and obvious. Third...
  • Eliza Dushku in 'Dollhouse'
  • In the Eliza/Summer promo, they talked about how the FOX shows on Friday night had girls who could be whatever you wanted them to be, reinforcing sexist ideas of the interchangeability and malleability of women by men. While male actives are seen walking around in the background of the Dollhouse, the only two actives who are, um, active in this episode are female. Enver Gjokaj's character was originally written as another active but seems to have been changed to a Russian mobster, which causes me to wonder if there will be any prominent, recurring male actives, besides Alpha who seems to have escaped the Dollhouse. I really do not want the show to be about female actives controlled by male programmers and handlers, thereby reinforcing those sexist ideas, unless Joss plans to make a point about it.
  • I mean no disparagement to Harry Lennix, in fact I quite liked his performance, but I wish that Echo had a female handler.
  • I recognized more of the cast than I thought. Olivia Williams played Rosemary in Rushmore and Reed Diamond played Stuart Collins on Judging Amy. I really liked Williams as DeWitt.
  • Amy Acker played Dr. Saunders as very much not Fred, which was both pleasing and reassuring. (I couldn't stand Fred.) She was good.
  • I'm worried about Dichen Lachman, who plays Sierra. She only had two lines and they were...not delivered well.
  • Tahmoh Penikett's character was very separated from the Dollhouse, which could be problematic given that he is recurring. I hope that they manage to make his storyline feel integrated into the series because when he was watching and threatening Enver Gjokaj, I was wondering why I should care, which is not a good sign. I also hope that they clarify how the intelligence agency he works for became aware of the Dollhouse and why he's being so dogged about a case for which he isn't receiving much support from his supervisors.
  • I'm still curious to see how Eliza will handle the multiple roles she will have to play in one episode. There was definitely a difference between Echo and Miss Penn, but Caroline and Echo's motorcycle/dress persona were almost indistinguishable. However, that lack of distinction may have been purposeful to make viewers think that they were the same person. I hope to see Eliza playing with her physicality more to distinguish various personas in future episodes.
I think I might try writing a little something about the Dollhouse episodes as they air, but I'll see. I'm very bad about catching episodes when they air these days. TV on the Internet and DVD box sets have spoiled me.

More Dollhouse reviews/thoughts:

Save Joss Whedon's 'Dollhouse'!

I don't trust FOX.

Over the years, FOX has canned some of my favorite shows (Arrested Development, Wonderfalls), shows that I really enjoyed (The Inside, Firefly), and shows that had a lot of potential (Drive, Undeclared).
FOX Graveyard
For the first time in five years, Joss Whedon is going to have a series on television. Dollhouse, starring Eliza Dushku (Faith from Buffy, Tru Calling), follows the lives of "actives" or "dolls" whose memories and personalities can be programmed with any persona, knowledge, or skill that they need to know to perform various assignments. Dushku plays an active named Echo who begins to become self-aware after her memory wipes.

From the premise, Dollhouse sounds like it will explore the concept of identity and it seems to have the potential to be a different kind of show every week, which could be a really exciting opportunity for the writers and actors alike. Besides Dushku, I haven't heard of much of the cast with the exception of Tahmoh Penikett (Helo from Battlestar Galactica), Mark Sheppard (Romo Lampkin from Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Charles "The Butcher" Walker from Medium), and Amy Acker (Fred from Angel). I like Eliza Dushku, but I have some doubts that she can handle the range that will most likely be required for this role. However, I'm happy to watch and see how she does. Especially if she does a lot of running in leather pants.

Dollhouse premieres tonight at 8 p.m. CST on FOX, which means it has been scheduled on the night FOX moves series to die, like the network did with Firefly. Perhaps premiering on Fridays will be good for Dollhouse, setting the expectation for ratings lower than if it were scheduled on Monday or Thursday, for example. But like I said, I don't trust FOX. There's that blank tombstone in FOX's graveyard. So I'm campaigning to save Dollhouse even though it hasn't even started yet.

Please watch Dollhouse. I know it's Friday and you could be going out but invite your friends over to watch Dollhouse instead. Trust me, it'll be cheaper.

More screaming

Do you remember that scream I was talking about?
Well, here it is again, part of it anyway, in Kids. (Just as a warning, this clip contains graphic violence.)

Frank Miller & Robert Rodriguez's 'Sin City' (2005)

I couldn't do it. I made it to 1:26 and I had to stop it. I was annoyed, repulsed, and just plain bored. Of course, the film is a beautifully rendered, completely unique blend of film and graphic novel, and I thought that I could watch all 126 minutes of Sin City just to see the cinematography, make-up, and effects. But ultimately I just didn't have the desire to slog through any more glorified violence, victimized women, and gratuitous female nudity.

I made it through Josh Hartnett and Marley Shelton: fine. Bruce Willis: whatever. Mickey Rourke: jesus, will this ever end? Clive Owen, Rosario Dawson, and all the gun-toting hookers managed to get my attention because the story was actually something different and interesting. And Clive Owen and Rosario Dawson are hot. There are very few actors whose physical beauty distract me while I'm watching them act, but Clive Owen is one of them. And he looks so boyish and sexy with the long bangs in his eyes. I got to the scene where the hookers are shooting the hell out of the mobsters, and I thought, "Good. It's near the end and I like the end." But then fuckin' Bruce Willis shows up again. And I realized there were 40 minutes left.

I mean, what the fuck? How is it that all the men in this movie are like fuckin' Rasputins and the women die if they're stabbed with a thumbtack? And I don't think that having empowered female characters, namely bad-ass hookers with arsenals, excuses Miller and Rodriguez from all of the weak, victimized women and needless naked lady-ness. And I don't think it's a coincidence that the empowered women are hookers to justify more semi-naked lady-ness.

And the lesbian dies. No, wait, she is mostly naked, naked and maimed, and then she dies.

Justin Chadwick's 'The Other Boleyn Girl' (2008)

Based on the novel by Philippa Gregory, The Other Boleyn Girl attempts to explore the relationships between Henry VIII and two sisters: Anne Boleyn, whom he married, and her sister Mary, with whom Henry had an affair while he was married to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. As a historical drama, the film doesn't paint a very detailed portrait of the creation of The Church of England and Anne Boleyn's fall into disgrace, but the film also fails as a character study, which I believe is its true purpose. In fact, the film feels like half of it's one and half is the other. However, director Justin Chadwick and screenplay writer Peter Morgan do manage to convey the slippery, and potentially deadly, slope of political maneuvering during this time period. Nearly everyone in this film becomes the victim of manipulation for the purpose of political gain, underscoring in particular women's complete lack of autonomy in Tudor England.

Given the name of the film, I expected The Other Boleyn Girl to be more about the other Boleyn girl. Sure, Mary plays a part in the proceedings, but as she did in life Anne overshadows her. Mary is given one characterization very early in the film, and she never changes. Or maybe she does. I'm not sure. I feel like Mary's emotions, reactions, and rationale become lost at several points during the film. Mary unflaggingly comes to her sister's aide, speaking to the King on her behalf even though Anne used her compulsory bedrest during her pregnancy with Henry's child as an opportunity to seduce him. The filmmakers never explore Mary's emotions at confronting her former lover who abandoned her to plead for clemency for her sister who betrayed her. Mary's situation is absolutely portrayed as pitiable, but the abuse she suffers seems small in comparison to what happens to her sister. Though Anne is certainly the anti-hero of this story, Chadwick colors her as a young woman who perishes at her own hand in a way, overcome by the cruelties of a world she fought to gain entry to but ultimately was not ready for or able to manage.

While Henry VIII is certainly the most prominent historical figure in the film, I feel like he is the least important character. I think the center of the film, at least in a character-study context, is the relationship between Mary and Anne and more broadly their family. In this version of the Boleyn sisters' story, Henry the person is less important than Henry the King. Mary and Anne come to their respective fates because someone finds the idea of power titillating and tries to cultivate a relationship with the king to achieve it. Had I written and directed this material I think I would have chosen to greatly reduce Henry's part and give him no or very few lines. I would have filmed him from behind most of the time, always when he was speaking, and probably only shown his face in the scene in which Anne argues for her life in front of the jury. Pushing Henry to the background in this way I think would allow the true meat of the story to come to the foreground.

The acting failed to impress me. Granted, I think that Mary is depressingly underdeveloped, but Scarlett Johansson barely manages to leave an impression. As Henry, Eric Bana is decent but his performance never captivated me and I never connected with his character. Of the three leads, Natalie Portman's performance is the only one the audience can really grab onto, and she does a fair job presenting Anne as complex and ultimately sympathetic, though her English accent is by far the weakest of the bunch. But I have to say that I thought she did improve in comparison to V for Vendetta. I also liked Kristin Scott Thomas as the Boleyns' mother, but her character almost felt like an anachronism, a voice of modern feminism inserted into the story to connect with contemporary audiences.

Though The Other Boleyn Girl does not succeed completely, the production is visually splendid. I like the period costumes in particular, but I think those inverted visors the women wear on their heads look ridiculous. Even though it's a little light on historical details, the film also acts as an interesting prequel of sorts to Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
And just for fun, here's some information about Henry's wives:
  1. Catherine of Aragon: daughter of Queen Isabella I of Spain, mother of Queen Mary I; Henry VII originally arranged a betrothal between her and Henry VIII's older brother Arthur, who passed away from illness, to form an alliance with Spain; as a devout Catholic, refused to acknowledge Henry's subsequent marriage to Anne Boleyn until her death, even though doing so would have meant better quarters and permission to see her daughter; marriage annulled by Henry for failure to produce a male heir.
  2. Anne Boleyn: mother of Queen Elizabeth I; refused to become Henry's mistress and his infatuation with her led to Henry's eventual break from the Catholic Church and creation of The Church of England; after failing to produce a male heir and a turbulent marriage, Henry declared that their union had been a product of witchcraft; beheaded on charges of adultery, incest, and high treason.
  3. Jane Seymour: mother of King Edward VI; mistress to Henry during his marriage to Anne; Henry considered her his "true" wife because she produced his only male heir and he was buried next to her; died from an infection after giving birth to her son.
  4. Anne of Cleves: sister of the Duke of Cleves of Germany; was suggested to Henry as a possible wife because of her brother's Protestant beliefs, thus making him a potential ally should a Roman Catholic attack against England occur; found completely unattractive by Henry upon her arrival in England; marriage annulled by Henry and was given property.
  5. Catherine Howard: had an extra-marital affair with Henry's courtier and a pre-marital affair with another man, who maliciously revealed their indiscretions to a member of Henry's court investigating her relationship with the courtier; beheaded on charges of adultery.
  6. Catherine Parr: was widowed twice before marrying Henry, making her quite wealthy; though vocally disagreeing with Henry about religion, managed to reconcile him with his daughters, which led to them being restored to the line of succession; survived Henry and married a former lover.
Six Wives of Henry VIII

'Buffy the Vampire Slayer': "When She Was Bad"

Buffy was all about the season finales with its season premieres often turning out a little lackluster. Not so in the case of "When She Was Bad," which is not only far from lackluster but is one of the best episodes of the series, in my opinion, and one of my favorites.

Season one was...cute. Forgive me my condescension, but "cute" is the best adjective I can muster. Had I watched the original broadcast of Buffy I'm fairly certain that I might have caught some of the episodes, but I would not have been inspired to fandom. The first season feels like auditions for the rest of the series or maybe like a really long pilot presentation. Visually, the show needs the season to find its rhythm, and Sarah Michelle Gellar seems to need time settling into her role. Watching "Welcome to the Hellmouth" in retrospect, SMG's dramatic abilities are evident, but she doesn't seem quite comfortable with all of the comedic demands of the script. In other words, SMG does well telling Giles to prepare her but doesn't manage to sell me a copy of The Watchtower.

All of this is to say that for me Buffy finally arrives, if you will, with season two, and "When She Was Bad" really kicks it up a notch. I can almost hear the "BAM!" as the opening credits begin to roll. The episode showcases Buffy's new look, which frankly suits her better, and cockier attitude that first surfaced during "Prophecy Girl." The stuntwork is also noticeably more intricate and intense, with a good couple of minutes devoted solely to showcasing how bad-ass Buffy is. I always enjoy gratuitous displays of Slayer strength. This episode is also the first of the series that really deals with inner demons more than actual ones. For the most part, season one is more about camp, monsters, and witty repartee rather than complex emotions and relationships until the very end of the season takes a turn for the serious. This episode lets viewers know that "Prophecy Girl" was not a fluke. I think it was pretty brave of Whedon & Co. to make their heroine act like a total bitca for an episode and not give her an easy out like being possessed by a hyena. I also love that the writers found a very simple way for Buffy to destroy Angel, Xander, and Willow in one fell swoop.
Side note: Admittedly, I think that Buffy acts like a bitca later in the series – indeed for the bulk of season seven – but the difference between that later peevishness and this episode is that the writers admit that she's being mean. I feel like Buffy often gets a pass on bad behavior later in the series just because she's the Slayer. Buffy's indifferent and abrupt attitude in "When She Was Bad" has a definite though not immediately apparent cause and remedy, which makes it interesting rather than tiring.

I'm not sure I completely buy Cordelia feeling any compulsion to offer Buffy advice about her campaigning for Bitch of the Year, but I do really like that scene. "Whatever is causing the Joan Collins 'tude, deal with it. Embrace the pain, spank your inner moppet, whatever, but get over it." Also, Charisma Carpenter sounds like she has a cold in this episode.

Though perhaps not the coolest musical guest (cough, Aimee Mann, cough), Cibo Matto's music is used to the greatest effect of all the guest performers. The sexy beats, eerie backing vocals, and cryptic lyrics of "Sugar Water" perfectly fit Buffy's "sexy dance" with Xander. Cibo Matto also gets the best name drop ever: "Cibo Matto can clog dance?"

Angel's lines sound like they were cribbed from a Firefly protoscript ("And that bothers me more than I'd like." "Why are you ridin' me?" "Happy to oblige.") and David Boreanaz delivers them like he's auditioning for Mal. Can you imagine if Captain Forehead had been Captain Tightpants?

The only part that I do not like is the after-school special music of wholesome reconciliation that plays when Xander and Willow let Buffy know that she's off the hook at the end of the episode. But Xander looks so cute when he's teasing Buffy about grinding her enemy into talcum powder with a sledgehammer.

'Deception Point' by Dan Brown (2001)

I admit it: I read The Da Vinci Code. However, I did not enjoy The Da Vinci Code. As he does with Deception Point as well, Dan Brown proves himself to be an author of detailed research. While I found the subject of his research in The Da Vinci Code more fascinating, its presentation frustrated me. Sir Teabing just talks and talks for pages on end. Too much set-up has to be delivered in one big chunk, which effectively, for lack of a better word, really constipates the plot. In the case of Deception Point, Brown is able to dole out facts more evenly throughout the novel, though it's still a bit of an overload for me. Deception Point by Dan BrownI'd rather have the information on a need to know basis. I don't really care about an OH-58 Kiowa helicopter's infrared thermal imaging or multitarget tracking abilities unless I really need to know about them for some part of the plot.

A lot of people die in this novel, so I have to talk about the body count, which isn't pretty. In chronological order, the deaths go: Charles Brophy, Wailee Ming, Norah Mangor, Marjorie Tench, Xavia, the Coast Guard pilot, Delta Three, Delta Two, Delta One, and William Pickering. Of course, the bad guys have to die, which leaves three women, one person of color, and two plot points, both of whom are male. While Brown doesn't seem to have a problem with smart women (Rachel and Gabrielle survive), he seems to let only the conventionally attractive ones live. Marjorie Tench is described several times as one of the ugliest women ever, and Brown describes Xavia as overweight and dark-skinned, so she also may be a woman of color, which only seems to make her doubly damned. Though Norah Mangor escapes being dealt the ugly card, no one ever considers her beautiful (she has a "pleasant, impish face") and the presence of gray in her hair suggests that she is older, something she and Marjorie Tench have in common. What connects all three female murder victims is their lack of a pleasing demeanor. All of these women are, at best, surly, with Norah nearly verbally emasculating most of the men who cross her path. Basically, Brown makes the female characters that die unattractive to men in one way or another. To look at the situation from a different perspective, the main female characters who live (Rachel and Gabrielle) are the only women whom men, at some point during the novel, find attractive. Not a main character though certainly no less important than Xavia, Yolanda Cole also lives, but Brown releases her from the obligation to titillate men by giving her maternal characteristics and even the moniker of "Mother." As for Wailee Ming, while he is not the only person of color in this novel, he certainly has the most, indeed the only, ethnic name. I have to wonder if Gabrielle were named LaTanya would she have lived?

As far as themes, Deception Point features many images of ghosts of the past haunting the present. Along with the high body count, many characters in Deception Point have a person whose death has greatly influenced them in some way. Tolland's wife died of cancer, Sexton's wife and Rachel's mother died in a car accident, and Pickering's daughter was killed in combat. The influence of long-dead former presidents also echoes throughout the halls of The White House. But the novel's main theme, as the title reveals, centers on the idea of truth: how we determine the truth, how truth catches up with everyone, and the importance of telling the truth, of course.

Deception Point is a fun, fast read full of information about glaciers, meteorites, phosphorescent plankton, and megaplumes if you're into that sort of thing. But I might do some fact-checking before I started sharing the information Brown includes. From what I can find, it seems that the Kiowa helicopter I mentioned earlier is a two-seater and Brown crams four people into that thing at one point. I still can't stand Brown's myriad short chapters, but Deception Point has a pleasing mix of science geekery and political intrigue to keep me entertained.

Naming screams

I'm trying to identify a scream. I'm sure you've heard it before. If you've ever gone trick-or-treating or to a cheesy haunted house, it has probably been playing on the tape of scary noises that someone picked up at the dollar store. You know, this one:
I pulled that sound clip from the Buffy episode "The Harvest," an episode from the first season when the effects budget seemed to consist of the change Joss Whedon could dig out of the seats in his car. But I know that I've heard the scream used in other TV shows and even a movie or two, and I'm curious about where it came from.

In trying to find information about those three distinctive shrieks, I discovered that there is an even more famous scream in Hollywood. The Wilhelm Scream, named for Pvt. Wilhelm who emits the scream in the 1953 film The Charge of Feather River, has supposedly been used over 140 times, most notably in films by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg.
That's not a very brave scream, is it? That's a scream of fallen enemies and cowardly minor characters.

I read further and discovered a scream that I was much more familiar with: The Goofy Holler, perhaps more recognizably transcribed as "Aaaaaaah-hoo-hoo-hoo-hooey!"
The Goofy Holler has made the rounds in Disney productions, but it has also been used in such quality live-action fare as Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde and Street Fighter: The Movie.

But I have yet to find the origin of Darla's scream of holy-water-inflicted pain. It seems to be used for work made in the horror genre, but it's not included in horror scream collections such as this one. I wonder if it has a name. If it doesn't, I wonder if I could suggest "Incredibly Phony and Easily Identified."

Quentin Tarantino's 'Death Proof' (2007)

When I first read about Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez's grindhouse movies, I was pretty sure that I wouldn't like them, that I wasn't part of the audience for them. I mean, violence, gore, and objectified women? Hardly sounds like my cup of tea. I shouldn't like Death Proof. I know that I shouldn't like Death Proof. 'Death Proof' posterAnd yet there is something extremely gratifying about watching three women beat the crap out of a misogynistic, mass-murdering psychopath.

But again, Tarantino disappoints with his inability to create effective pacing. He seems to have embraced the double feature element of his Grindhouse project with Rodriguez in his own film because Death Proof feels like two movies stuck together. One of those movies is fun and the other is almost coma-inducing. As is, Death Proof is an uneven two-hour movie, but with some generous editing it could be a very entertaining 80- or 90-minute movie.

The initial half with the first set of "girls" (Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Jordan Ladd) should and easily could be almost cut completely. If I understand the concept of grindhouse movies, they are supposed to be full of sex, action, violence, and gore, not aimless, lifeless conversation. Granted, Arlene does a little lap dance, which I suppose is intended to be sexy, but I'm of the opinion that lap dances are only interesting if you're on the receiving end. Death Proof is not a film about character development. It sounds crass, but it doesn't really matter if we "know" Stuntman Mike's first victims because they are merely the set up for the real meat of the film. And booty dances aside, Arlene, Julia, and Shanna just aren't entertaining enough to merit the amount of screen time that they receive, especially in comparison to the women who populate the second hour of the film. I find that I enjoy the film more, and don't feel like I'm really missing anything, if I start the movie with Stuntman Mike giving Pam a ride home.

Tracie Thoms, Rosario Dawson, and "newcomer" Zoë Bell bring Death Proof to life. Admittedly, I think they have better material to work with, but their chemistry sparkles, finally kicking the film into gear after nearly half its running length. Bell first worked with Tarantino on the Kill Bill films as a stunt double for The Bride, and Death Proof is her acting debut as a lead. While she is playing a version of herself, Bell proves to be energetic, likable, and funny, which is more than many actors with resumés twice the length of hers can say. And she does all her own stunts, which are pretty bad ass. Thoms fills the Samuel L. Jackson slot with plenty of attitude and profanity – but no blaspheming – and Dawson gamely goes along for the ride as the good girl who goes a little bad.

As Stuntman Mike, Kurt Russell effectively fills the villain role, returning to a more bad-ass persona that propelled him to A-list status in the 1980s with films like John Carpenter's Escape from New York. He doesn't particularly stand out here, but I cannot fault him any misstep either. He seems to understand the material and he delivers.
Kurt Russell and Kurt Russell in 'Death Proof'
Tarantino has provided plenty of filmic evidence of his fetishes, using shots of bare feet and rear ends to sexualize (and objectify) his female characters. His use of these shots in Death Proof interests me because their context differs greatly in the two halves of the movie. In the first half, the first shot of Jungle Julia tilts up from her bare feet to her backside, clad only in underwear, as she pulls a t-shirt over her head to cover her bare back. A subsequent shot starts behind Julia and dollies in and up over her head as she leans out her window to call down to her friends outside, her rear end pushed out toward the camera, making her body more accessible to the audience. Similarly, the introductory shot of Arlene is a close up of her cupping her crotch in effort to keep from peeing herself, I guess, and Arlene later performs the above-mentioned lap dance. The first half just has more of this kind of stuff – bare feet, bare legs, physical affection between two beautiful women – all of which serves to make these women's bodies objects, accessible to the audience and to the male gaze.

In comparison, the second half really doesn't have much. In the ostensible first scene, Stuntman Mike touches and licks via proxy Abernathy's bare feet as they hang out the window of Kim's car. After that initial encounter no shots of similar quality happen until almost the very last one, and that shot defines the difference between Tarantino's treatment of his first set of "girls" from his second. (I suppose one could consider the footage of Stuntman Mike photographing the women in the airport parking lot to be similar, but I think it serves a different purpose. And it's not body part specific nor as sexualized as other shots.) After Kim has plowed into Stuntman Mike, sending his car rolling off the road, the Challenger pulls to a stop and Zoë emerges from the car. The camera follows her, pushing in on her rear end, and Kim and Abernathy soon join her in the frame so that the camera can follow these three women's backsides as they advance toward Stuntman Mike, bloody and howling in pain in the wreckage of his car. This shot is not about sex – it's about these women's power, the culmination of their transformation of their earlier victimization by Stuntman Mike into predatory instinct.

The stark contrast between Tarantino's treatment of Jungle Julia's crowd and Zoë's film industry cohorts reminds me of that "rule" from horror films about the girls who have sex in the movie are always killed. Jungle Julia et al. don't have sex with anyone, but their bodies are far more sexualized than Zoë et al. The first group dies and the second group lives. But with the exception of Arlene's lap dance, which Stuntman Mike goads her into doing, their sexualization seems so much more involuntary than if they had just chosen to have sex with someone. Tarantino's objectification of this group seems to offer them up for slaughter, and yet only the fact that they are slaughtered seems to justify their objectification. So what is the difference between Jungle Julia and Zoë? Even though they ride the white horse to Stuntman Mike's dark one, Kim, Zoë, and Abernathy fall much more in a moral gray area than Jungle Julia and her companions. They leave their friend to be possibly molested by the Challenger's owner so that they can go for a joy ride, and they pursue Stuntman Mike so mercilessly that they cause the injury of a motorcyclist and probably other motorists as well. To put it plainly, these women survive because they can kick Stuntman Mike's ass. They can out bad ass the bad ass, and Tarantino's shot of their backsides celebrates that display of, for lack of a better term, female machismo. It's as if Tarantino really can't sexualize these women in the same way that he objectifies Jungle Julia because they are too masculine, maybe not in appearance but in attitude, and yet they are still too feminine to sexualize them for their power. Their sexuality is tied too closely to their female machismo that it cannot be fully expressed until they have offered a legitimate display.
Rosario Dawson, Tracie Thoms, Zoe Bell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead in 'Death Proof'