'Firefly': "Jaynestown"

I've been putting off writing about this episode. It's not that "Jaynestown" is horrible — the plot doesn't make much sense, but that just means it's on par with the rest of the series. It's no worse than "Shindig" or "Safe" and it annoys me less than "The Train Job," but I've been avoiding it because I don't care about anything that happens in this episode.

I like Jayne fine, but I think he is decidedly a supporting character. I love that I can laugh at him and that he actually serves a purpose in telling stories, but I have little interest in learning much more about him. At least not right now. I find Jayne's mercenary attitude refreshing amongst all these criminals with hearts of gold, so I really don't understand this lengthy, blatant attempt to humanize him, especially with an effort this shallow. Moments in "Serenity," "Ariel," and even "The Message" flesh out Jayne as a character better than this half-baked plot.

Immediately I'm perplexed when Zoe stays behind while Kaylee, Wash, and Simon tag along on the job. Zoe says she stays with the ship because she outranks Wash, but that's not really an answer. Why Mal wants Kaylee and Wash to help out remains a mystery: he doesn't give a reason at the top of the episode, and they spend most of their time being drunk and, in Kaylee's case, barking up the wrong tree. Kaylee, sweetie, Simon is gay. He's gay. And possibly very close to sleeping with Mal if the intense once-over – that's really more of a thrice-over – the captain gives him is any indication. (Seriously. Watch that scene on the cargo ramp. Mal gives Simon some lusty glances and checks out his ass at least three times.)
So Mal allows himself to be talked into bringing Simon along (like he needed much convincing) because Simon can pose as a buyer and distract the foreman of the mud fields. Except after alerting the foreman to their presence, they all leave and go to the bar to meet Mal's contact. Shouldn't Simon have stayed at the mud fields and, you know, actually distracted the foreman? Mal and NotKessler seem so concerned about slipping their goods past the foreman, but I think someone "magically" pulling a coin out of his ear would have distracted him sufficiently. And why can't they move Serenity so that they don't have to bring the cargo through the mud fields? It's not like they landed in a port or something. It's just a field. Surely there are other fields. And why does Mal think that he has to arrange some Jayne Day celebration the following day to distract that oh so alert foreman? The town already seems plenty distracted by Jayne's presence when Mal makes that suggestion. Plus, it's nighttime. Which means it's dark. Which provides cover for criminal activities. Mal is the WORST. THIEF. EVER. The thieving is obviously not important to the plot of this episode. We don't even know what the cargo is. So stop pretending like we should care, writers.

OK, and how did the mudders know who Jayne was and that he dropped the money on the town? I mean, not only did they know his name, which is a stretch if he just came to the moon to rob the magistrate, but they were able to make a statue that's a pretty good likeness of him. Was Jayne, like, passing out his school picture at lunchtime before he stole the money?

Book and River have an utterly inconsequential subplot that involves Book explaining that the Bible:

It's not about making sense. It's about believing in something and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It's about faith. You don't fix faith, River. It fixes you.

What? Faith is believing in something that you don't think can actually be true? Wow. Book is the WORST. PREACHER. EVER. River screaming and running away from Book's hair is too ridiculous for me to find it anything but silly. However, I do like when River says that even if Book puts his hair away, "It'll still be there...waiting." I understand, honey. I feel the same way whenever I know that Book is going to be in an episode. It makes me want to hide in the cargo bay too.

Inara has the sex in this episode, which means that she can be helpful. She uses her feminine wiles, which I think means she asked, to get Fess to release the landlock on Serenity. I don't understand how that landlock works, but I'll just leave it alone at this point. Inara also gets to deliver some nonsensical words of wisdom when she tells Fess that, "A man is just a boy who's old enough to ask [if he is a man]." Um, OK. WORST. SPACE HOOKER. EVER. No, I'm kidding. I'm sure she's a fantastic space hooker.

Choked on his own vomit

I actually had a conversation at work today about famous people who died from choking on their own vomit, which I think officially qualifies my week to be described as vomit-themed.

Tommy Dorsey

Bon Scott

John Bonham

Jimi Hendrix

I feel badly for these chaps whose cause of death is listed as "vomit inhalation" because it's kind of a funny-tragic way to go. Like Sherwood Anderson dying from peritonitis after accidentally ingesting part of a toothpick, choking on your own vomit sounds like such a stupid way to die, but I can't help but snigger a little when I hear it. I also snigger at this bit from This Is Spinal Tap.

Marty: What happened to Stumpy Joe?
Derek: Well, uh, it's not a very pleasant story..but, uh,
David: He's passed on.
Derek: He died. Uh...he choked on..the ac- the official explanation
was he choked on vomit.
Nigel: It was actually, was actually someone else's vomit.
Derek: You know they can't prove whose vomit it was...they don't
have the facilities at Scotland Yard....
Nigel: You can't really dust for vomit.

Ginger Crush: Carol Burnett

I could attempt to describe all of the reasons I love Carol Burnett – her talent, her humor, for being a trail blazer for female comedians and, indeed, all female performers – but I think this quotation demonstrates the greatness of Ms. Burnett better than I ever could:

The weirdest [question] I think I ever got was from a woman in Texas...and she said, 'If you could be a member of the opposite sex for 24 hours and then be able to pop back into being yourself, who would you be and what would you do?'

I said I'd be Osama bin Laden and I would kill myself.

James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’ (1997)

I watched Titanic on TNT this weekend. I hadn’t seen the film since its release when I believe I saw it something like 4 or 5 times in the theater. What can I say? I was 14 and Leonardo DiCaprio was, like, so hot. I was looking forward to watching Titanic again with some distance from all of the hoopla surrounding its release. With anything that receives as much attention and public affection like Titanic, inevitably a reciprocal wave of disdain and criticism will follow. The shiny gloss of Leo’s pretty face has worn off a little and time and experience have made Titanic’s flaws more pronounced, but ultimately I come away from the film thinking that James Cameron crafted a good film.

Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio are immensely appealing as Rose and Jack, the star-crossed lovers whose romance forms the backbone of the film. Despite some of the preposterous dialogue that Cameron gives them, both Winslet and DiCaprio manage to create very human, engaging characters, whom the audience never stops caring about. They have a playful, affectionate rapport that's delightful to watch. But as much as I adore Kate Winslet, I still don't understand why she received an Oscar nod for this performance. She is excellent here, as she is excellent in all her films, but Rose DeWitt-Bukater doesn't stand out like Clementine Kruczynski, Marianne Dashwood, or even Juliet Hulme do.

Visually, of course, Titanic is stunning. Cameron did not stretch too far beyond his means in creating these special effects: these are good effects that hold up over a decade later. And of course the costumes, set and prop design are impeccable. The script…well. The script could use some help. The dialogue is…not impressive and descends into schmaltz several times. There is a lot of repetition and calling of characters’ names, which suggests that Cameron couldn’t think of anything more interesting for them to say. Cameron does an excellent job of giving the audience characters to latch onto and care about, but the romance between Rose and Jack is anything but unique. Theirs is a typical slightly unbelievable movie romance, but I’m inclined to be forgiving of Cameron’s use of a hackneyed vehicle. Everyone who sees this film knows the rather depressing ending -- the romance manages to serve as a little bit of fantasy and escape. Also, given that the audience has a “foreknowledge” of the film’s outcome, Cameron does a phenomenal job of creating dramatic tension.

Titanic represents a rather unique entry on James Cameron's resume. It's more of a romance with a heavy splash of adventure than a true action flick like True Lies, and no science fiction devices, like robots or aliens, pursue our heroes as they do in the Terminator movies, The Abyss, and Aliens. However, consider this speech Kyle Reese gives in The Terminator:

It can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop...

That description of the T-1000 is easily applicable to the titular antagonists in Aliens, the strange, aquatic creature in The Abyss, and the rising, arctic water in this film. Cameron obviously loves a good ruthless villain, and here he expertly turns water into a sinister entity through the effective use of lighting in particular.

Cameron has helped create some strong female leads in the past, such as Ripley in Aliens and Sarah Conner in Terminator 2, but his last couple of leading women have been more “spunky” than empowered. Rose does survive Titanic while Jack dies, but he dies "acting like a man" and the audience is left with the distinct impression that Rose would not have survived if Jack had not been present. Well, that's probably not true. Had she never met Jack, Rose probably would have been on the lifeboat with her mother, but that would have made for a dull movie. Of course, given their backgrounds it's realistic that Jack would know more about dealing with a boat sinking into freezing water, but I don't have to like how often Rose imploringly and almost, dare I say, helplessly calls out Jack's name as the boat sinks. Rose does get her chance to save Jack when she frees him from being handcuffed to the ship, but Rose saving Jack becomes a humorous situation and it's luck that she doesn't seriously wound him instead. I'm probably being a heartless cynic, but Rose taking Jack's name to hide from Hockley after the ship sinks just bugs me. Rose rejects Hockley because he subjugated her, but by taking Jack’s name she effectively subsumes her identity under his, so I don't know if that situation is much better. Even though he's dead, Rose is only able to achieve any sense of empowerment by latching onto a man.

Originally posted 11/27/2006; updated 6/15/2009

Sydney Pollack's 'Three Days of the Condor' (1975)

Though I didn't know it when I saw the 1996 action thriller, the plot of Brian De Palma's filmic interpretation of Mission: Impossible borrows quite a bit from Three Days of the Condor. In Condor, CIA employee Joe Turner finds himself running for his life after all of his colleagues are killed while he is literally out to lunch. The head of his department tries to shoot him at the rendezvous to "bring him in" for safekeeping, so Turner wounds him and goes on the run. Turner then becomes the prime suspect for the murders of his coworkers, just like his Mission: Impossible counterpart Ethan Hunt. There's even a similar call made from a phone booth when Turner and Ethan discover that all of their colleagues have been killed.

But while Turner may work for the CIA, he's not a spy like Ethan. His job seems to consist of reading and analyzing everything that's printed, looking for leaked information about CIA operations that has been coded into the text. He served in the military, as most 30ish men in the 1970s had, but he doesn't possess any particular training in self-defense, technology, or weaponry. All his knowledge of evasive tactics has come from reading books. So where M:I is about spectacle, Condor is about strategy. And the quieter approach of the earlier film allows for more character development. Turner never intended to enter this world of assassins and spies that he finds himself in, and he doesn't have the skills to go mano a mano with the professional killer who hunts him. While he starts out all open-faced and trusting, Turner gradually hardens as he struggles to stay alive and discover why he has been targeted.

Turner hardens to the point of becoming something of an anti-hero in the middle of the film when he kidnaps a young woman named Kathy so that he can use her apartment as a safehouse. While I never thought that he wanted or intended to hurt Kathy, Turner does treat her roughly, maybe more roughly than necessary, and she is frightened by him. But then she suddenly develops Stockholm syndrome, and they sleep together. (The intercutting between the sex and Kathy's photographs makes this scene my least favorite for another reason.) To screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr.'s credit, he attempts to make Kathy sleeping with Turner a character moment for her, but it's handled awkwardly. The conversation between Kathy and her "friend," and the fact that she never calls him her boyfriend, reveals that she has trouble following through on her commitments and maybe even has commitment issues. This set-up allows Turner's statement about his appealing to her because of his probable short future to land to a certain extent. But then Kathy goes from implying that he might still rape her, to being annoyed that Turner tied her up while he was gone, to being confronted by Turner's insight into her psyche, to sleeping with him in the span of one disjointed scene. Robert Redford and Faye Dunaway try to sell it as best they can, but I just don't buy it. I do like that the following morning both Turner and Kathy feel weird about the sex, and Kathy gets that awesome "spy fucker" line. But then she wants to help Turner and acts all cocky at her sit-down with Higgins, and it's strange again. I like Kathy, and I like Dunaway in the role, but I think her characterization is rocky.

I'm not sure if the character was significant in 1975, but I find Janice to be a refreshing portrayal of an Asian character. She doesn't speak with an accent or practice martial arts or work in a dry cleaners. Yes, her job is kind of bookish, but Janice is portrayed as stylish, attractive, and socially competent rather than nerdy. Too bad she dies.

Three Days of the Condor is a political thriller with a healthy dose of paranoia aimed at the government, making it very much a product of its era, namely the Watergate scandal. But the film has aged surprisingly well with perhaps the exception of some of Dave Grusin's score. All the spy stuff still seems plausible and not too hokey. The ending also feels vaguely prophetic of this country's current predicament, which makes Condor an engrossing watch for modern audiences despite the minor wear and tear along its edges.

'Firefly': "Our Mrs. Reynolds"

I wish that I liked this episode more because without "Our Mrs. Reynolds" there couldn't be "Trash," which is one of my favorite episodes of the series. And while this episode is definitely one of the better ones, I just can't get behind the conceit of the plot. I struggle to believe that goons who run a chop shop would go through the trouble of hiring a thief to go undercover in a colony, wait for a passing spaceship to come through, and arrange to marry someone on said ship just to get on board. It's too convoluted. Why not go to a port like Persephone and pay for passage on a ship like Simon and Book did? They wouldn't even have to stow away because the ships invite people to come aboard. Seems much easier. I would like this episode 35% more if Joss had not implied that Saffron was working for the seedy guys. Instead she could have sent Serenity toward them because she happened to know about the chop shop, which could have been accomplished by the deletion of two lines. In fact, you don't even need to have any scenes with the chop shop guys because Book explains what the sparkly Ring O' Death is, and removing their scenes would avoid this really stupid exchange:

"It's a wreck."
"No, no. This is good."
"It's parts. A lot of cheap parts we'll never unload."
"This is why you'll never be in charge, Breed. You don't see the whole. The parts are crap –"
"I said exactly that –"
"– but you put 'em together, you got a firefly."

...Yes. The parts of a firefly do make a firefly. But it's already assembled, see? You shouldn't take apart the ship and put it back together again. That's just creating a lot of extra work for yourself.

I'm also bothered by this episode because Mal is charged with giving lectures about feminism to Saffron and Jayne. Mal who regularly degrades Inara by calling her a "whore," who doesn't respect the boundaries Inara sets regarding her personal space, and whose female crew members, and just the female members, call him "sir" deferentially. I also dislike that one of his feminist tirades goes from, "She's not to be bought. Nor bartered, nor borrowed or lent," which is fine although overly didactic, to, "She's a human woman, doesn't know a damn thing about the world and needs our protection." I know it's not Joss' intention, but it reads like because Saffron is a woman she is clueless and defenseless. I'm not saying that Mal is an out-and-out chauvinist, but as I have previously noted he enforces patriarchy, so schooling Saffron on feminist thought should not be left to him. The situation also reads like women can only achieve empowerment through men or by men's permission.

The argument between Wash and Zoe is stupid. I hate that Zoe, one of the most level-headed people on the ship, suddenly becomes jealous about something petty, and that her jealousy is assuaged when Wash doesn't kiss Saffron like Mal does. ...Because faithfulness is something to be rewarded rather than expected from our partners.

Also, shut it, Book. Where's Simon and River?

Because Joss Whedon wrote this episode, some of the dialogue may be snappy, but the plotline is pretty weak. The rising action doesn't happen until 20 minutes into the episode when the chop shop is revealed (Jayne "threatening" Mal doesn't count because who actually bought that misdirection?), and the main piece of the plot doesn't start until 25 minutes in when Saffron drugs Mal. Then the end feels completely rushed when it cuts from Kaylee fixing the ship's navigation controls to finding Saffron on some planet where it's winter.

Finally, stuff I do like. I like Christina Hendricks, though I don't think she gets to be as awesome here as she does in "Trash." That welding strip she uses to seal the doors to the bridge is also neat. It's nice to see Zoe get to display more colors of emotion, and Gina Torres shows that she can do line deliveries besides deadpan. Morena Baccarin cracks me up with her "You stupid son-of-a" fall and trying (poorly) to deflect suspicion that she kissed Mal. I wish she had had more opportunities to be this silly-funny instead of her usual dry-funny because she is very entertaining.

"I'm fine. I don't need to be examined. I'm comfy."

Noam Murro's 'Smart People' (2008)

"What's it like to be stupid?"
"What's it like sitting by yourself at lunch every day?"
"It sucks."

Smart People is a typical story of a curmudgeon who softens when he finds potential in a new relationship. Lawrence Wetherhold is a widowed English professor at Carnegie Mellon who is uninterested in his students, alienated from his kids, and in general a smug, pompous windbag. After suffering from a trauma-induced seizure, Lawrence reluctantly allows his adopted brother Chuck to move in with him and his daughter Vanessa because he cannot drive a car for six months due to the seizure. Vanessa has inherited her father's pretensions, which haven't ingratiated her to her schoolmates. She doesn't seem to have any friends or a very close relationship with her college-aged brother. Having assumed something of a caretaker role for her father since her mother's death, Vanessa constantly seeks his approval through academic achievement. Chuck befriends Vanessa and tries to loosen her up while Lawrence begins to date Janet, a former student of his whom he encountered when she treated him in the hospital.

I liked this movie better when it was called Wonder Boys and had likeable characters. Lawrence is so detestable that I have little interest in his redemption, and Vanessa is only slightly less loathsome. Such caustic characters work best in minor roles but can work as leads if they can generate laughs. Most of Smart People's comedy fails, which isn't surprising considering that two comedic attempts consist of showing Thomas Haden Church's naked butt. Vanessa's wonderfully hideous wardrobe gave me more laughs than any of the few acerbic one-liners Ellen Page manages to land.

Lawrence's storyline is completely stale and derivative (see the above-mentioned Wonder Boys as well as The Squid and the Whale), which contributes to my apathy for his character. Vanessa's arc is far more interesting and unique although, yes, a little creepy. Vanessa has taken on a "housewife" role for her father, and her jealousy of Janet borders on that of a lover scorned than a daughter neglected. And perhaps because she has something of an Electra complex, Vanessa makes a pass at Chuck when he simply pays attention to her and tries to be her friend. I find a girl whose ideas about sexual relationships have become screwed up to the point that she tries to make out with her uncle so much more interesting than another burned out professor. Had I written this movie, I would have made Vanessa the center of the film. Instead, her character arc feels incomplete.

I found the acting to be on the whole merely adequate. Dennis Quaid probably does more with the role than the script really requires, adopting the physicality of a man 10-20 years his senior to really accentuate how battered his wife's death has left Lawrence. Page is fine, but Vanessa is so underdeveloped that it's difficult for her to really shine. Sarah Jessica Parker finds herself in a similar situation and is pretty forgettable as the love interest. Church is very likeable as Chuck, despite the unfortunate facial hair, and he provides some low-key humor at times.

Smart People was billed as being "From the producer of Sideways," and those type of taglines always make me nervous. Producers aren't screenwriters or directors. The fact that they produce a good movie one year doesn't mean that any of the other films they produce will be at all similar. So don't expect a Sideways-caliber character study just because this film shares a producer and a supporting actor.

Genderfuck Crush: Catherine

"You said, 'I love you,' I said, 'Wait.' I was going to say, 'Take me,' you said, 'Go away.'"
– Catherine, 'Jules et Jim'

Although [Jules et Jim] is named for the men, its animating force is Catherine, a creature both utterly timeless...and forever changing...claiming for herself the reckless male freedoms that women have been traditionally denied. Time and again, she literally dresses herself in the garb of masculinity.

On paper, the mercurial Catherine seems an implausibly grandiose conception, a woman both giddy and tragic, protofeminist and male-dominated, driven by Eros and Thanatos, love and death. But as played by Jeanne Moreau, a pop-eyed siren with the ferocity of Bette Davis and the kitty-cat wiles of Tuesday Weld, Catherine becomes one of the modern movies’ triumphant characterizations—the anima as autocrat. Whether playing with vitriol or jumping into the Seine, she elevates capriciousness to an existential principle. When Jim says he understands her, she replies, “I don’t want to be understood.” And this is absolutely true. The movie lives in the shuddering distance between Catherine’s imperious, doomed physicality and the two men’s shifting perceptions of her, perceptions that rearrange but never destroy their glowing friendship.
– John Powers, "On 'Jules and Jim'"