Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014 Movie Releases (In Review)

I'm gonna go ahead and back-date this post for posterity (and so it's easier to find in later years). But by way of explanation, I've been busy, stressed, and even a little bit sick over the holidays, so my year end festivities are running a couple weeks late. Looking back, I saw a lot of new movies in 2013. Here is a list of the new movies I saw in 2014:

In March, I saw Divergent, which is a Hunger Games-like sci-fi dystopia that I rather enjoyed. I'm looking forward to seeing the second part of the trilogy, which I think is coming out this spring.

In June came the release of Maleficent, which I saw more for Elle Fanning's portrayal of a Disney Princess than Angelina Jolie's celebrated performance as the titular villain from Sleeping Beauty. The movie was alright, though I felt that in making Maleficent sympathetic, they really removed her fangs, and destroyed what made her such an iconic character in the first place.

July was the month for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which I went to see after catching up on the first movie, that I had originally missed during its theatrical run. It was very good. I'm excited to see where the story goes in future installments of the series.

I also got to see Snowpiercer, albeit at home, which saw a wide release in this country this year. It was a fantastic sci-fi dystopia movie, more in the vein of 1984 and Brave New World than the "young adult fiction" adaptations (e.g., The Hunger Games, Divergent) that are popular these days. It's tied with Interstellar as my vote for the best new movie I watched this year.

Speaking of which, Interstellar came out in November - an epic, sci-fi tour de force that marks Christopher Nolan's next big project after concluding The Dark Knight trilogy. It stands on the shoulders of Stanley Kubrick's cult classic 2001: A Space Odyssey, and features incredible special effects, and speculative scientific themes involving the manipulation of relativistic spacetime, that this astrophysics geek just loved.

November also saw the release of the first part of the last part of The Hunger Games series, Mockingjay - Part 1. Despite being an adaptation of the first half of a book, meaning that there's less action and no satisfying conclusion (yet), it is on par with the excellent second installment of the saga, Catching Fire, which was so good. The only reason I'm not rating it one of the best movies of the year is because I voted Catching Fire the best movie of last year, and it seems more fair to spread the accolades around. It was still the only movie I saw twice in theaters this year (although I would have seen Interstellar a second time if it weren't so long). I am eagerly anticipating the final conclusion to this series.

Finally, we come to this year's Hobbit movie - The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Part 1). It's terrible that I saw this movie more out of a sense of duty than any kind of excitement. And I'm more than a little relieved that the series is over now (I was kidding about it being only part 1 :p). The Hobbit never should have been three movies. Even with the added stuff about the Necromancer and Dol Guldur, which largely turned out to be a disappointment (even if the supergroup battle between Elrond, Galadriel, Saruman, and Gandalf versus Sauron in this movie was pretty cool). It's not that The Hobbit is bad - as it shines in its best moments. It's just that it's so long and drawn out, and I feel that the machinery that made The Lord of the Rings a legitimate masterpiece has become so bloated and money-hungry that the material has begun to suffer from excess as a result. There are some good stories yet to be told from The Silmarillion, perhaps, but I think the world needs a cinematic break from Middle-Earth before anyone even considers tackling something like that.

Other newish movies I watched this year, at home, include Transcendence (starring Johnny Depp as a godlike AI), which was so-so; and a few I had missed in previous years, including You're Next, and Insidious: Chapter 2, both of which were pretty good. There was also All The Boys Love Mandy Lane, which came out only recently, despite being filmed all the way back in 2006. Ultimately, it wasn't very good, though.

There were a few movies that came out this past year that looked interesting, but I didn't get to see. I'm not going to bother listing them here. I'll either get around to watching them sometime in the future, or not. I don't really know what's coming out this year, or in the more distant future, except that I'm looking forward to future installments of series I've already begun (namely Divergent, The Hunger Games, and The Planet of the Apes). Oh, and of course there's the new Jurassic Park movie (Jurassic World), and the new Star Wars movie. I don't know when they're coming out, and there's no telling yet if they'll be any good, but I have to admit I'm a little bit excited about their potential. Only time will tell.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Angel (1999-2004)

Angel is the Millenium to Buffy The Vampire Slayer's The X-Files - it's a darker, more mature series with similar themes. In this case, it's not just loosely set in the same universe (remember that Frank Blank got his coda on a post-Millenium episode of The X-Files), but a direct spin-off. Angel (David Boreanaz) - the vampire whose soul was returned to him by a gypsy curse - leaves Sunnydale to seek redemption for the sins of his afterlife by helping innocents in Los Angeles, a city that is overrun with demons, while battling the literally evil law firm Wolfram & Hart, legal defense for all manner of underworld creatures.

I must admit that I was never as excited sitting down to watch an episode of Angel as I was for Buffy, and I may not have been invested in the characters as deeply (although I do like Angel - both his noble-if-at-times-bristly personality, and his quest for redemption), but it's a series that had some really good moments, and is required viewing for anything more than the casual Buffy fan. On the other hand, if you don't go in for the nerdy teen drama aspect of Buffy (though it's a very mature series in its own right), you might still be able to appreciate Angel for its more adult drama and more frequently somber tone.

Following is a more in-depth exploration of each of the series' five seasons. Beware: spoilers abound! I would recommend you not read the following sections until you've seen the corresponding seasons in their entirety.

Season One

Coming on the heels of the first three seasons of Buffy, Angel's first season doesn't feel as raw and unpolished as Buffy's first did, but the show does take its time finding its routine. This isn't helped by the premature departure of Angel's (part) demon sidekick, Doyle (Glenn Quinn), whose telepathic visions of people in danger inspires Angel's quest to help the helpless. Three of the show's main (and original) characters barely even figure into the story until the second or third seasons.

In the beginning, the show does feel kind of like a dumping ground for characters retired from Buffy, with Cordelia (Charisma Carpenter) showing up (and eventually inheriting Doyle's visions), and then Wesley (Alexis Denisof) (with all his demonological knowledge), who both become central characters in this series (inhabiting larger roles than they ever had on Buffy). Additionally, you have a number of one-off cross-over episodes with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, featuring characters such as Spike (when he was still evil), Oz, Buffy herself, and Faith (Eliza Dushku). The latter fits in well with this show's darker themes, and eventually follows in Angel's footsteps on the quest for redemption.

Season Two

Season two relocates Angel Investigations to their new offices in the Hyperion Hotel. It also introduces lovable and snarky empath demon Lorne (Andy Hallett) (who can read people's auras when they sing karaoke) - who gradually takes over Doyle's role as demon sidekick - and Charles Gunn (J. August Richards), amateur streetwise vampire slayer who gradually becomes a crucial member of Angel's team. It also wraps up the story arc involving police detective Kate Lockley (Elisabeth Röhm), and her conflicted connection with Angel. I was a little disappointed that she just dropped off the show, because I was hoping she would come work with Angel after she got kicked off the force.

The season's conflict is largely about Wolfram & Hart's resurrection of Darla (Julie Benz) - the vampire who sired Angel - in the first season's finale. Some of Angel's best moments are those that dig back into the history of the character, and the hijinks that he and Darla, Drusilla and Spike engaged in throughout previous centuries. Certainly, it's great seeing Drusilla (Juliet Landau) back in action, even if just briefly, and the same could be said of the flashback involving Buffy season one Big Bad, The Master (Mark Metcalf), who I really liked, and wished we could have seen more of in either of these two series.

But where I thought the season was building up to a huge, Darla-centric climax, it instead segues into an iffy three-parter that takes place in an alternate dimension (Lorne's home world). We do, however, get introduced to hot-to-trot Texas physicist Winifred "Fred" Burkle (Amy Acker), who will subsequently become another one of the main characters on the show. Darla's story arc, meanwhile, will reach its emotional conclusion in the middle of the next season.

Season Three

Season three is all about Angel's son (by way of Darla, via a mystical pregnancy, since vampires can't normally give birth), Connor (Vincent Kartheiser), and also ties in with an old villain, Holtz (Keith Szarabajka) who has been brought to the present by a demon. Holtz is an interesting case - and a brilliant choice for the series - because he was one of the victims of Angelus' sadistic brutality. So on the one hand, he's a good man who deserves his vengeance, but because he doesn't understand that Angel has reformed, Holtz is effectively an antagonist. It really brings out the theme of redemption, and forces Angel to look the repercussions of Angelus' acts square in the face.

Holtz wants Angel to suffer the pain of losing a child (as Angelus once inflicted on Holtz), so he kidnaps the infant Connor and raises him in a demon dimension where time flows much swifter than on Earth, so that Connor soon returns as a brooding (and battle-trained) adolescent, influenced by Holtz to hate his father. This culminates in a shocking season finale (and the most harrowing cliffhanger of the series) which finds Angel sealed in a coffin and dropped into the sea by his own son.

But in the meantime, spurred on by a dubious but alarming prophecy, Wesley betrays Angel in an attempt to save Connor. Angel doesn't forgive him, and he gets separated from the group, beginning his transformation into a much darker character. I have to say, the transformation suits him well, and though I enjoyed his antics as the goofy comedic relief, he's a much more fully fledged out character as a result of this dark turn.

Season Four

I have mixed feelings about season four. On the one hand, the show is at its most serial, with an involved plot unfolding over the entire season, without much in the way of filler, or "monsters of the week". It involves the coming apocalypse, spurred on by an intimidating demon referred to as The Beast (Vladimir Kulich, in fantastic makeup) (who at one point succeeds in blotting out the sun - at least over Los Angeles). All the main characters are present and the show is really in its groove. We even get to see Angel temporarily lose his soul and become Angelus again - in an excellent set of scenes that demonstrates Angelus' cruel genius, as he is able to sow discord and cause suffering through mere head games alone, while he is trapped within a cell.

But there's a large focus on the love triangle between Angel, Cordelia, and Connor. In the first place, I've always thought the development of feelings between Angel and Cordelia was kind of cheesy. I mean, it's the obvious choice, in terms of TV drama, but come on - Angel and Cordy? Granted, Cordy has evolved a great deal since her Sunnydale days, now half-demon, receiving visions from The Powers That Be. In the last season, it even looked like she was promoted to the level of Angel (the Heaven kind). I thought they were getting rid of her, and I was surprised but happy at this momentous turn of events. But it all turns out to be a trick.

As for Connor, I got sick of him pretty quick. I guess it shows my prejudice, since the moody teen was my favorite character on Buffy - when she was a girl (Dawn) - but here, it's a boy, and I simply find him annoying. Now, usually, I'd go in for the whole semi-incestuous, making-out-with-my-father's-girlfriend setup, but I guess I just don't care for the characters very much, so the heavy focus on Connor and Cordelia's development in this season counts against it.

Plus, The Beast ultimately turns out not to be The Big Bad, but just a lackey. The real head honcho is, puzzlingly, the Goddess Jasmine (Gina Torres), who desires only world peace. Although she wants to get it by way of turning mankind into pacifist slaves. Always with the show's grey areas. Of course, when Angel and the gang end up stopping this goddess, it's a perfect opportunity to emphasize the protagonists' increasingly ambiguous relationship with apocalypse-mongers Wolfram & Hart, which will be the theme of the next season.

Season Five

In the first season, Wolfram & Hart was a legitimate threat to Angel. It employed two excellent characters - rogue attorney Lindsay McDonald (Christian Kane), with ambiguous loyalties, and sly executive Holland Manners (Sam Anderson). But they both left the show in the second season, and their replacements left much to be desired. After the revelation that the "Home Office" is not Hell like you would think, but just Los Angeles - mindfuck as that is - and that Wolfram & Hart actually wants to keep Angel alive (to exploit him for their own plans), the firm pretty much loses its fangs.

Enter the brilliant twist in the final season - Angel and company are invited to take over the law firm. Much as they scoff at this invitation, they ultimately can't turn down the firm's resources, and resolve to try and change the company from within. Meanwhile, the firm, dancing on the strings of the mysterious "Senior Partners" (surely terrible demons, though we never get a satisfying look at them), similarly plans to corrupt Angel and company and wear down their righteous resolve by surrounding them with so much moral ambiguity. Plus, most of the clients and employees of the firm want to kill Angel, so it's a lot like a fly setting up shop in a spider web. Except that the fly is a seasoned exterminator.

It's an ingenious inversion of the show, and the first half of this season contains a number of clever and fun episodes, as the gang (and the audience) gets used to the new setup, before things start to get more tense, and the stakes get raised, in the second half. In addition to the triumphant and welcome return of Lindsay McDonald as a recurring character, this is also the season where Spike (James Marsters) (having been brought back as a ghost after sacrificing his life for the forces of good in the series final of Buffy The Vampire Slayer) joins the show as a regular character. The interplay between him and Angel - both vampires with a soul now, and both Champions for good; also, both former loves of Buffy - proves to be an abundant well of both humor and dramatic tension.

Additionally, I welcomed the return of Harmony (Mercedes McNab) in the role of Angel's secretary in this season. She's a minor character, but I thought she was a lot of fun when she was Spike's girlfriend on Buffy (before Spike turned good), and she kind of takes over the catty role that Cordelia filled, before she turned all "holy roller". Speaking of Cordelia, I welcomed her nearly total absence in this season (as well as that of Connor) - although she was great in the one episode in which she gets the chance to give her character a final send-off. I guess she's just better in small doses, after all. Same can be said of Connor.

As for the series' finale, I had been warned that the show ends prematurely, and my research verified that the creators had intended to keep the show going for at least one more season (if not even more than that). On the other hand, I think that the creators may have known the show would be ending before they filmed the finale, because the sendoff does have a certain welcome finality to it. There's more story to be told, perhaps (Angel never did get the reward for his redemption that we all thought was coming - although one of the themes in this season was that doing good deeds is its own reward, and that that's all there is to it), and while some characters meet their tragic end, others survive through to the bombastic climax.

But the cliffhanger where the show ends off is perfectly calculated - the survivors facing overwhelming odds in an unprecedented show of power by the Senior Partners, infuriated by the critical blow Angel and his friends have managed to strike against them. You could believe that these are the advancing forces of evil that Angel will finally be unable to defeat, and that this is where his story finally ends. But you could just as easily believe that Angel and his companions will find a way to surmount these odds, as they have in every harrowing situation so far. It's not the infuriating cliffhanger I was fearing (imagine if the show had been canceled after the third season's cliffhanger!). It's a fitting end to the series, given the circumstances, that both feels like a loving farewell to the TV series, while leaving the story open to continuation in other media (comics, for example).

Friday, December 5, 2014

Hanna (2011)

Hanna is a stylistic tour de force, with fantastic cinematography. A stunning Saoirse Ronan stars as the titular character - a girl raised by an ex-special operative (Eric Bana) in the Arctic wilderness to be a superhuman assassin. She's been training all her life to get revenge on the government agent that killed her mother (a chilling Cate Blanchett), and her coming of age means stepping out into a world she's a complete stranger to, in order to complete her mission.

The serious tone is tempered with some humorous and endearing scenes of social awkwardness on account of Hanna's upbringing, particularly those involving a likable family of tourists (centered around a hilarious Jessica Barden as a sassy teen). I could stare at the lovely Saoirse Ronan for hours, but the whole movie is filmed in gorgeous stylism, with some beautiful landscapes (from desert to winter wonderland). The plot's pretty straightforward, although there are some mild twists along the way, but this is a movie you watch for the journey, not the destination. It's cinema as art, and it's pure fun to watch.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Transcendence (2014)

On the eve of a breakthrough in research on artificial intelligence, an anti-technology terrorist group executes a fatal attack on scientist Will Caster (Johnny Depp). In an attempt to make the most out of a bad situation, Caster's wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), uploads Will's consciousness to create the first truly sentient AI. But upon connecting to the internet, his limitless power leaves humanity fearful for their fate in the hands of an ostensibly God-like being. Cillian Murphy and Kate Mara play an FBI agent and a terrorist leader (respectively), who team up with two of Will's more skeptical colleagues (Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman), in a last-ditch attempt to destroy Will before it's too late.

Transcendence is a movie with a lot of interesting ideas, but its execution ultimately feels a bit lackluster. Instead of a more nuanced exploration of how sentient AI could jump start humanity's evolution, we get a fast-track look at the seemingly God-like powers such a sentience might have (although there are some considerable leaps of scientific logic, even allowing for the inconceivable intelligence of a networked AI powered by countless quantum computers), and the all-or-nothing solution mankind comes up with as an alternative to handling too much evolutionary progress at once. Either the movie has a concerning technophobic slant, or else it's fairly misanthropic, as it presents mankind as its own greatest obstacle to reaching the next stage of evolution.

Granted, Will's intentions are ambiguous at best, but his positive contributions to technology are impossible to ignore. The movie refrains from propping him up as a mastermind supervillain (sacrificing its potential as a badass action flick in the process), largely letting the (not too sympathetic) terrorist group's uncountered argument on human independence and hive mind set him up as the antagonist that must be stopped. Yet at the same time, he must remain sympathetic, for all of the intriguing concepts that this movie brings up are placed on the back burner to focus instead on the love story at its center. But this strategy was far more effective in Interstellar (in the hands of a better director), and here just feels disappointing.

I know it's standard to maintain a human element when you go into the realm of science-fiction, but sometimes - and this movie demonstrates this well - our humanity gets in the way of progress. For example, one of the film's most clever insights is that human intelligence is irrational (true), and that certain feelings, like love, involve contradictions that an AI would be too logical to ever reconcile (not necessarily), but the film's foregone conclusion is that the illogical consciousness is inherently the superior one (false). Let me say this as a transhumanist - for a movie about transcending humanity, its most fatal flaw is that it fails to transcend.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)

Or, "Moves and Counter-Moves"

The first part of Mockingjay picks up where Catching Fire left off, and concerns itself with the introduction of District 13, the hidden district occupied by the rebels plotting against the Empire - er, Capitol - and with their efforts to use an emotionally devastated Katniss as the focus of a series of propaganda spots ("propos") to stir up the unrest taking hold all over Panem. I've read a lot of criticism of the filmmakers' decision to turn the last book of The Hunger Games trilogy into a two-parter movie deal, and believe me, I would have been the first person to criticize it if it weren't done for good reason. But I think it worked out perfectly well.

As a reader of the books, I had a pretty good idea of what to expect in the first half of Mockingjay - no more Hunger Games, lots of buildup, and probably not getting to the war on the Capitol just yet. Perhaps if I hadn't read the books I might have been more disappointed in the lack of "action", but as it was, I was very excited to see the parts that were depicted in this half of the story, and I thought it was very tense and emotional and set the stage very well for the ultimate conclusion to the story. I also felt like they picked a fine place to put the split.

Some of the overarching themes involve the rebels' use of Katniss almost as a tool for their propaganda, and the uncomfortable parallel of putting her in danger to enhance the emotional appeal of their propos, and the Hunger Games, which pits kids against each other for the Capitol's entertainment. Also, the tenuous connection between Katniss and Gale, and Katniss' newfound feelings for Peeta (that developed in the last movie) do a very good job, I think, at setting up the story's conclusion, in terms of romance (and not the fairy tale kind). Speaking of Peeta, the scene where he lets slip an important part of the Capitol's plans was terribly exciting!

My favorite parts of the movie probably revolved around the propos. On the one hand, I totally appreciated the value of making Katniss' feelings genuine, in order to create truly moving propaganda pieces. I like the idea - and this is developed more in the books, where the reader can get more inside of her head - that Katniss is not good at putting out a superficial image of being some kind of hero, but that what makes people look up to her is the fierce righteousness inside of her, which is spontaneous and cannot be ordered around.

On the other side, I felt that President Snow's reactions and counter-reactions to the propos and the rebels' attacks were also intelligent and compelling. Especially in the end of this first part, concerning (spoilers ahead!) the rebels' attempt at rescuing Peeta from the Capitol, and how expertly Snow turned that act so totally against them. This is a minor quibble, but I thought the movie could have ended on a far more incendiary cliffhanger if they had cut out after Peeta got knocked out trying to strangle Katniss, and then switched to a final propo from the Capitol featuring Katniss' recorded desperate confession of defeat.

(End spoilers)

All in all, I thought it was an exciting movie, completely on par with the quality of Catching Fire. It's too bad the first movie wasn't as good, but it's clear that bringing director Francis Lawrence on board was a good move. I have every confidence that the final installment will hold up to the standard of quality we've now come to expect in this series, and I can't wait to see the exciting conclusion!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Europa Report (2013)

Europa Report is thematically similar to Apollo 18, in that it is about a manned space mission that discovers signs of extraterrestrial life. It is even, technically, a found footage film, although it doesn't really feel like one. It has more of a documentarian spin, with more mounted cameras than handheld ones. As such, it feels more polished, and I think that even those who don't like found footage films should be able to appreciate it. It's really more of a traditional sci-fi space voyage film, and it's a pretty good one - considerably better, I think, than Apollo 18.

In this movie, a six-man crew is en route to Europa, one of the moons of Jupiter, in the hope of finding signs of life in the subterranean oceans under thick surface layers of ice. But, as typical in films like these, some things go wrong during the voyage, lives are lost, and what the crew finds on Europa ultimately exceeds all expectations. For better and worse. The revelation of those findings are even less prominent than they were in Apollo 18, but on the other hand, I found them to be more satisfying in this movie. The drama, as well, was much more effective. Europa Report doesn't have the sheer titan force of a movie like the recent Interstellar, but I'd say it's a pretty good example of its genre.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Apollo 18 (2011)

Apollo 18 is the biggest conspiracy theory since the faking of the moon landing. This found footage film documents NASA's "real" last manned voyage to the moon, which had been kept top secret due to what the astronauts found there. It's a brilliant premise, although I don't think it quite lived up to my expectations, and a lot of that may be due to its clever but ultimately less than compelling interpretation of extraterrestrial life. A lot of reviewers mention the copious plot holes, but I was mostly able to overlook them. The movie succeeds in creating a tense atmosphere, and there is some good mystery involved, even if the film doesn't deliver on its potential - this could have been an excellent "Lovecraft in space" story. It's not a really great film, by any standards, but I don't think it's as bad as it's been given credit for, either. Certainly, it's a unique setting for a found footage film, and if you like films like these, it's worth a watch.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Alien Abduction (2014)

Ever since Alien Abduction: Incident in Lake County (and, probably, the annual X-Files marathons of my youth), I've associated Thanksgiving with alien abductions. So I like to cap my usual October horror movie marathon with an alien abduction movie or two sometime in November. I was concerned that the indiscreetly named Alien Abduction might be just another cheap, low-budget horror film capitalizing on what many consider to be a patently ridiculous premise, but, to my pleasure, Alien Abduction is a true found footage film in the vein of The Blair Witch Project.

It's based on a real life local superstition - the Brown Mountain Lights of North Carolina - and the film proper is bookended by interviews with locals, eyewitnesses, and alleged professionals which could - as far as I can tell - actually be real. The movie seems like a respectful homage to the local legend, in the form of the dramatization of a family's disappearance in the mountains during a camping trip. Though any critical viewing of the film (by anyone older than, say, 11) will reveal it to be an obvious fake, the film takes itself pretty seriously, and while acknowledging the leap of faith required to believe in alien abduction, presents the events depicted as a straight-faced "what if?" - because, after all, we can't be entirely sure.

The acting is not flawless - right from the start, the family members are all way too attractive, try too hard to be clever (and, weirdly, just a little bit sexist), and their emotional reactions when the shit starts to hit the fan are at times obviously dramatized - but looking back, the acting in Incident in Lake County wasn't that spectacular either. The settings are beautiful - reminiscent of my own experiences camping in the Appalachian mountains. And the mountain man that turns up has a very convincing accent (I say that as someone who's spent some time living in West Virginia).

But first and foremost, this is a found footage film on the subject of alien abduction - and though it may not be perfect, it's probably as good as any one I've seen yet. It definitely delivers the goods (which is a problem for a lot of found footage movies, The Blair Witch Project included), and even manages to work in some footage on board the alien spacecraft (I don't think this is really a spoiler, since the movie opens with this footage), which is something that is lacking in certain other alien abduction movies, and that I would rate as necessary for a perfect adaptation of the theme. I would definitely include it in any alien abduction movie marathon, alongside other classics of the subgenre.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Interstellar (2014)

I think it's safe to say that Christopher Nolan is the "it" director of this generation. He's every bit on par with the likes of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and can even surpass arthouse favorites like Stanley Kubrick. Following in the footsteps of Inception and The Dark Knight trilogy - both cinematic tours de force that are emotional, entertaining, and thought-provoking, and totally worth seeing in the theater - comes his latest, the dramatic sci-fi powerhouse Interstellar. You don't need to have a degree in physics to appreciate it, but scientists with imagination will find lots to love.

In a doomed near-future, the Earth is dying, and mankind's last hope for survival is a trip through a mysterious wormhole orbiting Saturn (conveniently placed there by an unknown intelligence). On the other side is a handful of planets in the vicinity of a supermassive black hole, that may or may not be conducive to human life. The big-ticket items on display include the space voyage theatrics (with a good mix of vacuum tension and extraterrestrial geography), and an exploration of such grand physics themes as relativistic dynamics, time dilation, black holes, wormholes, tesseracts, higher dimensions, etc.

However, the heart of this story is the very human tale of a father (Matthew McConaughey) having to leave behind his daughter (a tragically charming Mackenzie Foy/Jessica Chastain as an adult), on the slim hope of saving the human race, which left me weeping crocodile tears. Also starring is Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway as a father-daughter pair working for NASA, and John Lithgow as yet another crotchety old man (recalling, for me, both Kinsey and Rise of the Planet of the Apes). Some of the film's dissertations on love as pertains its scientific validity approach the level of hokey pseudo-science, but mostly it serves to keep the story grounded in human pathos, which is balanced expertly alongside the imaginatively speculative science.

Nolan is obviously a huge fan of 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Interstellar plays like a loving ode to that flawed classic, with its long run time, and its segments devoted to 1) activities on Earth leading up to 2) a great space voyage, ultimately culminating in 3) some pretty weird shit involving the universe and higher dimensions (no spoilers beyond that). 2001 succeeds in its idiosyncratic prologue depicting the birth of paleo-human intelligence, and in what would have made a great sci-fi/horror movie on its own: the betrayal of the artificial intelligence HAL 9000.

But where A Space Odyssey faltered - particularly in keeping the audience interested over its almost three hours, and its indecipherable ending - Interstellar shines. I feel like Interstellar is the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey needed to be. It's much more accessible, and ultimately more rewarding, with a more cohesive story. I hope it wins some awards - not that I usually care about that, since it's all a big popularity contest, but Interstellar deserves it. And you should definitely get out there and see it. It's worth it. It's the best new movie I've seen in a while, on par with Snowpiercer, which was fantastic, better even than Prometheus, once you strip away the Alien fan appeal, and able to hold its own when matched against Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and its sequel).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Pickman's Muse (2010)

Pickman's Muse isn't so much a straight adaptation of an H.P. Lovecraft story as it is an amalgam of Lovecraftian themes, although it borrows heavily from two stories - Pickman's Model, and The Haunter of the Dark. The former is a compelling but not very long or complex story about a painter who recreates horrific visions on the canvas with a realism that casts doubt on their origins purely within the realm of imagination. The latter is a story of a man who becomes obsessed with an abandoned church where he finds a device to summon an evil creature of darkness into the world that can't stand the light.

Pickman's Muse is frustrating because it does some things very right, and others very wrong. It creates a good atmosphere, and does a good job of describing (and depicting) the psychological effects of coming into contact with one of Lovecraft's cosmic horrors. On the other hand, talking about horrible paintings and not being able to see them works much better in the written format, as staring at the back of a canvas for most of the movie is rather disappointing. Even at a short eighty minutes, the movie still manages to drag a bit, as there is not a lot of action. But the movie's worst crime is its distractingly amateurish acting, which contributes to an overall feeling of cheapness to the production.

It's too bad, really, because this adaptation seems intent on really evoking the horror of a Lovecraft story, in a way that feels more successful than a lot of Lovecraft adaptations I've seen so far. Considering Lovecraft's reputation, and the fact that he was such a gifted and inspired writer of the macabre, it's a shame that there aren't more big-budget, faithful adaptations of his stories. (There appear to be more than enough cheapies of dubitable quality). But, like Silent Hill, I imagine it might be true that the best Lovecraftian movies out there aren't adaptations of his stories, but loosely inspired or altogether unrelated tales that nevertheless evoke the same themes that Lovecraft's stories thrive on. Finding them, though, could be difficult.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Prophecy (1995)

The Prophecy is a fun little suspense thriller with biblical themes. The plot involves a prophecy about a dark soul - in the host of a human - that will turn the tides in the second war of angels (the first being the one that resulted in the casting of Lucifer out of Heaven; this one motivated by jealousy for God's favoritism towards humans). One could be forgiven for making comparisons to Constantine, but this movie involves less hell and demons. Although Lucifer does make an appearance (in a compelling portrayal by Viggo Mortensen), the emphasis is on the ambiguous morality of the angel Gabriel (an ever-theatrical Christopher Walken), his adversary Simon (a charismatic Eric Stoltz), and the humans who get in the way (an ex-priest police detective, a small town school teacher, and an innocent little girl). The story is not airtight, and the religious morals (particularly re: faith) that dominate the conclusion fall somewhat short, but otherwise this is a very good movie.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Black Rock (2012)

Black Rock is a pretty straightforward movie, but it's very good at what it does. Three women return to the island where they used to camp as children, but things go south when a group of men show up, and it turns into a rugged fight for survival. This movie, directed by a woman (Katie Aselton, who also stars, alongside Lake Bell and Kate Bosworth), is very much in the vein of Wilderness Survival For Girls. It may not be quite as thought-provoking, but it's a good depiction of sisterhood. In fact, one of its best features is the very natural-feeling interactions between the three women. Two of them are estranged, but will have to put aside their differences in order to survive the threat that stalks them in the woods.

This theme reaches its climax in a naked nighttime huddling scene, which doesn't feel gratuitous at all. I applaud the filmmakers for not shying away from nudity where it has a very logical place in the story, although I was still disappointed when the clothes magically came back as soon as the sun came up. Rarely does a film provide an opportunity to confront our nudity taboo in a pervasive way, short of arbitrarily designating certain characters as nudists (and if I was a film director...). This movie had that opportunity, and while it took two steps in that direction, that's as far as it went. Though in fairness, I'd have a hard time imagining many other viewers (beside myself) who would consider that a serious flaw (or even much of a flaw at all).

In any case, it's a very good movie, with great acting and a decent script (which really shines in the spontaneous interactions between the characters), that feels very polished, and has a tense atmosphere once things take a turn for the worse. I recommend it, especially if you like movies about women being put in situations where they must find their inner strength to survive.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Absentia (2011)

Absentia appears to be an independent film funded through Kickstarter, so it's remarkable that it's as good as it is. The synopsis I read on Netflix made it sound like a run-of-the-mill abduction/torture movie, but it's much more sophisticated than that.

The story starts seven years after a woman's husband went missing. The time has come to declare her husband "dead in absentia" and move on with her life. Her little sister (a rehabilitated drug addict) shows up to help her move. She's gotten pregnant by another man. But her guilt seems to be manifesting in morbid visions of her absent husband.

The film starts like it's going to be some kind of Lifetime drama, but I guess the horror is all the more palpable as a result. The camera's eye and the ambient music work together to produce an at times surprisingly unsettling atmosphere (like that first jog through a tunnel that feels unnaturally claustrophobic, even before anything weird has happened). This is a movie that understands how to make the audience tense, and to create effective "jump scares" that actually contribute to the atmosphere, and don't feel cheap or rely on shrieking sound effects.

The acting isn't so bad, even if the sisters' rapport does feel awkward and forced, especially early on. And the writing is actually pretty clever, dealing with the human tendency to want to pull up one's roots and run away, and the rationalizations people make when a loved one unexpectedly disappears. There's a good bit of mystery involved with the story, and even when the supernatural and mythological elements appear, there's enough uncertainty to leave the characters (and perhaps the audience, too) guessing at what to truly believe.

The monster (which may or may not be the product of a drug-fueled hallucination) never gets its final reveal, but that just goes to show that this is a more subtle kind of horror, not one that's all in-your-face and overly reliant on gore fx. I give it a solid recommendation.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Galaxy of Terror (1981)

I have read that Galaxy of Terror was the Roger Corman production on which James Cameron got his first experience working as a film director. That would explain the early atmosphere in this movie being reminiscent of early scenes in Aliens, which would come out five years later. But though this movie starts out feeling like another Alien clone, unlike Creature it seems intent on ultimately telling its own, original story, much to its credit.

Rather than simply being a space exploration horror like Alien was, Galaxy of Terror brings in some decidedly sci-fi/fantasy elements, like psychic powers and laser blasters. These seem almost thrown in just for the hell of it, until you find out at the end that they actually play an important role in the plot. Still, though this movie has a pretty compelling story to tell, it seems largely wasted on too much time wandering about dark tunnels, and not enough time constructing the world and its rules.

As such, it feels kind of stuck between being a horror and a sci-fi movie, as if it couldn't decide which to go with, or wanted the best of both worlds but wasn't certain how to combine them. Nevertheless - and in spite of still feeling like a b movie - it's much better than Creature was. The monsters are varied and creepy, and the sets are very engrossing - much of the movie consists of exploring a large and seemingly abandoned alien infrastructure.

Being a Roger Corman production, a little bit of nudity is expected, though it's curious (and not a little bit concerning) that it appears during what amounts to a rape scene involving a giant space worm. I can dig kinky stuff, though, and if you can get past the disturbing implications of the scene, it's actually filmed pretty erotically. Obviously it's not explicit, and it's not a very long scene, but as far as twisted fantasy sex scenes in movies go, it's worth seeing if you're into that kind of thing.

The cast also features some memorable names, including a young Robert Englund (who would become the face of Freddy Krueger in just a few short years), Ray Walston (who had a long career in acting, going back to the 1950s), and Grace Zabriskie (who played Mrs. Ross, the mother of George's girlfriend, on Seinfeld). Galaxy of Terror doesn't have the polish or the sophistication of an 'a' movie, but if you don't mind 'b' fare, you could do a lot worse than this.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Seven)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the seventh season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the seventh season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season seven is all about passing the Slayer torch to the next generation, and as such, is an excellent season to end the series on. It begins with Dawn entering high school - the newly rebuilt Sunnydale high school - and finally being taken seriously as an ally in the war on evil (which is awesome, but a real strain on my screencapping impulse...). She even starts out getting vampire slaying lessons from Buffy, although she totally gets shafted later on in the season when she gets passed up for the potential Slayers and resumes her background status (though it does make for a great tearjerker of a scene between her and Xander in the episode Potential).

The episode Conversations With Dead People is one of the highlights of this season, and also introduces the latest Big Bad. This time, rather than a vampire or a demon - or even a god - it's the first evil (a.k.a. "The First"), or evil itself, which can only manifest in the incorporeal form of a person who has died. This is also a sneaky way to bring back some crowd favorite characters - especially villains who have been killed in past seasons - even if just for short cameos in this final season of the show.

In addition to its psychological warfare, the First also utilizes two prominent corporeal entities - one being a race of "ubervamps", the paleolithic ancestors of modern vampires. The design is partly reminiscent of the Master from the first season (but without the human intellect), and also probably heavily inspired by the look of Nosferatu. The first one that shows up is suitably badass, although by the end of the season they sadly begin to be treated as cannon fodder. The other agent of the First is a badass preacher named Caleb (Nathan Fillion), whose overbearingly misogynistic ramblings serve as a counterpoint to the final conclusion of the series.

The First's plan is to wipe out the Slayer line once and for all, and it utterly destroys the Watchers Council in the process. It also sends an army of "Bringers" to hunt down and kill all of the potential Slayers that haven't been activated, and so the surviving ones (led by Giles) seek out Buffy (the chosen Slayer) for sanctuary. Buffy makes a lot of dubious decisions of an anti-authority bent in this season, including turning down a power enhancement from the men who initiated the Slayer line, and even alienating Giles (whom she was afraid she couldn't get by without, just last season). It's only at the end of the season that the point of all these decisions becomes clear.

Caleb (inexplicably, and not too smartly) clues Buffy in to the existence of a super slaying weapon (part axe, part stake, all awesome) that was built by a Goddess and kept secret from the patriarchal order of the Watchers. In the finale, she gets Willow to cast a spell (which finally opens her up to white magic) on the weapon, which has the effect of essentially changing the rules about how Slayers work. Instead of one Slayer being born to every generation, now every potential Slayer will have the powers of the chosen one. It skirts dangerously close to overly saccharine feminist pandering, but who can argue with a message as empowering as that?

Other developments in this final season include Anya's reconciliation with the group, after returning to her vengeance demon ways as a result of being left by Xander at the altar. A new character is introduced in the form of Sunnydale High's new Principal Robin Wood (D. B. Woodside), a uniquely charismatic authority figure with mysterious loyalties. A newly-reformed Faith also returns in the latter part of the season, to get in on all the Slayer action. And then there's Spike, who now has a soul. His madness at the beginning of the season was expertly handled, even if it ultimately proves to be more of the First's influence, than that of his newfound conscience.

As great a villain as Spike makes, it's kind of nice to finally see him as a nice, upstanding sort of person - the kind you can get behind. Of course, seeing Buffy's confidence in his goodness is inspiring, too. It's kind of a bummer that he dies in the finale, thanks to a deus ex machina Angel brings in at the eleventh hour, although he finally got redemption in the end, dying in a noble way, and it does kind of leave room in fan's imaginations for Buffy and Angel to maybe get back together again sometime in the indeterminate future...

There were some fun one-off episodes this season, such as Him, in which Dawn and the rest of the girls fall under the influence of a jock with a love spell (although I call it the "slut-shaming episode", for what Buffy says to Dawn, I still like it since Dawn is at her downright sexiest), and Storyteller, where Andrew (Tom Lenk) gets to shine. Did I mention that Andrew (the most forgettable of the nerd trio from the last season) returns and [slowly] earns his redemption among the Buffy gang? I ended up liking Andrew; he's a funny character, and I'm glad that he turned out to be not really evil when everything is all said and done.

On the other hand, much of this season ditches the heavily episodic, monster-of-the-week format - which the primitive first season relied so heavily on - opting instead for a heavy focus on the unfolding events related to the main conflict (and with the gang centralized in Buffy's house this season), thus completing its evolution to a mature, fully-realized serial drama. There's barely any room for "filler" here, and what filler there is, is clever and entertaining.

All in all, it's a fitting ending to the series (although I find myself curious enough to turn my eye toward the [canonical!] continuation of the series in comic book format). It was exciting to see Sunnydale completely destroyed at the end of the season, although with all the emphasis on the Hellmouth, I was disappointed that we did not see the tentacle monster we saw in the first season again. Still, it closed on a nice, uplifting shot of all the survivors. I must say that watching through these seven years worth of television has definitely made me a Buffy fan.

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Six)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the sixth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

So, Buffy died in the finale of season five. I had heard that this was originally supposed to be the end of the series, but then it continued on for two more seasons. And, of course, you can't have Buffy The Vampire Slayer without, well, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; so she's resurrected early in season six.

Now, normally, this would be an excellent opportunity to cry "sell-out", but the truth is, the way the show handles Buffy's resurrection is intelligent, not without serious repercussions, and significant to the evolving atmosphere and themes of the show, so it's not cheap at all (like it was in the first season) and therefore I have no complaints. I don't feel, either, that the show ever jumped the shark, right up to its cancellation, so it's not like you'll ever hear me saying, "the show would have been better off if it had ended sooner than it did."

So, Buffy ended up going to Heaven, although her still living friends, consumed with grief as a result of her absence, and partly concerned that she may have been sent to a Hell dimension to be tormented for eternity (like Angel was at the end of season two), decide to resurrect her. Mostly it's Willow, though, who is the only one with the magic power to pull it off. Buffy returns to life, at first thinking she's been sent to Hell, because, after Heaven, Earth is a pretty sucky place to be (a feeling with which I can relate). So Buffy spends most of the season depressed, looking for some way to renew her will to live. She also, being in a darker place, finds herself willing to reciprocate Spike's feelings for a change.

Now as for the repercussions I mentioned, Willow's decision to muck up the way of things by bringing Buffy back has consequences. Not only does this include guilt, after the secret gets out that Buffy was snatched from Heaven rather than rescued from Hell as her friends would have preferred to believe, but it also serves as an excellent example of Willow's unhealthy relationship with magic. The uncovering of her magical potential in the previous seasons was exciting. It was nice to see Willow with some real power - at times rivaling or even surpassing Buffy - elevating her from her less significant role as techy sidekick. But here, her usage of magic is cleverly likened to a drug addiction, which results in some serious turmoil between her and her more magically ethical partner, Tara.

The "Big Bad" for this season is the nerd gang, whose mastermind is Warren (Adam Busch), the man who builds sex bots from last season. I wanted to like him at first, because I like the idea of building sex bots, but he turns out to be the most despicable character on the show - a misogynistic, rapist murderer. The nerd gang includes two other, more redeemable characters - Jonathan (Danny Strong), the most reluctant villain, whom we've seen before, and Andrew (Tom Lenk), who will get his redemption in the following season.

The fact that this season's Big Bad is not a supernatural villain, but a gang of nerds who band together to "take over the world" is perfectly lampooned (along with Dawn's sudden appearance as a little sister in the last season) in the episode Normal Again, which posits this reality to be a figment of Buffy's imagination, while captive in a mental institution. The cliched device of "it's all a dream; a madman's delusion" is obviously false from the viewer's perspective, but what's so brilliant about this episode is how convincing it makes the alternate reality sound. It's like, you know the episode is going to debunk it in the end (because otherwise, there wouldn't be much of a show left to tell), but what if it's really true after all? The Buffy we're watching is, in the end, just a product of somebody's imagination...

Some other interesting developments in this season include Buffy's stint as a fast food worker, and Giles finally leaving the show as a regular character by flying back to England (although his shocking return at the end of the season, to go head-to-head with evil Willow, was one of the season's highlights). Also, Dawn has her first kiss in another fun Halloween episode - although it turns out to be with a vampire (it must run in the family). And Xander and Anya's loving relationship finally comes to a head, when their wedding is planned and Xander ultimately chickens out and leaves Anya at the altar.

I like Xander as a character - he's a goofball right from the start, but he's funny and he grounds the series. But leaving Anya at the altar is a major strike against him. I mean, I can understand his misgivings, but I just don't see it as being the right decision. It's almost like, in an inverse of "plot armor" which protects important characters from devastating fates (like getting killed off), characters on Buffy are forced to make bad decisions (like Buffy letting Riley go) and endure suffering because it makes good drama. But it does make good drama, so what can I say?

One of the stand-out episodes in this season (and the show on the whole) is the infamous musical episode, titled Once More, With Feeling. I had heard a lot of accolades about this episode from other fans of the series. To be honest, I was dreading it, because I am not a fan of musicals. But finally, I came to it, and I have to say that it wasn't that bad. And, in fact, I appreciate it greatly because, instead of just being a filler episode just for the sake of being able to do a musical, the plot of the episode and the songs themselves all tie in to the dominant themes of the series and specifically the characters' struggles and motivations at this point of the series, and also drive the plot forward (examples: Buffy's lack of passion, Spike's conflicted feelings for her, Giles' motivations for leaving the country). So, kudos.

Season six also features the most infuriating episode of the whole series - not in a "good drama" but in a plain pissed off sort of way. The title of the episode is, appropriately, Seeing Red. Having salvaged her sense of self-worth and broken things off with Spike, Spike attempts to rape Buffy. You could say a lot of things about this scene, not least of which whether it was worth including. And one of the hardest things is understanding that this is really not out of character for Spike - who is, after all, still a bloodsucking freak, in spite of the chip in his head and the pain in his cold, dead heart. But it still feels out of character for him (maybe because by this point you've really begun empathizing with him), and the way it's filmed is just...really soap opera-y. I did not like it - but then, I don't think you're supposed to. It's just one of those things where it's like, this is going to happen, you're not going to like it, but just sit through it and see where it takes these characters in the long run.

The other thing that happens in this episode is that a vengeful Warren gets a gun and fires some shots at Buffy, wounding her and inadvertently killing Tara in the process. If it were some supernatural curse it would be different - like when Glory sucked Tara's mind out in the last season (which I thought was going to be it for her, only she eventually got cured). But this is just some unexpected gang-violence-type run-by shooting! And just after Tara and Willow were reconciling after Willow's magic addiction had tore them apart...

All along I had heard that Willow at some point in the series "goes bad", and I'd long wondered what would make such a good character undergo such a drastic transformation. I was hoping it would be something like the vamp Willow from an alternate reality we saw in season three, and that it would be a more lasting transformation (I secretly harbored some hopes that Willow would be the Big Bad in season seven...). But it makes perfect sense that the senseless murder of Tara in cold blood - right in front of Willow no less - would be the thing to turn her into a mad, apocalypse-desiring sorceress.

Her treatment of Warren was completely justified, by the way, and his death couldn't have been any more justified at anybody else's hands. I know that Willow has to feel remorse, and her friends can't simply accept that she killed a human being easily and all that, if she's to remain human herself, but I still can't help feeling that Warren got entirely what he had coming. No tears will be lost mourning for him.

Finally we come to the season finale, which is a bit of a twist, with Willow trying to destroy the world, and only Xander being capable of talking her down. Very emotional, and probably a much more satisfying ending than anything the lame nerd gang could have come up with. Another twist involves Spike leaving town to find a way to turn himself back to "the way he was", after being rebuked and utterly rejected by Buffy. I had presumed that he was looking for a way to get his chip removed and become truly bad again - a somewhat exciting prospect, considering that he makes such a good villain. But then in the last moment of the finale, it's revealed that he's got his soul back - essentially making him "the way he was" even before he became a vampire, all those years ago! What a shock!

Continue to season seven!

Friday, October 31, 2014

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Five)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the fifth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season five is utterly depressing. It is the most depressing season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Other seasons (especially those following this one) are dark, but this season is just stark and depressing. From Buffy and Riley's frustrating breakup, to the apparent futility of our heroine's struggle against this season's Big Bad, to her own mother's bout with cancer. On the other hand, it introduces my favorite character in the series - Dawn (Michelle Trachtenberg) - so at least there's that.

Dawn's introduction to the series is downright brilliant. The season begins with Dawn present as Buffy's little sister, without explanation for her sudden appearance, and with all the characters acting like she'd been around the previous four seasons. It's uncanny, because you know something's not right about the situation, but the series doesn't serve up the explanation right away. And yet, there is a perfectly good explanation - it's not merely a retcon for the sake of giving Buffy a sister. Memories have been tampered with, and Dawn is actually a force of energy (literally a destroyer of worlds) that has been formed into the container of an adolescent human girl.

Referred to by an ancient order as "the key", she has been transformed so that Buffy - without realizing it - would protect it with her life. From what? From this season's Big Bad using it to unlock a gateway to other dimensions and unleash Hell on Earth. Whereas before, the Big Bad was a vampire or demon, this time around she's on the level of a God (more precisely, Goddess), so the stakes are high. And like Buffy, she's a pretty woman who can kick ass - but she's so strong that for once this is an opponent Buffy can't stand against. She is the radiant and ill-tempered Glorificus (or Glory), portrayed by Clare Kramer.

And her weakness is that she spends half the time reluctantly manifested as a mortal - a more or less innocent mortal, who must be murdered in cold blood if Glory is to be stopped. As if that weren't depressing enough, the only way for Buffy to save Dawn from her destiny to die in order to unleash Hell on Earth, is for Buffy to sacrifice her own life instead. And unlike at the end of the first season, this time Buffy's death feels real. I'd read that this was supposed to be the end of the series - and it works well that way, but - well, I'll say more about that next season.

Before all that, though, a lot goes on in this season. Of particular note is that Giles finds his new calling as the owner of a magic shop (the "Magic Box") - a role he seems well suited for - which becomes the gang's new central hub. Riley skips town after a frustrating development involving the revelation that his and Buffy's superficially perfect relationship lacks a certain level of passion, feeding the conclusion that Buffy has a thing for bad boys. On that subject, Spike slowly comes to the realization in this season that he's in love with Buffy, which is an interesting development that further encourages his change over to the good side. Even though Buffy's distaste for Spike at the outset is well-founded, I thought she was still a little too harsh in pushing him away.

And then we come to Joyce's cancer. Unfortunately, that Buffy's mom dies in this season was spoiled for me by two independent sources, so it did not come as a surprise. It was, however, still very uncomfortable, even though I never particularly liked Joyce's character. The episode in which it happens is one of those artistic detour episodes, and, I have to say, did a fascinating job of covering a very serious plot development in a way that stands apart from every other episode in the series. Fascinating, but uncomfortable, and not one I'd relish many rewatches. It was heartbreaking, an artistic masterpiece, and an award-winning episode, but I would feel a little off calling it one of the best episodes of the series...

Other memorable episodes in this season include the premiere, which features the appearance of none other than the legendary figure of Dracula himself. It was inevitable that Dracula would sooner or later meet the Vampire Slayer in this series, and this was a fun episode, although ultimately a little goofy, I think. Then there is Fool For Love, which explores some of Spike's history with Drusilla, and the two Slayers he'd killed in the past. We also get introduced to Warren (Adam Busch) in this season, who will become a primary antagonist in the next season, though here he is simply a nerdy loser who builds sexbots.

Continue to season six!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Four)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the fourth season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season four is basically Buffy: The College Years. The feel of the show is a bit different, with the characters moving from high school to college, and living in dormitories. Plus, Giles is out of a job, having lost the library with the rest of the school at the end of season three, although he continues to fulfill his role as mentor (officially sanctioned by the Watcher's Council or not), from his apartment - which becomes the new central hub for the characters.

In spite of these changes, it's still a good season filled with some excellent drama. And that's also in spite of the ambiguous loyalties of the new Big Bad. Season four features The Initiative, which is a covert military operation based in Sunnydale, helmed by [not-quite-mad] scientist Maggie Walsh (Lindsay Crouse), who daylights as a university psychology professor (ironically, given her insensitive personality). She's not actually evil (although she does at one point try to kill Buffy), but she is a bit misguided in her dedication to her dubious research.

The purpose of The Initiative is to capture "hostile sub-terrestrials" (i.e., supernatural baddies) for government research. Spike - who returns as a regular character this season, after being absent for most of the last season - is captured, and a computer chip is installed in his head which inflicts terrible pain every time he tries to hurt someone (who is not evil or a demon). This is the beginning of his long and gradual transformation into a good guy, though at this point he is still very much a reluctant anti-hero.

The other purpose of The Initiative is to steal demons' supernatural abilities, so that Maggie Walsh can give them to her bio-mechanical Frankenstein uber-demon, simply named Adam (played by George Hertzberg). Why would a scientist who's not exactly evil create an all-powerful uber-demon? I guess she just got carried away with her scientific curiosity - and certainly the military doesn't ask enough questions when they see an opportunity to weaponize new technology.

Adam himself is a pretty interesting character - he's certainly badass enough, with all his power, yet he possesses a calm demeanor and a rational intellect, and is prone to philosophizing about the meaning of his existence (which I think is pretty cool). Still, his ambiguous morality and origin makes him less compelling than the Big Bads of other seasons. And his ultimate takedown by the "Scooby Gang" (I've never liked that term) at the end of the season feels a little anticlimactic, although it does a good job of cementing the core group - Buffy, Willow, Xander, and Giles - and demonstrating each one's role in their combined fight against evil.

From The Initiative also comes new character Riley Finn (Marc Blucas), who will become Buffy's new paramour. He's the most normal and well-adjusted of Buffy's lovers in the show, and their time together is sweet and romantic, while it lasts. This season also features Xander and Anya strengthening their unlikely relationship (Anya being a vengeance demon who hates men). I like Anya in this season - her frank approach towards the subject of sex is charming, and her otherwise lack of understanding basic human social cues is similarly endearing.

One of the most dramatic moments of this season - and of the whole show, if you ask me - is when Oz leaves Willow - not for lack of love, but due to the complications of his werewolf nature. Sad as that is, it opens the door for another new character, Tara Maclay (Amber Benson), whom Willow meets through a Wicca gathering. The development of their friendship is sweet and subtle, and feels incredibly natural, and I was really excited when the show ultimately confirmed the romantic subtext that appeared to be going on between them.

Now, as great as Willow's conversion to lesbianism is (and it is!), I do feel that the show pushes a little too hard to present her as a Gay Character (TM). Nothing about her gayness is wrong or unwelcome, but I wonder about her transformation from perfectly straight to exclusively gay. Could she not be bisexual? It seems to me that there wasn't any faking going on in that very passionate relationship she had with Oz. Then Tara comes along, and it's like, this could be a character who is capable of falling in love with a person regardless of his/her sex, that's great! Except she's all stereotypically "guys are gross now" once the Tara thing takes off.

Granted, there could be other stuff going on under the surface - like the pressure to align oneself with a gay identity, and coping with the invisibility of bisexual people. At the time this show came out, I imagine having a proud and openly gay character was probably a big deal, and I'm looking at it from a lens at least ten years in the future, when gay rights are making huge leaps and bounds, and I'm coming from the perspective of a more open sexuality, where people don't have to just be straight or gay, but can express themselves along the whole Kinsey scale.

It's possible that the character of Willow is actually bisexual, and she's merely constructing for herself a gay identity for the sake of simplicity, or community. Or, more likely, it's possible that the writers decided at some point, "let's make Willow gay!", and then wanted to make a positive example out of her. Neither approach I could really criticize, and certainly there's much to applaud in making Willow a gay character. However, I feel like the truth is a little more involved than that, and the way the character is occasionally treated on the show buries the complexity of her situation.

Memorable episodes from this season include Hush - one of the few genuinely scary episodes in the series - in which baddies referred to as The Gentlemen steal the voices of everyone in Sunnydale; an episode where Faith returns to get her revenge by switching bodies with Buffy (and learning something in the process); Superstar, a clever alternate reality episode in which dorky outcast Jonathan (Danny Strong) becomes the talk of the town; and the unconventional season finale (after the Big Bad has been taken down), Restless, which breaks formula and explores the origin of the Slayer through a series of surreal (and very Lynchian) dream sequences.

Continue to season five!

Buffy The Vampire Slayer (Season Three)

Warning: This post contains spoilers from the third season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. If you have not seen the third season of Buffy The Vampire Slayer in its entirety, then continue at your own peril. For a spoiler-free introduction to Buffy The Vampire Slayer, click here.

Season three is senior year of high school. The main plot thread hinges on a new character - Faith (Eliza Dushku) - who is the new Slayer chosen on a technicality due to Buffy's death at the end of the first season. We are also introduced to Wesley Wyndam-Pryce (Alexis Denisof), who is the Slayers' new Watcher on account of Giles losing his gig due to his personal attachment to Buffy (the Watchers' Council being a bit of a heartless bunch whose only concern is using the Slayer as a tool to combat evil).

Faith and Buffy get along at first, but soon it becomes clear that there is a darkness at the core of Faith's being, which comes out over her lack of remorse for the accidental murder of an innocent. Faith is a great character - not always likeable, but her ultimate betrayal and conflicted emotions (she's never purely good or evil, like Buffy and her main antagonists usually are) make for some great drama. Plus she acts as a great counterpoint to draw out some of Buffy's own issues about what it means to be the Slayer.

The Big Bad this season is none other than the Mayor of Sunnydale (portrayed by Harry Groener) on a quest to acquire immortality via demonic ritual. He's an interesting character, in that he comes off as a very lovable (if a bit dorky) family man, while being evil to his core. I would have liked lackey Mr. Trick (K. Todd Freeman) to have lasted longer, or had a more important role as a villain (and I could say the same about Doc in season five and Rack in season six), although I guess his ultimate replacement by Faith as the Mayor's number two suited the story.

Romance has always been an important part of the show, and there are a lot of pairings in this season. Angel returns from a hell dimension (with his soul intact) to continue his tumultuous relationship with Buffy (made even more so by his temporarily turning evil in the last season). Willow and Oz get hot and heavy, while Xander shacks up with Cordelia (in an "I hate you so much, let's make out" sort of way). At the same time, there are some illicit sparks shared between Willow and Xander.

Being Buffy's two sidekicks, you couldn't be faulted for thinking that Willow and Xander were destined for one another. An early episode (in season one, I think) actually plays with that expectation, when Willow makes a tongue-in-cheek comment while the two are pretending to be on a date (to do some undercover sleuthing). I thought that was clever and refreshing, but creating some serious romantic tension between the characters later kind of deflated that.

It's been made clear in season two that Willow has a crush on Xander, meanwhile, Xander will chase after any tail in Sunnydale (including Buffy, and even Cordelia whom he hates), except Willow. Only after the two of them are both in relationships with other people does he start reciprocating Willow's feelings, which I felt was pretty frustrating - although it makes for some good dramatic tension in the show. I thought Willow and Xander's brief moments together were very sweet, but clearly the show had no intentions of bringing them together, as will soon become even more clear.

Their stolen moments together put some stress on each one's relationship, which ultimately serves to demonstrate that Willow and Oz's affection for one another is much stronger than Xander and Cordelia's (and really, that makes sense). Meanwhile, newcomer Wesley harbors a taboo (and mutual) crush on Cordelia (she being just a student), which finally finds expression by the end of the season (although their lack of chemistry prevents anything serious from developing).

There are several memorable episodes this season. One fan favorite is Band Candy which is fun in that it features the adults (notably Giles, and Buffy's mom, Joyce, played by Kristine Sutherland) behaving like teenagers (indulging in drugs, rock n roll, and illicit sex). Another episode (The Wish) introduces the character Anya (in the form of vengeance demon Anyanka, played by Emma Caulfield) who will become pivotal in later seasons, and features an alternate reality where Buffy doesn't exist and vampires (including a really badass sadomasochistic Willow vamp, who returns again in the later episode Doppelgangland) has taken over Sunnydale.

One of my favorites is The Zeppo, which has been described by Joss Whedon as a "conscious deconstruction of a Buffy episode", reoriented to focus on Xander, who is usually only a side character. It sidesteps, instead, what Buffy and the rest of the gang are up to - which includes preventing yet another apocalypse, and fighting the Hellmouth (again). I would have liked to have seen more of what they were up to, although clearly their actions were hyperbolized for the sake of the episode's inversion. Nevertheless, it is a surprisingly compelling episode.

I mentioned before that Faith's betrayal made for good drama. The episode where Angel allegedly turns bad (again - the fear of which will continue to be a recurring theme wherever the character appears), but is really just acting, in order to entrap Faith, was a fantastic twist. At the end of the season, the Mayor turns into a giant snake and the students completely destroy the high school during graduation to defeat him. Talk about a bombastic send-off.

This is a turning point for Buffy (the series), and two important characters leave to populate the spin-off series, Angel. These are Angel (obviously), and Cordelia. The splitting of Angel and Buffy, who are clearly made for each other (as much as I do like Spike as a character, I think Buffy belongs with Angel and vice-versa), was pretty frustrating for me. There was a buildup to it at the end of this season, that I didn't feel was very satisfying.

There's no lack of love between them, but the argument (reinforced by Buffy's mom, Joyce, who can be an insufferable prick at times, like during the witch hunt episode, or in the way she deals with ultimately finding out that Buffy is a Vampire Slayer) hinges on the fact that, as a vampire, Angel is an immortal creature of the night, who will neither age with Buffy, nor be able to live with her in the daylight, and will therefore not be able to give Buffy a "normal" life. So it's irresponsible for him to go on loving her.

What, like they can't make some kind of exception to the rule of normal life and love? It's not like Buffy has any chance of living a normal life anyway, being the Slayer (she'll try in the next season, but watch how that ultimately turns out). Of course, there's also that thing about how Angel will turn evil if he has sex, but it seems to me that they're just assuming the curse is still in effect. My reading was that it was pretty much a one time thing, since I doubt the gypsys were counting on anyone returning Angel's soul again.

So I was pretty pissed that they split Angel and Buffy up just so they could siphon Angel off into his own television series. Although, it's ultimately a creative decision I can forgive, since Angel was a pretty good series (I'll say more about that in a separate review in the near future), and that rehashing the Buffy/Angel plot might have gotten boring after a while (although they kept Spike hanging on for rather a while later in this series without making it feel too repetitive), and his absence opens up room for Buffy to explore some other romantic pairings.

Continue to season four!