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!