Fridays at 9 p.m. on Fox. Seven episodes into the first season.
The premise of Dollhouse gets creepier and creepier, verging on distasteful, the longer you thing about it. A shadowy company manages a collection of “Dolls”: people whose memories and personalities have been erased, to be replaced with the personas and skill sets demanded by the company’s clients. Want a temporary bodyguard who looks like Eliza Dushku? A master thief who looks like Eliza Dushku? A date guaranteed to put out (i.e., a glorified whore) who looks like Eliza Dushku? Done and done and done. And deeply creepy.
Fortunately, creator Joss Whedon is reflective enough to keep his latest garrulous, genre-bending show from becoming the vacuously salacious T&A extravaganza that the Fox advertising geniuses clearly wish they were selling. If you’re going to play around with themes of selfhood and human trafficking and, frankly, rape, you can’t be superficial about it. You have to take the characters and their predicament seriously, and to his credit, Whedon does, even amid the banter and stunts and all that. Dollhouse still has weird flaws and shortcomings, but seven episodes in, it’s beginning to find its way and develop an intriguing, thought-provoking mythology. I’m interested to see where it goes.
In repertory at Film Forum through March 31.
Z is forty years old, but it could have been made yesterday, assuming the filmmakers could acquire financing for their bitingly leftist, disillusioned, yet gripping thriller. The direction—briskly paced and versatile, shifting between documentary-like realism and more subjective flashbacks and ramping up toward its climax with rhythmic drive—feels effortlessly contemporary. But even more than the aesthetics, the subject matter of Z resonates all too well with the present day.
Based on a novel that dramatizes the 1963 assassination of a Greek anti-war leader, the movie could have relied simply on paranoia and knee-jerk cynicism to fuel suspense, but it’s smarter and more thoughtful than that. We see, from the outset, who kills the Deputy—there’s no mystery there—so the tension comes from the way the film gradually pulls back to reveal the infinitely more interesting hows and whys and then whats. With blistering insights into the psychology of cover-ups, the manipulation of political foot soldiers, the dangers and limitations of ideology, and the moral compromises of political action on both left and right, Z easily transcends the 1960s. It’s not a museum piece; it’s timeless.
By Katherine Dunn. Published in 1989.
The story of Geek Love is grotesque—a vivid nightmare of abuse, violence, incest, and all manner of depravity—so it’s a testament to Katherine Dunn’s skill as a writer that the novel manages to overcome readers’ knee-jerk repulsion. Although the horror remains, as it should, the detached disgust melts away, making room for the wonder and thought and empathy the book also inspires. Dunn easily could have traded in shock value, but her writing is too smart and too human for anything so cheap. The bizarre premise might capture the attention, but the carefully controlled narrative, perceptively drawn characters, and evocative language are what make Geek Love so memorable and profoundly affecting.
Spotting movies that completely abandon their source material is easy. The characters have different attributes, different motivations, different personalities; the plot veers wildly off course; and the ending bears no resemblance to the original. Trickier, though, are those movies that carefully hold to characterization and plot and yet feel somehow … off.
Watchmen is the latter. The adaptation hews so closely to the landmark graphic novel that much dialogue has been lifted directly from the source and some scenes appear to have used the novel’s illustrations as a storyboard. Aside from a few elisions and a minor modification of the climax (which, frankly, is an effective choice), director Zack Snyder’s Watchmen is scrupulously faithful. And yet, I have misgivings about the adaptation. I wish I could point to something concrete—distorted characters, mangled plots—but nothing so obvious is wrong. The problems are in tone and attitude, elements so amorphous that you could argue that the difference is merely one of interpretation—and you would be right. But with a layered, complex work such as Watchmen, interpretation is all that matters, and if that twists the wrong way, faithful adherence to raw plot points is almost beside the point.
In repertory at Film Forum through March 12.
As femmes fatales go, Ellen Berent is rather pitiful. She’s charming and seductive and ultimately murderous, yes, but she has the foresight and impulse control of a six-year-old. Her extreme immaturity gives a different spin to a familiar archetype (aren’t such femmes usually coolly calculating and shrewd?), but it also dooms Leave Her to Heaven to giggle-inducing melodrama (with the notable exception of one genuinely chilling scene). Ellen is simply too childish and incompetent to take seriously as a villain, and by extension, those taken in by her transparent scheming and infantile tantrums are also impossible to take seriously. The histrionics are fun in a campy sort of way—particularly the bizarre climactic court scene, in which Vincent Price chews the scenery to a fine pulp—but the movie still feels rather slight. Over-the-top Electra complexes are less interesting than you might think.
Special exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art through March 30.
The thing that interests me most about the MoMA’s small but absorbing exhibit of designer George Lois’s work for Esquire—spanning a decade, from 1962 to 1972—is how much some of it annoys me. Take the iconic March 1965 cover, which features a close-up of actress Virna Lisi shaving her face, with the cover line “The masculinization of the American woman.” I hate the sniggery image, hate the alarmism, hate the implicit binary and the gender essentialism, but it’s striking and memorable—I’ll give Lois that—and it draws me in. I want to read the featured story to find out whether it’s as smug and insecure (a seemingly paradoxical pairing) as Lois’s visuals would suggest.
And that, of course, is the whole point of a cover: to make us want to pick up the damn magazine. Lois’s work does that in a charmingly provocative manner that few do today. Viewing the MoMA’s retrospective, it would be easy to make an old-is-better argument—sneering at today’s heavily focus-grouped, celebrity-driven, Photoshopped covers—but in truth, Lois’s singular covers, demonstrating a strong individual perspective and produced with very little editorial input, were a novelty even in his own time and a risk in any.