Saturday, February 21, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Righteous Kill (2008)

One of my all-time favorite movies -- and one of the best films of the 1990s -- is Heat (1995) directed by Michael Mann. Hopefully you've seen it many times, but if you haven't, the crime saga pits a dedicated cop (Al Pacino) against a genius thief (Robert De Niro).

That log-line hardly does the epic Heat justice. There's also a thrilling bank-robbery/gun-fight in the film, and an exciting/tragic final confrontation between the De Niro and Pacino characters.

I don't need to remind you that these actors are veritable giants of the crime saga/cop genres. Or that they can hold the audience rapt with their magnetism, grit, charisma and intensity.

Now, almost fifteen years after Heat, these great cinematic lions roar back to the screen in another collaboration, Jon Avnet's cop-thriller Righteous Kill. De Niro and Pacino remain, as always, eminently watchable. But let me summarize the film this way: Righteous Kill is no Heat.

In fact, it's not even lukewarm.

I saw a preview for Righteous Kill in a theater last year and I could discern even from that brief trailer that it was going to be a less-than-superb outing for these respected veterans. But, as I told my wife, Kathryn when she saw that Righteous Kill had arrived via Netflix, I simply could not resist the draw of another De Niro/Pacino match-up. Better yet, this time they would be playing partners, not antagonists...a virtual guarantee, I hoped, of silver screen frisson.

Sadly, Pacino and De Niro don't share much chemistry or again - heat - It's a result, I believe of a mechanical, gimmicky script that requires both men to play their cards close to the vest in the vain hope that a lame "twist" ending will have at least a shot at working.

Unfortunately, the final twist won't surprise anyone, and that fact makes Righteous Kill a total bust. The film is loaded with ridiculous red herrings so that the final "surprise" will (hopefully) shatter your senses, but these red herrings are all recognizable as such....and terribly trite. Since the entire film is structured simply to deceive you in the last act, there's no human interest remaining when the trick ending arrives. Just a feeling of a wasted opportunity and deflation.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Righteous Kill dramatizes the story of two NYPD vets, the hotheaded Turk (Robert De Niro) and cool-as-a-cucumber chess-master "Rooster" (Al Pacino). As the film opens, we watch a videotape of what appears to be a confession. Turk explains to the camera how -- in his thirty years on the force -- he has secretly murdered fourteen law-breaking scum-balls. They deserved it, of course,. but he still broke the law, framing them for crimes and committing homicide.

Inter cut with De Niro's confession tape is the story of the investigation that (we believe...) finally brings Turk to account for his crimes. We learn how, following the murder of a little girl, Turk framed the perpetrator, Charlie Randell, after the thug was acquitted by a jury. And, how, afterwards, Turk "lost his faith." Where the legal system wouldn't work, Turk would intervene, murdering pimps, drug dealers and even pedophile priests. He plants evidence and leaves cryptic poems at the crime scenes. Or so we are led to believe.

Now, by a twist of fate, Turk and Rooster investigate together the very murders Turk ostensibly committed. The trail of murders suggests that a cop is behind them. Is Turk covering his trail, or does he want to get caught?

Joining in this homicide investigation is a sexy medical examiner, Karen (Carla Gugino), Turk's girlfriend. Karen conveniently (for plot's sake...) enjoys very rough sex, and she and Turk play kinky games to keep their affair hot. One night, he breaks into her apartment and assaults her when she's not expecting him. Afterwards, she suggests it wasn't rough enough for her. On another occasion, Karen gets all hot and bothered as Rooster describes how roughly Turk subdued a drug dealer, Spider (50 Cent). Could Karen be the murderer? Why else does she have files about all the victims on her home computer?

Investigating alongside Turk, Rooster and Karen are two up-and-coming young cops, played by Donnie Wahlberg and John Leguizamo. Leguizamo's character seems to carry a grudge against Turk, and he tells the precinct captain (Brian Dennehy) that Turk is the murderer. Is he framing Turk for some hidden agenda?

What all this nonsense comes down to, essentially, is a final revelation scene in which the killer is exposed and then quickly killed so that we don't have to examine the morality of his actions. Speaking in generalities, Righteous Kill is about partners -- one fire, one ice -- and one of them is a murderer.

Watching Righteous Kill, you desperately want the film to play as tragedy -- the story of a good man who has, because of his job, because of his time dealing with criminals -- lost his way and fallen from grace. What you get, however, is something much less...righteous. This is a robot narrative in which motives remain oblique and the final revelation packs no punch...because Turk and Rooster simply don't stand out as "real" people. They are machines serving a larger machine, telling us only what we need to know to preserve the sanctity of the film's denouement.

Because Righteous Kill desires more than anything to surprise you, to trick you, it straitjackets all the actors to an unacceptable degree. It makes them preserve a secret that isn't worth hiding in the first place. The actors thus cloak the very qualities we want from them: some sense of humanity, tragedy or understanding. It's strange how Righteous Kill subverts itself. By tagging the trick ending as the most important aspect of the film, nothing else works. You get two great actors in De Niro and Pacino and handcuff them to a script that won't let them act, except as grinding exposition cogs.

I can see how Righteous Kill might have been a remarkable movie, but the screenplay would require a massive rewrite. You'd have to ditch the surprise ending and get into the hearts and souls of these two wounded men -- into their family lives, into their histories, into their disappointments and victories. You'd have to see how their jobs affected them, and how -- over the years -- the job took away hope, innocence and idealism.

You know the kind of movie I'm talking about, right? It would be like one Michael Mann, Brian De Palma or Martin Scorsese might direct

In that scenario, De Niro and Pacino would be free to do what they do best. They'd be permitted to emote, instead of acting on remote.

Friday, February 20, 2009

MOVIE REVIEW: Religulous (2009)

Comedian Bill Maher will never be President of the United States. Why? Because he smokes weed. Oh, and because he's an atheist.

I guess I'll never be President, either....

If you are a devout person of any religion, this review may offend you, because I plan to be blunt. Just a warning...

Where to begin? Well, ever since I was a child, organized religion didn't pass my personal smell test. I had a difficult time believing-- without question -- in an invisible bearded superman floating around in a heavenly domain somewhere; one who was watching my every move and listening to my every thought.

As I grew older my critical thinking about religious beliefs was reinforced. At university, I studied ancient history and learned how, basically, Christianity was a hodgepodge of every pagan religion circulating around Rome in the time of the Caesars.

Virtually every ingredient we think of today in terms of Christ's "origin" story -- from the immaculate conception to the wandering in the desert wilderness, to the crucifixion itself -- had been assimilated from a dozen older historical sources to formulate Christ's "new" story.

So if Christ's story were a movie, I'd call it a rip-off. Or at least a pastiche.

Maher's documentary Religulous points this out, by cleverly noting the numerous "parallels" between Egypt's Horus and Jesus of Nazareth.

And then there's the Bible. It's supposed to be the Word of Almighty God, but again, my rational mind can't accept it as such. After all, the Bible was written, re-written, and translated into new fallible mankind. By men with agendas. Passages have been suppressed, erased, written-over in palimpsests and mis-translated both intentionally and unintentionally.

So that means the Bible that most Americans use in 2009 is akin to a Japanese Godzilla movie...dubbed from the original language into English. In other words, some things seem a, even if you get the general idea.

And as much literary value and beauty as I find in many passages of the Bible -- and as truly as I admire the teachings of Jesus the Man (particularly his stance on money, wealth and poverty) -- how can I overlook a thousand years of interference in this supposedly sacred text from monks, popes and other avaricious schemers? Perhaps it is my failing, but I just can't believe that those men left no footprints. Christ's nature may be divine, but human nature is something else entirely.

Perhaps I would harbor more respect for Christianity if every worshipper dedicated themselves to the study of Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. If they took the "text" of the Bible on its original terms and attempted to discern the meaning in the actual language of the Bible. If Christ should be followed with such unblinking, mindless devotion -- why trust others to translate His Gospels for you? If the Bible is so important, how about bending a little knee yourself to understand what was actually written in the first place? If you are "learning" from the Bible and Christianity hatred for homosexuals, masturbators, Jews or Muslims, then you are duty-bound to know what the Bible really says, it seems to me.

Bill Maher makes this case far better than I can (or would dare to...). His (scathing) approach here is straightforward and simple: he confronts people of various religions (Christians, Muslims and Jews) with the cold, hard facts about their clearly irrational but deeply-held spiritual beliefs. His message ultimately comes down to two things. First, belief in religion is actually a narcissistic mental disorder (so says the neurology expert, whom he trots out...).

And second: we're never going to mature as a species if we don't surrender our irrational religious beliefs...which invariably lead to even more irrational hatreds and bloodshed. Maher narrows this second point down to the explicit warning:

Grow up or die.

I was particularly happy to find Maher and Religulous confront the ridiculous, pervasive and historically inaccurate belief that America was founded as a "Christian" nation. Maher provides a litany of quotations from the Founding Fathers which prove unequivocally that Jefferson, Franklin, Adams and the others had about as much use for religion of any stripe as they did...for the office of the Vice Presidency.

But the test is even more simple than that: Find the name "Christ" anywhere in the U.S. Constitution.

Seriously. Go ahead
. I'm waiting.

Find me even one tiny instance of the name Jesus Christ appearing in our Constitution. Not "God." Not "The Creator" either. Because Jews and Muslims have a "God" and a "Creator" too, don't they? Nope...there's absolutely nothing enshrined in the Constitution that creates a special or prominent slot for Christianity in America. On the contrary, America was founded on the very basis of escaping Christian extremism. When people misunderstand this, they are forgetting history, or worse: willfully rewriting it to serve a pernicious agenda.

Maher's approach in Religulous is fact-based, but undeniably caustic and brutal. As a fellow atheist, I certainly sympathize with his irritation and anger.

He is outraged with an America where the Crucifixion is re-enacted in cheesy amusement parks as overweight patrons sip their super-sized colas and munch popcorn.

He is angry with an America where Presidents arrogantly use the name of Christ to justify nationalistic war, when Christ is supposed to be The Prince of Peace.

He is troubled by an America where prominent presidential candidates (of one party in particular...) don't believe in evolution, despite the scientific consensus.

And he is judgmental of an America where religious icons like Ted Haggard preach hatred and disrespect towards gays while secretly indulging in gay sex.

He is befuddled with a world where innocent cartoons can merit death threats from "true believers." With a world where the "us" vs. "them" mentality kills people each and every day.

The world is sick, and religion is the disease killing it. At least from Maher's perspective. It's a perspective I share.

Bill Maher approaches religious belief from a state of doubt...a state of questioning, rather than a state of certainty. He exposes "faith" as a trick to make gullible people accept that which is blatantly unacceptable on rational grounds. Ever have a "rational" argument with a devout person? When they can't beat you on the facts, they tell you to take it on faith. Two words: cop-out. I outgrew that nonsense on the kindergarten playground.

If Christ, why not Santa Claus? If Jehovah, why not Thetans? If Allah, why not the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Sometimes, it takes a comedian to speak truth to power; to break taboos, to puncture the protective force field of propriety, and ultimately that's the "miracle" Bill Maher achieves in his entertaining and illuminating documentary. The results are funny, but Religulous is also sad, and truth be told, depressing. It's both amazing and disheartening to watch intelligent, resourceful people attempt mental gymnastics in the defense of beliefs that are wacko.

And If you agree with me, I'm preaching to the choir. If you don''re already praying for my immortal soul.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Enemies Within: Chris Carter's Millennium and America's Suburban Apocalypse

In the first season episode of Millennium entitled "Wide Open," violent crime consultant and dedicated family man Frank Black (Lance Henriksen) sits pensively on the front porch of his idyllic yellow house on Ezekial Drive (a symbol first of paradise; then of paradise lost). There, he laments the American culture of the 1990s, one "besieged by our own fear."

His wife, a therapist named Catherine (Megan Gallagher), counters "if you're not're in denial."

As Chris Carter and the writers of Millennium might succinctly state the matter: "This is Who We Are."

Or at least, this is who we were during the Age of Millennium (1996-1999), pre-Y2K. The question then becomes, why is this who we were? And do we today remain this way? Have we changed at all, and can we ever change? Why is America perpetually a hotbed of fear and terror...even in times of peace and prosperity?

As always, we found answers in context. In 1996, as Millennium commenced its freshman season on Fox, our nation prepared to send President Bill Clinton back to the White House for four more years. His first term had witnessed a Federal siege gone tragically awry in Waco, Texas, the Oklahoma City Bombing by Timothy McVeigh, societal unrest following the O.J. Simpson murder trial, and the gathering of intolerant forces on The Right, forces that were now unified for the first time in American history by one factor: an irrational, overwhelming hatred for Clinton, whom many considered morally corrupt: a philanderer and perhaps even a murderer.

Culturally, popular films including Silence of The Lambs (1991), Seven (1995) and Copycat (1995) focused squarely on the presence of serial killers -- insane, malevolent bogeymen - prowling America in virtual anonymity and freedom. On television, The X-Files sometimes cast its investigative gaze on society's monsters too, in episodes such as "Beyond the Sea" and "Unruhe," among others. Mainstream television "news" magazines, especially the sensational Dateline and 48 Hours seemed to feed America a never ending diet of serial killer "true" horror stories.

The ascent of the serial killer to a position of prominence in the American Imagination (in the American Reptilian Brain, really...) was the result of several important factors. First, there were high profile serial killers actually making news as the 1990s began. Jeffrey Dahmer (1968-1994) of Milwaukee murdered seventeen people and practiced, among other things, necrophilia and cannibalism. His heinous crimes captured the imagination of a fearful nation. As did those of Ted Bundy (1946-1989), a sociopath and serial killer executed by Florida state officials in 1989.

Almost as important as the crimes themselves, however, was the coverage given these terrible crimes by the expanding, ratings-seeking, mainstream media. The just-born 24-hours new cycle (a courtesy of Cable News Nets), made Dahmer's horror show in Milwaukee a nightmare for all Americans, no matter the region of the country (or even the considerable distance from the real life crimes). From Florida to Rhode Island, from Texas to Seattle, people were afraid of other monsters like Dahmer....ones bred in secret, just waiting to pounce. It wasn't merely cable news that fed this burgeoning fear, either. The Internet -- booming into the mainstream of 1990s life - provided predators a new "in" to the private lives of innocent Americans at the same time that they could remain secretive (and dishonest) about their true identities and perverse agendas.

But there were other factors too, that made the serial killer America's trademark ghoul during the 1990s. In particular, the ability of Americans to travel cheaply and easily cross-country after the 1970s resulted in a nation whose traditional roots became... scrambled. Due to the affordability of air flight and easy access to interstate highways, the communal hearth of old America -- the small town where everyone knew you, your parents and your grandparents -- was shattered, perhaps permanently. In its stead arose the suburbs, new, young communities in which neighbors had no shared history with other neighbors; in which virtual strangers lived across the street.

As it is so in all great horror (and indeed, all great art), Millennium reflected the culture in which it was built. The series selected as its central setting the new hunting fields of the serial killer: suburban America. And though it was (and remains...) tempting for blinkered critics to dismiss Millennium as simply "the serial killer of the week," it became evident on a close viewing of the series that there was something deeper -- something philosophical --happening in Chris Carter's new creation.

In particular, Frank's experiences with serial killers of various stripe served a distinctly didactic purpose: to tell us not so much about the monsters hiding beyond the white picket fences; but to share with audiences something about ourselves, about the world we've built. In the final analysis, Millennium is not about the monsters; it's about our response to the monsters.

This is who we are.

In "Wide Open," for instance, our protagonist Frank Black investigates the case of a serial killer who attacks families that have installed high-tech alarm systems in their fancy suburban homes. The alarm key-pad notes comfortingly (in telling close-ups) that the house is "All Secure," though that's plainly not the truth. While the homeowners are away, the killer enters the house lawfully (at a real estate open house). Then, he waits until the family returns home -- and alarmed-up -- to strike with brute force. The family never sees what's coming...the enemy within.

This killer, Frank informs us, is "teaching us a lesson about our pretensions to safety...about how vulnerable we are." Similarly, it is Millennium teaching the audience that very lesson: an alarm system keypad does not guarantee safety when you drop your guard, when you don't know who has been inside your home, when visitors or strangers enter and leave. Accordingly, by episode climax, an imperiled family is rescued by a more traditional style, old-fashioned "security system:" the family dog. The canine does away with the home invader, pitching him over a second story ledge and onto (and through...) a glass table in the foyer below.

The serial killer in "Wide Open" gives himself the name "John Allworth," a name that provides him a sense of value and importance in a society that does not value him. And, desiring his fifteen minutes of fame (like Dahmer achieved fame), Allworth utilizes other convenient technologies -- not just the alarm -- to get attention and make his point. He leaves messages for the police on their voice mails, and sends a videotape of the murders to the real estate agent showing the house/crime scene. At the same time he is teaching us a lesson, Allworth is becoming "famous." In no other previous decade could the killer utilize this m.o. (outsmarting the alarm systems) or connect with his victims (videotape) in this fashion. He is a creature of the technological nineties; of the suburban lifestyle.

Notably, one victimized family in "Wide Open" is named "Highsmith." Highest of all Smiths, In other words. The typical American family. The name Highsmith simultaneously indicates "importance" (high) and the quality of being "average" (Smith is a common name). This is Millennium's tactic, perhaps of telling us that any one of its viewers (even the Smiths; even us) could be the next victim of this particular criminal. The episode also features some subtle imagery that suggests the suburbs themselves bred this particular monster. There are messages of violence everywhere. One real estate company is advertised with the motto "Killer Views. Killer Prices." The camera lingers on this catchy motto a little too long to be a coincidence.

The serial killer's profession in "Wide Open" is another important factor in understanding the didactic purpose of Millennium. Allworth is a school crossing guard, one who is "helping children to safety" by his own definition. This line of dialogue serves as a direct contrast to the episode's opening quotation ("The children are far from safety. They shall be crushed at the gate without a rescuer.") Easy translation: the children are the future, and if they are killed or corrupted...all our tomorrows die with them. Allworth believes he is teaching the children a lesson when in fact he is perpetuating a cycle of violence (he was an abused child; and his crime spree has left a shattered orphan who may pick up his tricks in the years to come...). Or, as Frank notes, "tragedy begets itself."

Speaking of "gates," Frank Spotnitz's "Weeds" is another first season episode of Millennium that focuses squarely on a 1990s development and/or trend: the rise of the affluent gated community. Here, a deranged serial killer prowls a rich suburban development despite the presence of 24-hour private security; despite perimeter walls, despite a community watch group. We see images of the entrance gates closing, but what use are gates when the enemy is already within?

In "Weeds," a homegrown madman kidnaps the children of immoral homeowners and makes the children (again!) suffer for the sins of the father. Ghoulishly, the perpetrator makes the youngsters drink his blood because he considers himself a holy "purifier." Though acting far outside the bounds of the law, this killer successfully exposes to Frank (and to the audience...) the sick underside of affluent America. In every home dwells an adulterer, a fraud, a hit-and-run driver, or some other corrupted personality. Expensive homes and a private police force don't make up for or excuse sin.

One scene in "Weeds" is set inside a fancy home. Playing on the TV in the background is a clip from Irwin Allen's Land of the Giants (1968). This particular clips reveals a diverse group of people (of different color and sex) being physically trapped inside an oversized cage by a giant. It isn't hard to discern that the "cage" in "Weeds" is the affluent gated community itself, and the malevolent Giant the secret "sins" that keep residents in a state of perpetual fear, alienation, estrangement and self-loathing.

Another sequence, set at the community's conference center, makes the point about "strange" neighbors explicit. The episode cuts to close-ups of various residents as if to ask: who are you? What secret do you cloak? Just as these people don't know their neighbors, we don't recognize them as either friend or foe. Any one of them could be the killer....

The title "Weeds" explicitly suggests that something undesirable has sprouted up in suburbia, and the killer this time is a man driven by deep feelings of disillusionment. He hates the hypocrisy he sees all around him, and wants to root out sin. The view of the suburbs proffered by "Weeds" is absolutely merciless, then. Accordingly, when we see through the killer's eyes, we view all the residents of the community as old, decaying hags; their souls filthy and contaminated. Not to make too huge a leap, but this is also how many people saw Bill Clinton: as a sinner in the highest office of the land, contaminated by moral corruption. Never mind that those who led the charge against him were also adulterers and hypocrites (Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and Bob Livingston -- Republicans all -- had engaged in extra-marital affairs and held high office too).

In other episodes of Millennium's first season, Frank returned to the suburbs of America agin and again and found only more horror and immorality. He uncovered it in Ogden, Utah in "Covenant" while attempting to determine if a man -- a police officer -- had actually murdered his wife and children in cold blood. The man had lived by the motto (hung on a sign in his workshop) "If a man fails at home, he fails in life." And yet, as Frank learned...the man did fail at home. His wife was actually the murderer...driven to such horrible crimes by her husband's infidelity with another woman. Again, the sins of the father were passed to the children: who were killed for his trespasses.

Child molestation ("The Well Worn Lock") and domestic violence ("The Wild and the Innocent") also came home to the suburbs in various installments of Millennium's first, sterling season. It wasn't just the crime of the week as some asserted; it was the immorality of the week, and Millennium -- in strongly didactic terms -- provided suburban America a look in the mirror. Sometimes our new technologies bedeviled us (in the form of home alarm systems, or the Internet), sometimes new cultural trends (gated communities...) achieved the same end. But always it came down not merely to the predator in our midst; but the failures of our society that gave rise to the predator in the first place.

In Millennium, the enemy within was both the predator and his prey. "Blood Relatives" in sin, perhaps, to choose the title from another Millennium episode.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

TV REVIEW: Dollhouse : "Ghost" (2009)

Ever meet someone who seems too perfect? Too beautiful? Too smart? Too witty? Who says all the right things in every situation? Who is -- in a phrase -- too good to be true?

Well, maybe that person is too good to be true; maybe he or she is actually an "Active" on a mission, a resident of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse...

Despite the plethora of harsh reviews clogging the web, this new genre series - at least judging from the pilot -- is certainly promising. So far, it's neither genius, inspired, nor a long shot. But for right now, promising is good enough. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was any great TV series.

So I'll take it.

It's tempting to comment now about the myriad ways, historically-speaking, in which pilots don't necessarily reflect the quality of the series that follow them. That pilots suffer under the weight of having a great deal to accomplish: both introducing a slew of characters and vetting a new, fresh, self-contained story. It's not an easy task crafting a good one. Let alone a great one.

Still, off-the-top of my head I can rattle off the titles of a good half-dozen brilliant pilots: Veronica Mars, X-Files, Millennium, Lost, Friday Night Lights, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, Heroes, and so on. I can also recall some terrible pilots that signaled the badness and madness to follow. I still haven't recovered from the mediocrity of the derivative Fringe, the shockingly not-scary Supernatural, or the imbecilic Threshold. And actually, the Battlestar Galactica pilot (a mini-series) was actually pretty dreadful too, now that I remember it. (Anyone recall the Cylon cocktail waitress equipped with the unsightly "scanning" red eye on sinewy spine -- visible during hot sex with Baltar?)

But here's the sticking point for me: Dollhouse should have been a slam dunk. This pilot episode ("Ghost") was crafted after several episodes of the series were already in the can. Creator Joss Whedon famously went back and devised a new pilot; one that would more accurately reflect the narrative and arc of Dollhouse as a whole. Given that rare and valuable opportunity, it's a little baffling why "Ghost" isn't more involving, dynamic, and focused. It's clear here that the larger premise is better than this episode's execution; that the overall "ideas" or more engaging than the particular story.

To the specifics now. Dollhouse is the tale of a secret, highly-illegal facility called, you guessed it, The Dollhouse. There, ice princess Adele De Witt (Olivia Williams) oversees a cadre of agents called "Actives." Under her direction, these "Actives go out on missions called "Engagements." The Actives, however, aren't simply secret operatives: they are "clean slates." Their original personalities have been removed ("wiped") and for each new mission, they are "imprinted" with new personalities (and therefore new skills...) that fit the mission.

In "Ghost," for example, a gorgeous young Active named Echo (series star Eliza Dushku) is outfitted with the memories of an expert negotiator (or several negotiators, actually...) to bring quick closure a high-profile kidnapping.

Managing the programming and mental wiping is a nerdy young scientist, Topher Brink (Fran Kranz). Serving as handler to Echo is a veteran ex-cop, Boyd Langton (Harry Lennix). And acting as physician to the stable of physically-fit Actives is Dr. Claire Saunders (Amy Acker). Meanwhile, a resourceful cop, Paul Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) is attempting to find and expose the secret Dollhouse, to the dismay of his superiors and cohorts on the force. Paul believes that wiping out a human personality is the same thing is murder, and desires to bring those at the Dollhouse to justice for human trafficking.

Living placid, memory-less lives in the gilded cage of the Dollhouse, the Actives are innocent, naive and truth be told, a little dumb. They seem like...dim bulbs. You may be unpleasantly reminded, alas, of the clone farm in Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979). There, all the physically-fit young clones dwelled in a Garden of Eden of ignorance until one curious clone tasted an apple from the tree of knowledge (or rather, a beer can from Milwaukee...). You get the feeling that on Dollhouse, Echo is destined for the same journey: one of discovery and self discovery.

Because Joss Whedon -- mastermind of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly -- is the personality behind Dollhouse, I suspect Echo's odyssey is going to be an interesting, thought-provoking ride. And that's why I'm sticking around. You can detect the seeds of greatness in the Dollhouse pilot, even if little of the potential is yet realized.

For instance, the Actives -- when taking on the personalities of other people -- also adopt their weaknesses. That's an interesting notion, a sort of hidden brand of "kryptonite" that could pop up and impact an "engagement" unexpectedly.

I also appreciated the distinctive moral overtones: can a wrong ("wiping" and "imprinting") ever make a right (helping people in need)? There's something affecting and deeply sad about watching Echo talk about meeting the "right guy" only to, moments later, undergo a wipe and forget all about him. How can the people around her stand by and let this happen? How can they justify what they do? Inquiring minds want to know...

Ultimately, I suppose I must ask myself two important questions in regards to Dollhouse. First, does the pilot provide an adequate framework for Joss Whedon to present his trademark social commentary on women, society at large, and pop culture?

And second, do I want to watch the fetching, engaging Eliza Dushku make this journey of discovery for a few seasons?

The answer in both cases is a resounding affirmative.

So while I haven't yet warmed to the series regulars, and while I truly dislike the look of the Dollhouse facility (it resembles the Wolfram & Hart offices from Angel's final season...), I have enough patience and built-up good will for Whedon and Dushku to stick around and see what's next.

The epilogue of "Ghost" already points to a compelling story point and direction for the series. There, we see a pre-Dollhouse Echo in a high school video, discussing her life aspirations. Were those aspirations fulfilled by involvement in the Dollhouse? Or cut off?

In answering that question, we may have an answer to our burning question. Is Dollhouse Whedon's next Buffy or Firefly? Or is it his next...Alien Resurrection?

We'll see. And I'll be there.