Thursday, February 19, 2009

Life Sucks, and then You Die. And then it still sucks.


Funny. I intended to slow things down considerably this week, and here I am typing out a second entry, with a third one planned for the end of the week. The wonders of actually having material I feel like blogging about.



This time, I'm actually right back to movie talk. But not just any movie talk. Specifically, Dead Like Me: Life After Death. This isn't the first time I've blogged about the movie, though the last time I did was over a year and a half ago, back in the very early days of activity on this blog in summer '07. Specifically, I had some concerns about the film based on some information they announced during filming back then. Having picked up and watched the film in the past 24 hours - in fact, having finished watching the film and behind the scenes featurette less than an hour ago as of my beginning work on this post - this is going to be a discussion of the film, particularly in addressing the mixed reception it's received. (Some fans love it, some fans hate it - there's a pretty even split, with a scattering of viewers in the middle.) I'm also going to make an effort to keep this post relatively spoiler-free. I'll be talking about major story elements, changes, and the characters, but avoiding any bombshells as best I can. But if you're a fan of the series who hasn't seen the movie yet, you may want to consider holding off on reading this, just in case.

At any rate, Dead Like Me: Life After Death is a direct-to-DVD movie developed by MGM as a follow-up to the brilliant Dead Like Me TV series about the afterlives of grim reapers that ran for two seasons before Showtime before it was axed. (In a very questionable executive decision, to put it kindly, considering the show's strong ratings and high quality writing and concept.) Bryan Fuller's shows (Which also include Wonderfalls and Pushing Daisies) are pretty much cursed - wonderful, but cursed. Fans weren't happy, Showtime saw protests (And the guy who canceled the show only ended up producing one quality, lasting show in the wake of his taking over as Showtime head of programming. Said quality show? Weeds, which is also worth your time.), and MGM made it clear that they were aware that fans wanted more, and that they would work to bring the series back in some capacity. We'd more or less lost hope when the movie was announced, and then people started to get concerned when the details in my linked previous post emerged.

Cue the Dissection!

The movie was headed up by John Masius and Stephen Godchaux, who were heavily involved in the show's writing and production following Fuller's departure from the series after the first several episodes. (Fuller himself has basically disowned the show since they took it in a different direction from his vision and didn't follow several plotlines he'd intended to set up. Though that didn't exactly stop the series from still being fantastic overall.) They wrote the film - I'll be addressing the writing in a bit - and got director Stephen Herek (Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Mr. Holland's Opus) on board with the project. In regards to the direction, Herek wasn't a bad choice. They discuss his approach to the film in the behind the scenes featurette on the DVD, and his efforts to effectively reimagine Dead Like Me - to give us something both familiar and fresh, that both fans and new viewers could enjoy. And like with Joss Whedon's Serenity a few years back, I could certainly see newcomers getting something out of Life After Death, but similarly, not getting the full experience without having watched the series and familiarized themselves with the characters. (As such, it's highly recommended that you watch the series before the movie.)

On the whole, the tone of the film is both familiar and new - the overall approach to the direction makes it clear that Herek's a fan of the show, and made some effort to carry many of the recurring styles of shots from the series over to Life After Death. But the feeling's definitely different - the more TV-oriented style of humor is downplayed (Though there's still plenty of humor in the film), with a more cinematic balance of the humorous and serious moments. The emotional core of the film - which revolves around George and Reggie, as I'll get to in a bit as well - is more serious in nature than the TV series consistently was. (As it balanced sharp, biting humor with its more poignant moments and bits of seemingly hopeless family drama.) American Beauty in particular was cited in the behind the scenes featurette as an inspiration drawn from in some of the more dramatic and melancholy shots throughout Life After Death. Overall, Herek did a fine job presenting something familiar with a fresh spin. (As in the near five years it's been since the show's cancellation, there was no bringing the exact same universe and show back.) The one complaint I have with his direction is a particular awkward effect he uses a few times: taking a shot originally recorded at normal speeds and blatantly slowing it down for dramatic effect. It's only used a few times, but it can take you out of the film for a few seconds when it's used. Interesting bit of trivia: Herek was initially going to direct the series pilot before he had to back out, back in 2003.

Now let's look at the writing. Masius and Godchaux did a good job, overall. The entire film feels more like an episode of the TV series than a completely separate film, and in the humor, character growth, and overall story development throughout the film, the heart and soul of the TV series are absolutely intact. The magic's still there. That said, they tried to cram a good several episodes' worth of plot into about 90 minutes - that's one of the flaws that stands out more. A ton of story threads are thrown at the viewer, and the characters take and run with them in all directions. Only a few of these threads are actually fully realized, while the others seem woefully underdeveloped. And one of the most important ones suffers a little from some heavier melodrama than the main series itself generally let itself fall into.

At any rate, to fully elaborate, let's take a look at the characters:

George - It wouldn't be Dead Like Me without George, played by the ridiculously talented Ellen Muth. She's uncharacteristically flat and lacking in her usual brilliance in the film's opening recap of the universe and its rules that reapers have to deal with. That was something that could have used rerecording. Beyond that, I have no complaints. She's the all-important lead we grew to know and love in the TV series, a few years older and a few years wiser. The film focuses on showcasing George's growth as a character and does it effectively. She's pretty much the biggest reason to see the film. The most jarring part about her character otherwise was the recasting of UnGeorge/Millie as living human beings see her. That was an element of the series they'd more or less dropped in the second season of the show (Which may explain why they weren't able to get Laura Boddington, who originally played her alter ego, back). They naturally also had to recast the little girl who played George in flashbacks to her childhood for obvious reasons.

Mason - Callum Blue's spot-on as Mason again in the years since the show's cancellation. He brings the same sort of reckless, hedonistic energy to his performance as he did in the TV series. Sadly, beyond a joke character, he's sorely underused in Life After Death, with Mason largely remaining two-dimensional throughout the film. (Beyond a moment nodding back to the tension between the characters of Mason and Daisy that received a great deal of focus back in season 2.) If they're able to revive the series with a third season or another movie as everyone's hoping, one hopes Mason will get a little more screentime and development in the future.

Daisy - Daisy, unfortunately, is not the Daisy we knew and loved in this film. Laura Harris - who'd formerly played the character - was unavailable for the project, and after considering writing Daisy out (As could have been the better way to go), the character was recast. Australian actress Sarah Wynter took on the role as her first comedy performance, and while she shows she has the chops for comedy, you can also tell she's not a seasoned comedic actress either. While you can see hints of the Daisy we knew in her performance, that she's drawing on the same character, she comes off like a clumsy understudy. She's one of the film's weaker links overall, between her woefully underdeveloped subplots - again, they tried to do too much in a 90-minute film to fully realize everything they began - and very mixed performance. One would hope that if the series continues in the future, they'll either get Laura Harris back, or Wynter will have more time to fine-tune her interpretation of the character. She could potentially give us a take on Daisy of a caliber not unlike Harris', but sadly, she doesn't in this film.

Roxy - Jasmine Guy's right at home back in character as Roxy again, like Muth and Blue. The best parts of the movie aside from George's central story are the returning reapers from the original show, easily. Roxy doesn't get the kind of screentime and development in the film that she deserved. (Especially in the wake of the former head reaper in their division's departure (Rube, played by the great Mandy Patinkin back in the show, who sadly declined to join the rest of the cast in Life After Death), and the assumption that she would be taking over upon his departure. Rube's departure in general didn't get the kind of focus it needed, and his loss can be felt throughout the film - it's a different universe without Patinkin. Not bad, but different.) We did, however, get to see a little more of her humanity than we usually did in the series under her rough exterior, as well as her character expressing more femininity than she'd explored in the series.

Cameron Kane - Replacing Rube, they brought in Henry Ian Cusick from ABC's Lost to play a new high powered businessman who'd died jumping out a window on 9/11 as the new head reaper in the characters' external influence division. He's amusing when on-screen, but his character has no real depth and is largely only brought in as a bit of a comical antagonist, getting little screentime.

Reggie - George's younger sister Reggie - played by Britt McKillip, who's grown up a lot since the original series - plays a pivotal role in the movie, as she did in the TV series. McKillip's up to the task, as she was when she was younger, fortunately. Her storyline focuses more on elements of a secret love affair and a reconnection with her deceased sister - the former part of the story felt more melodramatic and somewhat clumsily executed in the plot, but the latter was very well done, and echoed a number of the themes running between their characters in the TV series. So while part of her storyline comes off as wasted potential, the rest more than makes up for that.

Joy - George and Reggie's mother (Played by Cynthia Stevenson) doesn't get much screentime in Life After Death. But from what of her we see, she's easily one of the characters who's grown the most since the original series, and brings a pleasant dynamic to the film with her relationship with Reggie. Definitely refreshing, after how much of the series came down to Joy and Reggie going in circles and seeming hopelessly broken as a family in the wake of George's death at the beginning of the series.

Happy Time - Christine Willes reprises her role as Delores Herbig, who runs the Happy Time temp agency where George has been working since the original series. They had to build a completely new set, which in no way resembles the original, but it works. (Much of the film is this way. Der Waffle Haus is gone, since the original set had been taken apart, and the entire film was shot in Montreal, though the TV series had been shot in Vancouver, and the fact that the show and movie were filmed in completely different places is very noticeable, and contributes to the overall feeling of hte film being different.) Delores has a fairly sizable subplot throughout the film, which manages to be entertaining and continue an element of her character from the original series. Crystal Dahl also reprises her role as the Happy Time secretary, Crystal, though she's mostly just there as a nod to the fans.

There's a lot for the fans to be happy about in the writing, but overall, the film's a definite mixed bag on that front between the changed tone - with its humor less sharp and biting, though the language was thankfully still as over the top as in the series (They're quite fond of the word "fuck." You might say they used it quite e-fucking-ffectively.) - and the fact that they just tried to do too much in an hour and a half to fully realize the potential of the film. But in many regards, fans have had such polarized reactions no doubt as a result of expectations they'd built up for the film without knowing what exactly they were getting into. Life After Death isn't intended to tie up all the loose ends and give the fans the fuller closure they've been asking for to end the series completely - it's intended to give the fans the characters again and showcase their growth, while working to relaunch the series rather than end it. Though if Life After Death is all we end up getting in the end, it does end on a perfect note (Not unlike how season 2 had) with which to conclude the series. M├ętisse fans will also be happy with the end credits.

After reading a mix of reviews from all perspectives, I popped the DVD into my player a few hours ago now, going in with no expectations beyond that I would be entertained and enjoy seeing the characters again. And having finished it and watching the behind the scenes featurette, I have to say, I'm not one of the fans clinging to one extreme or the other about the film. It's a very mixed bag - neither stellar nor terrible cinema, and certainly not bad for a series canceled nearly half a decade ago finally getting a DVD movie follow-up. It's not brilliant, but it's still a fresh and fun take on the Dead Like Me universe that retains the heart and soul of the series and should give fans hope. It shows that the cast can still play these characters as effectively as they once had. An additional movie or relaunched show could potentially open the door to bringing back Mandy Patinkin (If only for a guest stint to fully flesh out Rube's departure) and Laura Harris, or at least giving Sarah Wynter time to get better at playing Daisy. If we can get another series, they've shown us that they can bring back the kind of magic we knew and loved in the original series. (And fortunately, they managed to retain the series' visual effects guy for Life After Death, allowing the mischievous gravelings to remain visually identical.) It's a fun movie, and it's well worth buying to support efforts to bring Dead Like Me back. It never should've been canceled, and the kind of brilliance the series embodied is in no way something they can't bring back. Like Life After Death, it wouldn't be exactly the same, but it could still be fantastic, and with more time to pace their writing, another season would be far more ideal than another movie.

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