Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Nip/Tuck: 'Kiki' (3x02)

Nip/Tuck is a show that always seems to be trying to push the boundaries of audience tolerance, putting stuff in the show that will make you say, "They've gone too far this time." And this season seems to be trying to take things the furthest they can go, so last episode we get nasty fat woman stuck to couch and this week it's bunch of transsexuals urinating on Matt, throw in a barely motivated threesome and every character smoking pot and you've got something to offend everyone. I'm not offended by the content, but I think in their attempt to push the boundaries, the show can lose some of its dramatic integrity.

Being on F/X , they have stricter limits than shows on HBO, and you won't hear the word Fuck or see nudity outsideof the surgery, but at the same time the show seems much more obsessed with how far it can go than something like Six Feet Under ever was. SFU could show you a dead body, but the focus was never on how nasty it was, it was merely backdrop for the real dramatic importance. However, Nip/Tuck is all about surface. One could say this is appropriate in a show about plastic surgery, but there's a reason that beauty is more than skin deep. So, maybe stop trying to push the boundaries of acceptability and start trying to restore a sense of order to the character arcs.

Even though the show's character arcs are thinly motivated, it's still very entertaining to watch. It's just I can't identify with any of these people, or empathize with them. I don't really care what happens to them, so I view the show as a passive observer. The only consistently entertaining characters are Christian and Kimber, and they barely appeared in this episode.

So, I watch, I enjoy, but I don't engage, and that's the show's main flaw.

Gilmore Girls: 'Always a Godmother, Never a God' (6x04)

Once again, Gilmore Girls gives us a solid but not extraordinary episode that continues to show us the lives that Rory and Lorelai are living without each other. I wouldn't say the show's been in a rut since the season premiere, but it hasn't matched that level of intensity since. I don't think the creators want to be that dark, the show is a dramedy, but that means that we've gotten a series of episodes that haven't really led anywhere and leave a lot of the more meaningful stuff to subtext.

Rory once again is getting more and more sucked into her grandmother's world. She's forced to run the party by herself, and makes all the polite jokes required of a person in polite society. But it's not clear whether this is something she actually enjoys, or just a task she has taken on to keep herself busy and further the illusion that she's actually doing something so dropping out of Yale was not a mistake.

Her conversation with Lane was all about this. I liked the fact that the awkwardness was palpable. These were two people who were really close, but very rarely interacted in recent episodes, so they have to cross that initial barrier to relate to each other again. Rory tries to defend her lifestyle, but it's pretty clear she's not entirely convinced even herself that what she's doing is the right thing.

Over with Lorelai, there were some funny bits with Beau. That setup was pure screwball comedy, it makes no sense in the plot, and is just dropped out of nowhere to be used for some jokes. They worked, but it was a bit odd nonetheless. I did like the scenes with her and Rory, where they both want to reach out, but just can't and as a result further alienate each other.

One curious thin about this episode was the fact that they went to commercial after what I assumed would be the end, when Rory goes to New York, but then came back for one two minute scene. Very strange. But that scene was great, the 'Riding the Bus with My Sister' clip was hilarious, it's hard to believe someone actually made that movie, but it's all too real.

So, not too much to say about this one, though next week's episode looks like it's got a lot of potential.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Across the Narrows Festival

I just got back from the epic concert event, Across the Narrows, a festival featuring The Raveonettes, Belle and Sebastian, The Polyphonic Spree and Beck, and some other bands who I did not go early enough to see. It took two hours via Metro North and Subway to get to Coney Island. The concert was held at Keyspan Park, where the minor league baseball team, the Brooklyn Cyclones, play, and it worked great for the concert. The stage was in the center of the field, so you could see from the stands, but there was also a general area where you could go as far front as you could get. I watched the first three bands I saw from very close to the stage, in a whole mess of people.

One note on the setlists below, I just put down all the songs I remembered them playing, roughly in order, but it's by no means exact. Still, it'll give you an idea of what was played.

The Raveonettes
You Say, You Lie//Attack of the Ghost Riders//Red Tan//Sleepwalking//Ode to L.A.//My Boyfriend's Back//Do You Believe Her?//Somewhere in Texas//Love in a Trashcan

So, the first band I saw was The Raveonettes. I actually started listening to them because they were going to be at this show and I figured I might as well know as many bands as I could to get my money's worth, and I ended up loving their stuff. They've got a dark 50s rock feel, like something that belongs in a David Lynch film. Their first album picks up on the simple driving elements of 50s rock, the same stuff that provided the foundations for punk. But with their most recent they branch out into 50s pop, and create some fantastic songs.

They opened with a nasty version of "You Say, You Lie," and I mean the good nasty. The song's three minutes on the album, but must have been at least five there, with some great extended instrumental stuff. That's my favorite element of seeing a band live, watching the ways they can transform the song through the medium of live performance, and this song was probably the highlight of their set, despite not being that remarkable on the album.

The most notable thing about their live show was how the lighter. poppy songs from "Pretty in Black" are turned into hard rockers like the stuff off the first album. Everything was heavier, more bass driven, and it worked really well. I don't think the crowd was that into them, but that's more because people were likely there to see Belle or Beck, and The Raveonettes were just a bonus along the way.

The other highlight of the set was "Sleepwalking," which is perfect for live playing, with its drastic changes in tone and tempo. It's always good to make people really want to her the rocking out part of the song again by interrupting it with something slower. Unfortunately they were cut off with one song to go, which I'd guess was "Uncertain Times," or at least that's the one track I really wish they'd played but didn't.

So, on the whole The Raveonettes were awesome. I was near a guitarist who either Indian or really tan and he was totally rocking out. And their singer is beautiful and has great stage presence. This is a band I definitely want to see again, I'd go to their NYC show next week, except I've got to be at school.

The Polyphonic Spree
Have a Day//It's the Sun//Hold Me Now//New Song//We Sound Amazed//Move Away and Shine (In a Dream)//What Would You Let Go//Everything Starts at the Seams//When the Fool Becomes a King

The Polyphonic Spree were my main reason for going to this show. It's a 45 minute bus ride and hour and a half train ride to my house from school. Then another two hours on trains to get to the show, then reverse all that, plus $55 for the ticket. But it's all worth it if it means getting a chance to see The Polyphonic Spree perform again. I saw them back in August of 2004 and it was the best concert I've ever been to, completely overwhelming.

I was a bit disappointed when they opened with 'Have a Day,' probably their weakest song, and choosing to open rather than the perfect opener "We Sound Amazed," made it even tougher. But they rebounded with a great rendition of 'It's the Sun,' and their set gradually kept building and building in quality.

I was able to get much closer to the band, and they were more spread out than at Irving Plaza, so I was able to observe a lot more of the instruments in use. They had an awesome electronic clarinet played by the floutist that produced some great noises. And there was also a really cool moog, an instrument played by waving you hands near it to make strange noises. Together these two and the keyboard were used to great effect during instrumental breakdown type sequences.

They played a new song which sounded pretty good, but it's tough to evaluate on one listen, especially in a live context. It was cool to hear Move Away and Shine, which is their most recent release and top notch stuff. The one misstep was a long version of "What Would You Let Go" which just died on the crowd, it's not a bad song, but it should be used more as a bridge between their bigger stuff, rather than as such a long piece in and of itself.

However, in the final couple of songs they did, they were the best I've ever seen them. "We Sound Amazed" was awesome, and was soon followed by what must have been a fifteen minute version of "When the Fool Becomes King." The Spree's songs are perfect for a live venue because they're so big and anthemic, and "Fool" is perfect because of its many stops and starts, letting them play with the audience. During the song there was an odd bit where the whole band froze and Tim wandered around looking at them. And after going through this whole song, they returned to the refrain from "It's the Sun," and just took it beyond, one of their drummers was just throwing stuff over, it was amazing. To do such a long buildup and then have this astonishing payoff, I was totally caught up in it, and the audience was thoroughly 'converted' by the end of the performance.

I would say this was even better than the first time I saw them. The sound quality was much better, as much as I loved the first show, I could barely hear during the second half of the performance, being outside worked better. And I can't wait for them to come around again.

Belle and Sebastian
Stars of Track and Field//The Wrong Girl//Electronic Renaissance//The Boy with the Arab Strap//Me and The Major//Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner//I'm a Cuckoo//If You Find Yourself Caught in Love//Judy and the Dream of Horses

Belle and Sebastian were the other major reason I went to the show. I only started listening to them earlier this year, but they've since become one of my favorite bands and I was psyched to see them live. Now, as they were getting ready to go on I saw a line of four people holding violins. This was the band's string section, and it was huge. With the four violins, there were twelve people in Belle, and only coming after The Polyphonic Spree could this seem like a managable number.

It seems like most of their fans are still most enamored of their early work, particularly "If You're Feeling Sinister." Now, I love that album, but I actually prefer their more recent stuff, "Dear Catastrophe Waitress" is their best work. But, whenever they broke out a vintage track, the crowd went wild, most notably with the opener, "Stars of Track and Field." This is one of their best songs, and it was cool to hear it live.

The band seemed a bit disorganized. With The Spree, all their songs flowed into one another, building momentum, but Belle would stop between songs to rearrange instrumentation, slowing things down. I was impressed by how many instruments everyone could play, Stuart shifted between guitars and keyboard, and the others bounced around as well. I loved when they broke out the string section, and the trumpet bits were a highlight too, though the best instrumental portion was the harmonica solo on "Me and the Major."

While their early work is great, it's less conducive to live performance. I liked hearing those songs, but you can't really get into them as an audience member. But that's part of the problem with transferring certain kinds of music to a live venue. Can you really 'rock out' to dark, slow songs? However, that wasn't a big problem, since most of the songs they played were more uptempo.

My favorite song they did "If You Find Yourself Caught in Love," a solid song on the record, but phenomenal live. I had the problem that I don't know their catalogue that well, so a lot of the time I'd be struggling to figure out which song it was until they got to the chorus. They closed with a great rendition of "Judy and the Dream of Horses," which went over big with the crowd.

After listening to them, I was contemplating leaving. I'd been standing for four hours wedged in between a whole bunch of people, and it was taking a toll. I know Beck's singles and a few other songs, but I haven't listened to too much of his stuff. However, I got some food, ate it and then saw that Stuart of Belle and Sebastian was over signing autographs, so I got my ticket signed and asked him about the upcoming Belle and Sebastian comic, which he doesn't seem to be too involved in, though I guess the fact that it's adaptations of his songs means he did play a role. So, it was cool to talk with him, and by the time that was done, Beck was on, and I figured I might as well stay.

Black Tambourine//Girl//Devil's Haircut//Guero//Loser//Minus//Emergency//Guess I'm Doing Fine//Lonesome//Hotwax//Where It's At//Get Paid//Broken Drum//Lost Cause//Do You Realize//Golden Age//Clap Hands//Sexx Laws//Mixed//Epro

I started out at the back, watching the set from a distance. They had a very cool video backdrop, which was being mixed by a video DJ. So that threw all sorts of strange colors onto the performers. It was cool to hear 'Girl' and 'Loser,' songs I knew. As the set passed, I gradually moved forward and was getting more and more drawn in. The dancy rock worked really well live and there was all kinds of odd dancing going on in the crowd. His stuff works great live and he had a surprisingly strong stage presence.

This was backed up by a guy who was described as being responsible for "percussion and body movements." He broke out the break dancing favorites, the robot, the pulling yourself up from the ground, etc, and he was wearing the obligatory 70s police sunglasses, which were widespread today.

So, I loved Beck's set. He did a really cool acoustic part in the middle, where his band sat down to eat dinner, and after a couple of songs they started to use the plates and glasses as percussion instruments, eventually performing 'Golden Age' with this dinner table backing. I'm really glad I stayed, his set was top notch.

After it was over, I was hit in the face by something. I thought that was nasty, but I looked up and there was a guy saying "Setlist," so I looked down and there was a crumpled up piece of paper with the setlist on it. So, that explains why the one setlist here that's actually correct is for the guy who's work I don't even know. So that was a nice bonus, and by this time I was so tired from standing for six hours that I was able to zone out on the ride home and it went by quickly.

All the artists were great, but I also have to respect this concert for running on time. Everyone went on pretty much when they were supposed to and the time between set changes was minimal. I'd love to see this become an annual thing. And one other note, I didn't take any of these pictures, I just linked them off people's flickrs.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

X-Men 162-176

In my continuing series of reviews tracing the history of the X-Men, I now reach uncharted territory. I'd already read everything from Giant Size to 161, but with these issues I move into unread material. Now obviously I know where most of these characters end up, but not how they get there, and that's what this journey is all about, as well as obviously reading some great comics, and with this chunk of issues, Claremont brings the book out of the funk it was in post Jean's death, and returns an urgency and sense of direction to the comic, not through an epic action story, but rather through an increased focus on character development. And it may just be coincidence, but the issue when everything took off was also the issue when Paul Smith took over on art, raising the bar on the book quite a bit.

The collection begins with the Brood storyline. This is a pretty big story in X-Men mythology, and proves that Claremont was still a fan of Alien two years after the Kitty Pryde Christmas story that clearly referenced the film. However, he uses this setup as an opportunity to do some very interesting stuff. The first issue is a Wolverine solo issue, where his healing factor battles the alien implant within him, even as he battles the Brood out in the physical world. The issue is perhaps most notable for the huge amount of first person Wolverine narration. In the early days of the character, there was very little insight into what motivated Logan, but here we begin to understand what the X-Men mean to him, that he sees them as his family now, and as a result is horrified by the prospect that he might have to kill them. This is a great plot point because it forces Wolverine's animal side and human side to battle it out. It makes sense to kill the X-Men, they're infected and a danger to him, but he can't do it, and that shows a major change in the character from where he was back in the early days of the book.

So, after this there's some stuff with the brood that isn't that exciting. Carol Danvers takes centerstage for a while, as the X-Men battle on the Brood planet. The most interesting thing here is Xavier's belief that he's failed the X-Men, and Moira's prompting which leads him to create the New Mutants, the first X-Men spinoff title.

The storyline takes a bit of a break with the first Paul Smith issue, which catches up with the characters, the best kind of Claremont writing. The best part of this storyline was Storm's transformation. It's huge scale stuff that's really cosmic and symbolic, the kind of thing Morrison would do. Storm goes out into space and dies, only to merge with a giant space-whale type entity and be reborn, appearing to the X-Men as an astral projection while her body regrows. It's really cool stuff, the sort of over the top, crazy concepts that comics are able to do like no other medium.

This sets up one of the most compelling throughlines of these issues, the transformation of Storm. In the previous review, I mentioned being frustrated at the fact that the X-Men wouldn't kill, even though it was clearly neccesary, here Storm recognizes that contradiction and decides that taking life sometimes has to be done. This comes to a head in the Japan issues, when she cuts loose with her powers, and ditches the Earth Goddess style for the mohawk and leather look. It's a really compelling character journey.

The other thing I loved in this set of issues was the ongoing subplot about Cyclops and Madelyne Pryor. This whole thing has been rendered moot by what happens later with the return of Jean, but with this read I'm trying (pretty successfully) to journey back into the mindset of a reader from the 80s, when Jean was dead, and there was no way to know exactly who Madelyne is. It's a great mystery, to have Scott run into someone who looks exactly like Jean, it keeps the issues Jean represented front and center without having to actually ressurect the character, and thus undo the dramatic impact of the actual Phoenix storyline. I don't get the need to bring Jean back, she wasn't a particularly interesting character in and of herself, it was more what she represented to Scott, and that part is still alive.

Over the course of the issues, we see Scott and Madeylne growing closer, all the while Scott is caught up in a web of grief and fear that she may in fact be Dark Phoenix. This is a nice example of using the genre to address the very real issue of people who try to substitute for the loss in their lives by finding a replacement, and placing undue expectations on that person. I think Claremont's writing during the Maddie/Scott sequences was some of his best, and notably it was fairly removed from the need for action scenes, it's just straight ahead romance, and that's one of Claremont's major strengths as a writer.

It's a strength on display in the really fun interactions between Kitty and Colossus. Kitty is trying to convince him she's old enough, but Colossus won't have it, and this leads to numerous interactions where Piotr cluelessly leads himself into another situation where they're kissing, and he's befuddled as to how they got there.

Paul Smith's art in these issues is phenomenal. His line work is striking, making really good looking people very capable of conveying emotion. He also does a lot of really interesting layouts. I'm not sure if it's coincidence, but around this time we see a lot less captioning from Claremont, instead relying on the pictures to tell the story.

Following the Brood Claremont does another classic storyline, as the X-Men encounter the Morlocks. This is a chance to see the darker Storm in action, and introduces more characters who will become a part of the X-Men mythos.

This is followed by a trip to Japan for Wolverine's wedding. Storm is again the highlight, but there's also a great issue where Rogue and Wolverine go out to bust some heads. Rogue is a character who's become an institution of the series, and it's interesting to see her start. She has to prove herself to the team, and by the end of that issue, I was sold on her. Even the exaggerated Southern accent works. The Japan story is also notable for the brilliant closing image of Wolverine, having been rejected by M'iko, shedding a tear as the issue closes. It's great art from Smith and a really striking antidote to the image of Wolverine as hard killer. The whole storyline in fact shows off Wolverine's human side better than anything else Claremont has done.

From there we get the return of Mastermind in issue 175, an issue that's a bit too long, and mainly has you wondering, how this will turn out not to really be Phoenix. It does end nicely, with Scott and Maddie getting married. This leads to a fun issue where Scott and Maddie battle a giant squid, and also have a lot of sex. This reminds me of old Hollywood movies in that we end a panel with Maddie saying "This old crate can fly itself for a while," then the next panel has a caption that says "Later," and Scott saying "That took my breath away." I think we know what went down between panels. And the issue ends with Scott deciding he wants to have a normal life with Maddie, and a caption saying "The Beginning."

I would say these issues go beyond the legendary Byrne run and stand up to the best comics being done today. The strong focus on character development, augmented by action stuff, recalls the best years of Buffy, and seeing Storm, Scott, Wolverine and Kitty go through major changes is great reading. There seem to be real consequences to every action, and the concepts Claremont works on here would define the book in the years after he left it. Reading this, it's easy to see why it was the most popular book at the time, it's easy to care about the characters and their world. That goodwill has kept the book on top of the charts for twenty years, and it's all due to the work of Chris Claremont, helped out now by Paul Smith.