Friday, March 10, 2006

Pretty Persuasion

I've found that writing up the films I've been watching recently has helped me find some new layers of depth and really understand the director's intention in creating the film. When I do my own films, I really consider the thematic implication of everything that happens, and I'd imagine if you're doing a feature, you're going to think about every decision you make and why things go the way they do in the story. There's social implications to every choice you make, intentional or not they're there, and as a result, every work is something of a social document. That's why I'm planning to do more pieces in the style of my reviews of Visitor Q, and The Doom Generation, reviews that are more about analyzing what ended up on screen than just saying whether or not the movie was good.

So, Pretty Persuasion is one of these. It's not a film that I loved, but I think there's plenty of interesting stuff to discuss within it. If I was pitching this film to a studio, I would describe it as "Mean Girls...on crack!" It fits right into that cliquey high school girl subgenre that's usually great fodder for dark comedy, as in Heathers and the afforementioned Mean Girls.

This movie certainly owes a debt to Heathers, but that film was completely crippled by the ridiculously ugly clothing and production design. It may have been in style at the time, but you've got to wonder what they were thinking. Heathers did some bold stuff, but it's at heart a really simple story of a boy and girl in love, there's the sense that the murders are just an exaggerated version of the sort of pranks that appear in Mean Girls. Both Mean Girls and Heathers had an essentially likable character at the center, and even when we started to sour on her, we always had someone even worse, the queen bee, to look to and see that our heroine isn't really that bad.

This film changes things by focusing on the queen bee, Kimberly, who is expertly portrayed by Evan Rachel Wood. Between this and her performance in Thirteen, it's clear that she's the best teen actress around right now, taking on challenging parts and totally nailing them. The final scene of the film is a really stunning piece of acting, it falls entirely on her to sell the emotional close of the film, and she pulls it off with aplomb. I think she's got really good things ahead of her, and hopefully she'll continue to choose this artsier filmmaking over more stereotypical teen material. I never want to see her at the end of a slasher's knife.

Much like both Visitor Q and The Doom Generation, this is a confrontational film, assaulting the viewer with taboo subject matter, here voiced by teen girls, adding to the inappropriateness of it. If you apply real world rules to the film, it's a bit tough to accept, but if you consider it in light of the heightened reality concept, it makes sense. Basically, every action is pushed beyond what it would be in our world as a way of confronting the viewer with the reality of the behavior.

So, when Kimberly first shows Randa around the school, she goes on a variety of politically incorrect rants, which I thought were really funny. The film works because it puts us in an odd place with respect to our protagonist. We don't like her, if you were to meet her in real life, you'd want to stay far away, but the entertainment of the film comes from watching her flout societal conventions and go on inappropriate, and at times hilarious rants, such as her discussion of her racial preferences.

The film is aware of its position with regards to other films in the genre, and as a result, it has to up the ante. That's why she has to be so extreme in discussing the other kids in school, just being mean isn't enough anymore, she needs the racial slurs, or the discussion about fucking the dog, to make us really understand how messed up she is.

The basic thesis of the film seems to be that society evaluates young women based on their looks, and in the mass of identical blondes seen in the first scene, it's tough to stand out. The fact that all these people are gathered for a casting session shows how these people have molded themselves to fit the Hollywood image, however, as Kimberly makes clear, just fitting that image is not enough, she needs something to set her apart.

This is what leads to her elaborate scheme to shame Anderson and find her own fame. Her friends provide an interesting counterpoint to Kimberly. Kimberly expresses jealousy at Britney's blonde hair and blue eyes, which combined with the constant derogatory talk about Jews would seem to construct American society as fascist, enforcing certain standards in the same way that the Nazis did, though this time the people hurt themselves. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Randa who is totally exempt from traditional notions of beauty because her headdress. If these other girls define themselves by her appearance, Randa is someone who really is about what's on the inside. Yet, she seems relatively empty on the inside, in this film, female sexuality is a critical weapon, and because she doesn't have it, Randa has very little agency.

Kimberly is consciously trying to put herself beyond traditional morality, freely using whatever is at her disposal, most notably her sexuality, as a way of getting what she wants, while at the same time playing up her young age and innocence when it can work to her advantage. This dichotomy is most evident in the scene in the court room, where we cut between the two different presentations of the letter.

While this act works with older people, she winds up in trouble with people her own age. She clearly is jealous of Britney, if for no other reason than that she has Troy. What drove Troy away from her is the deviant sexuality in her past. She can act nonchalant about everything, and it may not matter to her, but she has to deal with others, and Troy is clearly not so accepting of her choices. Troy claims that he was always in love with Britney, and considering her slightly dim demeanor, and blonde hair, it's implied that he's attracted to the innocent front she presents. Kimberly is completely in control of every sexual situation she's in, but someone like Troy needs to be in control himself, he could not handle having a girlfriend who's more sexually experienced than him. So, she's not really lying when she says that she broke up with Troy because he wasn't ready to have sex with her, she changes the axis of causation, but the basic power relationship remains the same.

Over the course of the film, Kimberly schemes to turn Britney into her. This begins with the hair dying, and culminates when she outs Britney as a lying schemer, leading to her breakup with Troy. She knows that Troy is someone with a very traditional sense of morality, and through her plan, Kimberly is able to tarnish Britney with something that she can never get rid of. The film is all about people who made choices that are wrong in some way, and then have to live with the consequences of them.

For Kimberly, it's the anal sex, which dooms her chances with Troy. For Anderson, it's the skirt, indulging in a fantasy version of an illegal act that means his wife leaves him. For Britney and Randa, it's going along with Kimberly's plan, and for the reporter, it's the decision to sleep with Kimberly and engage in the exact crime that she's reporting about with outrage. Doing something bad locks you into a situation you might not want to be in, and forces you to live with the consequences.

Kimberly's utterly selfish view of the world seems to be largely motivated by her parents. Her mother will barely talk to her, and her father is impressing his racist viewpoints into her, his cold, selfishness leading to the same behavior in his daughter. The only time we Kimberly letting down her guard is when legtimately trying to reach out to her parents, and she always winds up rejected. What's so tough about the failure of the case is that in her father's treatment of her, she can see a reflection of how she treated her friends, thinking of them only in terms of how they could serve her.

The film's ending leaves us with some conflicted emotions. Kimberly confesses her utter manipulativeness to Britney and alienates her only remaining friend, and watchhing TV, she begins to break down, recognizing that she's now alone, and her greatest aspiration is to be this dumb female on a TV show. That's what she did it all for, that's what Randa died for, and it seems like the role on the show is as hollow as the life that she's leading. What lends the scene irony is the fact that as she's at her lowest ebb, feeling that she's lost the part, we know that the producers are going to recast, and that in fact her plan did work. So, after the film we could easily see her returning to happiness upon learning she's been cast, but it seems more like she's going to take a serious look at the direction of her life and the way she treats the people around her.

I liked the film, but didn't love it, and there's a lot of issues I have with it. The biggest one is in the revelation that Kimberly did all this because Troy broke up with her. Because Troy is such a cipher, a generic pretty boy, it seems odd that such a powerful girl should act out all to get back at him. She even admits in the movie that it's a cliche, and it leaves you with a conflicted feeling, the idea that the only reason this really empowered female character acted was to get back at her friend for stealing her man. Now, you could argue that the film is in fact commenting on the way that society turns girls into objects, who seek to define themselves through their relationship with men, and that's a valid take on the film, but at the same time, on the surface level, what you see is this incredibly powerful character basically reduced to just a jealous girl at the end.

Another big issue I have with the film is the structure. I think the flashback stuff was unnecessarily convluted, largely because the one month gap happens for no reason, and just strands us in this point in the future, where apparently nothing has changed, except for Britney's hair color. Eventually we figure everything out, and obviously some of the flashback structure is essential to preserve the suspense of the trial, but I think it could have been done in a less clumsy way.

Part of what might have hurt it is that after one month later, the film feels very different. I feel like the film has too much plot. The most fun part of the film is just watching this character move through the school, interacting with Randa was great fun. The film's greatest strength is its main character, and the big problem with the second chunk is that there's so much plot to get through, we can't just enjoy hanging out with her. The whole trial thing takes away from what we really want to see, Kimberly moving through her world.

Obviously, the trial contributes a lot thematically, presenting the key example of Kimberly using her sexuality as a weapon, but it's too long and there's just not enough entertainment within. Also, there's the sense that some of the content is there for shock value, something that's amplified by constantly harping on how the character is only fifteen.

I was happy to see Tina Holmes a.k.a Maggie from Six Feet Under, even if she only had a couple of lines in the whole film. And Stark Sands, the guy who played Troy, was also on Six Feet Under, as the boy Claire meets at Aunt Sarah's in season two.

Ultimately, this is an entertaining film, but one that falls prety to some contradictions within itself. Is it a film about how women can empower themselves through their sexuality, or is it saying that ultimately all the actions that a woman takes are in an attempt to get a man? I like to think that Kimberly is more interested in acting out this scenario, viewing her world as a laboratory in which to test emotional responses, as she struggles to remain above emotion herself, ultimately succumbing to her humanity at the end.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Doom Generation

Gregg Araki's Mysterious Skin was one of the best films of 2005, and it prompted me to go back and check out some of his earlier stuff, starting with The Doom Generation. I went in pretty much blind on this one, except for the knowledge that Araki was a leader of the "New Queer Cinema" movement on the 1990s, and also that it starred James Duval, better known as Frank the Bunny from Donnie Darko. Like Visitor Q yesterday, Doom Generation is a pretty weird film that takes place in a heightened reality, that's slightly askew from our world.

The film's opening is quite strong, starting with the buzzing synth of Nine Inch Nails' "Heresy" and frenetic strobing images of people in a club. A title announces that this is "A Heterosexual Movie from Gregg Araki," which I initially figured was just a joke about his reputation, but turned out to have some more thematic significance to the film as a whole. Araki uses the same font as he did in Mysterious Skin, it's interesting to see certain directors always sticking with the same type, such as Kubrick's preference for Futura.

When the film proper begins, the characters' style of speech is notable. They never sound quite natural, sometimes using bigger words than you'd expect them to, and other times using slightly odd turns of phrase, particularly when insulting people. James Duval as Jordan reminds me of a young Keanu, speaking with a perpetual stoner drawl, always about thirty seconds behind what's going on. Despite all the strange stuff they go through, he remains an innocent until the finale. His most notable cluelessness is in the relationship with X, there's clear homosexual undertones, practically overtones, and yet he doesn't seem to get it at all. Scenes are set up to maximize their tension, most notably in the scene by the bed, where they always seem just a few inches away from kissing.

The thematic significance of this becomes apparent later, for most of the film it's just subtext to the relationship between Amy and Jordan. Amy is someone who's incredibly worldly, always desiring to be in control. She takes on the traditionally masculine role in the relationship, driving the car and usually initiating sex, while Jordan plays the role of the ditzy airhead. Normally if you have the attractive stranger, like X, come into the car it would be the man trying to get him out, while the woman is attracted to him. Here it's flipped, which makes for an interesting dynamic.

For Amy, X represents a sexual and intellectual equal. He takes the initiative in their relationship and she seems almost in awe of him. In the scenes where she has sex with Jordan it's all about closeness and love, whereas when she has sex with X, it's more about the spectacle, the novelty of this man and his skill. This is particularly evident in the cowboy hat scene, where Jordan observes her and sees a sexual enjoyment that's deeper than what she experienced with him. I also really like the aesthetics of that scene, the hat and the way the scene is shot make it seem like she's a rodeo rider, using this guy as her own entertainment device.

So the film sets up a basic conflict between the somewhat naive love she has for Jordan, and the more experimental pure sexuality of X. It's not a straight love triangle (pun intended) because Jordan has an attraction to X. He seems almost unaware of it, but it's evident that there's something more than just friendship between these two. The only time he seems to object to X being with Amy is when he wanders away from the room after they're having sex, an action that could be interpreted as despair prompting him out into the desert to reflect, or simply giving them space for what he's doing, almost like a child who caught his parents having sex.

Getting away from the narrative elements, I loved the aesthetics of the film, most notably in the design of the hotel rooms. The initial red room, with cold blue light was very David Lynch, and the way Amy was lit prefigured what Lynch would do with Patricia Arquette in Lost Highway. In that scene, there was also the funny bit with the bluescreen showing through the news anchors' clothes, a nice visual, even if the overall tone of that newscast was a bit too knowingly ironic. The later black and white checker hotel room was another fun bit of design.

The film is very much a mid 90s indie movie. It's got Parker Posey, a character using speed, absurdly excessive violence and frequent trips to a convienence store. At times, the stylized dialogue and bizarre situations can be a bit distancing. It's a case of seeing through the surface sheen and finding the emotions underneath. If you only look on the surface, this is a pretty soulless, excessive movie, you have to dig through that sensationalist stuff to find the real core.

The end of the film takes things to a stylistic melting point, pushing the violence and imagery over the top. If you look at the top of the film, it says "A Heterosexual Movie," which would imply that the film exists within the code of heterosexual society. So, a threesome is okay, but after Amy leaves we see the homosexual relationship between X and Jordan finally about to happen. At the moment he makes a proposition to him, the gang invades their space and attacks Jordan.

Why do they attack Jordan and not X? I would argue it's because X has proven himself to be the superior partner. If we look at the film as a competition between Jordan and X, it's clear that X is the more in control manly guy, even if he does seem to have a strong bi streak. As the film progresses, we at first see Jordan and Amy exclusively together, except for that one time sleeping with X that didn't mean anything. Then they have sex while Jordan's not around, and ultimately there's an implicit agreement that they will share her. By the end, they're on an equal level, flipping a coin to decide who will sleep with her first. There's a critical moment where she looks at the coin, and could easily lie and choose Jordan over X, but she doesn't, and it's more clear than ever here that X has moved ahead of Jordan in her affections.

He opens her up to new things sexually, that she then uses when she's with Jordan, and ultimately X feels free to move in on the two of them and make it a three. This moment revisits the earlier scene where we see the three of them in bed together, but there it's played as the height of love for Jordan and Amy, alone together, despite the presence of X. Here it's Jordan who gets lost in the shuffle, he's no longer enough for her own his own, he needs the aid of X.

So, Jordan is now irrelevant, he has been replaced. The gang at the end is representative of normalizing society, competition between two men over a woman is okay, but for the two men to be together themselves is unacceptable, one of them has to go, and clearly it's going to be Jordan. He's the boy, while X is a man. Considering this is a film where the characters' primary mode of expression is their sexuality, the moment when Jordan is castrated is equivalent to death, he now has no chance to compete with X, and as a result, he must go.

The sequence itself is harrowing and intense. The use of the American flag, national anthem and swatiska by the same group is meant to equate the restrictions within the country on homosexuality with similar restrictions in nazi Germany. This gang of blonde haired, blue eyed men is out to destroy those who are not compatible with their worldview. The moment when Amy turns their weapon against them is particularly satisfying.

In some respects, I wish the film ended on that dramatically intense note, instead of the just there finale, but that scene is crucial for a couple of reasons. One is to show that X and Amy are now together, and Jordan is left behind. A new relationship is forged between the two adults, the two men, and the child is left behind. The other is to show that even after all this extreme violence, things are still going on the way they were before.

I'm not sure if it was out at the time, but the title may very well be a reference to the videogame, Doom. Araki's statement seems to be that this generation is so used to extreme violence that it is numb to them, and even after all they've done, the only X has to say is "Dorito?" The weak and innocent are left behind, it is the strong cynics who survive.

I really liked the film, I think it's visually inventive and thematically challenging, even if it did drag a little bit at times. That's largely because there is very little narrative, and there's no traditional tension. In theory, we're worried that the police will catch them, but that's not really a pressing concern. It's basically these people living their lives, upended by a burst of ultraviolence in the finale. In that respect, it's not unlike the late 60s youth films, like Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, that both relied on the romantic myth of the open road and the power of progressive youth to combat outmoded society.

Visitor Q

Takashi Miike is a person who forces everyone to reassess their lives and wonder just how much time they've wasted. Why is this? It's because the man has directed 67 films since 1991, an average of 4.5 films a year. This is unheard of, no one since Fassbinder has produced at this level, and as far as I know, Miike doesn't have the coke habit backing him up. This man is doing so much, it makes the rest of look like slackers.

Most likely because of his ridiculous speed, a lot of his films end up feeling like first drafts. Gozu is a film that could likely have been a masterpiece if he'd spent some more time tinkering and tightening, but I don't think Miike's interested in doing that. Some directors seek perfection, while others are content to just make movies and let them out into their world, the sanctity of their oevure be damned.

Having seen most of Miike's high profile work (Audition, Ichi, Gozu), I ventured into the less charted realm of Visitor Q, a movie that while not his best film, is in many ways his most coherent and comprehensible. The film takes place in an odd world, but the nature of that world remains stable, and though the narrative is dreamlike, it never drifts off into the ambiguous reality bending that has ended the other Miike films I've seen.

That said, Visitor Q is probably the most difficult of Miike's films to take because of its mundane mise en scene and verite shooting style. At its most basic level, the film is about the way a mysterious visitor, "Q," brings a broken family together. That sounds like a pretty heartwarming tale, and in some ways, the film is a satisfying emotional story of familial togetherness, but it is a journey filled with some of the most bizarre, disturbing images you're going to encounter in any film.

The opening title of the film introduces to a sexual encounter between a daughter and her father. It's a sequence that's disturbing because it's played very low key. There's no heightened emotion or moral questioning, it's just the daughter seducing her father by playing on the innate attraction of a male for a female. The scene introduces the video motif, in which the father always seems to videotape events he didn't mean to, creating embarressing consequences.

From here, the film has a title asking the question "Have you ever been hit on the head," and proceeds to show us a little viginette in which the man we just saw is inexplicably hit on the head by a random guy. Another intertitle poses the question "Have you ever hit your mother," and shows us a viginette with an ultrabratty kid whipping his mother.

At this point, I thought the film would be a series of darkly comic viginettes, all responding to these questions. However, there aren't any more questions, and from here the film begins to examine the relationships within this family. For some reason, the father invites the guy who hit him to live at the house, and from there, we experience the odd life of this family.

With a Miike film, there's always the question of the line between shock and art. There's a lot of boundary pushing material here, and you can either choose to embrace the film's world or get hung up on these individual things. By the time the man decides to have sex with a corpse and gets stuck inside, you're either with the film or you're not. Things might not make sense in terms of our world, but the whole film takes place in a heightened reality.

The way I see it, most of the shocking behaviors are just amplified versions of common behavior. So, the spoiled son who orders his mother around is a common thing, but here it's made physical, by having him literally whip her rather than just verbally castigate her. It's a different language that Miike is using to express the character's emotions. The wife's heroin habit is just a heightened version of the prescription drugs that many woman do use to help them get through the day.

One of the central motifs of the film is the father's constant taping of events. He views everything around him as potential fodder for sensationalist news reports, to the point that when an attempt to interview some youth goes awry, and he is sodomized with a microphone, he decides to run the clip, and embarresses himself in front of the nation. He wants people to play characters in his drama, allowing his son to be urinated upon because it will make for good footage. When his female reporter sidekick won't go along with his plan, he kills her, getting out the rage he felt when he got rejected by his daughter. If you read the fact that he came too early when having sex with his daughter as a deficiency of love, his outburst against the reporter is the father letting go of his rage at his failures as a parent.

The visitor means different things to each character. For the father, he's a partner, manning the camera so that he can begin to experience real life more. For the wife, he is a more willing sexual partner, opening her up to new possible pleasure. Again, Miike draws on the lactation motif, and those scenes are pretty graphic. What the visitor does is open up the wife to her own sexual pleasure, rather than use as an object during his prostitution encounters, and as a result, she is able to reconnect with her husband.

At the end of the film, the son says that the visitor came to destroy their family. This is accurate, what the visitor does is force every member of the family to confront their own flaws, and overcome them. So, the wife reclaims her agency, and will no longer be a victim of her son's aggression. For the son, the visitor shows him his own brattiness, and he realizes that he has to grow up. And when he hits the daughter, he makes her realize the danger of being a prostitute, prompting her to return home.

The reconciliation of the family is quite evident in the film's final image, both children at their mother's breast. So, the family has been destroyed and now reconnected. The mother has her children again, and husband and wife bond to defend their son from the bullies. It's a crucial moment when the father stops worrying about what's on the videotape and instead chooses to stand in defense of his son, cutting into the bully's head. It's a simple emotion, but portrayed through this bizarre, extreme act of violence. That's how the whole film works, it plays emotions out through these bizarre images and extreme acts of violence.

For example, the husband is someone who engages with prostitutes, who feign sexual attraction for him, sexual attraction that is actually an act. So, when he has sex with the dead body of the young reporter, he thinks that she's getting wet for him, and he does the wonderful speech about the mysteries of life. However, he soon finds out that what he thought was attraction is in fact, quite literally, shit. The young girls are feeding him this shit to trap him and ensure that they make money. His wife acts to literally detach him from these young girls and bring her back to him, when they cut up the body together.

It's a heightened reality where this sort of thing is possible. You're not meant to ask something like why don't the police come after the kids, that's not the point, it's a film that exists almost entirely on a metaphorical level, to understand it, you have to move past the extreme nature of the images and find the emotion underneath. It's not a perfect film, but it's a rich, experimental work that is both disturbing, and strangely familiar underneath it all. A lot of films, even some of Miike's own, can get lost in weird images and lose sight on narrative and emotion, this film manages to use the images to serve the narrative and ensure that the audience feels what the characters are going through, even if what that is is something very strange.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Seriously, Crash?

Well, I just finished going through the Academy Awards on tape, Stewart was great, 3 Six Mafia was weird, and then things went down hill when it came to the best picture, a completely inexplicable decision. Crash is a film that's so decidedly good, not great, it's a strong misjudge to call it best picture.

Now, I have issues with Crash on two fronts. The first is that it's so clearly melodramatic, in the worst sense of the word. Brokeback is a great example of melodrama done well, allowing the choices that the characters make to seal them in their own cycles of suffering and hurt. Crash seems more like the writers were manipulating a bunch of chess pieces, with each piece representing an ethnic stereotype.

The second is that Crash is such a poor example of the Altmanesque structure, something that's especially apparent when you have a whole sequence giving tribute to Altman just an hour before. Altman's work was structurally similar, but much looser and more real. He would have taken 3 hours to tell the story that Crash tells, and what really hurts Crash is that there's too much for the running time, so that you have no time to relax and know the characters.

And of course giving Crash the best picture when Magnolia didn't even receive a nomination is like calling a classic rock cover band down at your local bar one of the greatest artists of all time. Crash attempts to reach the emotional heights of Magnolia and doesn't even come close.

Awarding Crash and avoiding Magnolia illuminates one of the primary problems with how people view film, and even live their lives. There's this belief that ordinary life isn't interesting enough to be worth watching, everything needs to be packaged in these tight, manipulated narratives, the more realistic drifting of Magnolia or Wong Kar-Wai is seen as insubstantial, even though Magnolia's scope dwarfs Crash. Why can't people see that just because John C. Reilly didn't harass Bill Macy a few days before he helps him at the store, it doesn't mean that it's not of significance?

What's really weird for me is the fact that Crash came back. As I said in my original review of the film, "The crowd I was at with this film didn't really seem to like it, practically everyone was gone before the final shot even ended," and after a few weeks, the film was gone from theaters and it seemed to be over. The reviews when it first came out were alright, of the 3 star variety, but somehow it got annointed as a best picture candidate, and then somehow became best picture. Well played, Lions Gate, you must have run quite the campaign.

Ultimately, it doesn't really matter that Crash won the award, it doesn't change the content of the films themselves, but the thing about the Academy Award is that it pretty much ensures a film's place in history. In fifty years, people probably won't remember most of what came out this year, but you'll always have 2005 - Crash down there, and it's sad that such a mediocre film wound up as the one film to go in the historical "time capsule."

And Crash's view of humanity really bothers me. We are all more than just skin deep, and I really hope that people out in the world don't think of each other just by where your parents and grandparents came from. For a film that is supposedly about hope, Crash instead seems to present a vision of people so trapped in the mindset that ethnicity and race determine who a person is, it's incredibly defeatist about the direction of humanity. It's a lot more interesting to watch real developed characters "crash" into each other, than a bunch of stereotypes with a slight twist.

So, if you've seen Crash, and haven't seen Magnolia, go watch it, it's like Crash but with emotional involvement, real characters, and the boldest use of film technique you'll ever see.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Sopranos: Anticipating Season Six

A week from today, we'll at least see the season premiere of the sixth season of The Sopranos. It's been nearly two years since the last episode aired, and it's been quite a long wait, but if Chase gives us something as strong as last season, the wait will be more than worth it. Judging from The Trailer up on YouTube, it's going to be an intense season, and that's good. There's a lot of long running plot strands that can finally come to a head. Because the show will be ending, Chase is liberated to have more major changes for the characters than he might be inclined to do if he still had a bunch of seasons still to go.

Last season was really interesting for the way it showed us Tony at his best and worst. The series has always played with the dichotomy between Tony the bad gangster and Tony the good family man, but I don't think it's ever been as pronounced as in year five. At times, he seemed to take a sadistic pleasure in inflicting pain on the people around him, something that was really evident in 'Cold Cuts,' in which Janice goes through anger management counseling, and seems to be doing better. Her ability to control her anger seems to undermine Tony's excuse that his anger problems are genetic, and jealous of what she's accomplished, he goads her into a rage, the episode ending with him walking out grinning at what he's accomplished.

At the same time, Tony is never more attractive than in the brilliant "Marco Polo," where we see Tony back in his element, entertaining Carmela's father at his birthday party. When he has sex with Carmela at the end of the episode, you really want them to get back together. The man himself is a contradiction, and by exploring that, you're left in a really tough place emotionally.

What I'm really interested in seeing explored this year is Tony's relationship with his kids, particularly A.J. At the end of season five, we see A.J. saying that he may want to be a party planner, but selling admission to a keg party for 16 year olds may actually be the start of a journey into the world of his father. Tony's whole justification for his involvement in the mafia is that it's for his family, he's sacrificing his own morality so that they can get better. So, how will it make him, and Carmela, feel if A.J. gets involved? Tony will certainly be conflicted, torn between his natural reluctance to see his son engaged in something so dangerous, and a pride that he is man enough to do it.

A major theme of the series is generational transition and the conflict that comes from it. So, exploring those issues with A.J. would be a great opportunity to add another generational layer to what Tony and Junior had back in the first season. At the same time, Meadow will presumably attempt to define herself outside of the mafia life, but if she does get married, the wedding will surely be a mafia spectacle. Finn is already wary about what he's getting into after the incident with Vito in "Unidentified Black Males."

And Meadow's aspirations will also force Carmela to further examine the choices she made. In taking back Tony, is she in essence exonerating him of his philandering and immoral behavior. Seeing Meadow moving further away for the life may make her more aware of the moral compromises she's made in her own life. Her whole character is summed up in the scene in which she goes to a psychiatrist who tells her "You chose what was easy over what was right," and it's that choice that torments her. And will her easy choice end up dooming Meadow's chance of making a life on her own?

I'm really interested to see how much the death of Adrianna has affected Christopher. It's a two year gap, so it's not emotionally raw anymore, but has he tried to start another relationship, or is he playing the field and remaining primarily committed to work. Choosing to kill Adrianna would probably make him an adult in the eyes of Tony, an equal, but will what he did end up morally plauging him? I hear that Christopher gets involved with Hollywood again, his screenwriting arc was one of my favorite things on the show, so I'd love to see that return. That was critical because it was his only out, and if he's getting more entrenched in Tony's world, he may want to start finding an out.

For all of the mob characters, the arrest of Johnny Sack looms over everything they do. This is a guy they knew, with a family, and he's in prison. When Tony flees through the snow at the end of season five, it's like he's trying to outrace what will inevitably come to him, be it in the form of a bullet or jail, he will not get out of the life unscathed.

Even if Tony were to avoid death or prison, I think it would only be possible by sacrificing someone close to him. I feel like Tony dying would be too obvious for Chase, who always seems to subvert audience expectations, while going to prison may not provide enough closure. If Tony was to save himself by sacrificing someone close to him, like Christopher, it would be a fitting end for the show, whose main theme seems to be Tony's inability to form strong relationships due to his own selfishness and insecurity.

Season five was structured much like Angel's fifth season, in that the first chunk was built out of standalone episodes that all tied back to stuff from earlier in the series, focusing primarily on Tony and one other character. So, there was a lot of storytelling going on, plots moved quickly, because most issues were dealt with in one episode, and then the character wouldn't appear for a while. And then at the end everything comes together and the plots come to a head.

I think this worked because at this point the cast is so large it's impossible to have meaningful material for everyone in each episode. Instead we got these really focused substance-filled episodes. After watching each episode I was saying "That's one of the best episodes they've ever done," then the next episode would air and I'd be like "No, that is one of the best they've done." Other than 'In Camelot,' there's not one less than brilliant episode in the whole season.

That said, if they moved back to a more soap operatic style, developing plot threads model I wouldn't object. With Tony and Carmela back together, it'll be easier to deal with more characters at once, and with the loss Adrianna and Tony B, the cast is slightly more managable.

One thing I'd like to see followed up is Artie's role in Tony's dream. The dream seemed to suggest that Tony somehow holds Artie responsible for his involvement in gang life, and I'd be curious to see if that was just something they threw in there, or if it's foreshadowing of a future plot point. Artie is Tony's only friend outside of the mafia, and their relationship is very complex. There's a scene of Artie violently pulling the table cloth out from under someone's meal at his restaurant in the trailer, so we may be seeing some rage from Artie.

One of the incredible things about the show is that there's such a deep bench of interesting characters. When you can do a riveting storyline about Vito and Finn, there's pretty much no limit to what the show can pull off. It's largely because the show has this overlying question of the morality of the mob, so storylines that might be filler on other shows are instead used to explore issues that aren't directly related to Tony. Tony's wealthy and powerful, so it's worth it for him to risk jail for the mob, but if you're a low level gangster, is it worth getting your face bashed in when you're not making much more money than you could in a real job? The fundamental issue is that the mob isn't needed anymore, they were designed to help Italians get ahead, but now Italians have completely assimilated, but the mob remains, a relic of an earlier age.

That's what the whole show is about. Right from the first episode, it's established that Tony feels like he missed out on the best days and is only around for the decline. The meta interest in films like Goodfellas and The Godfather ties in with this, he's presented with images of this idealized mafia, a contrast to the rather mundane life he leads.

The Sopranos is easily the best show on TV right now, and my third favorite of all time. It's so well shot, and thematically deep it makes everyone else look like they're not even trying.

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries

For a while now, I've been hearing that the new Battlestar Galactica is an excellent series, and eventually I heard it enough that I decided it was time to check it out for myself, and I'm really glad I did. The 3 hour miniseries that kicks things off is one of the most effective first episodes of any TV series I've seen, and I'm instantly interested in seeing the rest of the series.

In thinking about works of fiction, I realized that a lot of the stuff I really like involves a "personal apocalypse," a journey in which the characters are broken down and come out the other side changed. I would argue a work that really succeeds in doing this is more epic than what's genuinely considered a major film, such as a war film or historical epic. The film that prompted this concept was Magnolia, a film that when you describe it doesn't seem that important, it's just nine people whose stories interact with each other. However, the film makes you sympathize with the characters, and really understand them, and then proceeds to destroy the worlds they live in and leave them changed by the end. It's not something that's important on a cosmic scale, but for the people involved in the story, what's happening is the most important thing that ever will.

Basically, you should set your film at the most important point in your characters' lives, the point at which the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and this is something that Battlestar does for humanity as a whole. This is the day where the lives that everyone lived are completely destroyed, and they're forced to rebuild anew, both humanity as a whole, and many of the characters we follow.

A few weeks ago, I did a post in which I contemplated the idea that it was impossible to make a great film based on real events, such as the Holocaust, that remain emotionally charged. The reason for this is that it's difficult to separate your intrinsic reaction to the events, the disgust at what happened, from the reaction to what is depicted in the film. It's like using real events is a shortcut to an emotional reaction. And at the end of the article, I suggested that the best way to examine these real events is not to do a film based on history, but rather to set the story in a hypothetical future where you can fully explore the event without having to deal with the reactions that people have to things that really happened. Battlestar Galactica does exactly that.

The show is designed to examine the way that America reacted to the return of a major threat after the letdown of the Cold War, specifically the events of 9/11, and this series does a better job of directly engaging with the questions we're facing now than any of the movies that attempt to use historical events as the basis for examination of similar issues (i.e. Good Night and Good Luck, Munich). With the camoflague of science fiction, BG is able to address a lot of really pressing issues, while at the same time telling a strong character based story, and that's pretty much all you can expect from a piece of fiction.

Now, I haven't seen the original show, so I'm not sure how much of this was designed to draw from or expand upon what that did, but the business about decommisioning the Galactica at the beginning seemed to be a meta comment on the idea that this concept is old and not really suited for the modern world. Alternatively, it's meant to parallel US military policy pre 9/11, where military equipment belonged more in a museum than in action. Or perhaps it's just a shortcut to provide exposition, either way, the really long shot going through the ship was well done and an effective way of setting things up.

To backtrack a bit, the opening was really effective. In some respects, the titles are a copout, violating show, don't tell, but at the same time, I feel like just getting the exposition out of the way in this manner, rather than trying to fit it into dialogue is smart. We need to get to know about this world, and this was the fastest way to do it, if something works, it doesn't matter if it's "cheap" storytelling, especially when the stuff you're talking about isn't really part of the story you want to tell. The introduction of Six was quite striking, and the subsequent space stuff, where the debri smacks the camera, sending it into orbit pretty effectively let you know what the style of the show would be.

The effects work reminds me a lot of Firefly, particularly in the documentary style camerawork in the effects sequences. As I mentioned before, the "camera" in that opening sequence seems to get hit and sent off into space, even though there's obviously no camera. However, I think that's quite effective in making it feel like a real world. This is an extension of what Star Wars did with the arcing camera movement through space, lending a reality to the effects work that wasn't present in the traditional static model shot.

Some of the effects work looks obviously CG, but on the whole it's fantastic, particularly the big battle with the Cylons at the end, while the ships are waiting to jump. And even though the zoom may be a trick taken from Firefly, it's so well integrated into this show's style that it's just another tool, not a gimmick. Even though I liked Firefly, I think in this one episode, BG goes beyond what they did in the whole series.

Joss' work definitely has a slow burn period, the first season of all his series are just ok, and in the case of Buffy and Angel, don't even begin to hint at where things will go. However, in today's TV market, you don't really have the chance to do a slow burn and take time to "find the series." This show reminds me of Six Feet Under or The Sopranos, in the way that the first episode seems to lay out exactly what the series wants to do, and also tells a riveting semi-standalone story in and of itself. If there wasn't a series after this, I think it would still be a satisfying watch, with a bunch of loose ends, along the lines of the first hour and a half of Mulholland Drive.

I really liked the relationship between Six and Gaius. Prior to the attack, the primary element holding my attention was Six's exploration of humanity. She seems to touch on territory similar to Roy Batty in Blade Runner, and also shares his ultra-blonde look. I really like the idea that she wants to experience love in humans, vicariously experiencing the emotion she herself cannot feel. The scene with the baby simultaneously implicates her as a being who will kill without remorse, but also someone who is intrinsically curious, viewing humans as specimens to observe. There's a lot of potential for her character in the series, the emotionless being beginning to feel is one of my favorite characters journeys, present in two of my favorite Buffyverse characters: Anya and Illyria. Notably, she does seem to have some affection for Gaius, beyond just using him as part of her mission.

The early parts of the miniseries had that slight awkwardness that's always present at the start of a series, the struggle to introduce all these new characters without making it too much of an infodump. Couple that with the fact that they have to deliver a lot of technogarble dialogue and some of the actors didn't come off that strong. It's all about disappearing into the world, sometimes if I see just a random piece of a Buffy episode, things will jump out at me as ridiculous, things that in the context of the series you just accept. A lot of really emotional scenes read as melodramatic viewed in isolation, but when you're in that moment, they feel perfectly real.

So, in a sense, all fiction is a journey to a constructed world, taking you from an outsider to a resident. The reason that sci-fi struggles to gain mainstream acceptance is the fact that it's more of a commitment than a series set in the real world. You can't just watch a random episode and understand what's going on, you have to follow the whole story and become immersed in the world to really appreciate it. That's why shows like Buffy or BG have a small, but extremely dedicated audience. It's a commitment, but it's certainly worth it.

Anyway, as the series moved along, the awkwardness started to vanish. I began to believe the characters, and I quite literally learned the language of the world, so that hearing about Cylons or making an FTL or praising Kobol seemed perfectly natural. Similarly, I didn't see the effects as CG, they just were, and the acting seemed natural. To watch the show is to travel to their world and be a part of it, and by the time the bombs went off, I was there, absorbed in what they were doing.

Part of what makes that easier to do in this show than in most sci-fi stuff is the style. The constantly moving camera makes things seem real. Even if I'm aware of being manipulated by the technique, on a subconscious level, it triggers this sense that this is really happening and that if the camera's moving all around like this, it's not a set, it must be something real. I always use handheld myself, and I think it makes things more dynamic, particularly the constant circling shots. I liked the way they would cut between tight closeups on individuals and the longshots, frequently with a slight continuity or lighting mismatch between them. The effect of this was to give each closeup an emotional significance, opening a window into the character's world.

One of the most effective uses of this was in the introduction of Laura. I love the way this scene was so underplayed, we've seen this scene in countless movies, so here it's done primarily through the visuals, and just one line, about the test results being positive, tells us all we need to know.

The best thing about the miniseries was the willingness to incredibly dark right from the start, and put the characters in a totally chaotic situation. It was tough watching the fighters get shut down and destroyed. Similarly, the sequence with Laura and the Botanic colony, with the absurdly drawn out countdown cutting between Laura tormented and the girl in the garden, seemed to be setting us up for the moment where he says "1..." and she barges in to stop them. However, she made the tough decision, and seeing the cylons coming after them vindicated her choice, but at the same time, we're aware that all those people they left behind have to die.

By making things so dire, it becomes much easier to root for the main characters. The basic problem with the traditional three act narrative is that we're so aware of it that it's difficult to really get involved in the hero's quest. We know he'll succeed, even if his old mentor or sidekick might die. That's the basic problem in any good vs. evil confrontation where there's a clear manichean worldview, a character who is really evil isn't likely to win, so wilth the outcome foreknown, it's easy to take a perverse interest in wanting to see the hero fail.

I think one of the most important thing in making your heroes sympathetic is to put them into situations with no right answer, and have them lose a lot. That's what Battlestar does, it gives our heroes a lot of moral quandries, having to frequently sacrifice lives to save lives, so that doing the "right" thing doesn't feel so good. This is evident in the sealing the vent sequence, another clear 9/11 parallel with the firefighters hurrying into the blaze, struggling to evacuate survivors from an inferno.

At the same time, if you don't have your heroes suffer real pain, the audience won't be that excited when they succeed. You have to earn the victory. This is what Claremont did during the Mutant Massacre era of X-Men, put the characters through hell, forcing them to watch their comrades die and leaving them without a home, and that's pretty much exactly what Battlestar does as well. And by doing this, Claremont makes it incredibly rewarding when they do finally succeed in Fall of the Mutants, they've been down so long, you really want them to hit back and succeed.

The miniseries succeeds in doing this as well, for 2 hours we watch the world of our heroes get eviscerated. We watch Boomer's co-pilot sacrifice his life for Gaius and we witness many displays of Cylon power. Thus, when Starbuck sees the fleet of Cylon ships, it's genuinely disconcerting. I don't really know who's a regular cast member, so everyone's expendable, and these ships have proved to be such a threat that you want the characters out before anything happens to them.

This sequence, in which they flee, is certainly the effects highlight, and also provides us with a lot of emotion. Visually, it reminded me a lot of the sequence in Empire Strikes Back where the ships are fleeing Hoth, but emotionally it brought back the sequence where the Falcon is trying to leave Cloud City, and after all this awful stuff has happened, you're really hoping that they can get that hyperdrive working and get out of there. Bringing back the emotions of that scene is definitely a good thing.

This leads to what I presume will be the status quo of the show, that they're off in search of Earth, without the knowledge that they're searching for a myth, all the while being pursued by the Cylons. The ending of the pilot offers us a bunch of additional 9/11 parallels, notably the idea that anyone could be working against us, and that might mean curtailing civil liberties. Laura and Adema seem to be set up as the opposite poles of political thought, representing liberal and conservative respectively. The fact that anyone could be a cylon will easily bring up "If you're not with us, you're against us" style thought, with any dissenters labeled as cylons.

I'm a little disappointed that the guy they left on the planet turned out to actually be a cylon. I think there's more interesting thematic stuff coming out of the idea that they made a mistake and killed this guy, but the end reveal that Boomer is a Cylon raises some interesting stuff for future episodes. I particularly like the idea that people may not even know they're Cylons, which is another throwback to Blade Runner. The other stuff I really liked from the second chunk was the Gaius' troubles with Six in his head.

I think what's so effective about the show is that it engages with traditional sci-fi themes, but makes them extremely relevant for today's society. We've got the traditional sci-fi concept of our own technology turning against us, but at the same time the Cylons are an allegory for the Muslim extremist movement, and after all, the US government were the ones who originally empowered Osama Bin Laden to serve our own ends. Now he's turned against us, much like these Cylons here.

So, pretty much everything in the series has a dual pleasure, and seeing something that layered is really exciting. The show is simultaneously a what if, and a why, examining the present by showing us a hypothetical future. That's what science fiction is uniquely capable of doing, and the fact that the genre is almost always blended with horror or action in recent years has limited the genre.

I love sci-fi, but so little of what I see is really engaging, and I'm really happy that this series is so good. I'll definitely be checking out the first season soon, and will be back with my thoughts on that. The series has a ton of potential, and from the buzz I've heard, it shouldn't disappoint.