Saturday, March 18, 2006

Elysian Fields at Tonic

I just came back from a fantastic show, a performance by Elysian Fields. I got into Elysian Fields after hearing Jennifer Charles' work on Lovage, an album she did in collaboration with Dan the Automator and Mike Patton.

Anyway, I got to the show a bit early, and when I went to get my ticket, who should come out to the box office but Jennifer Charles, who wanted to get the piano tuned. I wanted to ask her about reports of a second Lovage album, but didn't want to butt into the middle of her conversation, and soon she was gone back in.

So, onto the show itself. Elysian Fields are a really strong band, but they suffer a bit from the fact that there's not that much variation between their songs. They're fantastic for setting a mood, but with some notable exceptions, the individual songs don't stand out that much. I play EF's music a lot when I'm writing, because the songs create a fantastic atmosphere that enhances what I'm putting down. However, I wasn't sure how that would play live.

As it turned out, it works wonderfully, their live show was one of the most intimate and engaging I've ever seen. The venue was small, with rows of chairs set up in front of the stage and standing room in the back. There was no jumping around or yelling during the songs, everyone's attention was focused on Jennifer.

I recognized about half of the songs they played, but it didn't matter because her live presence was captivating. First off, she's incredibly sexy, whether singing, or talking in ethereal whispers. She was talking about masking tape and it sounded hot. Her singing was phenomenal. Because it was such a small room, it wasn't like she was putting on a show for you, it was like you caught her in a private moment, and she was letting you watch. I love a big, up tempo show, but this was a completely different experience, each song spinning you deeper into their world. No one talked, there was just applause after it was clear that the song was done. That was quite different from any other show I've experienced.

The songs themselves were mostly new stuff, with a few early songs thrown in as well. "Tides of the Moon," and "Lions in the Storm" were great, but the highlight of the night was "Lame Lady of the Highways," which saw all kinds of guitar and vocal distortion, creasing a haze of sound. The sound in the venue was fantastic, largely because it didn't have to be amped up to really loud levels, you could hear Oren's acoustic guitar just as clearly without amplification as you could with.

They played against a backdrop of red curtains, with blue lights shining down, like they were in a David Lynch film, and this felt like the Club Silencio performance. My entire identity wasn't broken down or anything, but it was that similar feeling of getting captured in a moment of song. Great stuff, I'll definitely see them again, they seem to be regulars at Tonic. And a side note, I saw that Julee Cruise performed there a few weeks ago, seeing her on that red curtained stage would have been ridiculous, I'll have to be on the lookout for another show with her.

Anyway, I was frustrated that I didn't get a chance to ask about the Lovage album, so as I was leaving, I decided to head back in and see if Jennifer was around to take questions. The advantage of the venue is that there is no "back," so the performers have to leave through the floor like everyone else.

So, I'm looking around and see her over by the hallway that leads to the bathroom. She's talking to some guy, I figure it's a fan, and I'll wait and ask her when he's finished. They're talking for a while, and I figure it's someone she knows. So, I'm standing in this hallway, ostensibly waiting on line for the bathroom, but really just waiting for her to finish talking.

Her and this guy are going on for a long time, and I'm hearing snippets of their conversation. They're talking about "Mike," who I figure must be Mike Patton, and as they're going on, I notice that this guy is Asian, and I was thinking is she talking to Dan the Automator? So, they're going on and eventually he says something along the lines of "And he was like Dan!" And then I knew, she was talking to Dan the Automator, two thirds of the team behind Lovage was standing right in front of me, and what's more, Dan was at work trying to recruit her for the new Lovage album.

Because I was essentially listening in on a private conversation, I don't want to go into too many details, but the essence seems to be that Jennifer and Mike Patton had some issues with each other while doing the first album, and she was a bit reluctant about returning for the new one. Dan said he wanted her to return, but would work with her on other projects if she didn't want to do another Lovage. It's crazy for me to think that I was there as the album's fate was possibly being decided. I was going to ask her if it was happening, and what should I find, but the actual process of deciding in the works. Crazy stuff.

I didn't want to disrupt Automator's pitch and be responsible for preventing the creation of a second Lovage album, so I waited in that hallway for a while, and when they were breaking up, I went up and asked if he was indeed Dan the Automator. I asked him and Jennifer if the second Lovage album was happening, and he said that they had "explosive chemistry," but were working on it. I asked him a bunch of stuff, and found out that he's got a bunch of stuff coming out later this year, mostly rap things. He also said that he didn't do the second Head Automatica album because he had a dispute with the label, and Daryl Palumbo sided with the label over him. It sounded like he has a lot of issues with the labels he works with, and some suits are in the works. He was there with video director Philip Andelman, whose work I wasn't familiar with, but turns out to be quite a prolific director.

It was really interesting to hear Dan and Jennifer talking, and I'm hoping that they can pull things together for the album. And it's great that I got to meet one of my favorite musicians and actually talk with him for a bit.

So, on the whole it was a fantastic show and a cool bonus afterwards. And I'm hoping that whatever the differences are between Mike and Jennifer, they'll work it out and get the second album going.

Friday, March 17, 2006

V For Vendetta (The Film)

Tonight I saw the V For Vendetta film. I've been in the process of rereading the book, and got through two thirds of it before I saw the movie, so I was pretty immersed in Alan Moore's world going in. Unlike Alan himself however, I wasn't going in expecting to see the book on screen. I used to always think that just filming the comic would make a fantastic movie, then I saw Sin City, a film that was basically the comic on screen. The film is fascinating for its utter lack of purpose. It's a good film, but is there any real reason for it to exist? It just takes the book and puts it on film, rather than making a film out of a book.

Now, I'd rather have a Sin City, that's good but pointless, than a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a film that's just awful. So, after seeing Sin City, I decided to try to divorce the adaptation from the original work and just enjoy it or dislike it on its own terms. V the book is a masterpiece, one of the greatest books ever written. V the film is a really strong movie, though one that doesn't quite make it to greatness.

I'll start with what works. Not to be shallow, but the explosion sequences that open and close the film are incredibly satisfying. The combination of visual and music is exhilirating. This is a case where the film does something that a book cannot. I saw this on a huge IMAX screen, and was literally rocked by the sound of the explosions.

The best sequence in the film was the torture sequence with Evey. This sequence worked on a number of levels. My favorite part was the Valerie story, which was wonderfully drawn right from Moore's text. It's a heartbreaking story, and the moment when V shows Evey the "Salt Flats" poster is the emotional peak of the movie. The contrast of the beauty of Valerie's life and the horror of what Evey was going through was very powerful.

In the first few scenes, V seemed goofy, the speaking out of the mask seemed weird and the ridiculous speech of a thousand V words didn't help much. However, as things progressed, you got used to him, and even goofy stuff like V in the apron worked pretty well. The fight scenes, even if they were a bit gratuitous, were very cool and had a unique impact. You could feel the hits the characters took, and the scenes of V cutting up the soldiers effectively showed the attractiveness and brutality of violence.

The acting was quite strong throughout. Natalie Portman went through a big transformation and pulled it off well. Hugo Weaving made V more than just a mask, you could sense the person underneath. My favorite supporting performance was Stephen Fry as Gordon, making a real relationship with Evey in a minimum of screentime.

Comparing it to the book, the biggest improvement was the stuff with Gordon. It never made much sense that Evey is lucky enough to run into the one guy who would take her in and treat her kindly. Having a previous connection makes it less random.

The issue I have with Gordon's transformation is that it takes away the complexity surrounding Evey's father figures. This gets to the core of the problem with the film. By making Evey older, and making her a successful young woman instead of a prostitute, there's less of the sense of getting caught up in the romance of anarchy and then being brought down to Earth upon seeing V's violence.

In the book, Evey sees V as an all purpose father figure, and at one point even asks if he is her father, something that isn't completely out of the realm of possibility. So, in dealing with V, Evey is dealing with the issues surrounding the loss of her father. Then, the episode with Gordon becomes about another father figure, and the issues surrounding getting into a sexual relationship with her father figure.

What the film does that dulls the complexity surrounding V is that V saves Evey from the police when he takes her into his fake prison. In the book, Evey is seeking revenge for Gordon's death, she's not in any danger, but V hauls her back into his world. This makes their relationship more complex, something that's summed up in the scene where she asks him what's wrong with just being happy, and he says that happiness is a prison. It's a much more radical agenda, one that presents a more radical opposition, between fascism and anarchy, rather than between oppression and freedom.

Something that I think didn't work that well in the film was the stuff with Finch and Dominic. It felt like too obvious exposition, and you didn't get the sense of Finch as being a character rather than a plot device. I think part of that is because we've seen detective figures like him in so many films before, it's just not that fresh anymore.

I think the reason that it doesn't work is because so many of the other subplots are cut out. In the book, Finch is designed to show some of the humanity within the system, a contrast to people like Almond and Helen Heyer, who buy into the system. When you've got four or five character arcs layered in the story, the fact that Finch exists primarily for exposition seems less obvious. When he's the only major character in the film outside of V and Evey, it becomes clear that he's there to service the main story rather than to exist on his own.

The thing I miss most from the book is the Rosemary Almond arc, which is powerful enough to be a film in and of itself. Her story showed the effect of this regime on ordinary people more powerfully than just random people watching TV. In the film, you don't get the sense of this society as a whole world, we only see the people as pawns in a political duel between V and the leader.

And the biggest problem with the film is that the relationship with Evey and V is framed as a romantic one, something that doesn't make much sense, since V is meant to be an idea more than an actual man, something that's made explicit in the finale with everyone wearing the masks. So, in the closing voiceover when she says "I remember the man," it seems to completely undermine the point of the film, which is that V is an idea of freedom, who inspires her to reinvent herself, the man himself is irrelevant, it's the mask that matters.

So, after starting this review by saying I was just going to view the film as a film, I've spent most of my time going on about how it differs from the book. That's the basic problem of adaptation, and why I generally don't think it's worth bothering to adapt a book or graphic novel. With a few exceptions, you're not going to match the original because the original is a purer expression of the idea. It's like a second generation video copy. That's why I think when adapting something, it's better to fully embrace what film can do and create an immersive visual experience rather than worrying about the narrative, make something uniquely cinematic. At its best moments, this film does that, but not enough to be a great movie. It's a decidedly good film, one you enjoy, but one that also lacks the complexity of the book.

However, the book is still there, and the film is like a cover of a song. The original might be better, but there's a few spots in the cover where they do something that improves on the original, and that makes it worth hearing at least once.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

X-Men: Wrapping it Up

SPOILERS: All of Claremont's X-Men, and Morrison's as well

The time has come to conclude my extensive coverage of Chris Claremont's X-Men run. In 1991, Claremont was bumped off the book, and guidance of the franchise went to fan favorite, Jim Lee, who soon left the books. Considering what happened between the 70s and 1991 with regards to ownership of characters, it's pretty absurd to think of someone devoting his life to a property that he has no control of, like Claremont did for X-Men. Chris created these characters, and if he had even a small share of them, he'd be an incredibly wealthy guy. The franchise that he created has spread out into TV and film, not to mention literally thousands of issues of comic book material. All that is the result of one man's unique blend of superhero action and character based soap opera.

If you compare Claremont's writing here to what was going on in TV in the 70s, it becomes clear how revolutionary Claremont's serial plot and character development were. TV featured standalone episodes with static characters, Claremont's book was constantly evolving, layering new plots on top of each other, and all the while subtly developing characters. Most high end TV shows, from The Sopranos to 24, have more in common structurally with Claremont's run than any TV being done then. Joss Whedon has said that the Paul Smith era basically is Buffy.

The start of the run to Fall of the Mutants functions wonderfully as one big story, culminating in the thematic resolution of the human vs. mutant question, as well as the finale of many character arcs, with Storm still maintaining an inherent good despite her compromised values, and Wolverine stepping up to lead the team. Layered into the plot development is the brilliant character development on Kitty, Scott, Maddy Pryor, Kurt, Wolverine and Storm, who all take really challenging, complex journeys over the course of the run.

Storm's relationship with Forge is the strongest in the book. LifeDeath is a revolutionary issue, and the story at the end of Fall of the Mutants calls back to that, bringing us fine closure. Similarly, Wolverine's journey from wild man to leader of the X-Men is a fantastic arc, and it's great to see a time when he was a character not a caricature.

One of the misconceptions surrounding the book is that the Claremont/Byrne run was the highpoint of the series, and that everything later comes out of that. Reading that chunk of the book, there are some clearly important concepts, but other than Days of Future Past, there's very little material dealing with the question of mutant/human relations, or explicit use of the mutant as minority metaphor. The run the films draw most from is Romita's, the Mutant Massacre period.

There are two highpoints of Claremont's run for me, one is the Paul Smith era. He only drew about ten issues of the book, but they see Claremont at his most nuanced in building character. Storm is reborn, gets a mohawk and cuts loose. Cyclops meets a mysterious lady named Maddy Pryor, Kitty rebels against Xavier, Rogue joins the team and proves herself, and the best final panel of any issue ever, Wolverine shedding a tear as Mariko says she won't marry him. It's Wolverine crying, how bold is that. And Smith's art is the best in the book's entire run.

After Paul Smith, there was a bit of lull until the next highlight, the period from roughly 200 to Fall of the Mutants, featuring the art of John Romita Jr. This is where most of the ideas for the movie came from, the conflict between mutant and human, the world that hates and fears them thing. It's dark, intense stuff and the Mutant Massacre is Marvel's best answer to Dark Knight Returns. Fall of the Mutants brilliantly resolves the thematic question of the series by allowing the world to see the X-Men as heroes.

If the X-Men had stayed dead, it would have been the perfect end to the series. I don't think there was much left to do with the book after that, and after this point, Claremont generally stays away from mutant/human conflict. There's no way that Marvel is going to end X-Men at the height of its popularity, and it's that popularity that ultimately dooms the book.

I mentioned this analogy back in my original reviews, but I think it holds true. If X-Men was a TV show, Fall of the Mutants would be the series finale, and Inferno would be the movie made a few years later. Inferno, for all of its flaws, is the last time that these characters feel like real people, and you have the sense that real change can occur. Inferno was designed to clear the deck, and it did that too well, resolving so many long running plot points, from then on, the books had no direction. Inferno's treatment of Maddy bothers me a lot, but as a story, it's epic and crazy, playing off years of character history to create a really compelling narrative.

It's not like it's all downhill after Inferno, but you increasingly get the sense of these characters as fixed entities. Back in Paul Smith, it felt like anyone was expendable, and that the characters were constantly evolving entities. Storm of issue 165 is dramatically different from Storm of issue 94. However, that basic conundrum emerged, it's the dynmaic character development that made the book so popular, but to mess with the dynamics too radically could mean alienating the audience. I admire Claremont for trying some different stuff post Inferno, but in his attempt to shake things up, he separated the characters and there was no sense of the characters as a family.

After that, everything moved back towards the status quo, culminating in X-Men #1, when all the marketable characters are brought back together, Xavier is back in the wheelchair, Scott's back as leader, and it's easy to sell the concept to other media. And as Claremont found out with the Jean Grey resurection, it became increasingly difficult to make lasting changes to the characters.

Claremont's final statement on the book was strong, and it wasn't until Morrison that anyone really moved beyond what he had done on the book. Morrison's run is brilliant because it's a fusion of Claremont style character development and interaction and Morrison's trademark big ideas.

But everything he did comes out of what Claremont created. Everything in the films is tied back to Claremont, as is the animated series. While he's not known outside of comic book circles, I think it's safe to say that nearly everyone has read or seen something that would not exist without Chris Claremont's run on X-Men.

X-Men 94-138

X-Men 139-161

X-Men 162-176

X-Men 177-194

X-Men 195-213

X-Men 214-221

X-Men 222-229

X-Men 230-239

X-Men: Inferno (240-243)

X-Men 244-254

X-Men 255-265

X-Men: X-Tinction Agenda (266-273)

X-Men 274-280, 1-3

Monday, March 13, 2006

The Sopranos: 'Members Only' (6x01)

SPOILERS: All of The Sopranos, if you have not seen this episode, do not read on

The season premiere is usually the toughest episode of a season to pull off, because it has the difficult task of dropping you into a world you've been gone from for a long time, and also has to fulfill the built up expectations of the time between seasons. And for no show are those expectations built up more than for The Sopranos, which hasn't aired an episode since June 2004. I've been eagerly anticipating this premiere ever since then, and it lived up to expectations as well as anything with that sort of buildup is going to.

The show usually has some kind of montage at the beginning to establish things, but never anything as odd as this. The types discussed in the spoken word piece clearly conform to the roles the characters are going to be playing this season, and it creates a very uneasy feeling, which builds to what happens later in the episode. And at the same time, it sets up the new status quo of the characters, so job well done on this.

Carmela's dream is critical to understanding where she is in the episode. She probably knows that Adrianna is dead, but either can't bring herself to acknowledge it, or is just keeping quiet, hinting around the issue with Tony, who remains noncommittal when it comes to discussing her fate. Seeing her fade out of the house was a brilliant image.

Initially, it looks like things are going well for the crew. Tony and Carmela are on good terms, and as far as we can tell, he's not even cheating on her. He's clearly aged quite a bit, gotten heavier, and generally seems more content with how things are, staying civil with Phil, even when Hesch's son in law gets attacked. I think seeing Johnny arrested has made him realize how easily everything has could be gone, and the experience with Adriana has hardened his belief that he can only trust family.

On the whole, the crew seems much more like a business. There's no sense of fun in what they're doing anymore, it's much more about staying out of jail, and making as much money as possible. Other than the scene with the sunglasses, there's none of the usual antics. Even when Tony's out on his boat, he's alone. I don't think there's been another episode with Tony alone as much.

The stuff with Carmela in this episode was fantastic, showing us everything we need to know about where she is in only a small amount of screentime. She's fully embraced Tony's world again, asking him to use his influence to get things done for her, and loving the car he gets her. The scene where she goes to Ginny's car to show off the house is very cruel, as she flaunts her material gains while Ginny is struggling with creditors.

Carmela has become much more Tony like, both in that scene and the scene with her father, where she yells at him for not performing to her satisfaction. Of course, she gets shut down at the end. She's flaunting the Porsche that Tony gave her when Angie Bompancero says she passed on that car, and instead bought herself a Corvette. She's acheived on her own what Carmela needed Tony to do, and that deflates the sense of superiority that Carmela had for most of the episode.

I loved the episode, my biggest problem was that we didn't get to spend time with all the characters, I guess after waiting two years, I don't want to wait another week to get in depth with Meadow, A.J. and Christopher. From what we've seen, it seems like Christopher has fully committed himself to work, and is clearly positioning himself as the second in command and probable heir to Tony. He's still sober, and there's no evidence that what happened with Adrianna has affected him. Though I would guess next week, when he has to deal with Tony being shot, will bring up some of those old feelings.

The other character on the move is Vito, who's not only thinner, he's positioned himself as the most powerful captain in Tony's crew. The scenes with Vito and Eugene are critical because they show that Vito has the ambition to become head of the family. Of course, we know that his sexual preference may affect that, and I could definitely see Vito getting killed if that comes out. However, for now, I would guess that Tony's injuries are going to set up a power struggle between Vito and Christopher. There's no clear second in command, and the thought that Tony could die is clearly going to create a lot of chaos in the family. Silvio would seem to be the logical person to take over, but he's never expressed a desire to be head of the family. Clearly, the shape of the family post-Tony is going to be a big issue in the next chunk of episodes.

As always, generational conflict is a major element of the show. Tony's generation is getting older, and they all seem to be settling into set routines, Artie's back with Charmaine, Tony's back with Carmela. They're getting older, and aren't prepared to face old age alone. If for no other reason than looking at Junior, it should be clear to Tony why he would want to have someone with him as he gets older. And now that he's been shot, is Carmela going to have to take care of him as he's been taking care of Junior?

The running thread through this episode is Eugene's attempt to retire from mob life and move to Florida. However, this isn't a life you can retire from, I'm sure if it was acceptable, a lot of the best guys would pack it in, but in their world it's not possible. If you have the knowledge that all of them do, it's not possible to move on.

Gene has been in a lot of episodes, but always in the background, so when it became apparent that he was getting his own storyline, I had a bad feeling about him. However, the way they depicted his decline was more powerful than I'd anticipated. This is a guy who's completely lost control of his life, his wife is against him, his boss is against him, and the feds need more from him.

As the series has progressed, the feds have increasingly controlled the way that Tony and his crew do business. This episode sees the loss of the only surviving informer we now about, Ray Curto, and the death of an informer we didn't know about, Gene. The scene where he finally hangs himself is brutal, and a striking finale to his storyline. This episode seems designed to reinforce the idea that there's only two ways out of the life, death or jail.

And that's where the ending comes in. Junior's descent into senility was one of the strongest elements of last season, and as we come in here, he's completely lost it. Tony feels guilty about what he did to his mother, so he's trying to let Junior live out his final days in his own home, and in the process, he hopes to somehow atone for what ultimately happened to his mother. However, his inability to let go of that guilt winds up getting him shot at the end of the episode.

That was a brilliant twist, and even though it's near impossible that Tony will actually end up dead, the event itself completely changes the show's status quo. The way the sequence plays out is great, I love Junior hiding in the closet, and Tony's agonizing crawl to the phone.

Right from the start, the show is messing with everything we've come to expect. I need to see the next new episode and find out how everyone deals with this, particularly how Tony ends up dealing with Junior. It's good to have this show back.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

X-Men 274-280, 1-3

SPOILERS: Claremont's whole X-Men run.

Well, after a roughly seven month journey, I have finished Chris Claremont's run on X-Men. Just reading it all felt like a huge accomplishment, so writing it was unquestionably one of the best accomplishments in comics history. If you consider what happened in comics, and the world as a whole, in the fifteen years that Claremont wrote the book, it's surprising that you could maintain a consistently high standard of story and character development.

After a weak path, and the less than perfect X-Tinction Agenda crossover, I'm glad to say that the wrap up of the run is a return to the fun and drama that made Claremont's run so great in the first place. 274 is one of the strongest issues he's done since Inferno. It's a first person narrative, with Magneto pondering his life's work and the morality of his actions.

Under Claremont, Magneto has consistently been one of the most complex and interesting figures in the book, and this is a great storyline for him. He is in conflict with Nick Fury, because he wants to kill Zaladane, who he considers too much of a threat to survive. It's perfectly logical that someone could consider Magneto himself too much of a threat to survive, and that creates an interesting contradiction.

Also, in this issue, we get some great stuff with Magneto and Rogue. Claremont nicely sets up a bond between them, and plays off of that in 275. Magneto has the chance to form a lasting relationship, but he passes it up because of commitment to a political cause that Rogue can't really understand. His basic flaw is that he can't let go of the atrocities in his past and move on. Even when he tried to live Xavier's way, he only ended up causing more death for his people. The story works because you want Magneto to give up the cause and settle down with Rogue, but at the same time, we know that's impossible for him.

Concurrently in 275, we've got another X-Men in space story, usually a sign of a bad storyline, but this first issue at least works well. We've got the X-Men's reunion with Professor X. Just reading Claremont's issue, Xavier doesn't seem like that crucial of a character to the mythos, because he had so many mental traumas early on, it's tough to tell who the real person is. But it's still good to see him again.

The subsequent space storylien seems to exist primarily to have the X-Men fight various incarnations of each other, something that's gotten pretty old. It's a bit convoluted, but there's some good stuff when they have the X-Men team up with Deathbird to battle Lilandra, reversing the usual dynamics of the Shiar stuff. I suppose one last trip up to space was required before Claremont left the book to resolve the issues with the Shiar.

Unfortunately, this big storyline leads into another rather convoluted, nonsensical big action storyline. This one ties into a really old storyline, going back to X-Men 117, and the Shadow King. These psychic war storylines never work that well because there's no concrete rules to the world. They put on "psychic armor" and fight, but there's no sense of what gives a killing blow. At the end of the storyline, they defeat the nexus, and Forge invents a device that will resolve everything.

Forge is something of a problematic character because he presents an easy out for the writer. He's the perfect crutch to overcome any narrative problem, you simply make him invent something and it's all resolved. The best storyline was definitely LifeDeath, where he had to deal with the consequences his invention had for a woman he loved. The other highlight for him was in Fall of the Mutants, when he and Storm experience life in an alternate dimension, and he has to build things out of his leg. That was fantastic stuff because it put him in a challenging situation.

But this is yet another make the X-Men fight each other storyline. In some respects, this probably has to happen just because there's so many characters to manage. You can't bring in any outside villains, the only way to get everyone some screentime is to have them fight each other.

The business with the Shadow King is resolved in X-Factor 70, which acts as a setup for the whole new status quo. This isn't even a Claremont issue, but I read it because it resolves the storyline he started. This is by Peter David, and it's a really strong issue, lot of inventive stuff with the art, and some nice resolution for a lot of storylines. I loved the stuff with Rogue and Mystique, which shows that they're still close despite fighting on opposite sides at times. At this point, it seems like Mystique has crossed over completely to the good side, and I'm not sure how she wound up as a villain later on.

The late 260s represented the most radical period of Claremont's run, with the characters all split up, drifting along, with no status quo whatsoever. There was no base, it was just people moving along. Starting with X-Tinction Agenda and culminating in X-Men 1, we see a return to a status quo that in fact never really existed. The book moves to fit in with the idea of what the X-Men were, putting all the most famous characters under the X-Men label.

I have a lot of issues with the way that the book implies that the experimental period was a failure. I would agree that the 260s go too far, but stuff like the Australian period and certainly Fall of the Mutants had some really strong stories, and any faults they had weren't because they were lacking Xavier. And yet, these issues move everything back to an easy status quo. One of the dumbest choices they made was the decision to put Xavier back in the wheelchair. That was such a conservative reaction, and doesn't make that much sense, considering that Xavier hadn't actually been in the wheelchair for roughly nine years, he hadn't even been in the book for about six years. So, I don't think there was a need to put him back. It smacks of just wanting to return to the past. That's a criticism I'd also have for the end of Morrison's run, though I suspect in both cases, the creative decisions were largely motivated by Marvel editorial edict.

The way I imagine Marvel approaching X-Men 1 is to return things to the status quo of the Byrne era, set up the Magneto/Xavier opposition, The Jean/Scott/Logan love triangle, and the mansion base for the characters. I'd suspect that as they moved into more licensing and products in the early 90s, there was the desire to have a set idea of what the X-Men were. If you're trying to bring the book into the mainstream media, you want people to be able to say "Wolverine, Jean Grey, Cyclops, Storm, Xavier," those are X-Men. You don't want someone to pick up the book and say "Why is it that an Irish guy and an Indian guy who fought in Vietnam are the only characters? Where's Wolverine, and if Magneto's a bad guy, why is he in charge of Xavier's school?"

I can understand this impulse, and I would certainly agree that things got out of control in the 260s, but I just wish it wasn't such a blatant return to conservatism. The book is about evolution, but this is a clear regression. And it's odd that they feel the X-Factor characters are essential to the team, they were barely in Claremont's run. If you want to restore a classic team, you'd need Nightcrawler and Kitty. For me, the prime X-Men team was in the Paul Smith era: Kitty, Kurt, Colossus, Wolverine, Storm and Cyclops. I'd have liked to see one last appearance from Kitty and Kurt here in Claremont's run, but I believe he was writing them in Excalibur at the time, so it's not like he abandoned them completely.

Anyway, despite issues about the decisions that went into the launching of X-Men 1 and the splitting of the teams, this first storyline is the best X-Men material since Inferno, a storyline that finally returns to the core of the book, the way that mutants live in a human world. This storyline was clearly an influence on Morrison's take on Magneto, and you can practically see the exact line that inspires the idea that Magneto is more powerful dead than alive. This issue deals explicitly with this idea, showing someone who just wants to be left alone, but is constantly getting bothered by people.

I'm not sure if it was the intention, but I was really rooting for Magneto this issue. There's so many X-Men by this point, they've been reduced to caricatures, there's no room for the sort of precise development that Claremont was able to do with a small cast. And considering there's so many of them, the X-Men feel more like an army than an oppressed band. This is a problem, the X-Men are inherently gifted, and the only way to make you really feel sympathy for them is to put them in situations where they're fighting against huge odds, as in the Mutant Massacre to Fall of the Mutants period.

Magneto on the other hand is a legitimately oppressed guy. He doesn't want to fight the X-Men, but Cyclops leads an attack on him. Considering they're the aggressors, you can't expect Magneto to just stand there and get hurt. The thing that perplexes me is why Wolverine chooses to attack him, I can see why Cyclops would, but Wolverine would surely be able to see that he's not an aggressor. I'm glad to see that they've kept up the guilt that Magneto has about sinking the sub back in 150, and the scene where he's thrown into the sub amidst the bodies is great.

This makes clear the essential problem for Magneto. He's been such a major player on the global stage that no one believes him when he says he just wants to be left alone. They keep provoking him, and eventually he's going to turn on them. It's the X-Men attacking him that turns him into their enemy and forces him to return to his oppositional stance. The whole time, I wanted one of them to step up and offer to talk with him. It must have been intentionally ambiguous, because the way it's played, Magneto is sympathetic, while the X-Men are mindless aggressors.

I take issue with the revelation about Moira's genetic tampering with Magneto. This is another case where the tendency towards conservatism wins out over logical story development. Rather than exploring the way that a man who tried to reform can be led back, they chose to go with this copout explanation that in some ways negates all the brilliant development that Claremont did on the character over the course of his run.

The end of 3 seems to imply that Moira's conditioning didn't actually change him, it just held back a psychosis that his powers were causing. So, the man we saw in these issues is in fact the real Magneto, and the revelation is just a device used to make it more acceptable for the X-Men to turn on him. It makes him the aggressor instead of them. But I think it's a dumb retcon, and undermines a legitimate debate between his point of view and Xavier's.

However, I think issue 3 redeems Magneto in some respects. The initial bit with the X-Men fighting each other (yet again) doesn't work so well, but the finale of Claremont's run is satisfying. It's not traditional closure, but in some respects, these last few issues are a really satisfying finale, bringing everything full circle. His run has been a time of intense troubles, with the students starting with Xavier's point of view, becoming disillusioned and less morally sure, while at the same time Magneto tries it Xavier's way. Ultimately, the X-Men return to Xavier's dream, seeing in the horrors they've witnessed that violence cannot lead to good. While Magneto sees the violence and decides that the only way to protect his people is to stand against those who would oppress them.

In the final moments, Xavier recounts Magneto's thoughts, a perfectly legitimate view of the conflict, even if Xavier chooses to go his own way, to re-embrace the dream. So, the finale shows both men becoming more sure of what they're doing because they are back in conflict. It's like Xavier needs Magneto to show him the real meaning of his dream, and it's only in observing Xavier's failures that Magneto can find another way.

Knowing that the book would continue, I wasn't expecting closure, but I feel like the vast majority of Claremont's plot threads have been resolved, and I don't need anymore. The ending tells us that the fight will continue, but each side is more sure of what they believe in, and gives the other a grudging respect. Even if Scott is still stuck in the old view, Xavier and Magneto are aware of the moral ambiguity of the world, as well as the need for idealists.

The status quo is restored and the dream lives on no matter what the X-Men have had to face. It's a satisfying conclusion, and even though Claremont may not have left the books voluntarily, this was probably the right time. This issue really felt like the emergence of a new age, new costumes, a new style of art. Claremont showed them the new world, and then left his characters in the hands of others.

Tomorrow, I'm going to go back and do an overview of Claremont's whole run, its successes, failures and overall themes. It's been a massive journey, but one I'm glad I've taken. It's a fifteen year journey through the history of comics, the world as a whole, and one man's evolution as a storyteller.

Entourage (1x01-1x04)

Oh man, lot of content in the past few days. One general note on the site, I'm going to start putting a spoiler warning at the top of every article. I've noticed that I frequently will mention a lot of spoilers for stuff that's not the main subject of a post, and I feel bad if someone got something spoiled from reading one of my posts. I don't think that will actually apply here, but kicking it off...


Entourage is one of a glut of inside Hollywood comedies, most of them on HBO. You've got Curb Your Enthusiasm, Extras, The Comeback and Entourage. In some respects, making a comedy based on your own life reflects a failure of inspiration, but I find the world of Hollywood very interesting, and watching Entourage, it was refreshing to see a show that didn't treat making movies like a burden, and instead seemed to revel in the improbability of being able to make an absurd amount of money making movies.

The show is a refreshing departure from most of the comedies I've watched lately. I love shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Arrested Development, but seeing a show where you're actually supposed to like the characters felt pretty good for a change. Similarly, not using a documentary style and comedy based on awkward moments was nice. The show works because you really like these guys and want them to succeed, but the show still has enough drama that it doesn't feel sappy.

The show basically presents a male fantasy life, hanging out with your friends all the time without having to work while at the same time pulling in as many beautiful women as you can handle. In most reviews of films like Old School and Wedding Crashers, the general feeling is the joy of the film comes from watching these guys acting badly, and that when they inevitably end up maturing and entering stable relationships, the joy is gone. This show avoids that maturing stage by keeping them in that sleeping around stage.

However, these characters don't seem to be immature, it's more that they've formed a new kind of family. A lot of shows play on the idea of the family of friends, but by making them all live together, and setting up a clear family feel, with scenes like Drama making them all breakfast, there's no sense that they need to grow up and move on, this is what they want, or at least what they want some of the time.

For Eric, the basic conflict of the series is that he'd rather have a stable relationship than the lifestyle that Vince and the others enjoy. But, does he want his own home just because of societal pressures, or is the entourage family just as valid?

And concurrent with this is the arc of Eric becoming more involved in Vince's career. I think this was a great decision because it makes you root for Vince more. If he's just an arrogant movie star, you might not care whether his films do well, but when it means success for Eric as well, you really want him to end up successful. Similarly, the incident with the Rolls Royce, and the potential financial crisis is critical because it means that the lifestyle they're living is precarious. It's not assured, and if Eric mismanages things, it could end up ending their setup.

Of course, the show is primarily a comedy, and a lot of the pleasure comes from vicariously living the life of a star, running into Jessica Alba at a restaurant, then going to a party at her house. This is such a contrast to a show like Curb Your Enthusiasm, which seems all about deflating the idea of fame. The thing is, even if things go bad for Vince, he's still aware that there's nothing he'd rather be doing.

Kevin Dillon as Drama frequently steals the show, particularly in the Jimmy Kimmel episode, or later where he steals the batteries from the remote at the radio station. The Jimmy Kimmel episode is a great example of a story that could have been sappy, Johnny gets his moment in the spotlight, but instead, you're really happy for him. The show earns the moment.

It's a really sharp, funny show, and I'm psyched to see more.

Battlestar Galactica (1x01-1x04)

Last week, I watched the Battlestar Galactica miniseries, and loved it, one of the best series openers I've ever seen. So, understandably I was excited to see where they go in the series. After seeing the first four episodes, I don't think it's quite as strong as the miniseries was, but it's still great TV.

The first episode of the series effectively continues the harrowed on the run feel of the miniseries, by introducing the threat of cylon ships every 33 minutes. So, we see the crew at their most strung out, reduced to their basest functions, just moving forward. This premise sets up a really interesting conflict, which is basically how long can they go before they lose the will to live.

The episode again sets up an ethical conundrum, when the Olympia reappears, carrying with it the threat of cylons. Already, the president is getting hardened by the job, being a leader requires tough choices, and the need to sacrifice this ship is one of them. She is vindicated later in the episode, but I was glad to see that the moral implications of what they did were dealt with later.

The conversation that Apollo and Laura have in 'Water' is designed to explicitly address the issues surrounding the war on terror, and Bush's admit no mistakes mentality. The show suggests that in a state that's under attack, to admit defeat is to invite second guessing, and even though Laura may not say she's sorry about what she did, she certainly is. I assume this isn't meant to apologize for Bush, it's more about the need for a leader to hide their own emotions and think more of the image that they present to the state.

I'd actually be interested in seeing more of how the regular civilians perceive what's going on. I'd love to see a couple of new characters who are just ordinary people affected by the events. This would give us a new perspective on all that happens, though I suppose it would feel rather disconnected because they wouldn't be able to interact with any of the other major characters.

I think the second episode, 'Water' was the most interesting of the four I've seen so far. I'm always drawn to material that deals with the issue of what is human, and how real humans interact with synthetic humans. It seems like Shannon is quite literally a split personality. At times, the cylons use her to do what they want, without her being aware of it. The scene in the ship at the end of the episode, with the detonator is the most explicit example of this, and notably shows us a cylon who is so deep in her human cover that that personality takes precedence over the cylon programming. It raises the question of whether a cylon sleeper agent can be reprogrammed to stay in her civilian cover.

Concurrent with these issues is the story of Six, someone who remains desperate to interact with Baltar as a human emotional level. I loved the sequence at the end of '33,' where Six makes Baltar repent. The essential paradox of a robot who has a deep faith in God is brilliant, and is the plot thread I want to see explored more.

On the whole, Baltar and Six are easily the most interesting characters. I think it's largely because some of the rough edges on the characters from the miniseries have been smoothed out. It's unfortuante that they've all gotten to that grudging respect stage so quickly because it means there's not that much strong character conflict. I suppose that's a consequence of the need to set up the characters first, before we can really care enough about their problems with each other.

But Baltar and Six remain ambiguous. Baltar is someone who's utterly selfish, always looking out for his own interests. The very fact that he hasn't told anyone about his experience with Six says a lot about how much he values himself over humanity as a whole, and as a viewer, that essential conflict is exciting. I love the way they play Six's discussions with him against his discussions in the outside world.

I'm wondering if Six's mission with Baltar is not part of the general cylon agenda. I'm not sure how the cylons work exactly, is every number Six connected, sharing one large mind, or are there a few "souls," the specific memories of one Six ending up in the body of another when she dies. Considering what happens with Boomer, there's at least some differentiation among the models, because the one on the Galactica has a different agenda from the one on Caprica.

I guess my main frustration with these episodes is that they got bogged down in these standalone stories and haven't done as much to explore these issues with the cylons. Admittedly, if you're planning on doing a bunch of seasons, you don't want to reveal everything right away, but I really want to find out more about the cylon world and how it works.

Along those lines, the storyline with Helo is really interesting. I'm not sure what Cylons would need with him, other than as an experiment in exploring how humans react under extreme circumstances. The fact that Helo survived would seem to indicate that there's at least a few humans left on the planet, and I'm not sure how they'll feel about being left behind.

I could see why they did the "Bastille Day" episode, but I wasn't that big a fan. On an intellectual level, it's interesting, but I feel like it was too much of a classic standalone plot, building up this guy into a huge intellectual hero just to serve the needs of this one episode. Zarek will probably show up again at some point, but in terms of this episode, it felt too much like an X-Files standalone, where our heroes are put in peril, but ultimately nothing that big happens to anyone. There's too much a sense of safety for our characters, which is precisely what the miniseries lacked with its massive destruction.

For example, the bit with Cally seemed to set up a real consequence, rape, but they backed out on it and had her only get shot instead. If she was really hurt, that would raise the emotional intensity and make the decision to spare Zarek at the end more troubling. I can understand the decision to not have a female character get raped, but I feel like here something was needed to raise the drama beyond an intellectual debate about the nature of freedom. It was interesting, but not emotionally involving.

The fourth episode returns to the more adventurous narrative style of the miniseries, cutting together three different timelines. In some respects, I think this was motivated by the desire to use those effects shots of Starbuck going into the planet as much as possible, but it also ends up creating a rather disorienting opening, and then really making you understand Kara better than we have prior to this. Each of the episodes seems designed to focus on one of the major characters and illuminate his/her personality, and of the three, this is the best.

And it also brings some good tension to the characters. In TV, a lot of the time there's a tendency to denigrate soap opera, but at the core of every great TV series, from Twin Peaks to The Sopranos, is an element of soap opera, and by soap opera, I mean a focus on the development of emotional relationships between the characters. The show so far seems to mainly focus on plot, with character stuff in the background, but this episode does a good job of blending character development with narrative. Ultimately, it's usually best to scale back the story and play up the characters' involvement in it. Of course, the ideal stories are the ones that reveal a lot about the characters, and move them forward.

But, on the whole the show is working really well. There's the same great verite style and feeling of realism to everything that happens. While some of the standalone stories aren't great, there's a whole bunch of interesting stuff developing in the background. They're still working out the kinks, but things are looking good for the future. I'll report back once I've seen more.