Thursday, May 11, 2006

McCabe and Mrs. Miller

I've enjoyed a lot of the Robert Altman stuff I've seen, but I've always felt like he keeps a bit too much emotional distance between his characters, and sometimes his relaxed, rambling pacing can make a film feel a bit too long. However McCabe and Mrs. Miller doesn't fall into any of these traps, and it's easily my favorite film of his.

McCabe is in some respects a Western, but it doesn't focus on the violent aspects of the genre, rather it covers the life of a town, as it is built and ultimately torn from the people who built it. One of the most remarkable things about the film is the way that it depicts the building of McCabe's town. When he first gets there, it's a few tents, and as the film progresses, we watch the skeletons of buildings rise up, and get fleshed out until this is a fully functioning town, and that makes the events at the end, when McCabe has not only his town, but his life taken from him, tragic.

If McCabe is the town's father, Mrs. Miller is its mother, only through the union of their sensibilities can they find success. Despite his money, McCabe doesn't have much ambition. He sees no reason to build beyond the tents for the girls, to build a bathhouse or to decorate the prostitute's house. He thinks in terms of short term gains, rather than possibilities of future investment. Mrs. Miller seeks to recreate the luxury of an urban area, and seems to be using the town as a way to get money to open her own place in San Francisco. So, her ambition brings them success beyond what they could have possibly expected.

The film has a pessimistic view of American business. McCabe is an entrepreneur who seems to have acheived the American dream, but there's always someone bigger out there who will not allow him to continue his business. McCabe thinks that big business will play fair, and that he can get more money out of them. However, when they don't get what they want, they don't mess around, they just kill him.

Mrs. Miller is aware of McCabe's naivete, and that's why she leaves. He just can't figure it out, $6250 really is their final offer, if he doesn't pay that, they'll just take the town. That's where the Western attitude really comes out, because this is an essentially lawless territory, the big corporations rule, and McCabe's lawyer can't stop them when McCabe happens to end up dead. It's a situation similar to Lando in Empire Strikes Back, an independent businessman wants to stay under the radar, once he gets too big, he becomes a target.

So, it's appropriate that the killers announce their presence by killing the cowboy. This was a guy who came to the house because he heard it was the biggest around. Once word like that starts spreading, it attracts attention to McCabe and ultimately causes his death.

The end of the film is stunning, McCabe's pursuit is played out with virtually no dialogue. I love the moment where McCabe guns down the huge guy, but it doesn't make what ultimately happens to him any better. Then, there's the haunting final image of Mrs. Miller lying in the opium den. McCabe's decision not to sell means that she is left with nothing, and if she stayed behind, she would probably be treated as nothing more than a common whore. So, she flees, and, distraught, drifts off into an opium haze. Even though she's still alive, her prospects aren't much better than McCabe's.

The film is different from most Altman movies in that there's a stronger character center. There's some of the overlapping dialogue ensemble stuff, but we really get to know the two title characters, and that makes the end of the film quite emotional. Another thing that contributes to this is the score of songs by Leonard Cohen. Having a singer/songwriter score your movie seems to have been quite the trend in the 1970s, and it works really well here. Also, I loved the use of zooms here. That's something you don't see much today, but here it did a great job of emphasizing certain things within the frame.

So, this is a really great film, easily the best Altman I've seen, and one of the best films of the 70s. It's a film that's innovative and really exciting to watch. I'm hoping Altman recaptures some of this quality with the upcoming A Prarie Home Companion.

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Phoenix @ Bowery Ballroom (5/10/2006)

Phoenix's second album, Alphabetical, is one of my all time favorite albums, ridiculously smooth, warm keyboard based dance rock. Every song on there is great, so I was rather annoyed when I missed the shows they did for the album because I was up at school. So, I was really happy that I was able to get to yesterday's show, and it did not disappoint. About half of the show was really good, and the other half was one of the best performances I've ever seen.

What was responsible for this divide? It's the fact that about half the songs they played were off their new album. I don't want to be that guy, but in this case, the new album is significantly weaker than their previous stuff. It's still good, but much less unique. United or Alphabetical are albums no one else could make, the keyboard textures and warmth of the music were something I'd never heard before. It's Never Been Like That is more standard rock. It's still good, but compared to the greatness of their previous stuff, it was a bit of a letdown. I think the primary reason for that is that I was attracted to the band because they were like a more rock version of Air, but with this album, they drop most of the electro, and become more like countless other indie bands out there.

If I'd heard the third album first, I'd probably like it, but wouldn't have the extreme love that I did for Alphabetical. A lot of bands seem to stumble with the third album. On the second, you can usually get away with just developing ideas from the first, but with your third album you've got to do something different, and that can either cause a good band to leap to greatness or a great band to stumble a bit. I'm hoping they bring back the keyboard for their fourth album.

But, enough on that. The songs from the third album sounded pretty good live, particularly 'Long Distance Call,' 'Lost and Found,' and the closer, 'Second to None,' which was extended into a lengthy jam session. All the third album stuff was solid, but nearly every song they played from the first two was a mezmerizing experience.

On the album, most of the songs are pretty lowkey, smooth, controlled and short. Playing them live, they turned to extended jams, moving effortlessly between heavy and softer sections. The second song they played was 'Run Run Run,' which was probably the highlight of the night for me. It's one of their best songs and it was pushed in a really different direction from the album. Other highlights were 'If I Ever Feel Better' and 'Funky Squaredance.'

I like the concert experience to be different than the album, and I don't think there's much virtue in just playing a tight version that replicates the record. I prefer the messy, sprawling approach they took, drawing different nuances out of the song. Because the audience already knows the song, it's smart to play with expectations of how things will go, and the longer versions of the songs allowed them to do that. Most of the songs they treated this way were the older ones, and I'm hoping that at future shows, they'll do more improv and variation with the new stuff. I'd be curious to find out if at the first Alphabetical shows, they played things pretty much straight ahead, or if they did the long improv versions then as well. The fantastic 'Second to None' showed that the new songs could be as good as the old stuff if they were transformed in the same way.

The crowd at this show was one of the most invovled at any show I've been to. There was a lot of dancing in the crowd, and a lot more women than at most shows. They all seemed to be gazing up adoringly at Thomas Mars. I was hoping that Sofia Coppola would be at the show, since she's dating Mars, but there was no sign of her. Rumor has it that she's pregnant, and their kid may have the ultimate indie genes. If their kid was to direct Maggie Gylenhal/Peter Sarsgaard's kid in a film, the indie universe would probably implode, it would just be too much.

While Mars was certainly the center of the show, I was a huge fan of their drummer. He was doing some really heavy drumming, but it always remained melodic and danceable. He also seemed to be having a lot of fun back there, tearing things up.

While I would have liked a bit more from the first two albums, the show was still fantastic, and Phoenix definitely lived up to their live reputation. They took their songs in a different direction live, and that was rivetiing to watch. At a lot of shows, by the end, I'm pretty much ready to go. Here I was wishing that they'd drop one more song, and I didn't want the epic finale, 'Second to None,' to end. That's the sign of a great show.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Gilmore Girls: 'Partings' (6x22)

This episode was an interesting watch for a number of reasons, but before going into the actual stuff that happened I've got to comment on the ridiculousness of the episode promo. I can understand wanting people to watch the episode, and I will admit that I'd vaguely heard about the big plot twist online, but it's one thing to skim over some spoilers on a message board post, it's another to see the whole episode condensed into thirty seconds in the episode trailer. Some of the previous trailers had done an interesting job of misleading the audience, notably "I'm pregnant" from last week, but here there's no twist, we get everything except the last thirty seconds of the episode, and that kills a lot of the dramatic tension. It's the show's season finale, people are probably going to watch, there's no need to give away the entire episode, quite literally in this case.

So, that colored my viewing. Most of the stuff from the trailer was in the last fifteen minutes of the episode, so I was pretty much waiting for those. It's tough to watch this stuff, if you watch on DVD, a lot of the spoilers are out there, so it's tough to avoid them, but if you watch on actual TV, you get them in the promos. Even if I hadn't watched last week's promo, they replayed it right before the episode. Ridiculous stuff, WB, hopefully your spawn the CW will do a better job of keeping secrets with its promos.

Anyway, on to the episode itself. I think it's tough to objectively evaluate season finales, particulary when I knew this was the last Palladino episode. So, there's this impending sense of doom, I was checking the clock a lot, watching it tick down and wishing that this would end up being a two hour episode. I remember watching the final episode of Twin Peaks and just sitting there stunned at the end, wihsing that I could get just a little bit more, and I had a similar feeling here. The troubador stuff would have been a fun bit in any other episode, but here I desperately want to see more with Lorelai, and they're taking screentime that could be spent on that. So, the episode has the obligation of being not only good, it's got to the absouletly best hour of story that could be told. In that respect, it doesn't quite measure up, but those final fifteen minutes were brilliant.

The opening scene was striking, and I love the way it came back at the end. Lorelai is in such a funk by this point that she's barely even to wake up. The scene with Patti at her house was probably the best demonstration of this, she knows Luke is looking for her, but she's still avoiding him. This was also a nice example of melding the usual town comedy bits with the heavy drama. So, we get the typical Patti innuendos, but are more focused on the fact that she's covering for Lorelai, who is right there, but won't go to Luke.

From there, we head off to the lengthy Emily and Richard scene. The fact that Emily is trying to set Christopher up with someone implies that she does legitimately believe in Luke and Lorelai as a couple, and her talking last week wasn't implying that Lorelai should actually get together with Christopher. She's now trying to set Christopher up with Lorelai present. This scene had an odd dynamic, I feel like we'd seen the dinner table bit in a bunch of previous episodes, and doing this extended comedy riff felt a bit out of place in the context of the whole episode. Obviously, it was designed to set up what happens with Christopher and Lorelai later, but I think the seeds of that had been set up sufficiently in previous episodes, and we didn't need such an extended scene to do that.

So, before I head into the rest of the stuff with Lorelai, let me take a quick detour to go over the rest of the stuff. I really liked seeing Mary Lynn Raskjub guest on the show, and on the whole, I really did like the troubador bit. I don't think any of those scenes should be cut, it's just that I feel like we could have used a bit more with our core characters. This was an episode that demanded an extra ten or fifteen minutes.

At this point, Lorelai is a totally dominant character, and Rory is almost like Lane, existing off in her own little subplotverse. Side note, I would have liked to have seen Lane's take on the troubadors, though this certainly wasn't an episode that needed any additional material. Back in the show's early days, it was a pretty much even split between Lorelai and Rory, and it was their connection that was the show's main focus. After they had to split up in season four, Lorelai has gradually become the dominant character on the show. I don't think Rory has ever developed the complexity of Lorelai, I really enjoyed her 'Dark Rory' arc earlier this year but since then, she hasn't had much of anything to do.

So, her stuff here is pretty solid, but nothing that unexpected. The Mitchum scene was the high point, as he makes her aware of something she probably already knew, that Logan does need to grow up, and going to London coul be good for him. So, she agrees to make the personal sacrifice and spend some time without him. The scene where Rory breaks down crying as he's about to go was arguably her best acting in the show's whole run, her break into tears felt totally real and gave the scene a poignance that the events themselves did not automatically justify.

So, back to Lorelai. I think something like the psychiatrist scene was a long time coming. I've mentioned this before in relation to this show, but when a show runs for a long time, you're inevitably going to repeat plot lines, you can either choose to ignore that, or use it as the basis for the characters' flaws. Once they have these flaws, it's logical to make them self examine. So, here we find out exactly how Lorelai feels about Luke, she thought he was the one, and this may have created a distance in all her other relationships. If he's the one, the ultimate destination, it's logical that she would fall into depression when things aren't working out. If things don't work out with Luke, is she destined to live the rest of her life alone?

The scene with Luke was great, the culmination of everything this season has been leading to. Lorelai finally lets him know how she was feeling and he remains unable to see how much she's hurting. Lorelai's desperation reaches its culmination here, everything she's been wanting to say spills out, but it's too much for Luke to take all at once and he freezes up. One could certainly say that Lorelai may have been too aggressive in springing all her problems on Luke at once, particularly after avoiding him for so long. But, at the same time, Luke is pretty stupid here, particularly in letting her go when she's so clearly angry. During that long lingering shot on the band, I was hoping to see Luke at least attempting to pursue her. However, there was nothing.

And that leads us to the final moments. The previews pretty much spoiled this, but it's still an interesting development. The final scene shows Lorelai still looking dazed and out of it. So, it's not like she's recognized that Christopher is the one and decided to be with him, her justification is just what she says, that shecan't be alone tonight. This season has spent a lot of time flirting with the idea of Christopher and Lorelai has a couple, be it through Lorelai taking care of Gigi, or attending the wedding together. So, I feel like Lorelai and Christopher could easily work as a couple, something that's been aided by the fact that we've barely seen her with Luke in the second half of the season. So, we've lost track of the basis of their relationship.

It wouldn't be that tough to reverse things. Certainly, last year's business with Christopher and Richard and Emily made him into quite the villain, but the agenda last year was different. That was when the goal was to make Luke and Lorelai into a working couple. Even as things were going bad with Rory, Luke was the rock for Lorelai, and she likely would have suffered much more during that time if Luke wasn't there for her. Lorelai's biggest problem now is that she has no one to turn to, and that's plunged her into this extreme depression.

While I've generally loved the way things went this season, I do find the way Luke has been portrayed to be inconsistent with what he'd done in previous years and even earlier this year. The Luke of season five would have done anything to help Lorelai, and the guy who said "Yes" to her marriage proposal a few seconds after she asked him would not have been so wishy washy here. The obvious explanation for the change is the demands of being a father. But the business with Lorelai and the party seemed to resolve that issue, and he saw a way that the two of them could work as a couple.

The way I read his response here is that he doesn't want to do something rash that could lead Anna to believe that he'd be an inappropriate influence on April. Running off and getting married on a whim coul be read like that, and I think that's what he's trying to articulate when he's talking to Lorelai. However, he ends up sounding like he's just trying to come up with an excuse. Thinking of April's feelings isn't really a valid excuse, considering the fact that she really likes Lorelai. Luke has been manuvered into a difficult place, and the fact that we've barely seen his point of view has made it difficult to sympathize with him. However, he has been the one reaching out to Lorelai, while she ran away from him. It's a bit inconsistent to not be there at all for many days, then all of a sudden ask to get married.

But, Luke is pretty stupid not to see how much Lorelai is hurting, all season this is true, but now she comes right out and says it, and he still can't get it. He has to get over the idea that April and Lorelai are seperate parts of his life, that will doom any potential relationship. His bristling at the fact that Lorelai went to see Anna is ridiculous because she did it to help him.

I guess my biggest gripe with the arc is that I wish we could have seen more of what Luke was going through. That would make it easier to understand the character's changes. Lorelai's arc this year was wonderful, really well executed and culminates in a logical low point for her.

This season, like Buffy's sixth, was by far the show's darkest, and also its most criticized. In light of this, Buffy and The Sopranos, the sixth season seems to be all about malaise and depression, exhaustion with life. I guess by this point, the characters have been through so much bad stuff, they're bound to get worn down by it. For Lorelai, this entire season has seen her at odds with the two people she cares most about, and that's exhausted her. Lauren Graham has owned this year, doing by far her best work in the show's whole run.

This episode has the odd feeling of being simultaneously a cliffhanger finale leaving you wondering what's going to happen next, and a series finale, because we'll never know what the characters' creators intended to have happen next. The Palladinos leave the show with everything in meltdown and a completely open slate for next season. There's definitely enough drama here to start a season off with, and that'll probably be helpful to David Rosenthal. Of course, any resolution is going to bother a lot of people, so it's not going to be easy.

Everything really depends on whether they choose to bring David Sutcliffe on as a regular. He's certainly more important to the show than a lot of people in the opening credits, so I would say give him the bump up. Regardless of whether he and Lorelai end up together, having him around would be a good idea. If Michel has to go to do this, we'll go on somehow. Considering Luke's reaction to the fact that Christopher left Lorelai a phone message was pretty intense, he's probably not going to be happy to find out that they slept together, and considering the state of their relationship, that might be the final break for the two of them. If Luke does find out, Lorelai will either have to reach out to him, or they'll be done.

They could easily do a sort of mutual assured destruction arc where Lorelai embarks on a relationship with Christopher, while Luke begins one with Anna, all the while still in love with each other, a messed up quadrangle of affection. I'd love to see Sherilynn Fenn come on as a regular as well. There's a lot of potential, but I can't shake the feeling that Gilmore Girls without the Palladinos is going to feel like fanfic.

It's basically wide open now. If Rosenthal wants to return the show to its roots, he could have Lorelai regret what she did, get back with Luke and then focus on the joyous adventures of Stars Hollow. Or, he could throw everyone into even more messed up situations than they were in before. If he follows the path of Buffy, season seven will lighten things up, but if the show's meant to run indefinitely, things could fall further into chaos. I think his greatest challenge will be reconciling the darkness of the stuff with Luke and Lorelai with the goofy stuff with the town. Even the Palladinos have been having some trouble with it lately, and considering what happened here, it's not going to get any easier.

There's talk of having the Palladinos come back to write the finale, but once Rosenthal takes over and commences his own plots, that will mark the end of the show as we know it. So, it's not like the Palladinos could just step back in and try to resolve everything that's been done. Unless there was some kind of jump into the future episode that's a more general show wrapup than a tieup for specific plot threads, it's pretty much over for the Palladinos. I think they created a fantastic show, one that has only gotten better as it's gone on. I may be in the minority, but I would consider seasons five and six easily the high point of the series.

I suppose that's my personal taste, I do enjoy the dramatic breakdowns rather than generally humorous stuff. It's the same with Buffy, the darker the show got, the better it got. With such strong, developed characters, it's a lot easier to relate to their emotional traumas. I think everyone did great work this season, and Lorelai's meltdown arc leant things a poignancy and power that the show never had before. It's been a fantastic journey, and I only wish the Palladinos could stay on to see it through. I'll still be watching next season, but it won't be the same.

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Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The Sopranos: 'The Ride' (6x09)

This week's episode focuses on the boredom and ennui that our characters are feeling. Life just isn't that exciting and they're taking whatever they can as a way to change things.

The most notable example of this is the opening scene, where Christopher decides to get married. This is treated as something that's less about love than it is about a desire to change his life, and maybe find some purpose. It was jarring to see Christopher decide to marry someone we hadn't even seen on the show before, and that was clearly the intention. If this episode, and Christopher's behavior earlier in the season prove anything, it's that he's never gotten over Adrianna's death, and he's using this marriage as an attempt to fill the emptiness in his life. The scene isn't about Kelli, it's about Chris dealing the memory of Ade, he basically tells her that he's marrying her because she's pregnant and Adrianna couldn't have kids.

As the episode progresses, Christopher is positive about his domestic life, but we never really get a sense of who this woman he's marrying is. The whole point is that she's not someone with a strong personality, she's just there. So, presumably there was a scene where Christopher introduced her to his crew and to Carmela, but we never see it. Coming so soon after the Sacrimoni wedding, we're not going to do another episode focusing on a wedding. So, this episode becomes more about Christopher being torn between his old life and this potential new life.

That tension is never more apparent than in the brilliantly executed scene where Christopher is in the car with Corky, talking about his house and how he's going to raise his son, while in the background of the shot, we see Corky preparing to shoot up. Christopher tells him that he should get rehab, but we can tell that Christopher doesn't really believe what he's saying, or at least he doesn't have the conviction to follow it through. He may say that he wants to put his effort into raising his son, but as the scene progresses, he gives into the temptation to fix, and goes through heroin fueled hazy journey through the carnival. I really liked that sequence, it had such a melancholy about it, you really got the sense of where Christopher was, choosing to inject because it allowed him to detach from the world for a while.

Christopher's gradual path towards relapse was accelerated by Tony. The scene in the restaurant reminded me a lot of the episode in season five where Tony and Tony B. rag on Christopher for not drinking. Clearly, Christopher values his relationship with Tony and the fact that Tony is constantly pressuring him to drink is going to make it difficult to maintain sobriety. The scene outside was sweet, but the real notable thing there was the flashback.

I don't think the show had ever done a flashback like this, and it was a bit jarring. However, seeing that moment filled in something that had been blank since the end of season five. Seeing Christopher break down made it clear just how emotionally attached he was to Adrianna, and also how shrewd Tony is in running the business. He had strong feelings for Ade, but when it came down to it, he was more concerned with his own safety than protecting her. As he proved with Pussy back in season two, if someone betrays the family, they have to go.

In the present, Christopher is clearly on a path towards disaster. He gets married on an impulse, and doesn't love this girl. His initial attachment to "stately Wayne manor" will likely fade, and then he'll be left with someone who's a mere shadow of what he loved in Adrianna. I think he'll always be haunted by guilt over what he did, and considering he's using again, I seriously doubt that things will go well when his son is born.

The final scene between Christopher and Tony was brilliant in showing how hollow both their lives are. They're retelling the same story, but it's just going through the motions. I'm not sure why Christopher actually went over there, the initial awkwardness felt a lot like the pregnant silence in the Adrianna scene, so I'm guessing he was planning to tell Tony that he had started to use again, but ultimately decided not to.

The episode returns us to Bobby and Janice for the first time in a while, and Bobby is still being pushed around by her. At first, he recognizes that the problem with the ride was something out of their control, but Janice is not willing to let that stand. She intimidates him into action, and instigates the conflict with Paulie. Janice is a virtual replica of her mother, only her husband has very little actual power. So, she winds up frustrated by his lack of action. At this point, she's compeletely abandoned any aspirations to artsiness or spirituality, she's totally entrenched in the Jersey mob world.

This week, Tony finds himself drifting into malaise. He got some cheap thrills from the wine heist, but he's ultimately finding it difficult to keep his enthusiasm about life. The routine of day to day life wears him down, and he's still clearly attracted to the excitement that Julianna offers, regret lingering about his choice to not sleep with her last episode.

While he insensitively sends Christopher on the road to relapse, he does offer Paulie some good advice. I'm a little uncertain about why he would be such a negative influence on Christopher when he, more than anyone, is aware of the potential dangers that would arise if Christopher went into a full on relapse. So, it's almost a self destructive streak that drives him to treat Christopher that way, like he's asking for his business to be disrupted.

One of the strongest scenes in the episode was Carmela's meeting with Adrianna's mother. There's so much tension there. For the viewer, the primary issue is how much Carmela knows. We know that Adrianna was killed, and even though Carmela fiercely defends Christopher, she is clearly feeling uneasy about that. When she asks Tony later in the episode, he doesn't come up with an entirely convincing denial. I'm glad that they haven't just let Ade's death go, because it was one of the most emotionally wrenching moments in the series' run, and it demands exploration.

The other big thread here was Paulie's issues. He's one of the most selfish characters in the show, but I always end up feeling sorry for the guy after his spotlight episodes. Unlike most of the other characters, Paulie doesn't have much of a personal life. He's not married, and doesn't seem to have any long lasting relationships. His only personal connection is with his mother, and that fact is what made his treatment of her back in The Fleshy Part of the Thigh so tough to take.

The major theme of the season is the idea that the mob is becoming obsolete, that traditional practices just aren't acceptable anymore, and the first scene at the church makes that clear. It's a nice followup to the stuff with Starbucks last week. Nobody's really responsible for what happened with the tea cups, but Tony's speech to Paulie in the bathroom makes things clear. At this point, they can't afford to take risks, they are on the verge of extinction and one major error could bring about the end of their whole organization.

The ending deliberately leaves the question of Paulie's biopsy ambiguous, but what is clear is that Paulie recognizes how alone he is. His friends are turning on him, and business is going poorly so he retreats to the one woman who has always been there for him. I loved the fact that she was watching the Lawrence Welk show, and that closing move out onto the autumn leaves perfectly captures the feeling of death that hung over the episode.

This episode couldn't match last week's masterpiece, but it gave us a lot of insight into where Christopher is right now. However, with only minimal Tony and Meadow and no Vito, we didn't get much from the most interesting plot lines. It's tough to think that there's only three episodes left this season and eleven total.

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