Friday, May 19, 2006

Battlestar Galactica: 2x08-2x10

After a bit of a hiatus, I'm back moving forward with Battlestar Galactica. I just finished the first chunk of the second season and, while it took a little bit, I'm right back on board with the show, and excited to see where they go from here.

'Final Cut' and 'Flight of the Phoenix' both fall prey to a bit of excess sap. They're not bad episodes, and the twist at the end of 'Final Cut' makes things more interesting, but ultimately they're a bit too much in the celebrate our characters mode. The most interesting stuff is Helo's struggle to reintegrate himself into the flight team, his fight with the chief is a great scene, but on the whole, each episode smooths over the tensions for a happy ending.

At the time I watched these two episodes, I was feeling a bit down on the show, like most of the tension had been defused and there was a bit of a loss of direction. However, in light of 'Pegasus,' it's pretty clear that those episodes were explicitly designed to focus on the ways that the crew has formed themselves into a fully functioning unit. They've solved most of their issues, and despite some lingering unease, they're generally moving forward.

So, 'Pegasus' engages with this, and brings in an outside force to challenge the status quo that our heroes have set up. It comes at just the right time, almost all the original characters have been made likable, so we need some sort of outside force to challenge them. Kane is a lot like Adama was back in the early days, before he got softened and found a way to compromise with the president. The basic problem of every TV show is that your characters inevitably become more likable as time goes on, and their more extreme traits get smoothed down. Witness the path of Bobby Briggs on Twin Peaks for an example of how this can go bad, or Spike on Buffy to see how it can work to the show's advantage.

Kane's presence makes the military stuff more interesting than it's been for a long time, the final moments when Adama sends his fleet out to attack her are fantastic. This also leaves us with a lot of potential drama in the second chunk of the season.

However, what made this episode great was the stuff involving the cylons. The scene where Sharon is nearly raped was really visceral and made you hate the guy 'interrogating' her. When Tyrol rams his head into that nail, it's very satisfying. Sharon's one of my favorite characters on the show, and it's tough to watch her go through such an awful experience. The way the scene was staged also makes us totally sympathetic for Helo and the Chief, justifying Adama's decision to attack the Pegasus at the end of the episode.

In the story with Baltar and the prisoner Six we see what could happen to Sharon if she's left at the mercies of the Pegasus crew. They seem to have repeatedly raped her, and the locker room talk indicates that they find it totally acceptable to treat her in that way, ignoring the fact that she's a conscious, emotional person. It definitely calls back racial abuse through history, particularly plantation life, where masters felt it was perfectly alright to rape black slaves.

The episode exposes the way that the Galactica crew's idea of the cylons has evolved. After the business in 'Flight of the Phoenix,' they see Sharon as a real asset, and they know that even though they may be enemies, the Cylons are still sentient beings. The way the Pegasus crew treats their prisoner is abhorrent, and I'm guessing this will become a big issue in the second chunk of the season.

There's a lot of potential in having Baltar rehibilitate Six. I think they recognized the limitations of having him constantly interacting with her hallucination, and this will give them the potential to rekindle the relationship they had on Caprica. His soliloquiy about their relationship was beautiful. I think Batlar and Six have fantastic chemistry, but he hasn't had much to do this season, and getting him a prominent plot next time is a good idea.

So, I'm really psyched to see where things go from here. I hope they keep the focus on cylons, rather than on random problems on the bridge. The real philosophical meat of the series is with the cylons, so I hope to see more of Sharon on the Galactica, and more of the cylons in their own world.

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Battlestar Galactica (2x04-2x07) (3/26/2006)
Battlestar Galactica (2x01-2x03) (3/24/2006)
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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Seven Soldiers: #0

With the final trade getting released in July, I decided it was time to begin reading Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers series. Morrison's probably the best creator working now in any medium. The Invisibles changed my life, and every book he's done is completely pop, full of crazy new ideas and concepts.

With one issue, Grant creates a fully realized superhero team, and then tears them down, setting the stage for the events of the maxi-series. This issue is one of the most convincing takes I've seen on the reality-based superhero. However, rather than being set in our reality, this story examines what it would be like for an ordinary superhero in the DC Universe. This is a world where the JLA are like gods, Superman isn't your average hero, he's someone who's really special, like the best baseball player in the majors, while these guys are people who've been kicking around single A level minors. They have the fundamentals, but are all aware that they're never going to be getting the headlines.

The first couple of pages are a throwback to Swamp Thing, Alan Moore's legendary series, one of the first really notable revamps of a character to change him from a children's book hero to a more adult character. Tommy goes through a similar revamp, controlled by these mysterious bald guys, who seem to be some kind of cosmic agents, controlling reality from behind the scenes. So, they're like John a Dreams in The Invisibles, manipulating reality from behind the scenes to bring about a specific end. Here, they're locked in some kind of eternal battle with the forces of darkness who turn up later in the book.

The two page sequence with Tommy's transformation is classic Morrison. The colored liquid is a lot like the stuff that turned up in The Filth, which woke Greg up from his cover identity and turned him into Ned Slade. On a narrative level, the bald guys are rebuilding Tommy to serve in this superhero team, on a meta level, Tommy is going through the process of reinvention that countless superheroes have gone through, getting updated to be cooler, with more attitude. So, his old personality is washed down the drain and he's got a different temprament when we see him later in the book.

Next, we meet up with the main character, The Whip. She went into heroing as a gimmick to get a book written. I love the title: "Body Thunder: How I Turned My Body Into a Weapon to Beat the Twenty-First Century Blues." If you're living in a world where someone like Batman exists, clearly there's going to be imitators, and every person bored with their mundane life is going to long for his exciting existence.

There's a lot of references to previous superhero comics in the issue. The Whip herself is clearly a Frank Miller heroine, "the girl with no fear" being a direct reference to his Daredevil. She's a masochist, dressed up in a full on fetish outfit, but the pain just isn't enough for her, she needs something beyond just day to day crime fighting. Grant frequently talks about wanting to restore the cosmic grandeur of the Silver Age to contemporary superhero titles, and her line about exhausting the possibilities of the "morally ambiguous urban vigilante" is a clear reference to this.

She goes on to talk about how she needs more, she wants a memorial to her carved into the side of the moon. This seems to be a throwback to the Phoenix saga, she wants a grand sacrifice that will make the world remember her forever. This is tragically ironic in light of what happens later on, when she dies out of the spotlight, likely forgotten soon after.

The whole theme of the issue is contained in the line "How do you know when you've become a superhero and not just a crazy fetish person with a death wish?" In their world, you can dress up in a costume and fight crime, but there's always the spectre of people like Superman, you'd just come off as a pathetic echo. That's why she wants to save the world, doing so would prove her legitimacy.

This theme also ties into the very reason why we read superhero fiction. Reading these power fantasies is a way of transcending the "twenty-first century blues." Rather than the conformist, structured world we live in, superhero fiction is a place where people can dress up in crazy outfits and battle all manner of cosmic foes. It's that search for meaning, if your day's work is saving the world, you can go home happy, if it's just working in an office, or busting a couple of petty crooks, it's tough to consider yourself fulfilled.

Thematically, this ties back to Watchmen, particularly the stuff from Hollis' book. He talks about how it was only when the criminals started to dress up that they felt comfortable, if you're the only one in costume it seems ridiculous. There's an inherent self consciousness for these people, and for Shelly, that insecurity leads her to try to find a team of people, a place where she can feel comfortable.

If The Whip is the archetypal 80s heroine, Greg is a throwback to the Golden AGe. He's inherently outdated, a cowboy hero in today's world does not fit. He's a guy who felt more comfortable in 1875 than in the present. I love the idea that the JLA would go track this guy down from the past and bring him back, a mere chore for them, but a huge event for this guy. That's the essence of the miniseries, on the cosmic scale, these characters are unimportant, but because we get into their lives, their triumphs seem massively important, and their demise is disturbing.

This goes back a fiction theory that I've talked about before, the "Personal Apocalypse" concept, which was basically that a work needn't exist on a cosmic scale to feel important, what it needs to do is focus on the most important moment in the characters' life, the moment where the world as they knew it ends and they come out reborn. Magnolia is a great example of this, are nine random people in the Valley important on the grand scale of things? No, but because we care about them, it feels more important than an asteroid hurtling to destroy the whole world in Armageddon.

The heroes on Greg's team all draw on archetypes from superhero comics past. This is reminiscent of Warren Ellis' Planetary series, which functions simultaneously as a great adventure series in its own right, and as a history of genre fiction in the twentieth century. Gimmix is a throwback to 50s female heroines, most notably with her "Everything a Girl Needs" spray, Boy Blue is the post comics reader, who experiences superheroes via video games and movies, and Dan is a prototypical fanboy. His character design is basically the stereotypical "fatbeard." Most interesting is Tommy, who's come back in the style of late 90s Authority superheroes, a guy who's so cool he doesn't even know what he's doing with this bunch of losers. The transformation process with Tommy earlier in the book is designed to resemble the way that writers can remake characters to suit their own ends, modernized to suit the new times.

To some extent, they're all hero-vestites, except for Greg, but he's clearly too old to fight at the level he used to. In the page where they're asleep, both Gimmix and Dan look utterly mundane stripped of their hero gear. They're dressing up as heroes, it's not something inherent to themselves. Shelly's got some masochistic tendencies, and sleeping with Tommy, a guy she hates, is part of that. She likes to put herself in danger to feel alive.

Because they're only "playing" superheroes, there's always a self consciousness to their behavior. However, when they take on the spider, there's a collective transcending of this mental state, and for a moment they become real superheroes. Fighting as a team, they defeat the spider, and in those moments of fighting, they lose touch with all their earthly worries and become something greater. They are no longer self conscious about it, they have become real heroes.

After that, it's quickly down to Earth, realizing how close they came to dying, and the scars left by the battle. And after this momentary peak, they are quickly reminded of their utter insignificance. Some kind of superior force breaks through reality, and in a harrowing double page spread, everyone's killed. I love The Whip, screaming as she looks straight out at the reader. I'm not really sure what's going on here, but it's definitely disturbing. From there, the mysterious bald men pack things up and prepare to assemble another seven to fight this threat, which presumably leads in to the seven individual mini-series.

I think this issue is a masterpiece. Basically everything Grant writes is great, but this is his most insightful exploration of superhero archetypes since Flex Mentallo. That book dealt more with our perception of superheroes in the real world, this is all about how the average superhero lives in the DCU, toiling in the shadow of the big guns like Superman. I love the ways that the superheroes themselves are equated with superhero fans, Dan is like the fanboy who got a chance to write the titles, and Gimmix is the writer who wrote a couple of issues back in the 70s and is trying to live on that fame for the rest of her life. The whole book has that sort of run down, sleazy vibe that's present at a lot of cons.

Morrison writes superhero fiction better than anyone else, even Moore. Moore can do great work, but recently is often too eager to go towards pastiche over real emotional involvement. I've said it before, but with stuff like Tom Strong, Moore writes Silver Age comics as they actually were, while Grant's Flex Mentallo is like your nostalgia altered memory of a Silver age comic. This doesn't reach the manic pop heights of Flex, but it's a fantastic, more subdued exploration of similar themes.

Aiding Grant in this is the brilliant J.H. Williams. His work on Promethea is arguably the greatest comics art of all time. Here, his work is essential in establishing all these characters in such a short period. He's able to handle the Morrison craziness of the opening, as well as the kinetic action with The Whip. I've heard that Grant and J.H. are working on a creator owned series soon, and I'm eagerly looking forward to it. J.H. is one of those artists like Frank Quitely who's so good, I feel like he's wasting his time if he's not working with someone as good Alan Moore or Grant Morrison.

So, this was a great opening to the series, and I'm looking forward to the rest. I'll be doing in depth reviews as I go through, perhaps not this in depth, but if you've read the series, you'll have plenty to ponder.

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Vital is a film by Shinya Tsukamoto, the man behind two of the craziest films I've seen, Tetsuo: The Iron Man and A Snake of June. Those films all took place in surreal worlds, heavily color tinted and based around symbols in a dreamlike haze. It's difficult to find any sort of character or narrative reality in either of them. The really heavy tinting makes them totally unique films, I've never seen another feature like them.

Vital's still an odd film, but it's much more mainstream than Tsukamoto's other stuff. The film is about Hiroshi's struggle to come to terms with his girlfriend's death. The narrative structure's odd because the entire film is about him letting go, but we start by having him lose all his memories. What this does is align the viewer with Hiroshi, dropped in to this world, unclear about what's going on, and gradually realizing what happened.

The film has a number of incredible editing bits. The opening with the smokestacks is frenetic, and the music used builds up anticipation despite the fact that we're not sure what's going on. The other really cool sequence is when Hiroshi remembers the car crash and his memories flood back in negative.

The film has a few layers of metaphor working. In the real world, Hiroshi is dissecting Ryoko's body and through the process is rediscovering his relationship with her. At the same time, he's living in a dream reality, where he can spend time with Ryoko, but always has to leave at some point, return to the real world.

The film has a heavy layer of sadomasochism, with the choking. When Hiroshi sees Ikumi choking herself, he finds an echo of his relationship with Ryoko. Ryoko clearly shares this self destructive streak, so by forging a relationship with Ikumi, Hiroshi has a chance to atone for Ryoko's death. I like how Hiroshi forgres a relationship with Ryoko's parents, his rediscovery of his memories allows them to rediscover her as well. This relationship was the most emotionally real in all of Tsukamoto's work.

As things end, we realize that Ryoko was aware that she was going to die, but she didn't mind because she had experienced a moment of perfect happiness with Hiroshi. She'd be content to relive their time together all her life, even as she's aware that Hiroshi has to move on to other things.

The film's much more straightforward, less experimental than Tsukamoto's work. It was a lot easier to follow, and was also more emotionally engaging, however it's also less unique. I'm not saying that Tsukamoto should only do really out there stuff, but this is the equivalent of something like Wild at Heart for David Lynch, a film that's about half totally unique and half fairly standard. It's a lot easier to watch this than Snake of June, but it's ultimately less invigorating.

Tsukamoto's work reminds me a lot of Miike's, in the way that more than any American directors he emphasizes image and dream logic over coherent narrative progression. Even though I'm talking about this film like it's a standard film, it's still very ethereal and drifting. I feel like both of these directors are students of psychology, Freud in particular, because they draw on a lot of knowing sexual symbolism. In some respects, the lack of narrative cohesion can be frustrating. Lynch does some crazy stuff, but most of his films can be straightened out into a fairly linear narrative if you work hard enough. However, I would hesitate to come up with a definitive explanation for Gozu or Tetsuo, they're films that don't take place in our world, films that are more about the journey, the image at the moment, than any particular destination.

This film is successful in that it does have a strong emotional closure, and a sense of character and narrative. However, the images and construction just aren't as overwhelming as in Tetsuo or Snake of June. But, I imagine the vast majority of viewers would enjoy this a lot more than either of those two films.

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Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Goldfrapp @ Irving Plaza

Utopia//Lovely Head//Tip Toe//Train//Koko//Slide//Never Know//Deer Stop//Fly Me//Satin Chic//Beautiful//White Horse//OOh La La
Black Cherry//Number One
Strict Machine

I've been to a lot of rock shows, but I've never seen any electronic pop groups perform live. It's tougher to do a show where much of your sound comes from electronic elements, it can be tougher to reproduce the elements that make the record great. Goldfrapp proved that it is possible to make do electronic keyboard based music live and make it great. This was a really cool show, one I'm really glad I got to see.

First off, the crowd here was really into it. When she first came out on stage, there were huge applause and after every showy moment there was a major crowd reaction. This reaction was one of the most enthusiastic I've ever seen, and Alison seemed to really be enjoying it. During the breaks between encores, the crowd was really emphatic in demanding a bit more show.

The show started off with two songs off of Felt Mountain. I figured that the dance/glam stuff off of the later albums would play better live, but those first two songs were the highlight of the show for me. Alison's vocal range was ridiculous, going off into this siren-like high pitched wail on 'Lovely Head,' augmented by the theremin and vocal distortion. I think they placed these two songs first because they were so vocally demanding, it would be difficult to hit those notes at the end of the show. The band backing her was a mix of keyboard, violin and guitar, and they turned the ethereal whispher of Utopia into a heavy stomp, completely remaking the song into something that worked as a rocking live number. If you hear the songs on record, they don't sound like they'd translate well live, but she totally disproved that here.

I think some of my enjoyment of the show was hindered by the fact that I didn't get a good spot until near the end. I got there ten minutes before the show started, and was really happy not to have to wait. But, the problem is I wasn't up in the front, where the really intense fans are. It's a hassle to have to wait, but the shows where I'm in the front, like at Phoenix last week are much more enjoyable. There, you get immersed in the performance, rather than struggling to see over the crowd. So, in the future I'm going to try to get there a bit earlier and get a good spot before the show starts.

Anyway, my issues aside, she kept up a really high energy level throughout the show. Train was an early highlight, the first of her dance songs to get played, and also notable for her theremin solo, a theremin that she got very comfortable with. Train also saw the first appearance of her masked dancers. They were quite odd looking, and worked well to augment the songs. Visually, the show was fantastic. The lights helped build the song's mood and the band's glam rock attire helped build the mood. I believe it was Will Gregory playing keyboards on the left in a full on Velvet Goldmine outfit and makeup.

The closing run of songs was all fantastic. After the heights of 'Utopia' and 'Lonely Head,' there was a bit of a break, but things came back at the end with the fantastic, driving 'Satin Chic,' and then her two big disco songs off of Supernature, 'Ooh La La' and 'Ride a White Horse.' I was surprised to see those two back to back since they're similar songs, and one of them could have probably gone over better during the middle of the show. But, it did have the effect of building great momentum for the finale, and into the encores.

'Number One' is my favorite song of theirs, and it worked really well live. 'Black Cherry' was a return to the feel of 'Utopia,' and was quite good. 'Strict Machine' was a fantastic finale, with Alison marching and saluting.

So, a really good show. I wasn't sure how they'd convert their stuff to live performance, but it went over seamlessly, and quite a few of the songs were even better live than on the record. I would love to see them again, this was a "Special" show, so hopefully they'll do another round through New York promoting this album. And next time play 'Lovely 2 C U,' that's the only song I was missing.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

The Sopranos: 'Moe and Joe' (6x10)

This episode felt like a throwback to the early season episodes that dealt explicitly with Tony's youth, I was almost expecting a flashback with young Tony and Janice. Thankfully we didn't get that, but in some respects, the episode felt a bit constrained by having to look backwards. Still, there was a lot of progress in the overall storylines, as everything continues to fall apart.

The development of Vito's storyline in the past few episodes has given us our first glimpse of someone who might find a way out of the mob world. Vito seemed to have wound up in the perfect town and met the perfect guy. However, he's still drawn irrevocably back to Jersey and the world of the mob. At first this is played with a blend of nostalgia and humor, Vito annoyed that the firefighters are going to sleep at midnight, and the dinner as an attempt to recapture the cooking he misses.

For the past few episodes, the threat seemed to come from outside, the issue was who would find Vito, and whether or not Tony would let them kill him. The twist is that it turns out even the perfect life isn't enough for Vito, he'd rather take his chances at home than live out an ordinary life, doing ordinary work. Coming from a culture where going to work means playing poker in the back of a pork store or sitting in folding chairs on a construction site, it's difficult for Vito to get used to the idea of actually doing work. The scene with the voiceover was a stylistic departure for the series, but I think it worked to show just how alien the concept of an actual day's labor is for these guys.

I didn't love the episode, and I think that's partially because it's so unrelentingly pessimistic. It's tough to watch these characters continually fail, and certainly Vito's arc is an example of that. This is a guy who had everything set up for him, he just needed to work, and he couldn't do that. It's similar to Long Term Parking, where Christopher sees a white trash 'ordinary' family, and chooses to kill Adrianna rather than go down that path. Vito chooses the same, he can be happy for a time in New Hampshire, but he's got to return to Jersey eventually, even if it means death.

I enjoyed the momentum of the "My Way'" car ride, and the starkly shot murder announced that Vito is definitely back. He must be aware that he can't just walk back in to their world, and I'm not too sure what he plans to do. I suppose he could claim that the rumors were all lies, and go back to living with his wife, swearing off the gay clubs, but I still think it would be hard for them to accept him. In the previous episodes, I would have been really angry if Vito ended up getting killed, but with this episode, he basically gives himself over to die. He passed on his chance for an escape, so there's really nothing else to do but end him.

This episode doesn't really evolve Janice, but the whole point of her character is that there's no evolution. Be she new age or mob wife, she's still the same self centered person. So, this is more about touching base with her, and reaffirming what we've already seen. Janice has basically become her mother, and that's what makes Tony scared of her. What this episode adds is the notion that even when he was a kid, she was treating him like Livia did. So, Tony's always been scared of her on some level.

The scene with Bobby Jr. is great because it lets Tony observe someone who's essentially a younger version of himself, it's even stronger than a flashback. Tony chooses not to talk to Janice about it, likely because she'd just ignore him and complain about it. Bobby is trying to advance to impress her, but ends up only getting himself hurt worse.

One thing I've been wondering is whether Bobby has gone to see Junior in prison. I'd imagine Tony wouldn't sanction it, but they were together for a long time, and I don't think he would be happy that Junior's been essentially abandoned. One of the toughest moments of this season is Junior's extreme happiness when he sees AJ, only to be quickly deflated when he finds out that his only visitor has come to kill him.

This episode effectively marks the end of Johnny Sack. By pleading guilty, he alienates himself from everyone else in the mob, it will likely be a chilly reception when he gets out of prison. But, he really had no choice, he made the deal that worked best for his family.

This plotline fits in wonderfully with the theme of erosion that the whole season has been about. All the characters are increasingly aware of their own constriction, and both Christopher and Vito's attempts to find a way out have failed miserably. The characters are going down the ship, they're not willing to work to find a new life, and that means just trying to grab the biggest piece possible as everything falls apart.

Carmela this season is becoming more and more aggressive in trying to claim a space for herself. She's desperately jealous of Angie, who's the woman she wants to be. She leans on Tony to try and get her work started, and blames him when her building fails. She's so stuck in their mindset that she never thinks to actually make a building that could pass inspection, rather she looks for the easy way around the rules. No one's willing to do actual work, and that's the big problem. The mob prays on actual businesspeople, best dramatized in the David Scatino arc back in season two, they siphon from the labor of others, and contribute nothing themselves.

With two episodes left in the season, I'm assuing we'll see some resolution of the Vito issue. I hesitate to predict anything plotwise since Chase always comes up with something unexpected. But, tonally it's pretty clear that we're looking at the continued gradual breakdown of the mob system. Paulie's got cancer, Christoper's losing his car, no one is doing well, and I'm guessing that the end of the series will be a fade out not a bang.

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