Thursday, May 25, 2006

Nelly Furtado's 'Maneater'

It's the new Toxic! I heard this song yesterday and I've been completely loving it since. I always love synth pop, but what this does is blend a strong synth line with a more hip-pop chorus making for a really cool song. The song starts with that nasty driving synth part, and I love the way her vocals match exactly with the feel of the synth. I always like songs where the vocal is pushed down in the mix and made to feel more like an instrument. Her singing's great, but what makes it work so well is the fact that the vocal and the synth are perfectly matched.

From there, the song goes into the chorus. The chorus goes for a higher, almost cascading feel, taking you briefly out of the din of the synth driven verse. I really like the way that she stretches out the first syllable of man in maneater then speeds through the rest of the words in the chorus to catch up. And the transition between the chorus and the verse is fantastic, as that synth line rears up and is soon matched by her vocal.

I've listened to a lot of European pop stuff recently, like Goldfrapp and Rachel Stevens, and I love the smooth synth-ness of their songs. This song takes some of that feel, but makes the synth darker, a bit more hip hop, creating a whole different experience. It's a bit like the stuff off Gwen Stefani's album, but without the 80s pastiche. But just listening to this thing, it's clearly a fantastic piece of work, a perfect pop song.

Promiscuous Girl is a great song as well, so I'm really psyched to hear her whole album.

Related Posts
Pop! (2/27/2005)
Gwen Stefani: Love Angel Music Baby (3/20/2006)
Goldfrapp @ Irving Plaza (5/16/2006)

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Head On

Head On is a German-Turkish film that exemplifies the way that foreign and independent films deal with emotional issues in a totally different way from typical Hollywood studio product. The film's premise is a fairly conventional setup, a young woman sets up a fake marriage with an older man as a way of getting out of her parents' oppressive home, but soon they begin to develop real feelings for each other.

Stylistically, the film is incredibly pop. The events are frequently emotionally devestating, but thanks to the soundtrack and shooting style, it's always an exciting film to watch. In that respect, the film reminds me of Liilja 4Ever, though this film is a bit more upbeat than that one. My favorite moments of the film weren't particularly tied to the narrative, they were more just perfect combinations of image and music. After Sibel meets Marin, she gets a makeover and is dancing around their apartment, Cahit joins her and they both shout "Punk is not dead." It's such a fun moment and you share in the ecstascy of these characters.

From there, we proceed to a fantastic club scene, with the camera swirling around, we watch Sibel through Cahit's eyes, and as she dances, he falls in love with her and we do too. Obviously, the actress is beautiful, but a lot of the reason that she seems so attractive there is in the way she's filmed. The film is subtle enough that when Cahit runs over to have sex with a guy, we only need to see Cahit's face to know that he now has feelings for her.

The narrative of the film is rather rambling, there's a lot of territory covered and it would be easy to get lost along the way. The emotional anchors are the two lead actors. As Cahit, Birol Unel shows us an utterly broken man who gradually climbs back to life. He goes from this utterly slovenly guy to a clean cut, suave guy by the end of the film. I love the moment where he gets out of prison, wearing 70s police style glasses, and the light shines through the glasses letting us see his eyes. In that moment, we can sense his determination and see that his love for Sibel kept him from giving up. He's come out of prison in a better state than he was when he went in.

Watching the film, it's clear that Sibel goes through a lot, but it was only when I went back and looked at the trailer that it became apparent just how stunning her performance was. She goes through an incredible transformation, from timid suicidal girl to excessive clubber and ultimately she winds up as a domesticated married woman.

Her physical appearance is critical to expressing the characters' inner self. When we see her putting on black eyeshadow, it's clear that she's emulating Marin, she's completely abandoned her traditional Turkish background and is embracing the German club life. What she wants is total independence, and her emotional connection to Cahit deprives her of that. When they're about to have sex, she notes that this will make them really man and wife. From that point on, she can't indulge in the lifestyle she had, she has to drink and do drugs to excess to try to numb the pain of her loss, and ultimately she sees physical pain as a way of dulling the emotions stemming from the loss of Cahit.

I'm curious about what exactly happens between that night when she's beat up and her move to a homelife. I'm guessing that the guy took care of her and offered her shelter and she took it because she was exhausted. So, once again, she takes up with a guy she might not really love after attempting suicide. I feel like her choice to not follow Cahit is her shaking off her old life, she knows that to follow him would mean losing stability and after coming so close to death, she can't risk that again. So, she chooses stability over love. Of course, it's possible that she does love this guy, and having sex with Cahit one last time is an exorcism, ridding herself of those old feelings.

One of the things that makes the film so effective is its grittiness. Because the world feels real, the fact that Cahit falls in love with Sibel doesn't feel contrived. We've seen just how bad off this guy is, and Sibel represents an opportunity to grow up and seek out real emotion rather than wallowing in grief about the loss of his wife. Sibel saying that having sex means they're really man and wife forces him to recognize the fact that this won't just be a fuck-buddy relationship like he has with Marin, it will be a real emotional commitment. Some people could say that the sex scenes are gratuitous, but the fact that they don't have the ubiquitous Hollywood sheet covering them makes you feel like this is real, not something that's staged to avoid showing anyone's nipple.

The emotional arc of the film reminds me of Leon: The Professional, with a younger girl moving in with an older man and opening him up emotionally. Both Cahit and Leon find that the difficulty of moving beyond their loner lifestyles is justified by the emotional bond they form. And in the end, each has to sacrifice themselves so that their young charge can live a normal life.

It's not easy to watch Cahit and Sibel torn apart, or Sibel's meltdown. Part of me was wishing the film could just continue following their happy times, going to clubs and dancing. I love the swirling camera moves when they dance together for the first time, colored lights flashing around them. However, Cahit's temper spoils things there, and ultimately ruins things permanently when he attacks Niko. I think the characters are so flawed that an easy resolution would feel false, so even though we may want them to stay together, it's just not possible. There's no other way things could end than with Cahit leaving and Sibel staying behind in her new life. To leave it all for Cahit would be reckless, she left that kind of reasoning behind when she was beaten on the street.

So, I thought this was a fantastic film. The handheld camera work, fantastic soundtrack and utterly convincing, transformative acting made it a really enveloping experience. People talk about something like Capote or Ray as an example of an actor transforming into a character, but I feel like the work here is a better example. Rather than perfecting an impersonation and sticking with it, both Sibel and Birol go through many stages of the characters' life, taking them each to completely different places than they were when the film started, but staying emotionally true to the characters' core. That's great acting. And moments like the club scene, where the music, lighting, camerawork and performance come together to illuminate the characters' emotions are great filmmaking.

Related Posts
The Marriage of Maria Braun (10/29/2004)
On Foreign Film (1/26/2005)

Monday, May 22, 2006

The Sopranos: 'Cold Stones' (6x11)

I loved the beginning of this season, everything through the first six episodes had a really clear direction and pushed things in unexpected ways. However, in these past few episodes, everything seems to be moving back toward the traditional status quo for the series. I couldn't help but feel that this episode was a bit of a let down, sticking with subdued gloom of the past couple of episodes when the narrative seems to be demanding some kind of major event, or at least a deeper exploration of what's happening to the characters.

One of my favorite arcs of this season was Vito's journey. In Live Free or Die and Johnny Cakes, we saw a guy breaking away from the world he came from, overcoming restrictive traditional values to embrace a new kind of life. It was unlike anything we'd seen on the show before and watching this guy struggle with his new world was riveting. Last week, it was tough to watch Vito fail at his newly chosen life, but thematically, the idea that no one can escape from the Jersey mob world makes a lot of sense.

So, the major issue I have here is the rather perfunctory nature of Vito's demise. After sketching out this wonderfully nuanced guy, we don't get any glimpse into his emotions upon his return. His attempts to reassimilate are there, but other than the phone call to Jim, there's no sense that he's emotionally conflicted. The way I interpreted it, he basically knew someone was going to kill him when he returned, so the journey home was essentially a suicide. But, is that how he felt, or did he legimitately think that he could get back in with Tony? I think we needed to know more about how he felt.

Chase always subverts audience expectations, and it frequently pays off wonderfully, witness Janice killing Richie in season two. The whole season was building to a moment when Tony's new outlook is put to a test when he has to choose whether to authorize a hit on Vito. There's a lot of drama there, and it seemed to be a major sticking point for Tony. However, this episode completely undermines that by having him decide to just go ahead with the hit, and then absolving him of his guilt by having Phil kill Vito for him.

That move doesn't make much plot sense to me. I feel like Tony needed to make the conscious decision to take out Vito, if the point of Phil killing Vito was to instigate conflict between Jersey and New York, it would have been more narratively beneficial to have Tony not authorize a hit on Vito, delay that call, then have Phil act. At this point, Jersey/New York conflicts have been teased for so long, Chase either has to decide to go ahead with some kind of all out war or back down from things. You can only raise the stakes so many times before these events become meaningless.

That said, I did love the ritualistic nature of the Vito murder. Phil's emergence from the closet, like a judging spirit, was fantastic. Phil seems to have been goaded into the murder by his wife, who's going on about how Vito's gay lifestyle is a sin, disregarding the fact that everything she has comes from illegal and morally wrong activity. The idea that these people can judge Vito for what he does, in light of their own transgressions, is absurd. The scene with Vito's wife, and the subsequent one with his kids, makes it clear that Phil was acting out of his own self interest, his attempt to get rid of this "shame" ends up hurting the very people he was supposedly helping.

As the "Back in Black" scene makes clear, Tony seems to have fully returned to his old self. The most interesting element of this season for me was seeing Tony's changed persona, but that seems to have been fully whittled down by living his daily life. He's given up on attempting to be morally right, once again he's only thinking of himself. The problem I have is that the show doesn't seem to address his reversion. It's present in his action, but considering the major emphasis placed on Tony not wanting Vito killed, it's odd that his decision here would be so nonchalant. The one scene where he really got called on his behavior was when he was with Melfi, but he basically ignored what she said.

What's interesting about how the Vito arc played out is the way that the events of the story basically exonerate Tony from the responsibility of standing up for Vito. When Vito returns to Jersey, he makes himself an open target, so Tony really has no reason not to kill him, and we as viewers recognize this. I think it would have been much more interesting to confront Vito in New Hampshire, in this other world where the killing of Vito would have been an aggressive act, rather than a reactive one. That would keep the theme that you can't get out, but play it out in a different way than we'd seen before. The way Vito dies now is too similar to Ralphie or Tony Blundetto, where a guy gets out of control and is put down.

Elsewhere, we've got Carmela's trip to France. I get the sense that the producers wanted to go to France, and the episode was based around this. There's not that much that specifically relies on the Paris setting here, it was certainly pretty, but I don't know if it was the best use of screentime. That said I love Carmela's dream, there's a lot of potential in having Carmela finally have to face the reality of what Tony's business is. Earlier this season, Carmela seemed to have come to terms with Tony did for a living, but her continued investigation into the Adrianna matter, as well as asking about Jackie Jr. would indicate that there's more doubts than she's voiced. The strongest scene in the Paris section is when she asks Rosalie about Jackie's disappearance, and Rosalie just won't discuss it.

I'm not sure about Meadow going to California. That seems to conflict with the way her arc was going this season, though I do love how she claims there's no problems with Finn, even though just last episode we saw her breaking into tears.

And AJ continues to be a problem. This was the strongest part of the episode for me. The way Tony sees it, AJ's failure is a direct reflection of his own inadequecies. He is now feeling guilty for not being tougher on him, it's like Tony's failure to discipline AJ has created the situation they're in now. There was a great line a few episodes ago where Tony says "Carmela's a good mother. She did her best," and I think that sums things up, he feels like listening to Carmela's judgment and not exercising his own has caused the problems that AJ is now experiencing.

The Melfi scene was one of the best in a long time, and got to the core of a lot of Tony's issues, particularly the closing stuff about Carmela being the mother that Tony wishes he had. The scene in the garage was wonderfully tense and for a bit there, I was really thinking that Tony was going to hit AJ. Instead he takes out his rage on AJ's material possession, the car. Sending AJ into construction has the potential to put him on the path towards mob life, and without a doubt, it'll toughen AJ, which is probably Tony's motivation in getting him the job. If AJ fails at this job, we could end things with Tony physically attacking AJ.

I'm really curious to see what happens in the season finale. Things have been stuck in this oppressive rut for a while. I think it's given us some great stories, but I need just a little bit more before the break, something that causes a major emotional impact on these characters.

Related Posts
The Sopranos: 'Moe and Joe' (6x10) (5/15/2006)
The Sopranos: 'The Ride' (6x09) (5/9/2006)
The Sopranos: 'Johnny Cakes' (6x08) (5/2/2006)

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight #1-2, Zatanna #1, Manhattan Guardian #1, Klarion #1

After the stunning Zero issue, it's time to head into the first four Seven Soldiers miniseries. Each of these series represents the invention of a new superhero mythos, each drawing on previous archetypes while updating them in a way that makes them feel fresh and new.

I'm not too up on DCU history, I know these were all pre-existing characters, but I'm not sure how the worlds they inhabit fit into the DCU that alreayd exists. For example, Shining Knight starts out in some version of Camelot, where he's one of a bunch of knights battling the Sheeda. I'm not sure exactly what the Sheeda are yet, but Shining Knight 2 leads us to believe that they turn up a certain point in a civilization's development, to destroy it. In the first issue, they destroy the Camelot that Justin comes from, and he winds up falling through a time warp to the present.

The issue is fall of crazy Morrison ideas, filtered through a Lord of the Rings vibe. I like the font and style of the narration, which gives the the story the feel of an ancient epic. With everything in chaos, Justin falls into the present. The first issue felt a bit elusive, it was tough to get used to the Camelot world, though I thought the Castle Revolving stuff was fantastic, particularly the mutation of Justin's girlfriend.

The final pages set up the basic premise of the series, a classical knight stranded in modern Los Angeles. The second issue clarifies things, and gets us deeper into Justin's head. I love the idea that he's tormented by this physical representation of his guilt, and literally just walks around with this guy. He's clinging to the old ways, and feels without purpose in this new world.

Justin encounters one of the bald men from Seven Soldiers 0. These guys seem to be some kind of extradimensional agents, who are able to reinvent heroes, update them for a new task. In this case, Justin reclaims his role as a knight, defeating these criminals on the street and finds himself updated with modern clothes and a new sense of purpose. I love the idea that this guy appears at just the right time to set Justin on his path, and I'm guessing that a bald man will appear to each of the soldiers at one point in their series.

Concurrently with this, we've got the mob boss who bought Vanguard. He encounters a sheeda riding some kind of spider. It seems like these spiders are pets for the Sheeda, they control them, and were able to use one as bait in seven soldiers 0. There's a lot of references to eight legged entitiess throughout the series.

The art on Shining Knight is incredible. Justin on the last page of issue 2 is incredible looking and throughout the oil paint look lends incredible atmosphere to the book. Grant did a great job of selecting each artist, and tailoring the story to his/her sensibility. This book looks like a lost volume from the Renaissance, and that style allows us to see our world from the perspective of an outsider like Justin.

Manhattan Guardian is the second series. This is a much more traditional superhero series, drawing on the Batman archetype of the ordinary guy with the skills to fight for good. The thing that makes Manhattan Guardian work is that the superhero story flows organically out of this guy's regular life. Traditionally, the origin story exists solely to motivate the hero to get into action, and even a book like Ultimate Spider-Man that spends a lot of time before the guy becomes a hero still feels like the plot exists solely to bring him to the point of putting on a costume. Here, it feels more like Jake is a regular guy who just happens to be a hero.

I suppose it goes back to the speech from Kill Bill about how Clark Kent is the disguise, Superman is the real guy. That's true of most heroes, but not this one. Jake is using his role as the Manhattan Guardian as a way to patch up the problems in his life.

There's a lot of great things in the issue. I love the kid from the Newsboy Army showing up and giving Jake a bike. Throughout, I feel like Morrison captures a unique voice in Jake. He's always been good at creating very unique characters in small space, and by the end of this issue, I already feel like we completely know Jake. That's the sign of a good storyteller, and makes it a lot easier to emotionally relate to him as the story proceeds.

I'm not so sure about the pirates, the basic idea is good, but I feel like pirates are a bit played out, and usually GM is on the forefront of cultural trends. I'll forgive it because it feels like a throwback to his work with Cameron Stewart on Seaguy. Stewart's art is fantastic here, he always makes fun, dynamic images that can accomodate realism and bizarre stuff.

Following this was Zatanna #1. Zatanna's the only character of the bunch that I was familiar with going in, I'd just caught her appearances in Identity Crisis. So far, hers is by far my favorite mini. The book is like a cross between Buffy and Promethea, and touches on the most classic Morrison ideas.

I think this issue does the best job of simultaneously introducing the character and telling an interesting story in its own right, which was Morrison's goal with the series. That's really helped by the framing device. Much like the Melfi scenes in the first episode of The Sopranos, Zatanna's running narrative about her past introduces us to both the facts of what happened to her in the past, and her feelings on those events. The basic events of the issue come out of stuff that happened in Alan Moore's Swamp Thing run, where Zatanna, her father and John Constantine teamed up to repel some ultimate evil force.

While I usually prefer writers to tackle original material, this mini is a great example of the benefits of a shared universe. It's crazy that this character from an Alan Moore story written twenty years ago can now pick up and grow. Morrison has talked about the fact that Superman is more real now than his creators, and I think a large part of the impetus for the project was the idea that he could create new characters and concepts that would impact the DCU for many years after he's gone. It's the same thing he tried to do with his run on X-Men, but Marvel has effectively gone through and erased most of his innovations.

Anyway, Zatanna's journey through the magic world is incredible. I love the bottom left panel on the first page of this journey, where she's wide eyed, just in total awe of this world. Her interactions with Terry the skeptic are a lot of fun as well. The double paged spreads where they bounce around recall Promethea, though the idea that "space has an edge," as represented by a panel border is classic Morrison. The red God they encounter on the next page seems to be a throwback to the beings who attacked the team in SS0.

This leads them to a place that recalls the library of unwritten books in Sandman. I love the final image of the face on the tree, really creepy. The emotional core of the issue is Zatanna's guilt about bringing back the "man of her dreams." This is exactly the kind of mistake that someone with these powers would make, even if she was responsible most of the time, she's going to slip when it gets tough, and that's going to put the whole world in danger. The emotion on her face is perfectly conveyed on the bottom of that page, the text could be played light, even a bit funny, but with the facial expressions we can tell that she's actually consumed by guilt about what's happened.

The most interesting thing about her therapy group is the presence of Gimmix from SS0. It's tough watching her here in light of what happens to her down the line. Grant's mission with this book was really ambitious, but these little touches of connection make it feel more like one large story. And the whole therapy group thing is another great peek into what the life of ordinary superheroes would be like, they see Zatanna as a poor little rich girl, because she's got to experience life with the JLA and they haven't.

The art on this book is fantastic. I love the redesign of Zatanna's costume, her classic look was good, but this makes it a bit more fresh, and a bit less just kinky magician. Misty also has very cool clothes, and her appearance tells us everything we need to know about the character. But, the thing I love most about Sook's art is the emotion the characters are feeling, I got really wrapped up in this issue and a lot of that is the way he drew things. I think this was a fantastic piece of work, different from what Morrison's done in the past, just really exciting to read. I'm looking forward to issue 2.

The other mini is the only one I'm not so sure about. I probably need to give it a reread, but Klarion was a bit underwhelming. The basic idea is cool, this kid who comes from a Puritan society longs to escape and rebel. That's classic Morrison territory, following up on Kill Your Boyfriend. The whole thing has a very Tim Burton feel, and I do think the art is fantastic. I guess the problem with the issue is that it sets up his rebellion, but ends right as things are about to get interesting. So, I'm excited to see where it goes in the next issue.

The thing I did like was the individuality vs. conformism theme. Like Shining Knight, this seems to be a dying civilization, they're waiting for the Sheeda to come and destroy their civilization, lift them of their burden. They summon the Sheeda and then one shows up at the end of the issue.

This Sheeda seems to be the same create as we saw in Shining Knight, but refracted through a different cultural lens. So, here it's a demonic, blue object, while it looked like a more traditional spider out in the Wild West. There's a lot of style in the world of Klarion, and I'm hopeful that Morrison can pick things up a bit with the next issue.

On the whole, I'm loving the project. Zatanna in particular, but the whole thing is great, and looking for the overall connections is a lot of fun. It's a work that demands much from the reader, but I'm up for the challenge. It's almost mindblowing having this much new Morrison content available at one time.

Related Posts
Seven Soldiers #0 (5/17/2006)
Seven Soldiers: Manhattan Guardian #2-3, Zatanna #2, Klarion #2, Shining Knight #3 (6/1/2006)
Seven Soldiers: Shining Knight #4, Zatanna #3 (6/3/2006)