Saturday, July 22, 2006

Weekend Update

Elysian Fields

I'm heading into the city tonight to see Elysian Fields. I saw them back in March and it was fantastic, I'll write it up after I return tonight.


The biggest comic book event of the year is going on right now, the San Diego Comicon. The biggest news for me is about Grant Morrison's new projects. When I heard he was revamping The Authority I wasn't too excited. The concept feels a bit 2000 and I was never a huge fan of the characters. However, his new take is brilliant, the Authority go through a dimensional warp and wind up in our world. Then, they set about to change our world for the better, one person at a time. Morrison's usually all about Silver Age craziness, so it's interesting to hear him talking about doing a very realistic series, even incorporating some Soderbergh style. This concept seems to be taken from the end of JLA: Classified, in which the Ultramarines were sent into a world without superheroes. It'll probably be at least a year before it turns up in trade, but I'm still psyched.

Seven Soldiers #1

In other Morrison news, Seven Soldiers #1 has finally been scheduled for release, October 25. It's a long wait, but in the long run it's worth it. I wouldn't want another Igor Kordey on New X-Men job. I'll probably reread the whole series before the release of #1.

Clerks II

I haven't gotten a chance to see Clerks II yet, but I'm going to get there soon and I'll write it up when I do. I rewatched the original Clerks and was a bit underwhelmed. The acting is so awful at some points and a lot of the jokes are very obvious. Jeff Anderson and Jason Mewes save the film however. Mewes is clearly the most talented, natural performer in the film. He's always funny even in the otherwise really weak Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back. Smith has only made one really great movie and that's Chasing Amy, it's still in my all time top 20. The transition from extremely funny comedy to emotionally devestating drama is seamless.

A Scanner Darkly Revisit

I rewatched A Scanner Darkly a few days ago. I really liked the film, but it doesn't match up to the best of Linklater's work. I love the stuff in the house, but the scenes at the police station, with the scramble suits, are less satisfying. It's meant to show the way that these scramble suits remove any individuality, but they also make it very difficult to emotionally relate to the characters. However, the film does close on a wonderful note, Keanu's delivery of "A present for my friends, at Thanksgiving" makes it sound like he's just discovered the key to the universe. Here's my ranking of all Linklater's work:

Waking Life
Before Sunset
Before Sunrise
Dazed and Confused
School of Rock
A Scanner Darkly
Bad News Bears
The Newton Boys

New Gods

I've been reading Jack Kirby's New Gods series. I got the trade because I wanted to better understand Morrison's Mister Miracle series. The book is full of crazy ideas and generally holds up. There's some goofiness, like the constant use of exclamation points and the exposition focused dialogue. Every issue it seemed that Victor Lanza would have to state his name and profession. "I'm Victor Lanza, insurance salesman." "Victor Lanza's the name, insurance salesman." "But I'm just a poor insurance salesman, Victor Lanza!" And so on. But, it's very cool to get the background on everything from the previous series. New Gods overwhelming assault of ideas and concepts was clearly a major influence on Morrison himself.


This week I've been listening to the Scissor Sisters' first album a bunch. I'm regretting not going to Siren Festival last week, I would have loved to have seen them live. The album is a great dance-rock record and even the cover of 'Comfortably Numb' is growing on me.

The other album I've been loving is 'A Night on Earth' by Crazy P. Like Daft Punk, their stuff is a perfect fusion of 70s disco with contemporary house. The album is 75 minutes of great songs, but the highlight is the opening track, Lady T. Check out the video here. This video is fantastic as well, though the version of the song used is a remix, not the album version.

Upcoming Dates of Note
7/22 - Elysian Fields at Joe's Pub
7/28 - Miami Vice released
8/3 - New Pornographers at Summerstage
8/7 - Phoenix at Bowery Ballroom (Hopefully)
8/8 - Manderlay on DVD
8/15 - Veronica Mars Season 2 on DVD
8/17 - Gnarls Barkley at Summerstage
8/29 - Arrested Development Season 3 on DVD
9/22 - Science of Sleep Releated
9/24 - The Flaming Lips at Hammerstein
10/13 - The Fountain Released
10/20 - Marie Antoinette Released

Related Posts
A Scanner Darkly (7/6/2006)

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Carnivale: 1x02-1x05

In my review of the pilot, I talked about the fact that this series has a very unconventional structure, based more around mood than a traditional plot or character development. Watching a lot of longform TV shows has changed my perception of narrative cinema. With a few notable exceptions, the character development in a 90-120 minute film feels woefully inadaquete next to the richness that comes from many seasons of a TV show. So, I began to see film as more about conveying mood, creating unique visual/emotional moments. The joy isn't in finding out the plot details, it's about enjoying the story as it unfolds and getting lost in the visuals and music. Films like The New World or Wong Kar-Wai's stuff are all about this.

So, watching Carnivale it's interesting to see a TV show that goes for this same feeling. The show draws on the mystery structure that's driven stuff like Twin Peaks and Lost, however what you take away from it isn't so much what happens as you do the dusty ambience of the depression era. The pacing is very relaxed, but I don't see that as a problem, it's refreshing to see a show that doesn't feel the need to give you a cliffhanger every ten minutes. This kind of pacing just wouldn't be possible on a network.

However, there is narrative progress here and things are getting interesting. I really liked seeing Justin build the church out of Mr. Chin's. What seemed like a random pretty dream sequence in the first episode turns out to have a deeper meaning. One of the most powerful scenes here was the sequence in which Justin confronts Templeton with his sin, the two of them seemingly stepping into a parallel dimension. I'm not sure if the black world he finds himself in ties into the black world that Samson was in in the first scene of the series.

That opening monologue set up a confrontation between good and evil, but at this point it isn't clear where Justin and Ben fall on the continuum. Justin seems to be doing good, by creating the church, but he's also clearly got some issues. Ben's clearly got talents, but there's a lot of potential for him to use those talents for selfish ends.

The show's unique because it's got a lot of supernatural stuff in it, but isn't done in a typically sci-fi way. This doesn't feel like a superhero story, rather it's closer to Unbreakable in that the character has extraordinary powers, but lives in an utterly ordinary, even depressing world. The powers here are treated more as a religious experience than something supernatural. The influence of traditional morality is heavy on the series. Ben is someone who grew up in a very traditional environment and is struggling to function in the world of the Carnivale, where traditional social norms do not apply.

So, I'm liking the series, but I'll need to see a couple more episodes before I can go into major discussion of its themes and character.

Related Posts
Carnivale: 'Milfay' (1x01) (7/16/2006)

Monday, July 17, 2006

Freaks and Geeks: 'Discos and Dragons' (1x18)

It's always an odd feeling watching the end of a longform series. In a great show, particularly one cut down before its time, it's difficult to watch knowing that the end of the series world is approaching. I would have loved to seen a second season, but as a finale, this episode is essentially perfect, capturing everything that's great about the series and providing a nice feeling of closure. This is easily the best episode of the series and one of the best series finales ever made.

The episode is all about confronting the characters with their potential futures. Sam, coming off his breakup with Cindy, feels he has the social capital to transcend geek status, he's just about ready to abandon his friends. The episode revisits the strong sense of discontent with high school life present in the first few episodes. The geek storylines frequently drift into comedy and it's nice to see a more serious undercurrent return here.

The real triumph of the episode is in the way the different storylines weave together, with events in one story setting the direction of the others. Daniel's feeling of intellectual inferiority has been a running theme of the series, most notably in "Tests and Breasts," where he gives a speech about the three sections. Lindsay comes to believe that this is just a stock excuse, but the events of later episodes show that Daniel really does have this insecurity, even if he's not quite motivated enough to do anything about it. Now, having failed at everything he tried, he decides to commit himself to actually doing something. One of the best moments in the episode is Sam looking at Daniel learning how to work the projector.

Daniel's interest in AV stuff and Dungeons and Dragons makes Sam reconsider his move away from them. In some respects it's a bit shallow that Sam would change his opinion just because a cool guy showed interest in D&D, but it makes sense. Coming off the experience with Cindy Sanders, he saw that it's no fun moving from the geek world to the popular world, so Daniel moving into the geek world is the ideal for him. It provides him with the social validation he needs to pursue what he really wants.

And it's a great moment when Daniel wins the D&D game. This is the first time we've seen him actually succeed at something and it's also notably the first time that he drops the cool facade he's had throughout the series. Through the role playing game, he's opened up and found his real self. The last time we see Daniel he's going off to get chips and soda, leaving the geeks to ponder if they've become cool or he's become a geek. I wouldn't say they're quite to cool, but what has happened is they've for the first time found someone in another social circle who they actually like hanging out with and he's accepted them for who they are. That's ultimately what they were seeking the whole series, social validation, and now they have it, so it's a bit easier going forward.

This episode is so good that a storyline that great is actually the weakest of the three stories. The Nick disco storyline finds an incredible mix of hilarity and total sadness. Joel Hodgson goes way over the top as the disco manager, but it works, his facial expression in the first shot of the episode is totally unreal, going so far you just have to laugh. This story looks a low rent Boogie Nights and made me want to see a film starring Jason Segal and John C. Reilly as 70s disco dancers.

And like Boogie Nights, the 70s clothes and music is surface fun on top of a heavy, sad core. Nick is clearly still in love with Lindsay, but has chosen to fully embrace a relationship with Sara, taking up disco dancing to make her happy. With her, he's making all the changes he should have done for Lindsay, stop smoking pot, do what she's interested in. I love the scene where they're dancing in Nick's basement and his not quite convincing claim that he's over Lindsay, and Sara always calling Ken "Kenny" is great.

However, the genius of this story lies in the final conversation between Nick and Lindsay. On the commentary for this episode, Paul Feig talks about the fact that the best writing is all about characters not saying what they mean. Nick and Lindsay have a lot of issues between them, but they don't actually talk about any of it. But, because we know what's between them, we're aware of everything that's going on and when Lindsay walks away, it's clear the Nick may still want her, but he'll never have her. The best shot in the entire series is the tracking shot following Nick into the dance contest. It's a perfect blend of image, music and emotion. The way the light turns blue on him, the slight slow motion and Sara out of focus behind him tells us everything we need to know. Brilliant.

Nick's anger in the dance contest is what makes the scene so effective. It's certainly hilarious, but it also shows us just how mad this guy is. And the subsequent bit with Eugene is one of the funniest things they've ever done. For Nick, the series ends with him looking out, overwhelmed. He's with Sara, but he's also aware that the person he really loved just walked out on him. Of all the characters, he's got the bleakest ending.

The other storyline in the episode forces Lindsay to finally confront her identity. The whole series has dealt with the idea that she's just posing as a freak when in reality, she's still just like Millie. She may claim to be the same as Daniel or Kim, but everyone still holds her to the standards of an A student. The Academic Summit forces her to confront this, the event is something that she "should" be going to, it's an event for smart people to put on their resume to help get into college, and the idea that she wouldn't want to go is alien to a culture that's wholly built around getting into college and excelling academically.

Her parents feel it's ridiculous for her to even consider not going to the summit, but they're ignorant of the fact that Lindsay's discontent with the system is more than adolescent posturing. She is forced to choose between two weeks of academic competition or a week and a half of seeing shows, and she chooses to embrace her freak side, doing what she wants rather than what others expect of her.

The scene with Lindsay at the bus stop is powerful, primarily because we know that we're leaving these characters forever. Lindsay might be back in two weeks, but we never will and that's what lingers. As she leaves on the bus, so do we. And the final scene is a great moment because for the first time we see Lindsay totally happy. She takes off the nice jacket, puts on the army jacket and fully embraces the identity she has chosen.

To some degree, the last episode of Six Feet Under has made every other series finale a bit unsatisfying. That episode gave you everything you want to know allowing for a smooth break from the universe. While not so sweeping, this episode does give you a similar smooth journey out of the universe. I'd have loved to seen more, but I don't really need it. Part of that is because the show isn't concerned with huge plot and character arcs, we've just taken a look in on these people at this moment in their lives, and they will continue after the show is over. There's no loose ends, it's just a world that will continue, but going out on the series' best episode makes it a lot easier to move on.

The show has some flaws, but on the whole, it's one of the most uniquely realistic series ever made. It's easy to see yourself in the characters, and more than any other piece of fiction, this captures a lot of the reality of high school life. And, though it was cut down early, these eighteen episodes are a perfect snapshot of this world. They told the story they set out to tell and it resulted in one of the great TV series of all time.

Related Posts
Freaks and Geeks: 'Pilot' (1x01) (6/26/2006)
Freaks and Geeks: 'Smooching and Mooching' (1x16) (7/15/2006)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

JLA Classified #1-3

Going through Seven Soldiers, I came across a bunch of references to Grant's JLA Classified arc, which served as a prelude to the series. So, having read all the Seven Soldiers stuff, I figured it was time to go back and see where it all began. Plus, I'll read anything Morrison does, so it was worth a look.

However, the one Morrison extended run I never got into was JLA. I'm not familiar enough with the DC Universe to follow a lot of what's going on. I'm going to go back and read the entire run through soon, but Classified has both what worked and what didn't in his previous JLA run.

The big issue with Morrison's work on JLA, and the JLA in general, is that these aren't so much characters as icons. As Superman Returns showed, it's very difficult to have narrative tension in a story about a guy who's got virtually no flaws, throw in six more similarly powered people and it's impossible to do a traditional narrative. Also, these aren't characters who develop and go through arcs, they just exist as what they are. This is a major difference from Morrison's work on X-Men, and the Marvel Universe in general, the X-Men are characters who can change, Superman is an icon who remains the same.

So, in building this story, Morrison uses the Ultramarines to create some actual tension. I don't know who these people are, but because they're not the iconic JLA, there is the chance that some bad stuff could happen to them. So, you can have a fairly normal narrative structure with them, they're battling Gorilla Grodd, a rather ridiculous foe, but a threatening one nonetheless.

The reason that Seven Soldiers worked so well is that all those characters are expendable, and also subject to change. The beauty of each Seven Soldiers miniseries is watching the character go through a trial and either claim the role of hero or reject it. There is change and growth for all involved. A JLA story can't do this, so once the main crew shows up the joy of the story is in watching these ridiculously powerful people in action.

I enjoyed the read, I don't think it's one of Morrison's stronger pieces, but I feel like I better understand how to approach the series than I did back when I read snippets of his previous JLA run. It's all about getting lost in the over the top craziness of events and just accepting everything that happens. The main villain is a giant gorilla, and that's one of the saner parts of this story.

The coolest concept in this series is the idea of the JLA being stranded in a world without superheroes. This ties into Flex Mentallo's idea that to escape danger, superheroes hid themselves in our fiction. QWEWQ is likely an analogue for our own reality, I love the idea that the JLA would just bounce through our world, it's just one piece of this massive cosmic reality that they exist in. This ties back into Morrison's idea of hypertime, that time flows like a river and certain universes branch off. So, our reality is just a branch on the river that they move through as well.

This would be interesting enough on its own, but the infant universe is also where the series ties in with the meta-plot of Seven Soldiers. Reading this arc reinforces the coolness of a shared fictional universe. Most stories are self contained, they happen and end. In the DCU you can read the whole Seven Soldiers series then branch out and see how these characters connect to others. It makes it feel like witnessing events from a parallel universe, something Morrison has talked about with his claim that he wants to make the DC Universe sentient. I'm not sure what he meant by that exactly, but I feel like it's commenting on the fact that this universe just moves forward, individual people can contribute ideas, but the universe as a whole is more than just the sum of its individual parts, the sheer weight of stories combines to create a universe that operates by its own rules.

This series gives us our first glimpse of the Sheeda mosquito soldiers. Looking at this in the overall scheme of things, the Sheeda used this moment to test the capabilities of the Earth heroes before beginning their invasion. Ironically, this test may be the thing that ultimately brings about their destruction.

Qwewq is an infant universe, its adult form is Neh-Buh-Loh, beloved Seven Soldiers villain. He's here as an observer and leaves when the test is done. Presumably what happens is Qwewq matures over time and finally becomes an adult sometime in the distant future, at which point the Sheeda have outlasted humans and rule the world. So, he is put to work for Gloriana and sent back in time to observe the JLA in preparation for the upcoming razing of this world.

However, as we see in Frankenstein #4, Neh-Buh-Loh is flawed. In his infant form, he's inhabited by the Black Death, the seed that would lead Neh-Buh-Loh to evil. However, to counteract that, the JLA places the Ultramarines into this world. Their influence is presumably what leads him to spare Misty and send her back in time to Zatanna, and they are also what ultimately weakens Neh-Buh-Loh so that Frankenstein can kill him.

If Misty does play a major role in defeating Gloriana, as I'm guessing/hoping she will, then the Ultramarines will have played a critical role in defeating the Sheeda. It's totally crazy stuff and even though this arc has some issues, you have to admire the sheer torrent of ideas Morrison puts forth in here. I can think of no one in film or TV doing the kind of crazy cosmic stuff that Morrison pulls off here. It works on its own, but it's particularly interesting to me because of the Seven Soldiers connection. The October solicitations are out tomorrow and I'm really hoping that Seven Soldiers #1 is on there, I need to get the conclusion of this story.

In the shorter term, I'll be readiing the whole Morrison JLA run pretty soon, and I'll blog that. And reading this and Seven Soldiers made me want to read 52, so once that comes out in trade, I'll pick it up. I hear it features appearances by Zatanna, Animal Man and some other Morrison characters, the chance to check in and see what's up with them makes it worth reading.

Related Posts
Seven Soldiers: Post Index (6/28/2006)

Carnivale: 'Milfay' (1x01)

I heard about Carnivale when it first aired and the multitude of David Lynch comparisons, plus the fact that it's an HBO series, made me want to check it out. HBO's "It's Not TV, It's HBO" advertising campaign could come off as arrogant if it wasn't backed up by such a high quality bunch of shows. I'll check out pretty much anything HBO does because they've got such a strong track record.

The show itself starts off with a wonderfully atmospheric pilot that has me intrigued to see more, but not totally hooked on the show. I've written before about the fact that in the past few years, TV drama has changed from an episodic medium to one where many creators conceive of the show as one larger story, broken down into chunks. A show like The X-Files, or even Buffy, started out with a rather unremarkable episode compared to what would come later. There was not the sense that this was the start of a huge story.

However, things have changed and Carnivale starts like the first piece of a much larger story. This structure informs the entire episode. The opening is what I'm guessing will turn out to be a thematic summation of the series as a whole, dealing with themes of good and evil, and the passage from an age of wonder to an age of reason. The conflict between wonder and reason is something that's at the center of a lot of Alan Moore's work, most notably From Hell and Promethea. It's a theme with a lot of potency, particularly when the act of creating a story is equated with magic.

Our main crew in this show are clearly from the age of wonder. They all seem to have some kind of magical power and that's just accepted. They're telekinetics, psychics, and dream readers, all governed by a mysterious "management." Outside of the Carnivale, the age of reason is in full effect. People are crushed by the reality of their losses and succumbing to total depression. When we first see Ben he seems utterly defeated by the world, which we now know is a result of the fact that his mother wouldn't allow him to use his gifts to save her. She sees his magic as something demonic and wrong, and has restricted his powers.

So, I'm assuming one of the big arcs of the series will be Ben's conflict between his restricted upbringing and the free environment of the Carnivale. They travel the countryside, temporarily distracting people from their plight and making them feel good, as powerful a magic trick as any. After spending some time with the Carnivale, Ben feels empowered enough to use his magic to make the little girl walk again.

This is a show that looks fantastic, it feels like being dropped in another world, one so alien that even the World War I footage in the dream sequences feels out of place, belonging to our world not theirs. The concepts and visuals are great, but the pilot doesn't really give you a feel for what an average episode will be like. As I mentioned before, this feels more like the first chunk of a huge story than a typical pilot for an episodic TV series. I'm guessing the basic structure will be the Carnivale travelling to new towns, but it's unclear which of the characters, other than Ben and the Preacher, are going to be major figures and even those two aren't particularly well defined yet.

But, in the long term, I'd much rather see a pilot like this, that teases you with the mood and a bit of plot, than one that gives you a neat three act structure. If you're coming back for twelve episodes, there's no need to provide any sort of closure here and if I want to find out what the average episode will be like, it just means watching the next one. Even if the opening speech is a bit pretentious, I admire the fact that they have a specific agenda of themes that are going to be explored.

I'll definitely be watching more, there's a ton of potential here and it will be interesting see how it plays out.

Related Posts
Promethea: 1-16 (2/22/2005)
Carnivale (1x02-1x05) (7/20/2006)