Saturday, September 30, 2006

Weekend Update

Patti Smith CBGB's Show

Tomorrow, I'm going to try to get tickets to the final show at CBGB's, a performance by Patti Smith. I love her stuff, I've only heard Horses and Easter, but those are two fantastic albums. I'm guessing tickets will go quick, but Ticketweb doesn't allow for scalping, which means it'll be a lot easier to get tickets for there than for a Ticketmaster show. The one time I was at CBGB's what struck me was how small it was. I couldn't see many big bands performing there, you're not going to sell many tickets.

In the Mix

I listened to the new Polyphonic Spree EP this week. The covers were nice, and the two new songs were great, a bit more streamlined than the ten minute epics from Together We're Heavy. I'm really excited to hear the new record and see them live again. It's been a year since I saw them at Across the Narrows, too long to be without Spree. I've also been listening more to the second Scissor Sisters album, which is growing on me. I think it might eventually surpass the first album for me, though it lacks the killer opening trio of songs that that album had.

The Departed

This week I'm excited to see The Departed on Friday. The Nicholson performance alone should be worth the price of admission. And then next Monday I'll get to see Inland Empire. We're getting into a really good time for films.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

From Hell (Chapter 1-3)

After reading a bunch of Grant Morrison stuff, I decided it was time to mix it up and check back in with his hairier rival, good old Alan Moore. It's still amazing to me that the two best thinkers in popular fiction both work in comics, are both magicians and both explore similar themes in their works. The two of them so similar, it makes sense that they'd dislike each other. Despite sharing so many themes and concepts, the two of them have very different approaches to their work, approaches dictated by their technique in magic. Morrison is a chaos magician, all about do it yourself belief powered magic. Moore prefers a more structured system, drawing on older traditions. Consequentially, Morrison's work is much looser, based on pop extravagance, full of energy, but often sloppy. Moore's work is perfectly structured, working on countless levels, but lacking the sheer joy of Morrison at his best. They're my two favorite authors.

I first read From Hell in May 2003, at the end of my period of total immersion in The Invisibles. In November 2002, I read the whole series and I spent the subsequent six months working through the concepts and talking over the series with other readers. I had put off reading From Hell for a while, covering other Moore works because I wasn't expecting much from a nearly 500 page graphic novel set in the 1800s. I was picturing something more like the From Hell film, a traditional period murder mystery. What the book delivered was an interrogation of one hundred years of societal history, seen through the lens of magical exploration. I loved the book, and I'd count it among Moore's best works, a crowded place.

So, I'm not returning to the work for the first time. Seeing as how From Hell is a massive book, it's going to take a little bit to set everything up. The opening Men on the Beach prologue sets up one of the book's primary themes, the idea that our contemporary media is built on crime. Just like Abberline's house was paid for through the Ripper murders, so our modern society is built on the culture of media immersion created through coverage of the Ripper attacks.

The most impressive thing about chapter one is the way that Moore compresses time. In the space of five pages we travel through five years, and the evolution of Annie Crook's relationship with the Prince. This is likely done to try to expedite the exposition. I'm not sure how the work evolved over the years in which it was written, but the core of the piece is exploring what drives William Gull to do what he does, and how his actions remake his society. So, the actual circumstances surrounding the murder are less important than the murder itself.

However, this exposition is necessary, and what this chapter does beyond just introduce plot essentials is begin to build the mood of the piece. Moore has been very fortunate in that he's had incredible artists on most of his projects, and he's been able to tailor his writing to take full advantage of the artist's talents. Even though I don't find Eddie Campbell's art as aesthetically beautiful as someone like JH Williams, I think he's the perfect artist for this book and having someone else do it would totally alter the character of the piece. In his scratchy black and white drawings he creates a world that envelops you. This feels like a book made in the nineteenth century and sent forward through time. It's that authentic, and that credibility is essential to the success of the work.

The core themes of the book begin to develop in chapter two, a first person journey through Williiam Gull's entire life. Like chapter one, this is a marvel of perfectly chosen moments to convey the information needed to move forward. I remember when I was first reading the book, the caption "What is the fourth dimension?" was the moment when I began to think that there was more to this book than your typical period set story. Going with the fourth dimension theme, we get fractions of his life in that first blank page, and the idea of moments experienced outside of time becomes critical as things roll along.

The thing I like about Gull's story is his utter removal from traditional societal customs. He's searching for his purpose throughout the chapter, but he behaves like a man who's already on a mission, he does not indulge in the social niceties that his peers partake of. This is best demonstrated by his encounter with John Merrick, the Elephant Man. He comes right out and says that Merrick his hideous, and Merrick respects that honesty. His fascination with the grotesque is also evident when he dissects the mouse, a scene that will be paralleled later on.

Here we also see him getting involved with the masons. This is all part of his quest for a purpose in life, which culminates with his vision of the three gods. That's a stunning page, the spread's impact enhanced by its difference from the previous dense nine panel grids. Jahbulon is described as the great architect of the universe. He ties into something Moore explored in Promethea, the idea that all gods the same thing, they're just viewed through different cultural lenses. So, the Egyptian god is the Jewish/Christian god, they're all one aspect of the same creative force that pushes the universe forward.

After his encounter with the godhead, Gull finds the purpose he was looking for, and as the book proceeds, he will go on to become the architect of a new world, the one we live in. It's great to finallly see Gull after experiencing things from his first person perspective for the whole chapter, and in that scene, we also see the cruelty of England's royal family, doing anything they can to preserve their traditional superiority.

In chapter three, we get further development of the street scene in Whitechapel. One of the wonderful things that Moore does in his books is create fully realized societites. In Watchmen, we get not only an entire alternate history of societal development, we also get to know a whole bunch of ordinary people on the street, and it's that development that makes the end of the book so powerful. Similarly, in this work we understand the average person on the street, and because we know these characters, we can better understand the effect that the murders have on their world.

These first few chapters are essential in building the world of From Hell. My favorite is definitely the William Gull stuff, he's the main character of this work, and the point is to explore what drives a man to murder like he did. I think the actual historical events surroudning him are rather beside the point, what's truly important is the effect that the murders had on the world, and on the man who did them. That's what this book chronicles.

Next up is the classic Chapter 4, one of the best things Moore ever wrote.

Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip - 'The Cold Open' (1x02)

A lot of times the second episode can be a low point for a show. After pouring everything into a pilot, the second episode is when the business of really introducing characters and ongoing plot threads comes to the fore. In the case of this show, the pilot was so well crafted, clearly taking advantage of the extra time allowed to produce the pilot. But, as they move on to a more regular production schedule, a lot of the location shooting and music driven sequences fall by the wayside in favor of a rhythm that's reminiscent of The West Wing.

I'm a bit surprised that Sorkin chose to bring back the same font used on The West Wing. Beyond that, the show is providing the same basic pleasures as its predecessor. We're here to watch smart, articulate people do their job, battling against aspects of bureacracy that are working to stop them from doing what they want, and in this case, what they want to do is always considered the right thing to do. It's a bit odd that this show, set on a sketch comedy set, feels more self serious than The West Wing. The West Wing characters were always joking about stuff, but here there's a very serious vibe, and only occasionally does witty banter shine through. Part of this might be a reflection of the cavernous, dark sets, which give everything a dark feeling.

The episode does demonstrate that there's plenty of opportunities for drama in this world. There's the insider/outsider vibe with Matt and Danny vs. the rest of the staff, and I'm guessing that will not be an easily resolved conflict. And then there's interpersonal conflict between the staffers that can also provide a lot of material.

However, I'm not really clear what will be happening on a week to week basis with the network exec characters. Clearly the issues with the Christian right are a Sorkin preoccupation, but I don't think they can just have a boycott every episode. And the other big issue with the episode is that the sketch they do doesn't seem particularly hip. I don't think most of their target demographic knows who Gilbert and Sullivan are. It's possible this will be an issue raised next week, but as treated here, it seemed to comic gold.

So, I wasn't as enthusiastic about this episode as I was about the pilot. I still think there's a lot of potential here, but it'll just take some refining to get the show into a workable week to week model.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Gilmore Girls - 'The Long Morrow' (7x01)

Unlike a lot of people, I loved the direction the Palladinos took the show in its sixth season, and I wasn't hoping for any sort of reboot here. Luckily, the major emotional currents continue, however there's also an attempt to capture the wackiness of the early years that yields mixed results. I wasn't thrilled with this year's premiere, but there was enough good here to make me optimistic about the rest of the season.

The first thing that needs to be commented on is the change of leader for the show. The Palladinos provided their characters with extremely distinct voices, but I also think they're very underrated as plotters. The development of Lorelai's arc over the course of the series is very interesting, never more so than towards the end of last season. Without them at the helm, it feels a bit off, they may have gone in this direction, but there's a bit of a fanfiction feeling, good fanfiction, but still, this show was their story, and it feels odd to have someone else writing it. I think Rosenthal did a much better job of keeping the show feeling the same than John Wells did with post Sorkin The West Wing. I think if someone wasn't aware of the behind the scenes changes, they could easily not notice that anything changed. However, I think there's a certain self consciousness to the writing, or perhaps just my viewing, lines that previously would have just been accepted jump out as a bit off.

What really interests me about the show is Lorelai and her various troubles and misadventures. By the end of season six, the character had been put through a lot and was pretty much at a breaking point. Here, we simultaneously get an indulgence in this trauma, and an attempt to quickly return to lighter Lorelai.

The scenes that work best here are the ones that deal with the fallout of last season. The opening scene with Christopher quickly establishes her state of mind, not regretting what she did, but clearly not wanting it to go any further than it was. Her quiet, yet strong reprimand to Chris works really well.

The other great scene is the closer for the episode, where Luke apologizes for all his bad treatment of her at the end of last season, but it's too late. His ramble is a classic example of the verbose Gilmore style of speaking being put to simultaneous dramatic and comedic effect. We're enjoying Luke's flow, but really waiting for Lorelai to crush him. His quiet exit makes clear how things are now between the two of them. This is the kind of melancholy ending that the Palladinos used to great effect throughout season six. This one scene gives Luke clearer motivation than he had for the whole end run of season six. While I loved that arc, it did turn Luke into a villain. That's largely due to the fact that we're seeing the story from Lorelai's point of view, but I still think there could have been a bit more clarification of what was going on with him. Luke's clear statement of his feelings here fits better with how he was in previous seasons.

The other scenes that really worked were the Lorelai/Rory hangout session. The racquetball game was great, and these scenes did a better job of capturing the camaraderie of the early seasons. Lorelai had to be isolated from everyone around her, including Rory, at the end of season six, and it's nice to see the two of them back together.

However, the whole storyline with throwing out Luke's stuff felt very stale. I could have sworn they did the exact same storyline in a previous season, and if it wasn't this show, it was another one. There's definitely a better way to express how Lorelai was feeling.

The other big issue I have with the episode is a carry over from the end of season six. Back in the show's lighthearted early years, the townsfolk fit in well with the generally upbeat tone. However, as increasingly dramatic plots developed, it becomes more difficult to fit the townspeople in. The whole traffic light storyline just wasn't that funny, and took up a lot of screentime. Also, the Sookie/Michel stuff at the inn was just bad. That "We Are the Champions" thing was a particular low point. The supporting characters who do still work are the elder Gilmores and Lane's crew, who can bring drama, as well as more sophisticated comedy. Hopefully they'll turn up next episode. The show's hurting itself by spending so much screentime on the Stars Hollow crew.

So, this was a decent episode, with a few great scenes. But, I'm going to give them the benefit of the doubt because Gilmore Girls is usually a slow starter. They structure their seasons to build to the finale so, like Buffy, the opening few episodes can be a bit slow as they struggle to deal with the leftovers from the previous year. I still wish the Palladinos were there, but this version of Gilmore Girls is better than nothing.

Next week's preview looks pretty good, and that also sees the pairing of the show with Veronica Mars, making quite a night of TV.

Heroes - 'Genesis' (1x01)

The premise of the show is basically Unbreakable on a large scale, so it's a premise that's targetted right towards people like me, fans of genre fiction, particularly superhero stuff. If this was a comic, it wouldn't be a particularly original thing, Rising Stars has basically the same premise. But, this is being done on TV, so we get some novelty due to the new medium. Due to the subject matter, I'm giving this one a pretty big margin for error, and after the pilot I'm intrigued, but not totally sold.

The opening sets this out as an epic story, with the pretentious opening scroll and the first episode's title, 'Genesis.' I love the idea of a show that's conceived as one large story, the series reminds me a bit of Carnivale in that respect, even if you're not hooked on the characters and plot immediately, there's the promise of something important if you stick around. From there we get to the recurring image of the pilot, Milo Ventimiglia's Peter leaping off a tall building. A lot of times these striking images designed to hook the viewer don't work so well, witness a lot of Alias episodes. But, here it's effective, partially due to the really convincing visual effects.

The pilot is clearly inspired by Lost's mix of various ethnic characters with loose connections between them. However, it winds up playing more like a Robert Altman film, as a bunch of seemingly unrelated characters move through their lives, sometimes crossing each other, sometimes not. The unifying event, in this case an eclipse, is right out of Short Cuts. However, the talent here isn't quite at Altman level, what Altman and PT Anderson do is keep a feeling of unity through the multiple story threads, so even if we're hopping from character to character, it's one emotional arc progressing. Here, it's a bit more haphazard, but that's understandable in a TV pilot. The demands of this are quite different from Nashville, which worked as a standalone piece. As they keep emphasizing, this is merely the first part of a larger story.

Breaking out the individual stories, the most fun is definitely Hiro, the Japanese office worker struggling to transcend the space/time barrier. There's a lot of humor here, a contrast to the sometimes so serious it becomes absurd rest of the show. I always love heavy drama, but in a pilot, particularly one with a supernatural bent, it's important to have a sense of humor about your concepts. I think the Buffy model is perfect in the way it brings you into the world with humor, then allows things to become more serious once you're aware of the rules. I think this show generally pulls things off, but all the characters behave like they're in a world where this stuff is normal, and that takes away a lot of the potential fun of the piece. Unbreakable was as self-serious a film as you'll encounter, but there are moments that allowed Bruce Willis' character to revel in his powers, and I'd like to see that beyond just Hiro.

That said, the generally serious treatment of Claire, the cheerleader's, story works well. Here, the powers are wrapped up in an adolescent fear of being shunned by both her family and her school. She's someone who might revel in her potential once she learns to come to terms with her powers. Her story works on an emotional level, and that's what ultimately sells things. If we can understand the characters' motivations, if they feel real, then we can accept the sci-fi conceits.

Despite good associations from Gilmore Girls, I thought Milo Ventimiglia's segment was generally the weakest of the episode. The problem was his brother didn't behave like someone who's just been told that his brother thinks he can fly. Rather, they behaved like people who already knew they were in a piece of genre fiction. Now, you could argue that Nathan didn't treat this as ridiculous because he knew about his own powers, but I'm not so sure that sells. The revelation at the end was good in theory, but a bit marred by the fact that the effects didn't quite sell it. There was some pretty weak bluescreen work in there. But, it still worked on a conceptual level and was a strong cliffhanger to bring things back for episode two.

Watching the pilot what really stands out is the potential. Grant Morrison uses superhero fiction as a way to explore the potential of the human race, and our ultimate evolutionary destiny. In the stuff with Mohinder we get some of these concepts, and a tease for what the series could become. If things work out, the show could explore what the next stage of human evolution would mean for our society, both as a collective, and for individuals. There's clearly some conservative forces at work who would rather not see humanity beyond its current limitations.

I think that's the inherent appeal of the superhero concept, the idea that within us there's the potential for something greater, and that one day, we will acheive that potential and exert total control over the world we're in. And putting that noble aspiration in conflict with the worst aspects of human nature has the potential for incredible drama.

From a filmmaking standpoint, the show looks fantastic. With the exception of the shoddy effects work at the end, everything looks big, giving the show the epic feel the opening portended. The strongest visual moment is the eclipse section, which does a nice job of uniting all the characters. The episode is very dense, but I got a good idea of all the characters. At times, the dialogue lapsed into filmspeak, but I think these are all just kinks that have to be worked out as the creators find the characters' voices.

The first episode ends with things up in the air. The apparent destiny of the show is some kind of apocalyptic event in New York. Again stirring up memories of Carnivale, it seems that our select group must band together to combat this prophesized evil and save humanity.

I may sound a bit harsh on this pilot, it's got its flaws, but on the whole I really liked it and I'm optimistic about the show's future. It's always very difficult to do a first episode, and this one did its job of getting me to watch the next one. I'm not sure if the show will fulfill the promise of this episode, but I'll be intrigued to see it try.

Monday, September 25, 2006

The Flaming Lips @ Hammerstein

Setlist (Approximate):

Race for the Prize//Free Radicals//Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots I//Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots II//Vein of Stars//The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song//My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion//The W.A.N.D//She Don't Use Jelly//Do You Realize
A Spoonful Weighs a Ton
You Have to be Joking

I've been prepping for the live show by watching their music video DVD, V.O.I.D. There are two really notable things I take away from it. One is that Wayne looks totally different once the band enters The Soft Bulletin era. Before that he's a generic grunge rocker, but post SB, he takes on an air of mystic importance, and, perhaps coincidentally, the music also takes a quantum leap. The other notable thing is that until Yoshimi, most of their videos were pretty weak. But, the video for the title track off Yoshimi and the US version of Do You Realize make it worth it. This is surprising considering the supreme visual merits of their live show, which lives up to its reputation for inspired wackiness in a really festive, celebratory atmosphere.

Unlike most bands, the Lips set up their own equipment. There's something cool about that, to see Wayne wondering around doing the checks with his fellow bandmates. I've never been to a show at Hammerstein so it was striking just how big the place is. I was still able to get a spot pretty close to the stage, so it worked out fine for me. I don't see why you would sit in the upper level seats in the back, but I'm glad someone did.

The show opened with Wayne rolling around the crowd in the inflatable bubble. It's a very cool visual element, but I wish there was a way to get a mic in there. Following that intro they ripped in to the opening riff of 'Race for the Prize,' a perfect set opener. As the song opened, streams of confetti flew up in the air and balloons appeared in the audience. It was one of the best concert moments I've ever experienced, watching all this confetti hover in the air around.

The whole philosophy of their show is different from most bands. At times the focus drifts away from the music into a spectacle designed to entertain the audience. Listening to Race for the Prize was great, but was really dazzling was what was going on visually around me. This is one of the few bands that I think actually benefits from being in a bigger venue, I don't think some of the moments they pull off could have been replicated in an Irving Plaza style venue.

The biggest visual spectacle of the night was the laser light show during 'Vein of Stars.' Everyone in the crowd was given laser pointers, which served as a diversion while waiting for the show to begin. Wayne came out and said to save the battery for the big experiment they would do mid-show. Basically, it consisted of everyone pointing their lasers at a mirror that Wayne was holding. This created a really weird red glow that hung in the air like gas around him. All through the arena was a grid of laser beams, it looked pretty cool, and fit really well with Floyd-y spacerock the band was playing.

During the show, Wayne was very concerned about integrating the audience into the goings on. He was almost like a camp leader, making everyone sing along with the songs. The first example of this was the encore sing along version of Yoshimi after the main one was done. But, the most successful was on 'The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song,' which seemingly had everyone in the audience shouting the chorus back at him. That was definitely one of the night's highlights.

Throughout the show, they used video backing for a number of songs. I really liked the sort of generic spacey stuff they used at times, and the music video excerpts worked well for Yoshimi, but at times I wished they'd stick to the abstract stuff and not use actual video. It was just distracting. However, for 'My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion,' they had an animated story about birds, with the song's lyrics superimposed over. I think it added a lot to the emotion of the song, which was already one of my favorites off At War With the Mystics. After the verses, the band drops this incredible instrumental segment, it's the best moment on the album and worked great live.

'The W.A.N.D' was also cool, Wayne had two strobe lights strapped to his chest, making some crazy visuals to back another great song off Mystics. Even 'She Don't Use Jelly' worked well, with the drums giving a march feel to the chorus. Around this time, the crowd was pointing lasers at a balloon, making a very cool visual effect. Wayne stopped the show and encouraged everyone to point their lasers there. I'm not sure if the laser effects were worth the annoyance of having lasers pointed at you all show, but they were certainly worth doing this once.

The main set closed with 'Do You Realize,' my favorite song of theirs. Again they put the confetti canons to full use, with streamers hovering in the air for the entire song. It was beautiful, the perfect set closer. Following that they did a subdued version of 'A Spoonful Weighs a Ton,' and left again. But, the lights weren't on, so I figured we'd be getting one more song. They came out and played 'You Have to Be Joking,' a song I'm not familiar with, but sounded great, and was a really nice closer to the show.

I'd heard a lot about The Flaming Lips live experience, and I think it lived up to the hype. I think they might have done with a bit less talking between songs, to get a better flow going, but the interaction with the audience was a big part of the appeal, so I guess it's fine as is. The new songs sound great live, and they've kept a good selection of stuff from year's past. There's really nothing like having that confetti suspended above you as massive balloons float above the audience and the band plays fantastic music.