Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Departed

I love a film that opens with total confidence in what it's doing, dropping you into a world and not looking back. From the moment 'Gimme Shelter' starts up and Jack Nicholson starts his voiceover, this film had me. Much like the opening frames of Miami Vice announce that this is something special, you know from the brilliant first fifteen minutes that this is going to be a memorable film.

I love Infernal Affairs, it's one of my favorite films from recent years, it's a really tight, emotionally involving film. Normally I don't think it's worthwhile to remake films, but the premise to IA is just so good it can easily support two great films.

In approaching an adaptation of a work you love there's two approaches. One could focus on the changes and point out how it isn't as good as the original. Some adaptations, like the film of From Hell, are so glaringly bad you don't really have a choice but to do this. However, this film functions more like the film of Ghost World. It takes the same jumping off point as Infernal Affairs, but feels like a new story. I love the fact that there's so many alterations from the original, that film is out there, but with this, Scorsese has made a dynamic film that's full of life and originality.

One of the primary elements that separates the film from its predecessor is the performances. Nicholson is immensely entertaining, at any moment he could do something insane and hilarious. No one can do unhinged weirdness as well as him, and the high point for his character is undoubtedly the cut to Jack against a pure red background, move out to see him flanked by two women and dissolve to him throwing coke in the air. It's so ridiculous, but perfect for the world that Scorsese has created.

But Nicholson is by no means alone in bringing insane greatness to his performance. Mark Wahlberg can barely contain his anger with each line, spouting crazy insults to anyone within earshot. Alec Baldwin also gets some great lines, particularly his discussion of marriage at the driving range. For me, a lot of the entertainment in the film came from just marvelling at the performances. There's a style of acting that's designed to blend in, feel totally real, and that's great for certain projects, but this sort of showy scenery chewing makes this film very entertaining to watch, and seems to fit into the world. I can't imagine how times the word fuck is used in this film, but it may top even Goodfellas.

While these three are going off over the top, Damon and Dicaprio are able to emotionally ground the film. It's probably frustrating to see Nicholson or Wahlberg getting a lot of acclaim and laughs for what they're doing, but Damon and Dicaprio make it possible for them to go off into such flights of ridiculousness. They're both great in the film, and Scorsese does a great job of connecting the two characters, despite the fact that they only have a couple of scenes together.

Martin Sheen also does good work. The scene at his house was a great addition because it cemented the relationship between him and William, making his death all the more powerful. William's quick transition from sadness to tough abandon perfectly captured the difficulty of what he has to do. The film makes quite clear the sacrifices that both men go through and the loss of self identity.

Neither can fully commit to Madolyn, and I would consider that the justification for why she gets into a relationship with both of them. To some extent, their dual relationship felt a bit contrived, but within the context of the film it works, and I think having her character in a bigger role than the IA equivalent helped the film quite a bit.

This film had a wonderful energy, evidence that everything behind the scenes was working really well. The music was perfectly chosen, particularly in the 'Comfortably Numb' sequence, though I admit I really wanted a sequence set to the climax of 'Gimme Shelter.' The score had an effective industrial vibe, making it sound like it came out of the environment the characters were moving through.

The film's violence was pretty brutal, particularly in the final sequence. Never before have I seen so many headshots in a film, and it was effectively jarring. The final scene has been getting some pans from people who'd seen IA, but I think it worked well to complete the circle of violence. There's a brilliant ambiguity in the ending of IA, where Andy Lau claims the role of cop for himself, but I think this ending is equally valid and disturbing in its own way.

I'd have to watch IA again to figure out definitively, but right now I'd actually give The Departed the slight edge over its predecessor. I think Infernal Affairs had a tighter narrative that took better advantage of the parallels inherent in the premise, but The Departed's performances and film style made it a more enjoyable viewing experience.

Now, a film that's just entertaining isn't enough. Where The Departed goes further is in the fact that the entertainment isn't just that of a typical Hollywood movie, which is designed to be a smooth, easy viewing experience. This was entertaining in its construction and performances, in watching people who are the best at what they do enjoying doing their job.

Generally speaking, I've been drifting away from films that are tightly wound narratives, towards bigger, messier style pieces. Miami Vice is a great example of this, a film that doesn't always make plot sense, but has a strong emotional and stylistic throughline. Vice has a lot in common with The Departed, with both films exploring the difficulty of undercover work. I'd give Vice the slight edge both because I liked the visual work there better, and also because of the tragedy of the Gong Li/Colin Farrell relationship. But I think the films are wonderful companion pieces and are the two best American films of the year so far.

Looking at it, I think The Departed is actually my favorite Scorsese film. It's clearly not the most important or groundbreaking, but it also lacks the overt misogyny that is troubling in his other films. I find it difficult to relate to the really violent hyper masculine characters in his oeuvre, and that winds up knocking Raging Bull and Mean Streets. I respect those films, but I don't engage with them. Plus, I think the stylistic innovation of something like Goodfellas is numbed by the many films that have imitated it. So, I'm giving the edge to The Departed, which has a fantastic story, massive performances and is just a joy to watch.

And here's my ranking of all Scorsese's film that I've seen:

The Departed
Taxi Driver
Raging Bull
The Aviator
The Last Temptation of Christ
New York, New York
Mean Streets
Gangs of New York

Thursday, October 05, 2006

From Hell - 'What Doth the Lord Require of Thee' (Chapter 4)

This chapter announces a new era in Moore's writing, prefiguring much of Promethea, in both content and storytelling style. It's also the moment when you know that From Hell is something really special, a work of astounding scope. In telling the story of Jack the Ripper, Moore is actually chronicling the entirety of western history.

The critical concept in this chapter, and the work as a whole, is the conflict between the male essence and the female essence, between the rational brain and the creative brain. According to Moore, humanity began in a matriarchal society, full of wonder and creativity. This is a world where hard rules don't apply, with rules come limits, and as time passes, we become more locked into a specific way of viewing the world. This worldview becomes a prison, narrowing our range of thought.

So, the passage of human history is the record of this narrowing. I think the bit that most perfectly sums this up is when Gull talks about how men who saw visions used to be saints, now they're lunatics. I've always thought about the fact that people would outright dismiss most feats of wonder performed today, but they'll believe it if it's written in the bible. That demonstrates Moore's point, which is that that was an age of wonder, but we live in an age of reason, where science constructs a frame to view the world. This can be good, but viewing the world through this one frame means we don't bother to think about what's outside of the accepted notions of what's possible.

This is all wrapped up in sun/phallic symbolism. The obelisks around London become monuments to the progress of rationality. And yet, in creating these monuments, their architects invoke an older power, drawing back to the gods of the past. So, St. Paul's Cathedral, built on the site of the death of Boadecia features heavy Pagan influences and serves as the center of the magic circle in London.

This paradox also applies to Gull himself. By carrying out the Queen's request, he is killing Diana's prositutes, and yet, more than any around him, he's aware of the past he is destroying. He has seen God and knows the hidden magic in the world around him. This is one of the most difficult things to reconcile about the book, Gull simultaneously functions as the last magician and the first man of a new age. He is a scientist, but still believes thoroughly in right brain principles. Gull is a man caught between the two ages, and he ultimately decides that his purpose is to complete the journey of humanity towards its new left brain world.

I think part of this split consciousness is due to Moore's decision to use Gull as a mouthpiece for his beliefs on magic. This chapter is thematically connected to the story of From Hell, but it's equally about Moore expounding on concepts that he finds interesting. This is a format he'll use again in the brilliant journey through kaballah section of Promethea. I find the concepts Moore explores fascinating, so I don't mind that narrative momentum is put on hold for a bit. In this work in particular, the story stuff is not what interests me, it's the exploration of these concepts.

One of the coolest things here is the idea that all gods are manifestations of one essence. That comes back in the gold issue of Promethea's kaballah arc, where she encounters Jesus and sees that he is just the latest incarnation of the same mythological character. I hadn't read Promethea when I first read From Hell, and I wasn't really aware how many of the concepts he explores later were first presented here. I love that idea of the god essence. Here, it's significant that humanity began with many gods, finding magic in all aspects of life, but we've gradually refined our belief to one all powerful being, and in the future, religion could vanish entirely.

For Moore religion isn't about dogma, it's about the power of belief in something greater than ourselves. If we no longer have gods, what can we aspire to be? As a creator of fiction, Moore has seen the way that chance and coincidence shape the world, and the things that he experienced made him believe that there's a higher order to the universe.

Reading this issue made me want to go to London and take the tour that Gull and Netley do. Yet, the wonder of the issue is the way it really makes you feel like you're a passenger with them. The whole work is astonishing in the way it immerses you in its world, but this issue in particular is notable in drawing you in.

This issue lays out the basis for understanding the rest of the work. The age of wonder is ending, and reason is taking over. Gull will be the one to usher in that new age, with the ritualistic sacrifice of women, the ultimate male figure creating fear in all females. Those murders, the murders of Diana's handmaidens, will give birth to a new age where magic is all but extinct.

Veronica Mars - 'Welcome Wagon' (3x01)

Another series to watch, my schedule's getting a bit too crowded. I'm already a week behind on Nip/Tuck and Weeds, and in the case of Nip/Tuck, I don't know if I'll bother catching up. But, that's beside the point, I'll probably be sticking with Veronica Mars for the long haul, despite this not particularly impressive season premiere.

The show had major ratings problems during its time on UPN, and the pairing with Gilmore Girls gives it a second chance to find an audience. However, I don't think this is the episode that's going to hook new viewers. I think it would have been smart to do some kind of quick summary of the series to date before the show to give people an idea of who these people are. It's impossible to totally catch someone up in one episode, but at least give people the basic dynamic. Maybe it's just my style of viewing, but I don't think I'd have the patience to watch the show if I didn't really know what was going on.

Beyond that, I think the show made some errors in not emphasizing its strengths in the season premiere. The first scene plays up Veronica's arrogance and doesn't make her particularly likable. I think there's a lot of room for exploring that aspect of her character, but the intention of the scene was to engrain her to the audience and even as someone who's watched the show, I found her annoying there.

What does work is the fallout from last season's events. We see all of the characters in a subdued mood, particularly Mac, who's clearly still smarting from what happened with Beaver. On the one hand, it makes for a pretty low key premiere, but I think it's necessary because the end of season two brought forth some really heavy issues. Dick in particular has a potentially interesting arc.

The vast majority of TV shows work because of our attachment to the characters, and interest in where they go. So, I liked the stuff with Veronica's crew, but the rather generic college mystery doesn't work so well. College just doesn't work as a setting for a show, both Buffy and Gilmore Girls stumbled when the lead character went off to college, and they each ultimately decided to move away from college based stories. It seems like Veronica will go the Buffy season four route and try to transfer its previous storytelling structure to college, but I just don't think it will work. One of the cool things about the first couple of years was the way the high school population remained consistent, but with college there's so many people you won't get that sense of community. Also, it becomes a lot more difficult to keep the characters in contact. I'm not sure where it will go, but I don't see this format working for the long term.

That said, next week's episode looks to recapture some of the fun of the show at its best. I have the feeling it will be difficult to balance the show's generally irreverent tone with an extended storyline about a serial rapist. The episode last season that foreshadowed this ran into problems, and I think it's a mistake to hang the whole season on it. I have no problem with shows blending comedy and drama, a show like Buffy could fluctuate from the goofiest comedy to really heavy emotional stuff. But, I feel like rape isn't the sort of thing where you can jump to a goofy bit in the next scene. Maybe they'll pull it off, we'll see.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


After watching the phenomenal Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, I decided to check out some previous Russ Meyer films and arrived at Vixen. Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was made at 20th Century Fox, and he made full use of the resources the studio offered him. Vixen has a much lower budget, and also a lower scope. The thing I love about Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is the way that Meyer just throws everything in there. There's comedy, there's horror, there's songs, and the filmmaking style is full of really bold cutting and narrative technique.

Vixen is pretty straight forward, a series of narrative episodes that can be summarized thusly: Vixen encounters a person then has sex with them. The best parts of the film are where Meyer plays up the camp sense of fun that he does so well. The opening scene with Vixen and the Mountie (or mountee in this case) is the strongest. Backed by some smooth 60s music we see Vixen seduce the mountie then they crack some jokes about her husband and run through the woods naked. It's funny, it's peppy and it's sexy, and I think that's what Meyer's intention is with the whole film.

I don't think it's a particularly notable film, but it's always entertaining and a lot of that is do to Erica Gavin. She's really beautiful, in a very 60s way. I love the makeup and hairstyle trends of that time, they hold up better than anything that followed in the 70s, 80s or 90s. Gavin was likely cast for her breasts, but she brings an interesting screen presence. She's very fierce, always the aggressor in any situation and the fun of the film is watching her cross every possible societal boundary.

It was pretty shocking to hear her dropping racial epithet after racial epithet, even more curious considering the relatively progressive racial landspace presented in Dolls. I'm guessing the intention was to demonstrate how ingrained racist attitudes are, this is a woman who will have sex with her own brother, but won't call a black man by his name. At the end of the film, they come to a mutual understanding, he recognizes that trying to overthrow the system would lead to chaos and she sees him as a human being for the first time. It's a bit odd that the film spends so much time on this political debate, considering the first 50 minutes or so consisted almost exclusively of sex scenes.

The most boundary breaking of these would be Vixen's encounter with her brother. I think this would have been more effective if their relationship hadn't been played as sexual right from the beginning. That numbed the impact of her eventual decision to sleep with him, I was pretty much expecting it from their first conversation. That said, the use of the showerhead in that scene was well done.

So, the opening and closing were pretty solid, I think the film went awry in the middle, with the couple's visit to the lodge. Audiences at the time were probably there just to see the sex, but having seen what Meyer could do in Dolls, I wanted more than just that. I'm not going to complain about watching Erica Gavin naked multiple times, but that's just a surface attraction, the film isn't giving us anything more.

But, I think the ending worked well, and the film stands as a snapshot of social relations at the time. This film was the first to receive an X rating, and it's representative of a culture where the sexual revolution is in full swing. You wouldn't see this kind of plotting outside of porn these days, but what separates this from porn is the joy present behind the work. At its best moments, the film allows you to share Vixen's joy at transgressing societal boundaries and just living her own way. I just wish the film aimed higher and attacked a broader canvas of issues. After having seen Faster Pussycat and Vixen, it seems that Dolls is the realization of all Meyer's previous potential into one epic piece of pop entertainment.

Gilmore Girls - 'That's What You Get Folks, For Makin' Whoopie' (7x02)

Much like last week, this episode has some really good scenes, and some pretty inexplicable plot developments. It's difficult to say how things would be different with the Palladinos, but there's clearly some stuff here that they would never have done, and with that, the show loses some of what made it so unique.

From a directorial standpoint, the closeups are jarring. I never really noticed it before, but they almost never did closeups during the Palladino years, so they really stand out here. The scene I'm thinking of most is with Rory/Lane at the end. Similar closeups are used during the Lorelai/Luke confrontations, but they felt more organic, as a contrast to the wide shots used to show their distance. However, there was no particular reason for them in the later scene so they just felt odd.

One thing I did like here was having Luke come to terms with how his actions last year screwed things up with Lorelai. We get a better understanding of his point of view, and even if the stuff with Liz and TJ went on a bit long, it worked well to build his character.

His interactions with Lorelai were also well done. The first meeting in the street was not realistic, but it fit find within the show's world. Staging the final confrontation at a supermarket off set, out of the Stars Hollow world, worked well to take us out of the comfort zone of Stars Hollow. The coldness of the aisles fit well with the rocky exteriors they presented to each other. Luke may say that he and Lorelai never were meant to work, but it's pretty clear he's using that as justification for the break up, it's not what he actually feels.

The other stuff that works pretty well is Lorelai's continuing attempt to deal with her emotional issues. I like the fight with Rory, though I think that Rory may be a bit out of line in insisting that Lorelai talk to her about the breakup. Rory makes the whole thing about her, ignoring her mom's pain.

I think the most difficult thing for Rosenthal while writing this must be trying to maintain the show's quirky tone without being self conscious about it. The whole Asian thing is something that the Palladinos might have done, but I don't know if they'd have gone so far with it. The scene had some good bits, but it felt a bit like someone told him, this show is about Lorelai and Rory doing wacky things, and that means he's got to fit in one such moment in each episode. It feels like an attempt to return to the style of earlier seasons, and that kind of wackiness feels a bit odd when it's surrounded by such emotionally heavy stuff. Last year, Lorelai used humor as a mask to hide her feelings, here it's totally disconnected from the emotional center of the show.

The error in this episode is a much bigger one, and that's Lane's pregnancy. This basically kills the character as she was, it's a totally nonsensical choice. For one, pregnancy storylines have been done so many times before, I don't think there's that much fresh terrain. But more importantly, the whole point of Lane is that she's rebelling against the conservative idea of women that her mother clings to. So, it makes no sense to make her pregnant after having sex one time. I would have rather seen her continue with the band and try to work out being married and in the band together. The impression I got from this episode is that we're going to see her and Zach in conflict, I wouldn't be surprised if the storyline ended with her returning to her mom's to raise the child.

All of the character's forward momentum in previous years is undone in this one action, and it's a bit ridiculous to suggest that Rory's few words at the end of the episode are enough to make her excited to go through with it. Considering the fact that she works part time at the diner and Zach doesn't seem to have a job, it could be very difficult to raise a child. I seriously question that editorial decision, it feels totally arbitrary and will likely lead only to bad things.

So, this episode did some things right, but made a few really big errors. I think there's a lot of potential in having Lorelai and Christopher try to make it work as a couple, and I'm hoping they'll at least sample that direction. And hopefully the elder Gilmores will turn up in the next episode.

Heroes - 'Don't Look Back' (1x02)

Last week, I said that I was "I'm intrigued, but not totally sold." After watching this episode, I'm pretty much sold on the show for the long haul. Pilots can sometimes dazzle you by functioning as brilliant standalone pieces that don't necessarily give you an indication of what the show will be like in the long haul, like Studio 60. The Heroes pilot had the difficulty of having to introduce a huge amount of characters and concepts, and that meant that scenes that would play well later in the series felt a bit awkward with the need to shove in exposition.

With this second episode, the show finds a really strong rhythm and shows us a structure that should work well on an episode to episode basis. The show takes the basic structure of a Robert Altman film, with a whole bunch of characters drifting through their own little stories, with some subtle connections between them, as well as an overarching narrative centered around a calamitous event. I think this structure is great for both films and TV shows because it gives you a uniquely godlike perspective as a viewer. You watch events unfold from multiple perspectives and experience an entire world, rather than simply one person's story. At its best, as in Magnolia, you become emotionally engaged in a variety of narratives, and these emotional engagements compliment each other, creating a total emotional immersion in a narrative reality.

We're not quite there yet in Heroes, rather we're watching each of the story strands develop independently. This works because the series clearly positions each episode as a small chapter in a larger narrative. We see this in the title of the episode (subtitle: Like Dylan in the Movies), and also the voiceover narration at the end. The previously was also interesting, using voiceover rather than just a series of clips makes the viewer more aware of the fact that it's a story being told. The frequent comic book references also do this. This is primarily motivated by a desire to give the story scope and it works really well.

The only other TV series I've seen that seemed so conscious of its status as an epic is Carnivale, making it fitting that we get a guest appearance by Clea Duvall in this episode. As I mentioned last week, both series have the same basic narrative setup, and Hiro's apocalyptic vision in this episode recalls Ben Hawkins' similar vision. What we don't know yet in this series is who the overarching villain is, glasses guy clearly has a big role, but I get the sense that he's working for someone else. Perhaps it will be one of our 'heroes' who finds himself corrupted by their power.

Hiro's vision also sets up a deadline. He's got to get to New York in the present to stop the debraining killer from wiping out Isaac and dooming humanity. Convienently, this deadline falls on the first week of sweeps month. It would seem that five weeks hence we'll see the first climax of the show, when this apocalyptic event is prevented or more likely delayed. I saw this as a more longterm problem, but the presentation of the show indicates that the creators have a good idea of where they're going, so I'm not too worried about them burning through all their story material too early.

After only two episodes, this would seem to be the most Grant Morrison TV series of all time. The character whose life is a comic book, as well as the time disjunction is pure GM, and it's great to see these concepts on a big network series. The show on a whole is refreshingly odd, you very rarely see this kind of sci-fi anywhere outside of comics and even more rarely is it taken seriously. Unbreakable is the only thing I can think of, but where that was essentially Miracleman Volume One, this promises to go into the stuff that Moore explored in Volumes two and three, namely the impact of superheroes on society as a whole. I would love to see the show eventually do something like the 'Olympus' arc, and give us a world ruled by superheroes, and explore the consequences of that. There's so much potential with this show, and the second episode has me more confident that they can fulfill it.

Beyond that, the characters are really starting to click. Greg Gunberg is great, Hiro's still strong and the scene between Claire and her father was great, particularly his quick switch from caring father to evil dude. I'm guessing it's not a coincidence that Claire happened to be adopted by him, and I doubt her birth parents are still alive to meet her.

I thought this was a fantastic episode. There are still some issues, but you're going to have those at this point in any series. The show has a clear direction, and perhaps most importantly, this episode was a lot of fun to watch. I'm really looking forward to next week's.

And as a final note, the Battlestar Galactica promo they showed during this episode was fantastic, very epic. I'm psyched to see the season premiere on Friday.