Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Heroes - 'Hiros' (1x05)

A bit behind on this writeup, so it'll just be some quick thoughts on the most recent episode. This week continues the recent trend of tightening all the narrative threads and allowing the characters to connect with each other. I think this has helped the series quite a bit, the first few episodes were hurt by the fact that we got so little time with everyone. Now, we are able to delve in depth into three or four storylines rather than passing through seven or eight.

Clearly, everything is building to a convergence at Claire's homecoming. Before the episode, I had seen Claire's father as a bad guy, someone who was going to eventually turn on her and use her powers for some scientific purpose in his lab. However, this episode gave me the feeling that he actually does love Claire, and may not betray her to his bosses. The most tangible evidence of his love for her is the mindwipe he performed on Brody, this wasn't something that needed to be done, he just wanted to take revenge on the guy who'd tried to rape his daughter.

Claire herself has already shown a capacity for reckless violence, when they say "Save the cheerleader," they're not talking about saving her life, they're talking about saving her from 'the dark side.' It'd be interesting if she was the one who causes all the chaos we see in the pictures. Claire's definitely a wild card, and so is Nathan who seems to know a lot more about how to use and control his powers than anyone else.

The best moment of this episode is definitely Peter's surprise when he hears Hiro on the phone. It's a great moment, and has me very excited to see everything converge. I think it's smart to provide a climax early in the show, to keep things focused. It's all building to this event in Texas, and I'm eager to see how things develop from there.

Seven Soldiers: The Flaws that Make Perfection

If I could be doing anything right now, it'd be reading the just released Seven Soldiers #1. Alas, I have no car and cannot get to a comic shop right now, so I'll have to wait for the issue to arrive in the mail. I've done a quick skim of the critical reaction and it sounds like Grant pulled off the near impossible task of providing satisfactory conclusion for seven characters in forty pages. I'm currently rereading the series, about halfway through, I just hit Zatanna #3. On the first read, I wrote up extensive thoughts on each issue, but I wanted to do a quick discussion of how the project feels on the second read.

Seven Soldiers is a work that feels very special. I'm always charged after reading an issue, caught up in this narrative web that Grant has created. What makes this more exciting than a standard story is the interconnected nature of the narrative. You experience one small piece of this massive world, and a lot of the joy of the project comes from situating what you've just read in the overall context of the meta-narrative. That's a lot easier to do on the second read. I was confused by a lot of things the first time through, but it's easier to keep track of the seemingly unrelated occurrences on the second go through.

In structuring the series, Grant promised that each miniseries and even every single issue would tell a standalone story. He claimed that you could pick up a random issue and enjoy it, and while I'd agree that you'd probably be entertained, it's not really comprehensible. Each issue is standalone, but that's used more a structuring principle. He's reducing the fluff inherent in ongoing comics, removing the setup and taking stories right to the action point.

Look at an issue like Guardian #3, the theme park comes out of nowhere, but we get the idea of it in one page, and then it's right into the action. Through the flashbacks, we understand Jake's emotional context, everything is woven into the single issue story, I don't think a slow build was needed to make Jake's marital problems more effective. Grant uses emotional shortcuts to create the desired effect.

I've heard people criticize Grant's work by claiming it always feels like you missed an issue, but I think that's largely the point of these issues. He cuts out the issue where you'd do a slow build set up of the theme park, and instead sums all that up in one page and gets to the meat of the story. It's the same in Klarion #3, Melmoth sums up what's going on with Klarion, then it's right into the new story. I think these jumps might be jarring if you read each mini seperately, but as it is now, it feels like an Altman film, where we drop in on people at their interesting moments, then move away. So, the exposition in Guardian is happening while we're over with Zatanna.

Rather than each issue standing alone in terms of plot, I feel like each issue is a satisfying standalone reading experience. This is in reaction to the drawn out for trade storylines so prevalent in today's comics, where you don't get any payoff until the sixth issue of the storyline. Here, each issue has its own arc and leaves you with a lot of new material to ponder. The amount of thematic and narrative development in a single issue of Seven Soldiers is equivalent to what you'd get from a whole trade of Ultimate Spider-Man or Y: The Last Man.

I'm liking Klarion a lot more on this read. Once you know that Klarion is part Sheeda, it's easier to understand what Melmoth's trying to do, and how Klarion's rebellion plays into the larger story. I'd still say it's the weakest of these initial four minis, but that's just because the others are so good.

My favorite is undoubtedly Zatanna. This book is just perfect, a seamless blend of magical concepts, supernatural intrigue and very relatable personal issues. I get such joy from seeing Zatanna exorcize the magic shop in issue two, her skill shining above her self deprecating remarks. She's the character who feels most real here, and one of Morrison's most vivid characterizations in all his books. More than anything, I'd love to see Morrison write more Zatanna.

I'm planning on picking up 52 once it comes out in trade, because it features a bunch of the Seven Soldiers crew. I love these people that Morrison has created and I want to spend more time with them. That's the sign of a great work. Hopefully I'll get Seven Soldiers #1 by the end of the week, in which case it'll be a binge read until I get through the previous issues and am able to read the finale.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

From Hell: Resolution

The dissection of Mary Kelly, and Gull's subsequent vision of the present, are the clear high point of From Hell's narrative, and the chapters that follow, with the exception of Gull's Ascent, are somewhat anticlimactic. However, there is some good stuff here.

The most interesting part is the further development of Abberline. Gull is the focus of the book, and the man around whom most of the important themes revolve. However, Abberline is a more relatable, human character. I can understand why the writers of the From Hell film chose to focus the story on him, though their Abberline has virtually nothing in common with the resigned middle aged guy we see here. Abberline's time with Mary Kelly reignited in him a passion he hadn't experienced for years, and it hurts him to find out that she left. Abberline had reached the point where he was ready to pursue a relationship with her, but he feels like she used him, took his money and ran. I don't think he's so much mad about losing the money, it's more that she represented the possibility of escape, from a loveless, boring marriage. For him, she was life, and now that she's gone, he knows that he'll be living the same life for the rest of his days.

It's fitting that he views Mary Kelly as an escape, because she's the only one who's able to leave all this business behind and actually build a new life for herself. I love the moment where Gull sees her, old and happy, surrounded by her children. In their names, we can see that she hasn't forgotten her roots, but she's not constrained by them. Gull's strike provided the impetus for her to finally change her life. So, she lives while her friends die, nursing dreams that would never come to fruition even if they'd lived for a hundred years.

The end of the book is about compromise and concession, people who now that their part on the stage of history is over. Gull turns himself over the Masons, content that his work is done. The vision from Jahbuhlon gave him purpose, he has fulfilled it and now he can go away. Similarly, Abberline, who once fought for honest, comprehensive police work, chooses not to expose the answer to the greatest crime in Britain's history. I love the sequence where he and Lees expose Gull, as well as Abberline's epiphany when he goes into the candy shop. He pieces everything together, but decides that he'd rather save himself than expose Gull. It's not a heroic choice, but I think it's the one most of us would make. I love the air of slight regret that hangs over the epilogue, neither one proud of what they did, but cognizant of its necessity.

I've talked a lot about the magic symbolism of From Hell, the right brain/left brain and female/male dichotomies. I think that's the thematic key to understanding the themes of the work, and also its place in Moore's canon. I haven't read A Small Killing, but from what I know, From Hell continues ASK's examination of the source of violence. However, in his later work, both comics and philosophy, this idea of the loss of wonder to reason becomes critical. Promethea is all about rediscovering the magic that's present all around us, breaking down the blinders that separate us from the magic in the world. Chapter 4 was clearly a major influence on Promethea, establishing the magical lecture that would also crop up in Snaks and Ladders, Moore's stage performance.

Looking at Moore's work as a whole, From Hell marks a critical transition. Much like The Invisibles for Morrison, From Hell announces a new worldview, one that the creator will explore and attempt to articulate through the comic. Watchmen explored some similar issues as this, the simultaneity of events through time, but never in the context of magical understanding that would go on to underlie Moore's most recent significant work, Promethea.

Moore's done a lot of books, almost all good. Among his output, I would count five masterpieces: Miracleman, V For Vendetta, Watchmen, From Hell and Promethea. It's difficult to rank them, but From Hell certainly stands as one of the most challenging, thematically engulfing works ever attempted in the medium. I love fiction that makes you work, inviting you to explore a world between its pages. Most books you read, you enjoy and then you put away. But the best fiction, like this book, buries into your subconscious, begging to be thought about. Through this work, Moore casts a counterspell, bringing back some of the wonder that left the world when Gull struck. By seeing through Gull's eyes, we are able to understand what's missing in our world, and I'm glad that people like Moore and Grant Morrison are fighting to restore some wonder to our lives.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Weekend Update

Seven Soldiers

This week, Grant Morrison's megaseries, Seven Soldiers, finally comes to its conclusion. I read all the books in June, and it's been a tough four month wait for the finale. I've started rereading the series and am loving it even more. Being familiar with the overall arc makes it easier to appreciate the progression of each series. On the first read, I was a detective, searching for connections. Now, I'm trying to sit back and take everything in. SS #0 stands up as one of the best things Morrison's ever written, as does the start of Zatanna. I'm only through four issues, so I'll have to speed up a bit, since I know once #1 is here, I'm not going to do anything else until I've finished the series.

More Morrison

This week also sees the debut of two new Morrison series, revamps of The Authority and Wildcats. Critical reaction isn't ecstatic, and I'll admit I'm not that thrilled to see Morrison taking on those two properties. I'd rather see him do some more creator owned work, hopefully his Vertigo series with J.H. Williams III will turn up soon. However, I don't think he could take on much more work now since he's got four ongoing series going right now. None of them have appeared in trade, so I haven't had a chance to read anything yet, but I'll certainly get them all eventually, and I'm especially looking forward to All Star Superman.

The U.S. Office

When the U.S. version of The Office first aired, I had just finished an incredible rewatch of its British counterpart. I watched the first two episodes, but it felt like a community theater group taking over for master actors. But, I keep hearing good things, so I decided to put my bias aside and take another look at it. I've seen those same first two episodes, and I was still not impressed. The thing that makes the British series work so well is its total realism. The characters and the actors playing them are indistinguishable, and the reality of the social situations is what makes the interactions so intensely awkward. I think the bulk of the people on the US show are pretty good, but Steve Carell just ruins it for me. Gervais as David Brent was not funny, but in a way you could laugh at. Carell is not funny in a way that's just annoying. Brent is a regular guy who tries too hard. Michael Scott's Hitler bit in the first episode is totally out of reality, he feels more like an actor playing a regular guy who's trying too hard. I'm going to watch some more, but so far, I'm not impressed. If you're going to be compared to a masterpiece, you've got to be better than alright.

Rescue Me

I wrapped up the first season of Rescue Me. I've mentioned before that I feel like today's TV world is like film in the 70s, and Rescue Me feels like one of those minor 70s classics. There's much better stuff out there, but this is totally reliable entertainment, hitting that balance of interpersonal drama played out against a larger canvas that's so popular for shows today. The supporting cast has gotten more fleshed out as the season progressed, and the addition of Laura to the firehouse did a great job of messing with the established dynamic. It's not quite gotten to greatness, but I was consistently entertained by every episode of the first year, and I've got the second on DVD, ready to watch.

New Film

On Friday, I start shooting on my senior thesis film. It's a twelve minute sci-fi piece about time travel, with a lot of crazy, Morrisonian stuff in there. It's the most planned out film I've done, and I'm hoping it will be the best. I'll hopefully have a trailer up online in a couple of weeks.

Battlestar Galactica - 'Exodus: Part II' (3x04)

This episode has a bittersweet ending, our characters are reunited, but not without high costs. But even more bittersweet is the knowledge that the show is finished with the best arc it's ever done, and may never reach these heights again. These five episodes stand as one of the best arcs ever presented on television, in terms of narrative scope, visual wonder and emotional intensity. They're redefining what's possible with the medium here, and the only complaint I have about the arc was that I wish it was longer.

These first five episodes of the season are like one big four hour movie, and this is the climactic final act, in which everything that's been building comes to fruition and the escalating frustration leads to mass chaos. Much like last week, the opening of the episode is the only real issue. The scene with Dualla and Lee is pretty lame, and clearly only there to set up their return later in the episode. I never really bought the relationship between these two, it seemed to come out of nowhere, like Christopher's marriage in the sixth season, but unlike there, they seem to be saying that these two actually are in love. I'm guessing Kara's return will mess with things a bit, but she's got Anders, so it would make both of them look bad to screw around with each other. That's not to say they won't, but I never saw that much heat between Lee and Kara to begin with. She far outshines him on screen, but I've never been a big Lee fan.

Anyway, with that out of the way we move into the devastating farewell to Ellen scene. Tigh is the character who's been most affected by his time on the planet, we can see it in the missing eye, but more than that, there's the unrelenting coldness. He's a warrior, and early in the series, he floundered because he had lost his identity in civilian life. Now, unchecked by Adama, he has become utterly uncompromising, and though it pains him to do so, he feels that he has to kill Ellen. It's really heartbreaking to hear her say how much she loves him, and then see what he's done to her. Very powerful stuff, and from a narrative point of view, we need a major character to die to provide some lasting effects of their time on New Caprica.

After this, most of the episode is a huge action setpiece. The scale of this is unprecedented for the series, and they completely pull it off, creating the best planet evacuation sequence since the Rebels left Hoth in Empire Strikes Back. There are images in this episode that just sear into your memory. I'll start with the stuff on the ground. This is the first time we've seen a ground battle on this scale, you get the sense that this entire society is collapsing, I love the ships flying above them and the constant presence of dust and particles floating in the air, like snow. There's so much chaos, but we're always clear what's going on, and that's the sign of a well done action scene. The best visual moment is the Galactica's brief entrance into planetary space, at that moment they know that it really is possible to get off of New Caprica.

Concurrent with this, we've got the fantastic battle in space. It was pretty obvious that the Pegasus would return, but for a minute there, I was wondering if the Galactica really was going to be destroyed. However, the Pegasus wrote in and in one of the episode's best sequences, takes a huge barrage of hits, splits apart and crashes into two basestars. The visuals they created here were so beautiful, particularly the hundreds of explosions on the Pegasus' hull. The opening shots of the Raptors were another highlight, as was Hot Dog's exit out of the Galactica through fire into planetary atmosphere. This effects work is so good, both in terms of verisimilitude and in the composition and energy of the shots. At times it was so beautiful I just stepped back in awe, but generally speaking, you're drawn in and totally believing the reality of the scene. That's what effects are designed to do, and the quality of these effects makes it embarrassing that Hollywood studios spend tens of millions of dollars to produce shots that lack the aesthetic quality or kinetic energy of what's here.

This action stuff is all fantastic, but there's two threads of particular interest. One is Kara. I love the chaos of the compound during the escape, which is abruptly juxtaposed with the anxious scene between Kara and Leoben. He forces her to say she loves him, but there's clearly some ambiguity there. When they kiss, I don't think it's all an act, and even when she stabs him, it's not a total break, she's leaving for now, but some of her feelings are still there. I like the fact that she got to kill him herself, and we didn't get the melodrama of having Anders see them kiss.

However, I have issues with the revelation that Kasey was a child that Leoben kidnapped. The whole point of the storyline was to show Kara breaking down and admitting that she loved Leoben, embracing a domestic life with him. If he kidnapped Kasey as a way to do this, it removes the ambiguity and makes him an evil guy manipulating her. She can't have positive feelings about him if he did that to her, and from a narrative standpoint, why remove that ambiguity? I'm guessing that they're going to have Kara harden up now, she'd let down her guard and wound up being emotionally crushed when Kasey is taken away from her. Now she's going to return to the Kara of yore and keep everyone out. I do love her silent sadness on the deck, as Kasey is taken away.

That whole deck scene is fantastic for, as I mentioned before, its bittersweet quality. It's a celebration, but all we see is the pain that people have gone through, Tigh in particular, but also Gaeta, who stands off to the side, awaiting the inevitable judgment for his acts.

That leaves us with the other standout storyline of the episode, in which Baltar finally stands up for himself. The crushing of Baltar has been an effective piece of these first few episodes, but I feel like we'd lost some of the Baltar of yore. Here, we don't see him make a full return, but he does stand up for himself and gain a bit of power within the cylon world. The showdown scene is wonderfully tense, most notably for Caprica Six's uncertainty about what to do.

Baltar and Six finding Hera ties back to the dream that the two of them had in the first season finale. Here, we establish that there's a clear difference between the Six in his head and Caprica Six. Six in his head affirms Gaius' role as caretaker for the child, the idea that he's the chosen one. Back in that dream sequence, she claimed the child was theirs, and I'm guessing his arc over the rest of the season will be to care for her in the cylon world. I'm not sure why he gave her over so easily to D'Anna, I guess he's accrued enough power that she won't take Hera and leave him.

On the whole, I feel like this episode marks the end of a fantastic run for the series, and, sadly, a return to the status quo. They seem to fluctuate between messing with the formula and returning to the basic everyone on the ship structure. Here we've got the ultimate return, and I'm just not sure that there's that many interesting stories to tell in that environment. I thought New Caprica would be the new premise for the show, and I think it was a mistake to end it so quickly. But, I guess the show is called Battlestar Galactica, so everything brings us back to the ship.

That said, I am really excited to see where Gaius' story goes. I think the cylons are easily the most intersting characters on the show, and Gaius is up there too, so the combo should be fantastic. How will he deal with being immersed in their world? ?ill they trust him, a human? And what further insight will we get about how they live? Very exciting, I hope he gets a lot of time each week, and doesn't have the couple of minutes assigned to season one Helo.

But, the show's uncertain future shouldn't diminish the impact of this arc. I was consistently wowed by what was shown here, always in suspense and frequently marveling at the beauty of the images they put on the screen. I think these five episodes stand with the best TV ever produced, and like the closing run of Six Feet Under season three, or Angel season five, give us a run that pushes its characters into new emotional territory, upending everything we've previously seen on the series. This is the best kind of entertainment. This is the best kind of art.