Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Fountain

I've been looking forward to The Fountain for a long time, a really long time. I remember reading about it in 2001, a "post-Matrix" sci-film that would change the genre. As time passed, the project went through a lot of tumult, and it's great to see a director who sticks with his vision and gets it made, making some budget sacrifices, but keeping the essence of the piece intact. After such a long wait, the film itself wound up much simpler than I was expecting. The triptych narrative structure adds a lot of layers, but at its core this is a film about life and death, and the inextricable bond between the two.

The film opens with a striking battle sequence. I love the moment where Tomas is taken by the Mayans and carried to the edge of their pyramid. The flaming sword he encounters later is another really powerful visual, and then it's a jump cut hundreds of years into the future. I wish I knew nothing about the film going in because I'd imagine that cut would be absolutely mind blowing. As was, it's still pretty shocking to plunge into the future like that, into an entirely different world with its own rules.

I don't think there's one definitive interpretation of what is 'real' in the film and what's not. The way I saw it is that the present day stuff is what is real, and the present/future stuff is a mental construction, built by the two characters to allow them to deal with Izzi's cancer. This is made explicit in the fact that the Spanish stuff is connected to a book Izzi wrote. She has imagined herself as Queen Isabella, commissioning her love to find a cure for her disease. At one point, she refers to Tom as a Conquistador in the present, reinforcing this conception of him. I love the moment where she gives him this mission. The way she's lit with glowing white, asking him to make her "his Eve." The Spanish stuff is all very striking, the way we see Isabella hidden behind the grate at first, only gradually coming into view.

Understanding the film requires coming to terms with the way narrative progression proceeds across time. Tomas' quest for the fountain of youth is the same thing that Tom is seeking in the present. It's also the same as the man in the bubble, forever seeking the secrets of the tree.

While Izzi imagines Tom as a conquistador, he prefers to see himself as a Buddhist from the future, but the constant is that he's seeking that which will allow him to overcome death. In the early part of the film, the editing connects the Tom of the bubble with the Tom of the present, fitting because it's his hallucination. This is how he imagines his scientific work, part of an ageless quest for immortality. He knows that Izzi will die, and he sees himself continuing to work far into the future, until he finally finds a cure. The tattoos equate him with the tree, the rings representing the passage of time, from the one dot in the present to the whole covered arm of the future.

The film works in a different way from most movies. I didn't find myself with a deep emotional connection to the characters, the film may be about these two people, but it's concerned with bigger themes. We don't need to understand them as real, developed characters, and we don't get much of a background on either. From their subjective mental constructions, we can gain a better understanding, but the first half of the movie only gives us enough to care about them, and make the second half of the movie work. I think the telescope scene is sweet and sad, but I'm not desperately caught up in this love.

As a filmmaker, Aronofsky is not interested in creating traditional emotional reactions. Rather, he shows you things that are affecting on an intellectual level, you're moved emotionally. The visceral violence of the end of Requiem is designed to overwhelm you on a human level. It's not the fact that this is happening to characters we know that makes it awful, it's the fact that the stuff is just so awful, you can have no other reaction. Similarly, this film taps into imagery with a primal power, and creates emotions through engaging with the universal human interest in issues of life and death.

As the film progresses, Tom's obsession with stopping death begins to cause more and more problems with his life. We see this at a number of moments, when he doesn't go for a walk with her because he's working. In trying to save her, he winds up missing the last moments he could share with her, something that's reinforced when we see her with Ellen Burstyn, sharing real emotion. He can not live in the moment, see past her impending death and appreciate the last of her life.

When Izzi dies, the audience is placed in Tom's mindset. What makes it hurt so much is the fact that he just found out the solution is making the cancer recede. He could have saved her, but it's too late. His grief is mixed up with his failure as a scientist. At her funeral, Ellen Burstyn talks about her life, but Tom can't listen to it. He only sees his failure to save her, not the moments that came before.

This leads us into the mindblowing finale of the movie. The first hour or so is really well done, but I felt like it never took off into the realm of greatness. I've talked before about the idea of the moment in film, that the best films are the ones that feature moments where you just gasp, awed by the convergence of visual, sound/music and narrative to create a singular emotional reaction. I watch movies for those moments, to be awed and humbled, and that's what the end of this film does.

Before the end of the film, the Spanish sequences were Izzi's vision, her conception of Tom, an explorer seeking to help her. However, when she dies, the last chapter remains unwritten. It is up to Tom to imagine the finale, and that means the intrusion of his mental motifs, most notably the tree. Pi makes frequent reference to the Kaballah, and it clearly informs this film. My knowledge of the Kaballah comes primarily from the journey up the tree of life sequence in Promethea. I'd imagine you could easily map the stages of this film to the nine stages of the journey up the tree. The basic idea is to pass through the human world, and up towards enlightenment. To reach enlightenment, you must pass through the land of the dead and at the end of the journey, you are reborn.

One of the best moments in the film is when we see Tom in lotus position suspended over the Mayan guardian, prompting the Mayan to tell him he is the father of the world. This is Tom's fantasy, the idea that he could be the person to give eternal life to the world, and in the process, save Izzi. So, he proceeds out and finds the tree. While the tree is a reference to the Kaballah, it is explicitly name dropped as the tree of life from the garden of Eden. Tom seeks eternal life for himself, but when he greedily drinks the tree's sap, which looks not unlike sperm, an inseminating force taken into the vessel of his body. Tom is shocked when trees begin to grow out of him, he wanted eternal life for himself, ignorant of the fact that the act of giving life inevitably means giving up a part of yourself. The moment is a reenactment of the Mayan creation myth, Tom's death giving way to a new world. The moment also refers to Izzi's discussion of the man who had a seed planted on his grave so that a piece of him would be carried out into the world after he died.

These events are paralleled in the progress of the future version of himself. He moves out of his bubble, the prison in which he seeks a cure for death. He moves beyond this limited thought as he journeys towards his own symbolic death. I love the visual of him moving through the trippy environment, zen like in the bubble. He finally reaches the white, and everything goes black except for a small white dot on the screen. Then, in a phenomenally dazzling moment, all of reality rushes in, ripping his skin off and pouring him down into the cosmos. That is the moment I was waiting for, utterly overwhelming me with the power of the visual imagery. This is the same as the trees coming out of Tom, his life essence dispersed to create something new.

This leads us back to the past, where Tom is again offered the chance to walk outside with Izzi. Rather than work, he chooses to spend the moment with her. Then, he is left standing outside, looking at her grave, into which he puts a seed, acknowledging the reality of death and the fact that the end of life is actually an opening to rebirth, a passage into something new rather than a concrete ending. Earlier in the film, Tom was not content with the fact that they were improving Donovan's mental functioning, he worried only about his impending death. Now, he recognizes that it is more important to live life in the moment than to worry about the inevitability of death. He is out of his bubble and open to a larger world.

The thing I love about this movie is the way it tackles these massive themes that are very rarely explored in cinema. I've heard the film compared to 2001, and while I don't think it's quite that good, it stands with that film in terms of being a piece of visual philosophy, using the possibilities of the medium to make you experience an entirely other world, and attack a human truth in the process. The person whose work it most reminds me of is Grant Morrison. The cut to a bald man in lotus position instantly conjures GM, and his bubble is very reminiscent of Zatanna. But, more than that, the film fluidly moves between different realities, demanding the audience to accept everything as real rather than seek some kind of trick to read things. It's much like Flex Mentallo, in that you can arrange it into a linear story, which I did, but also look at is just a flowing experience of different worlds. Just because the Spanish stuff is a story doesn't meant that it's any less valid than the so called 'reality' of the film, and that's a very Morrison thing.

And the central theme of the film goes right along with The Invisibles. In The Invisibles, we are told time is soil for us to grow in, and this film sees death as a seed that will give birth to new life. They each answer the critical question of why do bad things happen to us. It turns out they happen because the bad things make us stronger, bad experiences are the fuel for creation, we can use the negative as a base for something new and good.

Morrison talked about the fact that people have trouble processing metaphor, and I think that's a large part of why the film isn't connecting with a lot of people. It's easy to dismiss this and say that the characters aren't particularly well developed and the multiple time periods are pointless and confusing, but that's to ignore the fact that it's all real. It's not easy to see beyond our world, but when looking at a film, or life for that matter, it's important to accept movement between realities and understand that what is real is not necessarily that which is physical. Anything that affects you emotionally is 'real,' and that's why fiction is important. Fictional characters can do more to change the world than real people. In the case of this film, the themes are important and central to the human experience. Aronofsky should be rewarded for challenging the audience with an unconventional structure and a surplus of ideas. I would heartily recommend this film, if you're interested, please go see it in the theater and tell the studios that unique, visionary films like this are appreciated and wanted.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Michael Richards, Borat and the Limits of Shock Comedy

Over the past couple of days, Seinfeld star Michael Richards has gotten into a lot of the trouble for his racial invective filled rant at a comedy club. All the info is here, including videos of both the moment itself and the incredibly awkward six minute apology on Letterman. Obviously he said some really awful things, and I doubt he'll ever be able to shake the stigma of this, nor should he. If you're a public figure, no matter what you actually feel, you just don't say this stuff in public.

When I first heard about the story, I saw it as just another Mel Gibson type situation. The quotes from articles were horrible, and at first, his apology is a fairly standard "I didn't mean it" kind of thing. However, as he goes on, he talks about what led him to say these things. Basically, as a performer, he uses a lot of free association to move deep into character. His comedy is entirely based on stripping off self consciousness and getting lost in the material.

If you watch the video, it becomes more clear that what he's saying is to some extent a performance. After the initial comments, he steps back and says something like "Ooh, this shocks you?" After this, he goes even further and loses the audience in the process. The whole thing raises the question of where performance ends and where actual racism begins. If he's trying to maintain authority as a performer, he's going to want to prey on his hecklers and use their comments to his advantage. So, he plays on the easiest target, their race. The question is, is he entering into the character of a racist at this moment or is it is his own beliefs coming out?

I can't say for sure, but I think it's interesting that this controversy occurs only a few weeks after everyone is lauding Borat for supposedly exposing the below the surface intolerance of Americans. With Borat, Baron Cohen enters into a character and utters a consistent stream of hate speech, directed at blacks, Jews and others. To the people in the film, there's no indication that Borat is a construction, or that his beliefs are any less than genuine, he is using this character to create a safe space for people to express their hate.

But, at the same time, he is saying very hateful things. What makes his constant jokes about Jews different than what Richards does here? The obvious answer is the distinction between Borat and Cohen. Every review seems to mention the film's antisemitism, qualified with a remark about Cohen's own Orthodox background. It's easy for us to laugh at Borat because we're aware that he is poking fun at this point of view. The actual man is far removed from the character.

However, with Richards, there's no clear line between the character and the performer. It's quite possible that in that moment, he saw entering this racist persona as the best way to grab the crowd's attention and counter the hecklers. At first, he seems to enjoy the fact that his words have created such shock, and only after does the crowd turn on him. If you read Borat without the distance of knowing he's a fictional character, it'd be very easy to have the same reaction.

In the end, I think the difference in reaction comes down to three things. One is insider status. Seinfeld itself actually commented on this phenomenon when they had Tim Whatley convert to Judaism for the jokes. An oppressed group can make fun of themselves without consequence, but it's a lot tougher for someone outside the group to make those same jokes. Richards crosses an unacceptable social line by invoking actual hate speech.

The second major difference is the tone. Borat gets away with a lot of what he does because he's such a genial guy. There doesn't seem to be genuine malice behind what he's saying, whereas Richards, by his own admission, is fueled with rage and as a result, stops being funny. On Seinfeld, Kramer could get away with a lot of insensitive things because there was an innate innocence/naivete to the character, and Richards had none of that on stage.

I'm not going to pass judgment on Richards, but it's clear he crossed a line in the performance. I suppose that's the danger of being such a free performer, that you'll channel something you don't want out into the world, and I'd imagine we're not going to see him doing standup again.

But, so much of what is hailed about today's great comedies are their willingness to tackle taboo subjects. Shows like Arrested Development and The Office frequently use race in their humor, and it's notable that at first the audience on Letterman treats Richards' apology as a bit, with sporadic laughter until Jerry says "Stop laughing, it's not funny." Apparently, the show was taped before the scandal broke, and if you didn't know it was real, it'd be pretty easy to think that Richards' apology was a gag, pushing awkward comedy to its limits. Just the other day, I was saying the American Office didn't work because it wasn't painful enough. Well, this apology was painful and not very funny at all.

Gilmore Girls: 'Introducing Lorelai Planetarium' (7x08)

Last week's episode saw a major, and rather inexplicable development in the Gilmore Girls universe: the wedding of Lorelai and Christopher. This isn't the first time that Lorelai and Christopher have been close to getting married, at the end of season two they were engaged, only to find out that Sheri was pregnant with Gigi, throwing their plans awry. The moment when Lorelai finds out was the most wrenching emotional moment the series presented until the end of season five. Lorelai is so desperately close to getting what she wants, and then has to just stand by and let Christopher do 'the right thing.' If she is selfish and makes him choose her over Gigi, she puts Sheri in the situation that she was with Rory, and she can't do that.

Throughout the series, we've frequently seen Lorelai teased with the possibility of getting married. It happened with Max in season one, with Chris in season two and then in season five with Luke, she finally takes the initiative and reaches out for what she wants. That was a great moment, and the gradual break apart over the course of season six is painful to watch. This culminates with the most excruciatingly painful moment of the series, when a drunk Lorelai walks up to the mic at Lane's wedding and laments the fact that she wont' get married, that it's not for her. It's so sad to see all her fears pour out there, and it makes something that the plot necessitated, Lorelai not getting married, a critical piece of her character arc. She's created this independent, hyper-chatty persona partially as a defense mechanism. She claims that she's living the life she wants, but part of her longs for a more traditional life. Particularly with Rory leaving her, the loneliness comes to the fore.

That's what I love about season six of the show, the way it shows Lorelai's life in transition. As she loses everyone she cares about, the old ways just don't work anymore, and it's this very personality she's constructed as a defense that winds up driving Luke away from her. He fears that she will eclipse him in April's affections, that is why he pulls away from her. It's critical to note the lack of Rory/Lorelai interaction in late season six. As Luke is getting closer to his daughter, Lorelai is losing hers.

What this sets up for us is the importance of marriage in Lorelai's life. Her persona is largely defined in relation to the idea of marriage, so getting married should be a major deal. However, rather than honoring her character we get a sweeps month gimmick cliffhanger in which she all of a sudden marries Christopher. I don't think the choice to have them get married is necessarily a bad one, it's just the presentation puts the emphasis on shock value, I think it's a huge mistake to not see Lorelai's reaction in the moment.

Now, to some extent we can see it all in this episode. Lorelai is clearly uneasy, but wanted so badly to be married that she put her fears away and created justifications in her head. However, I feel like this just isn't a smart road to go down. Lorelai's unspoken pain was the whole point of season six, and it feels a waste to do a retread of that storyline one season later. It's the same dynamic as Luke last season, with her not speaking up about her issues and suffering in silence. I think it would have been more fruitful to have Lorelai really commited to the marriage and gradually bring in her discontent.

Plus, the way it's presented now, there's basically no chance that the marriage will last. The episode even goes out of the way to draw attention to Luke in a really odd scene. On the one hand, the show is all about building gimmicky tension, yet it passes up the chance to show a potentially interesting scene where Christopher asks why she's going to see April in the hospital, or even why she's the first person Luke calls. The way it is now Christopher is just too perfect. He's got an unlimited bank account and total optimism about their future. The problem with that is that it makes Lorelai's discomfort solely personal, and more difficult for the audience to side with her. Chris has always been something of a bastard, why not bring that side out and push the relationship to an uncomfortable place? That way you'd get more tension than just waiting for whatever event will occur to break up the marriage.

The way it plays now it feels like a betrayal of Lorelai's journey. The whole point of season six was for her to finally speak up for herself, and now we've got her suffering in silence again. That journey is the critical component of the series, and without it, we've got nothing more than a soap opera drifting from plot to plot.

Elsewhere, I'm glad to see the show actually interrogate the wealthiness of its environment. I was just thinking, wow, everyone's got a ton of money. So, it was good to see Rory write the piece. However, I feel like that scene played too much like a caricature, it would have been more cutting for Rory to find fault in less exaggerated characters. I did like the conflict between Rory and Logan, which gets to the core of her arc. Is she like her mom, a small town self made girl, or is she like her grandparents, Gilmores? In one of the series' best moments, we see Dean standing outside a party at her grandparents' house, knowing that she has crossed over. So, it's good to interrogate that again.

It's also good to have Logan back in the US. He's a character who forces tension into scenes, and I'd be curious to see more of Lorelai's reaction to the life that Rory is entering into. Is she proud of Rory for moving back into high society, or resentful? Clearly, Rory is not going to live in a place like Stars Hollow, or hold values like her mom's. And how will her unease mesh with the fact that she married this ridiculously rich guy? Is she too betraying her values?

This episode was more entertaining than a lot of the recent ones, but the construction of the series is still deeply troubling. Lorelai's been crippled, and Lane, my other favorite character, was completely assassinated. If you have a character who's unique because she has a band, and unlike most of the supporting cast, actually has an arc that's moving forward, why saddle her with a lame stock plot in the pregnancy. Note that Lane hasn't played any drums since being pregnant, is that part of her life done? That's a complete betrayal of everything the character was about for the first seven seasons of the show.

So, it's looking more and more like the end of season six was the 'series finale' for the show. It's still entertaining most of the time, but most of what was built has been neglected and we're just spinning wheels, not moving forward.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Robert Altman

Sadly, Robert Altman died today. Over the past year, I've seen a whole bunch of his films and come to appreciate what a distinctive voice he was in cinema. He's one of the few directors unique enough to earn his own adjective, Altmanesque. I'd always thought of Altmanesque as realistic, big cast films featuring meandering art cinema style narratives. Nashville and Short Cuts are the archetypal examples of this, though McCabe and Mrs. Miller and a bunch of his other films that I haven't seen, like A Wedding or Pret a Porter, fit that description. However, watching his stuff I saw many different sides of Altman, a guy who can go from the observational realism of Nashville to the intense subjectivity of Images or 3 Women and also into genre work, be it the crime film in The Long Goodbye or the musical/childrens' film in Popeye. Not all his films work, but that's the consequence of being a guy who makes a lot of movies. Altman is in the mode of someone like Fassbinder, who seemed driven to make as many films as possible, maybe never finding the perfect polish of someone like Kubrick, but in the time it took Kubrick to make one film, Altman had already made five great ones.

One of the things I admire most about Altman is how he was able to keep his universe evolving as he got older. So many directors of his time burnt out and were reduced to directing crap. However, he made it through the dark time of the 80s without compromising his artistic vision, and came out the other side with the chance to make the films he wanted to make again. I think his 70s work is the best he's done, but it's very rare that you see someone remain artistically vital for so long. I love that he was still making films right up until he died and I hope that I can keep the passion and commitment that Altman had when I get as old as he was. It's great that Altman received an honorary Oscar earlier this year, and A Prarie Home Companion was a nice note to end his career on. The film is not a hugely significant entry in his canon, but it was sweet, and knowing it was his last film makes the countdown to the end of the show all the more poignant.

There's a general feeling that artists have at max ten years relevance, after that they descend into repitition or irrelevance. In film, I feel like a lot of directors lose touch with real life. When all you do is work on set filming movies, you're bound to lose the sense of what life is like for people outside the industry. This means that it becomes more difficult to find personal fire to fuel your films. Directors like Scorsese and Coppola both started with very personal, passionate projects and gradually became work for hire directors, making well made movies, but no one thinks that The Aviator has the same fire as Mean Streets. With Altman, you never got the sense that he had been absorbed into the industry. He kept a distance and that allowed him to remain personally vital, to keep bringing passion to the variety of projects that he took on in his later years. And his style never stagnated, A Prarie Home Companion is a dynamic and exciting a film, using camera movement and scene construction in unique, groundbreaking ways.

If you've only seen the big Altman films, like Nashville, I'd highly reccomend checking out 3 Women and Images. These two films are unlike most of the stuff in his oeuvre in that they're intensely subjective. Both are concerned with the restrictions placed on women by society, and use dreamlogic storytelling to explore the issue. Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire both have a lot in common with these films. 3 Women in particular is a lot of fun to analyze, full of psychological loose ends and mysteries that make it great for repeat viewing. I'd consider Nashville his best film, but it's a crime that 3 Women hasn't received more support from the critical community. But, there is a great Criterion DVD out, definitely worth a look.

I've written a bunch about Altman's work over this past year, here's the links.

3 Women
McCabe and Mrs. Miller
Short Cuts

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Office (US)/Knowing Me, Knowing You

Recently, I've been watching the the American version of The Office, through episode 2x06. I watched the first episode when it aired and was pretty unimpressed. It felt like a community theater group ding a take on a show I'd just seen on Broadway, the lines were the same, but something was off. However, watching the first twelve episodes on DVD, I've seen the show grow into its own thing, a thing that is good, but nowhere near the quality of the original.

My major issue with the show, particularly in the second season, is that every episode seems to be scrambling to get the characters out of the office. The whole point of the show is to dwell on the mundane realities of day to day life, and find humor in the interactions between people at work. Sure, the British version had the club episode and a couple of other field trips, but generally speaking, most of the plots revolved around goings on in The Office itself, and the difficulty of navigating the office social scene.

However, with the American version, there's all kinds of outside plots being brought in to punch things up. David Brent didn't do much work, but at least he was in the office, Michael Scott is out all the time, and seems to make no effort to do anything. I could believe that Brent didn't get fired, but it's hard to imagine they're happy with what Michael's doing. Now, I think the character does work on some level. The second season premiere found that perfect awkwardness when the people make fun of Michael's song parodies. That scene was tough to watch, and emotionally satisfying when the others stood up for him. However, having Michael crank call Ryan as Michael Jackson is more absurd than sad. He's a less believable character then Brent, because with Brent you got the sense that he was trying to hard to perform for his office mates, while Carrell seems to be trying to hard to perform for us, the viewers. His acting is so over the top it takes me out of the reality of the show, the one thing the British show never punctured.

The American version frequently makes note of its status as a documentary, but it feels much more artificial than the raw British version. A lot of that is simply due to the sitcomy nature of a lot of the plots. Dwight in particular feels totally removed from reality, whereas Gareth seemed like a believable loser. Pam and Jim do the best in translation, but I don't feel the investment in their relationship that I had for Tim and Dawn. That's largely because I've already seen the resolution for their counterparts, and that relationship has been mythologized in my mind, standing over the Pam/Jim dynamic. I think the most fruitful territory there is in seeing both Pam and Jim's defensiveness about their flirting. The moment where Angela tells Pam about her game is fantastic, as is the unease when they have their mock fight in the dojo.

I think the major problem is that the show has to sustain an indefinite length. As any comedy goes on, the plots get more and more outlandish and the rough edges are hewn off characters. The UK Office is like the first two or three seasons of Seinfeld, painfully sharp in its distillation of human interaction. The US version is like the later years, still funny, but much broader. Because the UK version had so few episodes, we never had to delve into the issue of where David lives or who Gareth's sensei is. Instead, we only see the characters in the work environment, and as viewers, we are immersed in that world. Some of the most memorable moments in the UK version are those quiet shots of stuff printing and people working, downtime that is allowed because of the longer running time of UK episodes. The eight additional minutes per episode gives them the chance to have a slower pace and give a better sense of actual work going on.

And ultimately I feel like the UK version told the story. Despite the growth, the basic plot arcs still draw from the British series, and I've already seen Brent redeemed and Tim and Dawn united. I don't know that I really care to see it happen again. Plus, I tend to find British restrained pompousness funnier than the American outright stupidity when it comes to comedy.

That's a good segue into the other show I've been watching, Knowing Me, Knowing You. Ah ha. I first heard about this show from Tristram-Shandy, and now I get the contsant references to Knowing Me whoever, Knowing You Steve Coogan. I'm sure in the UK this was played out as an Austin Powers quote in 2000, but it's just so fun to say. And, luckily, this is not the UK. The downside is that no one would have any idea what I'm talking about if I reference the show. Anyway, I read an article that talked about how "I'm Alan Partridge" focused on the character after his show had ended. I love works that explore multiple layers of a piece of fiction, and I think it's a fantastic conceit to position Alan as a real person outside of the show. This intrigued me enough to give Knowing Me, Knowing You a look.

This show was made in 1994, and its style of awkward embarassing comedy clearly went on to influence many other shows, particularly The Office. Like The Office, this show focuses on a man who's got a massive ego and no clue about the total disdain or indifference others feel towards him. Coogan plays the character in such a way that there's very few explicit jokes. For the first few minutes of the first episode, I wasn't laughing too much because it just felt like a standard, uninspiring chat show. However, once you figure out this guy, his rampant egotism becomes increasingly hilarious. I love the way he constantly says his own name and forces everyone else to adopt his catchphrase, even a widow standing over her husband's coffin.

As the series wears on, bits like his constant punning on chat and his antagonism with Glen Ponder yield many laughs. The series also perfectly captures the dynamic of banal chat shows, with Alan constantly trying to control the dynamic of the conversation, but frequently finding himself losing power. Much like Brent on The Office, the humor comes from watching someone who thinks he's much funnier than he is come up against the reality of the situation and struggle to deal with it. Partridge is essentially a conservative guy, and he can't deal with the people he's forced to work with on the show.

The show works best when everyone plays things straight and lets Partridge simmer in his own issues. A bit like the Kojak Slaphead scene at the end of episode five goes too over the top, out of the realm of reality. Of course, a lot of my criticism of both this and The Office is based purely on personal taste. A bit like the jacuzzi scene at the end of episode four could be criticized as equally ridiculous, but it's funny, so I forgive it.

I also like how the show does give Alan the chance to be right occasionally. By making the French designer's clothes so ridiculous, we can easily agree with what Alan's saying. There, the humor comes from Alan's tactless treatment of his guests more than his innatte wrongness. And he also gest some nice moments, like the Abba medley, which is played for laughs, but ends up being pretty sweet and entertaining on its own.

It's pretty easy to trace a line from this show to the comedy of Borat or Stephen Colbert. If the show was done today, we'd probably see the Partridge character interviewing real people and provoking them in the same way he provokes the fictional people here. The show is a critical step in creating a style of comedy with few overt jokes, that instead presents a character who is inherently ridiculous and lets the audience laugh at his behavior, to the point that his attempts at humor become funny because of how they fail as jokes, rather then their actual value as humor. It's a complex blend of fiction and reality, and I'm excited to see it further complicated with "I'm Alan Partridge."

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Casino Royale

I've never been a huge fan of the Bond series. Goldfinger's a fun movie, as is Goldeneye, but each movie has a similar formula, and the more you watch in a row, the more the similarities become apparent. So, the producers are faced with the problem of keeping things fresh film after film. With the latter Brosnan films they tried to do this by raising the stakes, making bigger and bigger setpieces until we got the invisible car and ice palace laser destruction sequence of Die Another Day, a film in which nearly every piece of dialogue was a cheesy line. After the excess, they smartened up and decided to scale things back and return some humanity to the character. It was a smart choice and works really well, resulting in the best Bond film ever made.

The opening sequence announces the change in intention. Rather than the increasingly massive setpieces used as the series went on, we get stark black and white and a cold Bond gunning his enemy down before he can complete his cliche. This is intercut with some nice, grainy shots of a nasty fight in a bathroom, Bond's first kill. This segues brilliantly into the classic gunsight opening and a very nice opening titles sequence. Now, some of this restraint and grit is undermined by the lengthy, over the top chase sequence that follows. It's a cool sequence, but indicates a bit of a compromise, reassuring the action audience that there's plenty for them here too.

This opening section of the film is solid, but in light of the quality later on, I think it could have been trimmed a bit. Having both the first chase action sequence and the plane/truck sequence pushes things too far in the not forwarding the plot spectacle department. The second sequence came too early in the film for such an extended setpiece, it would have been better to tighten it a bit. That said, I think the film gives you a better sense of Bond as a great agent, rather than a superhero. He's trained well enough that jumping over all those buildings doesn't drain him, but he's not able to do it with much style either. This Bond is all about just getting the job done, no matter the violence that's involved in doing so.

Now, a grittier Bond isn't necessarily a huge jump beyond what we've seen before. It makes the action sequences more tense, because Bond has to prove himself, but that's not enough to make the movie works. The biggest success is in finally giving Bond a foil who's an equal, not by trying to make a rival for Bond's action prowess, but giving him someone who's equally good at hiding her emotions and placing 'the mission' over personal interest. In most Bond movies, there's the 'good girl' and the 'bad girl,' and a clear delineation between the two. Usually, Bond will sleep with the bad girl, but eventually reject her and wind up with the 'good girl,' the one who gives him some assistance in his mission, but is more an object to be saved.

What Eva Green's Vesper does is fuse the two archetypes. For most of the film, she seems to be Bond's ally, and despite her initial resistance, quickly succumbs to his charms. However, for the first time, we see Bond as the one who's getting played. He lets down his guard and falls in love with her, and when he finds out she's betrayed him, it hurts him both as a man and a spy. He's let his emotions weaken him, and from this betrayal, we can see where the man who exists in the later films comes from. Bond doesn't trust women and won't get close to them because doing so means opening himself up to the betrayal he experiences here. The only way for him to ensure that this doesn't happen again is to never let his guard down, to put the man away and be only the spy.

It's not evident the first time through, but looking, Vesper goes through the same process. She is a professional spy, and does not want to fall in love with Bond. When she does, it presents awful complications for her, unlike MI6, her crew will not let her leave so easily. The parallels between the two characters are set up from the beginning, the fact that they're likely both orphans, who have had to shield their emotions. Vesper also had the troubled breakup with the Armenian guy, Bond is her way to overcome that hurt. In Venice, they both saw a future with the possibility of real emotional attachment. There's a brief moment of happiness before it all goes awry. Since Vesper was bringing them the money to pay for Bond's life, it means that Bond's spy instincts, his lack of trust for her, was what messed things up for both of them. Now, we don't know if M was lying to him when she said that, but I believe that Vesper was trying to save James. It's more poignant that way. The spy returned and that meant the end of James as emotionally open man.

The end of the film functions sort of like the end of Revenge of the Sith. We've been waiting the whole time to see James Bond, badass, emerge. But, like the revelation of Vader in Sith, the 'birth' we've been looking forward to turns out to be a death. Bond's theme song heralds the birth of the cold, professional, emotionless man who we see in the other films of the series. It's a fantastic moment, the slow build of the theme song as Mr. White climbs up the stairs, culminating in the shot of Bond holding an automatic and delivering the line. But, there's a sadness in it too. His brief respite from the life is over and now we know he'll be 007 for life.

The end of the film also sets up interesting sequel possibilities, as Bond will presumably investigate the organization that Vesper worked for. I heard that they were planning to do an actual continuation with the next sequel, which would be cool. However, it does raise the issue of how to avoid the character problems that the other films were plagued with, this one was all about bringing Bond to that point, how do they keep him interesting after he's been emotionally shut down here.

And, I'll definitely miss the presence of Eva Green, who did fantastic work here. Her performance in The Dreamers is one of the most raw, emotionally vulnerable I've seen, and she brings humanity to the character here. Her and Craig make what could have been a somewhat cliched relationship really work, and that emotional base is what makes this one of the best action films of recent years. All the special effects in the world can't replicate an emotional engagement with characters, and this film had that.

So, I was really happy with this film. It got a lot of critical praise, and deservedly so. I think a bit of tightening on the top end could have made it a better film, but I'm sure a lot of the audience was there for the action setpieces, and the franchise needs to fulfill that demand. The Bond franchise is about beautiful people in beautiful places doing ugly things, and this film delivered on that better than any other in the series.

Weekend Update

This Week's Films

I just saw Casino Royale, but I've still got a bunch of films to get to. On Wednesday, The Fountain is finally released. I've been waiting for this film for over five years, and everything I've heard is encouraging. I'm just trying to keep expectations from getting too high. We've also got a new Richard Linklater out. Linklater's work for hire stuff isn't as exciting as an original script, but I'm sure it's still good, and I'll be seeing it next week when I'm back in New York. We've also got new Tony Scott, with Deja Vu. Reviews are indicating that this is a retreat from the insane style of Domino. I'm one of the few people who thinks this is a bad thing, but Domino and Man on Fire were so good, I'll give it a look. I also want to get to Babel, Little Children and Volver.

Uninspired Watching

I still haven't seen last week's Studio 60 or Veronica Mars. Both shows are drifting in my attention. I already dropped Nip/Tuck, though I was intrigued by word of a flash to the future episode. But, S60 and VM are right now at just good enough to keep watching, but a further decrease in quality could knock them out. In terms of retrospective viewing, I've got one more season of Rescue Me to go through, then I'm going to start watching Babylon 5. This is a series I've heard a lot about, and I'm hoping it will live up to the hype. I could really use something Buffy level, I haven't seen a truly great series in a while. I'm worried that I've seen so many the fresh novelty of a really long story is gone. Back with Buffy, I marvelled at the fact that they were able to develop lot threads consistently over so many episodes, but that wonder is gone and now I'm starting to see more patterns between series, the seams behind TV structure in the same way I can see the seams on three act film structure.

New Air Album

This week, Air announced that they've got a new album out in March and will be touring the US in May. I'm excited, I love all three of their previous albums, and I actually think they've gotten better with each one. I'm also really curious to see them live, I was just getting into them when they toured Talkie Walkie, so I've never seen them play. Next year, we'll also get the new Polyphonic Spree album. I'm really looking forward to the songs and to a new tour.

Window in the Skies

I downloaded the new U2 song, Window in the Skies, off their recent singles compilation and it's fantastic. While I loved their 90s experimental period, it's undeniable that they can put together a rock anthem better than anyone else, and this song matches right up with Beautiful Day, Walk On or City of Blinding Lights for anthemic greatness. The track quickly builds to a soaring chorus that's backed by a nice string line. That addition makes it more than the usual U2 song, where that role would be taken by guitars. The song ends with a great call and response song with Bono singing over the previous chorus. It's a really catchy, majestic song and boads well for their upcoming album.


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Battlestar Galactica - 'Hero' (3x08)

I read the basic description of this episode online a couple of days ago, and instantly my expectations declined. The long lost friend returns storyline is in the same family as the lost lost sibling returns bit I discussed yesterday in my review of Rescue Me. And it always feels off when they try to retroactively insert said character into the show's continuity. This episode wasn't as bad as I feared, but it didn't transcend the premise.

The weird thing about BSG is how it often feels like multiple different shows. During the dark times of season two, all we got was the Lee show, about a heroic soldier fighting to save people despite his personal issues. I'm not a fan of that show, nor am I a fan of the military procedural that many episodes fall into. Scenes in the CIC are rarely memorable and I really hope we never see another botched Viper training mission. I'm generally indifferent towards this stuff, but when the show focuses on the cylon ship, or Sharon's troubles aboard Galactica, it's riveting. The New Caprica storyline worked so well because it cut out the fat of the boring procedural stuff and made every single moment of each episode into something exciting. But, now we're back to the divided structure, and that means that each episode is less satisfying.

Now, I do think this standalone story was well done. I was caught up in what was happening and all the emotional beats worked. The best part was the glimpse at the fleet pre-cylon invasion. Because the Galactica is all we've seen, it's tough to get a feel for how retro this technology is. But, seeing the Valkyrie brought things into contrast, that was a much nicer ship. And it was interesting to explore the mindset of pre-invasion humanity, tiptoeing around the sleeping giant that is the cylon fleet.

However, these good bits don't make up for the fact that this isn't particularly unique or compelling subject matter. The show has done stuff that's so much better, it's a bit disappointing to resort to a tired cliche like this. And, the cylons' plan relies a lot on coincidence. It's one of those things that makes sense as it unfolds, but retroactively is pretty questionable. Maybe they just got tired of keeping him on board so they decided to give this a go.

I do like the comment the show made about military heroism, the fact that every soldier has to do awful things, but they must leave this behind and present a heroic front for the public to believe in. However, I take issue with Adama's resignation attempt, which was way too melodramatic. And, combined with last week, we're getting into a pattern where the show threatens to disrupt the status quo, then Roslin and Adama get together to make this problem go away and return everything to normal. Consequences are the stuff that serial drama is made of, we need some more on the show.

While this took up the vast majority of the episode, it was all eclipsed by the thoroughly bizarre and fantastic storyline on the cylon ship. D'Anna's first dream had me pondering "What the fuck?" and the wakeup into an apparent threesome with Baltar and Six did not stop that pondering. I'm unclear what exactly was real, but I take it that was and it's a fascinating development out of last week's stuff. I get the feeling there was more sex in there, but it was deleted. It's notable that she seeks Gaius's love, but he remains curled up with Six. She is still outside of that.

When she dies, I believe she returns to the space that Gaius and Six were at in the first season finale. IIRC, the music in that scene was the same as we hear here. If that is the same place, that would imply that head six hails from the place that exists between cylon life and death. This would further the idea that she is a messenger from God, or at least from the cylon God.

Beyond the plot stuff, these scenes were some of the most exciting filmmaking I've ever seen on television. The dissolves and disorienting subjectivity are near avant garde in their devotion to pure emotion and image over narrative comprehensibility. Inland Empire is the only thing I've seen this year that matches the craziness of the cylon ship sequences.

I really hope there's more of this storyline next episode. With no lines for Baltar, Six or Sharon this week, the show's definitely at a disadvantage. I just wish Ron Moore could better see where the show's strengths lie. Olmos may be a great actor, and maybe this was the attempt to give him an Emmy episode, but forget about that, this was a tired plot and even well done, it didn't feel fresh. I believe it's a week off next week, but I'm excited to see what the show will be up to when it returns, hopefully not more standalone.