Thursday, December 07, 2006

Weekend Update

Inland Empire Released

It came out in New York on Wednesday. If you haven't already read it, I reviewed the film back in October in non-spoiler and spoiler variety. If you have seen the film, I'd love to talk more about it, it's nice to see a Lynch film before the critical consesus about it has emerged, to invent the theories that will one day guide viewers. I'll be going back for a second viewing as soon I return to New York, which should be in a week or so. And, I just have to add that it's cool to be the top Google search result for "Inland Empire explanation."

Upcoming Viewing/Reading

I'm still reading through the second TPB of Ellis' Stormwatch. The series just isn't very good. Once that's done, I'll be reading, and reviewing, Alan Moore's Lost Girls. In terms of TV, I'm caught up on Friday Night Lights, next I'm going to watch season three of Rescue Me. I left my first season of Babylon 5 at home, so I can't start that again until next week, but after that I should go through it fairly quickly, and will be reviewing as I go. I've also got I'm Alan Partridge coming in. I haven't written about many films lately, largely because I haven't seen much worth writing about. But, when something comes along, it'll be on here.

Awards Buzz

The National Board of Review named Letters From Iwo Jima the best film of the year. I haven't seen it, but come on, the war movie was exhausted with Apocalypse Now, and Clint just isn't that good a filmmaker. Of all the best picture contenders, the only one I'm a big fan of is The Departed. But, I've still got to see Babel and I'll probably check out Dreamgirls when it drops.

Buffy Comic

I read this interview with Joss about the upcoming Buffy comic. I'd rather have seen the character movies he mentioned here, but at least the comic will be something. I'm not sure I like the idea that the Buffy seen in Angel's 'The Girl in Question' isn't the real Buffy, I liked the idea that she had left behind her responsibility and was just having fun for once. The Buffy in the comic seems to be an extension of season seven grim leader Buffy, the least interesting she ever was on the series. I hated the idea of the army of slayers then, and I don't think it's a good idea to put Buffy with a bunch of random people rather than her friends, the characters we've followed through the series. I'm going to be open minded, but it was the personal dynamic that interested me more than the big action stuff on the series, that's why season six was the show's best.

Friday Night Lights (1x02-1x07)

After a fantastic pilot, the show keeps up the intensity and visual mystique, even as it falls into some well worn patterns of serial drama. In the pilot review, I talked about the way that recent debut episodes have totally raised the game in terms of visual and narrative progression, creating fully formed narrative universes in a television hour. But, after building this universe, where is there left to go?

In terms of presentation, the show's kept the very dynamic, verite visual style of the first episode. The handheld camera work brings our eyes right to the most important part of the frame, telling the story in glances and body language. I think this kind of camerawork can really help actors because it allows us them to just perform without worrying so much about how to emphasize what they're doing to the camera. A traditionally shot show necessitates a somewhat theatrical performance, with the actor catering to the audience in a set location. This show goes in a more dogme direction, allowing the action to happen and just catching it with the camera. I'm sure there's still a lot of planning and blocking, but you get the feeling of spotaneity, and that's what matters most. It's hard to keep this level of stylization on a weekly basis, but, with the exceptin of Battlestar Galactica, this is the most interesting looking show on television now.

That said, I do miss some of the nonverbal storytelling of the pilot. Now, with more responsibility to advance the plot arcs, the drifting shots of the town and silent focus on the people has largely gone by the wayside. There's always some interesting musical moments in the episode, but the focus on visual storytelling that was present in the pilot just isn't there. I may not be in the majority here, but I'd rather see a slower paced show that emphasizes the visual than one that rushes through stories. I find it annoying that people constantly criticize shows for moving too slow, particularly Heroes and BSG, then rush to say they're not as good as they used to be. It's not a race, events are more meaningful if they build, and we get to know the characters.

Buffy season six and Six Feet Under season three, arguably the two greatest seasons of television ever, both have a slow build structure, totally immersing us in the characters' troubles and then blowing everything up at the end. 'I'm Sorry, I'm Lost' isn't the best episode of the series solely because of what happens, it works so well because we've been immersed in what's Nate feeling, and are able to completely understand what he's going through in that moment. Sure, there may be a few slow episodes earlier in the season, but if you're going to approach a TV show as one big story, there's got to be slower parts. So, rather than filling the slow parts with circular narrative stopgaps, just focus on the visuals and the world and just relax in the characters' presence. Certainly by the end of Buffy, it wasn't the narrative moments that made the show work, it was hanging out with characters I'd come to love. If there was a follow up Buffy project, I wouldn't want a big bad, I'd rather see a Before Sunset type thing, with the characters just being together and reflecting on their lives.

But, that's a digression. This show isn't to that point yet, though the characters are becoming more interesting and developed. Saracen is probably my favorite, a goofy guy who probably just played football to make his dad happy is now thrust into the ultimate position of power in the town. His basic conflict is his reluctance to fully move into the football players' world. These are the people he's mocked all his life, and most notably in 'El Accidente,' we see that he knows this glory is fleeting. He's not going to go pro, and it's tough for him to get caught up in things when he knows that it will all end in a couple of years.

That's the spectre hanging over every character on the show, the knowledge that this is probably the high point of their lives. As we see with the former state champion quarterback, it's a lot tougher on the college level, they lose the chance for uncomplicated glory they have in Dillon. And, after those couple of years on top, the fall will be harsh. In the scenes with the team, there's the inevitable knowledge that the people there next year will be a very different crew, the coaches stay, but the kids move on, and that's the way of things in high school, football and otherwise. I think it must be weird being a teacher, staying in the same place, while those you teach move on to different things. When you're in class, you're unaware of the fact that the teacher has done this many times before, and with a few exceptions, you're probably not that special a class. Go back in ten years and who's going to remember you? Certainly not the students, everything changes, and soon no one who remembers you even works at the school.

Anyway, back to Saracen, he's the axis through which we can see both inside and outside the football machine. His friend, Landry, is simultaneously reveling in his connections to the football team and worried that Saracen will fully assimilate into their world and leave him behind. So far, that hasn't happened, but it's not easy for Saracen to navigate this world. On top of that, there's the trouble with his grandmother, the kind of realistic touch you usually don't see in TV. He's got so much going on, it's excusable when he doesn't give his all on the field.

Along with this heavier stuff, there is some humor. Saracen's almost painful awkwardness is very true to life. I love the scene where Coach Taylor tells him to take some girl in the backseat, and then realizes he was talking about his daughter. Because the show is so realistic otherwise, they can get away with what might be broad humor on another show. In comedy, I find it's always funnier to do a realistic universe. Cheech and Chong smoking pot, not particularly funny. Lester Burnham, straight laced businessman, smoking up is hilarious becuase it violates the code of the world he lives in, and does so in a realistic manner. The scene where Saracen asks Julie out works really well because he's so awkward and unconfident, saying "I'm just throwing it out there." You're simultaneously laughing at his lack of confidence and realizing that you'd be doing the same thing, or at least I would be.

A more troubling plotline is the relationship between Lyla and Tim. It plays fairly well, but comes off a bit too soapish. The Saracen stuff seems to take place in the real world, but they're from TV reality. It's very difficult to do a story like this without desending into melodrama. For me, the most realistic kind of writing is when characters don't do or say what they want. So, having Lyla say "I'm sleeping with my paralyzed boyfriend's best friend" may be designed to hit the nail on the head, but it winds up feeling a bit melodramatic. That said, the section where they go out on the boat is wonderful, Jason's lack of knowledge coupled with our knowledge makes his happiness painful, and just when we're thinking that maybe it can work, he finds out what's going on.

In general, the Jason storyline has been well handled. The best moment was definitely when he saw the wheelchair basketball, and for the first time was able to recover some of his hope. I like the way he makes no progress before that, but after is working on improving. Now, you could argue he's recovering too fast, but I think it makes sense. This is a guy who was in peak physical shape, if anyone can come back quick, he can. All it took was the will. The other great thing about this is the mix of pain and happiness he feels when with the team. The scene when he rolls out onto the field really conveys this mixed emotion, as does the locker room scene after that.

Elsewhere, Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor continues to own the screen. They've done a good job of allowing him to totally buy into what they're doing, but still keep a bit of distance. He's torn between Buddy and his wife, between the idea of winning as the number one priority and football as something help the kids grow up into better people. This is the core tension of the show, and it was hit on a bit obviously in 'El Acidente.' I think the show is good enough that they don't need to spell things out in the way that episode did. Like in Battlestar Galactica, any time an episode too obviously tackles a theme, it comes off false. It's better to let things play out as subtext, the show is good enough that we get what they're doing.

So, in general I'm thrilled with the direction of the show. The few hiccups along the way don't detract from the way the series has created a very unique world that's unlike anything I've seen before on TV. I'm not a big football fan and I usually hate stuff about the middle of the country, but the show completely won me over. This is easily the best new show of the season, and one of the best on TV right now.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Best Album of the Year

2008: Cut Copy- In Ghost Colours
2007: Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
2006: Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
2005: The Raveonettes - Pretty in Black
2004: The Polyphonic Spree - Together We're Heavy
2003: Belle and Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
2002: Doves - The Last Broadast
2001: Daft Punk - Discovery
2000: Phoenix - United
1999: Mr. Bungle - California
1998: Air - Moon Safari
1997: Radiohead - OK Computer
1996: Belle and Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister
1995: Radiohead - The Bends
1994: Tori Amos - Under the Pink
1993: U2 - Zooropa
1992: Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes
1991: U2 - Achtung Baby
1990: Depeche Mode - Violator
1989: Nine Inch Nails - Pretty Hate Machine
1988: Morrissey - Viva Hate
1987: U2 - The Joshua Tree
1986: The Smiths - The Queen is Dead
1985: The Smiths - Meat is Murder
1984: Prince - Purple Rain
1983: Pink Floyd - The Final Cut
1982: Michael Jackson - Thriller
1981: U2 - October
1980: David Bowie - Scary Monsters and Super Creeps
1979: Pink Floyd - The Wall
1978: Patti Smith - Easter
1977: Pink Floyd - Animals
1976: Electric Light Orchestra - A New World Record
1975: Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
1974: David Bowie - Diamond Dogs
1973: Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
1972: David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
1971: Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV
1970: The Beatles - Let It Be
1969: The Beatles - Abbey Road
1968: The Beatles - The Beatles
1967: The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour
1966: The Beatles - Revolver
1965: The Beatles - Rubber Soul

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Friday Night Lights - Pilot (1x01)

I'd heard good things about this show back when it debuted, but I was busy watching a whole bunch of other shows. Now that most stuff is going on post sweeps hiatus I figured it was time to take a look, and after one episode, I'm totally wowed. I've mentioned before that in recent years, the quality of pilots has improved a lot, a lot of shows are coming out of the gate fully formed, which just wasn't true ten years ago. In some cases, such as Studio 60 or Lost, the pilot is the series highpoint, and I'm hoping that's not the case in Friday Night Lights, because this pilot is one of the best starts to a series I've seen.

Now, I haven't seen the film the show was based on, so maybe this seems so well formed because it ha the movie to draw from. But, as a new viewer, I was really impressed by the show's use of art cinema style and documentary conventions to create a reality. The show this is closest to is Battlestar Galactica, which has a similar handheld style, making frequent use of zooms and cuts to give the feeling that this is really happening and we're trying to keep up and follow the action. I love this style of filmmaking, to some extent it's become a cliche denoter of realism, but it's nowhere near as cliche as the classical Hollywood conventions that govern most shows. People still have this mindset that shot/reverse shot, wide/close dynamics are the way film should be, and anything else is gimmicky. That simply isn't true, the style used here works really well with the material and does make it feel real.

The standout scenes in terms of this are the diner scene and the party scene. There, we cut between a variety of narrative strands, hearing snippets of conversation then moving forward to something else. In this pilot, rather than trying to specifically develop the characters, the goal seems to be to give you a portrait of the town. So, we meet a variety of people who demonstrate the values of this town. It is an economically depressed area that has largely been left behind, and the one uniting force in the town is the football team. It transcends high school to define existence for all these people. That's certainly weird to see, and the show does a good job of getting you into this world without an outside point of view. To some extent, the news crew is used to give some quick exposition, but generally we're allowed to just view the world on its own terms. I like the fact that no one is there to question their values, instead that act of questioning is left up to the viewer.

I've talked a lot about how TV has surpassed film in many ways. This show is shot better than the vast majority of movies out there. It has the dynamic energy of indie films like My Summer of Love, where the emphasis is largely on creating visual moments rather than conveying all the details of a story. I love the music, and the silent moments where the camera drifts down the street. The radio show is another great conceit, an omnipresent voice pressuring the coach. One of the coolest sequences was the silent practice with the peewee team, which segued into the locker room prayer. I was surprised to see them pray, and I think that's something deliberately designed to confront blue state viewers with the differences of this world.

This all leads up to the game itself. The pacing here is pretty quick and the one thing that struck me as off was just showing the touchdowns. But, once Street gets hit, everything slows down and we get a much better sense of the reality of this moment. I think it's a great testament to the show that for all its art cinema flourishes, it still provides the basic narrative tension that engrosses you in the action. The problem with doing this sort of subtle character development is that it sometimes means distancing the audience. At the same time, using tired editing techniques just to build tension is too transparent. Here, the presentation is so strong, I was on some level aware I was being manipulated, but I just didn't care. When Saracen is given the ball, I really wanted him to succeed. I love the juxtaposition of Street being cut out of his football stuff, really nasty stuff, with the triumph on the field. There's this very quick shift of emotions, and when that final pass is up in the air, you can tell that in that moment, everyone in the stands has forgotten about Street, they just want someone to catch the ball.

But, that moment of triumph is quickly undercut, first with another prayer, and then with the tense ending at the hospital. And that's the sign of a good series, the ability to make you care so much about what happens in the moment, and also realize that, in the long run, it's rather insignificant.

I thought this pilot was fantastic. It created an entire world, with a very distinct mood and feel in only one episode. The characters weren't developed in the traditional TV way, but I already have a sense of them, and I'm curious to see how things develop. There's a lot of potential here, and I'll definitely catch up on all that's aired in the next couple of weeks.