Saturday, December 16, 2006

Babylon 5 - 'Infection' (1x04)

I've heard this is the worst episode of the entire series, which is encouraging on one level because it's not that bad, however, it's still far from good. I do think this is a better episode than 'Soul Taker,' so if that's the all time worst episode, it'll be good for the show's future.

My major problem with the show so far is with the pacing and acting. It is over ten years old, so there's going to be a gap between this and something like Battlestar, but still, the intensity just isn't there. Scenes take longer to unfold than they should and I feel like every episode is about a half hour of story stretched out to fill 45 minutes.

The lackluster acting also contributes to the lack of intensity. There's not as much egregiously bad performance as in the pilot, but the actors don't seem engaged in their roles. Watching Buffy, there were some similar jitters in the first season, but the core four were great actors and helped sell some pretty bad storylines. Here, everyone seems to be reading off cue cards, there's no real emotional depth.

More than any other show, this reminds me of the early days of The X-Files, a show that started around the same time and had some similarly ridiculous episodes in its first season. The thing that made the really bad episodes of that show work was the chemistry between Mulder and Scully, and this show doesn't have an anchor like that.

I'm still intrigued by a lot of the stuff floating around the outskirts, the scene between Garibaldi and Sinclair, talking about their time on Earth Force, was really well done and sets up some potentially interesting stories down the road. That was a moment that could have been truly great, but got bogged down a bit in cliche. I wanted the emotional beats to be more raw, but the characters don't feel real enough for that. The show's very static, restrained shooting style doesn't give us access to the characters' emotions in the same way that Battlestar Galactica's hectic verite does. These people act like they're on sets, putting on a show. The BSG characters do their own thing and the camera struggles to catch up and find those moments of weakness when they're alone.

More generally, I'm hoping that there's not too many more of these random alien shows up and kills people episodes. Considering the show's set on a space station, there's bound to be some of them, but this episode didn't do much that wasn't already done in 'Soul Taker.'

So, if this is the worst of it, I'm glad to be through, and hopefully things will pick up soon. The show is definitely stronger when Londo and G'Kar are on, they have a lot more will and emotion, an energy that the human characters just aren't bringing. Hopefully they'll turn up in the next episode, and hopefully it'll be better.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Battlestar Galactica - 'The Eye of Jupier' (3x11)

This was a great start to a story, but it's very difficult to evaluate it without any resolution, and this episode gave us nothing in the way of that, just a whole bunch of cliffhangers. The episode is definitely an improvement over the past few, but still pales in comparison to the season opening New Caprica arc.

Watching this season has seen a nearly week to week reversal of my opinion about the series. Towards the end of season two, the show was really drifting and it was only the back to back combo of Downloaded and the fantastic season ending cliffhanger that kept me with it. However, this year's season premiere completely bowled me over. The next two didn't stop, I'd consider Exodus II the best episode the show's ever done. So, where do they go from there? Sadly, it's been something of a retreat to conservatism, exactly what I feared after watching Collaborators. With the exception of the wonderfullly evocative Torn, there's been very little that couldn't have happened in seasons one or two. The resolution of Torn was good, but nowhere near what it could have been, and Hero was another weak episode. I did enjoy Unfinished Business, but last week's episode was one of the weakest the series has ever done. Into this schizophrenic season, we get a midseason finale that's good, but left me wanting more. I suppose that's what a cliffhanger is supposed to do, it's just that this was more me wanting more because very little actually happened, rather than wanting to see the resolution of what did happen.

The basic structure of the episode reminds me of a classic X-Files mythology episode, in which Mulder and Scully would race against the government to find some object that is the "key to everything," inevitably resulting in a standoff that's resolved after the cliffhanger, at which point the object is promptly forgotten and everyone moves on. The Eye of Jupiter is a basic macguffin, setting up the conflict between the cylons and the humans, even though we're never clear exactly what it's role in the overall scheme of things is, or even what the actual object is. Basically, it's there and everyone wants it. That's all we need to know.

There is a lot of interesting stuff in the episode, and if they deliver on what's been set up, this could be one of the stronger stories they've ever done. The best stuff here involves, as usual, the cylons and their uneasy relations with the humans. While I love the Baltar on the cylon ship stuff, I think the show thrives in the tension between humans and cylons. When the two groups are interacting it's great, but alone, they each drift away from excitement and get caught up in irrelevant issues. That conflict is the core of the show, so it's good to keep it front and center.

That's why I love the scene where Baltar and the Cylon party go to the Galactica. I was missing Dean Stockwell, despite all the time on the cylon ship, we haven't gotten to know the cylon men in greater depth. However, Dean brings such wonderful weirdness, any scene he's in is going to be entertaining. He may have been laying it on a little thick here, but it made for a fun scene, and the show can always use a burst of bizarreness. I was feeling a bit of Ben from Blue Velvet seeping into that scene. Baltar's total unease at being caught between the cylons and humans is also great. He's best when he's groveling, so it's good to see him back in that position. He's still one of the show's most fascinating characters and this episode is the best material he's gotten all season.

The other great scene with him is the farewell to Caprica, as he and D'Anna go off to pursue their destiny. I'm really curious to see what this leads to, the buildup's been great, but it'll be difficult to come up with a meaningful reveal for the identities of the five cylons. But, if there's been this much buildup, I'm sure there must be an interesting revelation coming up down the line.

Elsewhere, there's the wonderful scene with the two Sharons. It's one of the first times we've see dialogue between two identical cylon models and it feels odd. I'll say that cylon Boomer Sharon is definitely looking hotter, and seeing her standing near Hera back on the cylon ship was a well done odd moment. We're aware that Sharon is Hera's mother, but this isn't that Sharon, yet it looks just like her.

That said, I feel like the revelation Hera's alive was pretty badly botched. Now, maybe they're building up to bigger consequences in the future, but, for one, I felt like there was a scene deleted that set up the conversation between Adama and Helo/Sharon. But more importantly, where was the emotion from either of them, I feel like this should have been something shocking and they just take it. Now, maybe there'll be a big breakdown in the future, but Sharon put all her faith in these people, was willing to condemn her people to genocide and they completely betrayed her. Now, there's a lot of potentially interesting stuff that could happen if she goes back to the cylon ship, but I feel like the initial emotional reaction could have been played up more.

The other major thing that happened in this episode was the Lee/Kara love quadrangle. I think Unfinished Business was a great episode, but the treatment of the issues here was a bit too soapy. Kara doesn't seem like someone who'd care about getting divorced, so I would argue she's just trying to keep Lee at a distance, and not have to deal with potentially getting married. However, it's still a bit contrived to bring them all together here. That said, I am glad to see a followup on that plot thread, since the episode to episode continuity had been slipping a bit recently.

On the visual front, the algae planet was very cool looking, I still enjoy the heavily color corrected look they use for the different planets they encounter. The stuff on Galactica seemed a bit clearer than usual. The real visual knockout of the episode was the shots of the baseship in the pink/black clouds, very striking stuff. The FX just keep getting better.

One of the biggest issues that's developed over the course of the season is the fact that Adama and Roslin have become different aspects of the same exact character. The early parts of the show were largely based around their conflict, but now we don't have any sort of argument within the fleet itself. Tom Zarek hasn't been on in a while and we really need that oppositional voice to keep things on edge. Maybe someone on the show could step up, or else bring in a new character.

More generally, they need to commit to stronger continuity between episodes and less of these obviously throwaway standalone episodes. It's okay to do the occasional standalone, but don't stack them all together, that's what's going to make people criticize the show. It's still great, but I haven't been blown away by it in a while, I'm hoping the resolution to this episode will do that, but we'll have to wait a month to find out.

Kamikaze Girls

This film is a fine example of what I call Pop Cinema, movies where the narrative exists primarily as a structure from which the filmmaker can indulge in a variety of stylistic flights of fancy. One of the finest examples of this is Run Lola Run, a movie that also blends animation and fractured chronology to tell its story. However, Kamikaze Girls has a bit more heart than Lola, using its style to enhance the story of Momoko and Ichiko.

The film's opening establishes the mood right off, a hyper animated sequence segues into Momoko on the bike, music blaring, camera moving all around, stopping only for freeze frames for the credits. The use of freeze frame is really striking here, a very pop move, bringing instant cool to the proceedings. The font is also great. I love a film that starts right off with something cool, and the crash into the watermelon truck does that, the beautiful footage of Momoko drifting through the air pondering her life moving us into the opening chunk of the film, which chronicles Momoko's history. The images here, in brilliantly exaggerated slow motion, are really striking.

The subsequent accounting of history uses some techniques I've seen before, the direct address, acknowledgement of the camera, speeded up storytelling, etc. aren't all original tactics, but they work well in context. Again, you could say these techniques have been used before or are gimmicky, but the so called 'normal' techniques for exposition have been used a lot more. As I said with reference to Friday Night Lights' visual style, it's ridiculous to accuse something that breaks from the norm of being gimmicky because the norm itself is a construction. It may not work, but what I find most boring now is a film that sticks to strict classical continuity rather than using all the possibilities of film to tell its story.

These opening sequence definitely uses all film has to offer. I'm curious about the bleeping out of Versace, was that just on the American DVD or was it a reference to the fact that the clothes aren't really Versace? I'm not sure what's up there. I really liked the flashbacks to the Rococo period, a ridiculously idolized depiction constructed in Momoko's mind. She doesn't necessarily want the reality of what things were like then as much as the fantasy her mind has built out of what she's read.

That sequence in particular, but the whole film in general has a lot of thematic simmilarities with Marie Antoinette. Both films use a character's ridiculous consumption as a way of exploring their emotional shortcomings. For Marie, consumption became a means of rebellion, the only way to assert her own identity in the strict world of the court. For Momoko, fashion becomes a way of defining herself, creating her own special world that's more exciting than the poverty she actually lives in. I like the fact that the film doesn't have her grow beyond consumption, it doesn't work for everybody, but in her case, it seems that all she really wants to do is wear these ornate clothes and enjoy being seen in them. That is the best way for her to express her self identity, and the film presents it without the expected growht beyond that. She has the chance to become a designer, but she'd rather just wear the clothes. Ichigo says that as a designer she could stop others from having to stop at Jusco, but I feel like Momoko needs Jusco, if they didn't exist, she wouldn't have a normal to define herself against.

The core of the film is the relationship between Ichiko and Momoko, and the way that they each push each other outside their comfortable behavior patterns. I really like Ichiko's 'origin' sequence, the moment where Akimi shows her a vision of what she could be. Both girls are trying to live up a fantasy image they have constructed, even as the world around them tries to force them into conformity. The final confrontation at the end makes it quite literal. The other bikers try to force Ichiko to accept their rule and live by their behavior patterns. But, Momoko fights back, and in a great display of ferocity, points out the way that they have become the very society they were trying to escape from, trapped by their own rules and power structures.

The film is primarily about the power of subculture to provide an outlet for imagining for young people. High school is an oppressive place where everyone must dress the same and do the same, so in their own time, Momoko and Ichiko are able to create fantasy personas, outlets for their dreams and desires. The reason they become friends is exactly because they are so different, and the difference between them makes it easier for each to express their individuality.

Much like a Wong Kar-Wai film, this is more about moments than a strict linear narrative. My favorite segment of the film is the 16mm footage of the two of them around the city. Taking them out of the glossy sheen of the regular film makes their difference from the norm more apparent. Momoko looks pretty ridiculous at times, but you forget about it as you're watching. Seeing it in the more 'real' view of the 16 footage makes it apparent again. I'm always railing against film, promoting digital, but in this case, the 16 is essential to making the sequence work. The problem with 16 to me is that it always winds up looking the same. Your look is the look of the film, which can work. But, you have less control. In this case, shooting on film gave them the perfect look for the sequence, but it wouldn't stand out if the whole film was shot like that.

I also really love the part at the train station in the rain, where Momoko offers to make Ichiko the embroidery. It reminds me of a similar scene in Three Times. Another cool bit is the 50s inspired sequences in the Pachinko parlor with Ryuji, the music there is fantastic. The denouement to that storyline, where Ichiko cries, is a great moment too. Throughout the film, the music does a fantastic job of pushing the emotional point the filmmakers were going for. The songs are great in their own right and also fit nicely with the energy of the film.

In the end, the film shows how Momoko can open her world to others without compromising her values, and the same's true for Ichiko. In terms of narrative, the film isn't particularly groundbreaking, but it's so stylish and fun, it's just a really enjoyable viewing experience. I sometimes wonder whether I'd like a movie like this if it was set in America. Certainly part of the enjoyment is seeing a different culture and its odd subcultures, but I feel like I would still really enjoy it if it was an American film. However, I seriously doubt I'd go to see it, just because teen movies here are usually so bad, a good pop gem like this would slip through the cracks.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Weekend Update

Golden Globe Noms: Movies

I'm not thrilled with the Golden Globe nominations, I haven't even seen most of the films in the major categories. I haven't seen the film, but I seriously doubt The Queen is one of the best films of the year, there's a widely increasing gap between films that are actually good and the ones that receive the year end awards. That said, I really want to see Babel, Little Children and Volver. I'm back in New York tomorrow, the first screening will be a re-view of Inland Empire, and after that I'll hopefully get to some of these other films.

Golden Globe Noms: TV

24 definitely deserves its best series nomination, but The Sopranos and Battlestar Galactica are pretty grievously missing. Heroes is decent, but it doesn't come close to either of those shows, or Friday Night Lights. The acting nominations are pretty solid though.

The Year End Review

Starting in a week or so, I'll start posting my year end review stuff, top tens for TV, music and film. I've still got some screenings/listenings to get in, there's a lot of good stuff out there this year so it won't be easy to narrow things down. There's definitely going to be some different stuff on my lists than you'll see elsewhere, so stay tuned for that.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Friday Night Lights - 'It's Different For Girls' (1x10)

After watching the first nine episodes of the show in a couple of days, it was tough to wait the week for this new one. The show is so easy to watch in multi-episode chunks, it's tough to scale back to just one a week, and I'm not sure of the schedule, but there probably won't even be another new one until late January. That's tough, but at least the show got a full season pickup, and a new timeslot could help get some more viewers.

This episode focuses on Lyla and the cruelty she faces as a result of her dalliance with Tim. The classroom commentary on the difference between male "fertilizers" and female "seed growers" was a bit on the nose, but generally, the story was handled well. The website is definitely something that would happen in real life, and, as the title says, the difference between the treatment Lyla received and the treatment Tim received is very telling. I don't get why women are usually the ones who are first to call someone a slut, why should you care so much about what someone does? Obviously men do it too, and it's just cruel that our society has those values.

I think her turnaround was a bit too quick, but that's one of the necessities of episodic television. Stories need to fit themselves into these 45 minute chunks, and even though in real life what would happen is things would just gradually quiet down, here we need some kind of dramatic punctuation to the story. Her assertion of confidence at the competition provides that punch to the end of the story. It's tricky to balance the need to keep something realistic, and lasting, without making it feel prolonged. Lately, Battlestar Galactica has gone way too far towards the set up and resolve in one episode, at least this storyline was built up over a few episodes before it go the spotlight. That's one of the great things about serialized television, the ability to let stuff simmer then come to the surface. My main issue with recent BSG is that there's no simmering, everything occurs in standalone episodes.

The resolution itself is fantastic for all the conflicting emotions. Tim, having realized the error of his ways too late, is now helping out both Jason and Lyla, inadvertantly driving the two of them back together. The moment where he sees Jason in the stands is wonderful, it's not dwelt upon, but we know exaclty what he feels. That's well done visual storytelling, one shot conveying a wealth of emotions, particularly the juxtaposition of Tim's realization that he will never have a chance with her with Jason's rediscovering of his feelings about her. I complained before that this storyline had a bit of a soapy feel, but this episode didn't at all, it was much more restrained and realistic.

On his own, Jason continues to have a lot of interesting stuff. Most TV dramas have set storylines that they draw on, but I've never seen anything like this extended spinal injury recovery storyline. The scene with the lawyer is great, the Streets realizing that they could make some easy money off this, while Jason struggles with the moral consequences of suing the coach. The race with the kid is well done too. Though I hope he stays in touch with the rehab crew now that he's back at home. I'm assuming they'll show up in the future at some wheelchair sports.

The other major storyline dealt with Coach Taylor's continuing struggle with his daughter dating Matt. There's a lot of funny stuff here, particularly him continually referring to Landry as Lance, as well as him miscorrecting Matt ("It's Julie and me. Common mistake.") I don't think anything reaches the level of the Members Only exchange from the last episode, but it's still great. It's particularly fun to watch Matt turned into a pawn for Julie and Eric's familial conflict. He just seems befuddled most of the time, as he struggles to stay on good terms with both of them. The blanket scene is another classic, perfectly exemplifying Coach Taylor's ridiculousness when it comes to dealing with Matt and Julie.

Elsewhere, Smash continues to drift closer to some kind of breakdown. I'm not sure wheter they'll go for the obvious, he gets caught and suspended storyline, or for the more subtle, he decides to quit and finds his game suffering, tempting him back to the steroids. Both have great dramatic potential, but I would go for the latter, forcing the character to suffer in silence and again deal with the fact that he just might not be good enough. For someone so totally confident in himself, that's the most painful thing to experience.

The show continues to work great visually. The texture of the image is unique in television and the camera movement/zooms do a great job of drawing our attention to specific, important parts of the frame. The cheerleading competition is a great example of visual storytelling, giving us everything we need to know with glances. I don't think there's one line of dialogue in the final sequence, but we still understand what every character is feeling.

More generally, I think having Tami work as a guidance counselor was a great plot choice. Having all the characters clustered in the same place can make things feel incestuous or claustrophobic, as in Buffy season seven. But, it works here because it allows us to see two adult viewpoints on the goings on at the school, and in contrasting Tami and Eric's thoughts on what's happening, we get a more nuanced picture of the school environment. I'm not sure if people actually do go and break down and cry at the guidance counselor's office, when I was in high school, the guidance counselor was pretty much exclusively about getting you into college, but maybe it's different elsewhere. In this case, Lyla was at a breaking point, looking for someone to unload her emotions on, and Tami offered her that chance. But, having this kind of thing happen too often could push things into melodrama.

I think it'll be interesting if the show goes into a third or fourth season, when this generation of kids moves on, but the adult figures stay behind. Tim isn't likely to make it out of the town, so he could stay on the show, and it's not that tough to keep the rest of the cast close, but will we see the introduction of a whole new generation of players? I'm not sure if the show will make it that long, but it's a problem that a show like Freaks and Geeks never had to resolve. This one is even more complex because we're not invested in the characters, we're invested in the 'team,' and how interesting will the team be if all the players leave? Obviously I hope the show keeps going for many seasons, but it's going to be tricky to work it out. I've always felt that there was a lot of potential drama in showing high schoolers going off to college and building new social systems, while still maintaining the old ones. The issue then becomes you wind up with a massive amount of characters, and not enough time to spotlight them all.

But that's down the line, for now the show is rolling along, and this was a fantastic episode. This is easily the best new show of the season.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Miami Vice: Redux

I already reviewed it back in July, but I just watched the film again on DVD, and I've got to say, if you not have seen this movie, get the disc and watch it. It's on the level of The New World or Wong Kar-Wai in terms of using visuals and music to construct an incredible film narrative. Mann's world is a bit harsher than either Malick's or Wong's, but there are also moments of such incredible beauty.

Watching it on DVD, the DV photography looks even better, particularly in the city scenes, which are absolutely awe inspiring in their seemingly endless progression of lights. The camera moves in a fluid, very emotional way, never more so than in the sequences with Sonny and Isabella in Cuba. Starting with the phenomenal boat scene, we get one beautiful sequence after another, culminating in the shadowy, perfectly lit sex scene. I love the lighting throughout, stylish but not stylized. Mann finds the beauty in the world, rather than trying to bring something into it that's not there.

The skillful narrative construction is also more apparent on the revisit. He uses a lot of Soderbergh style multi-location cutting to convey information in the film's opening chunk, and similar work is done in the ending, giving us just enough to get to the emotional core of the story.

That core is the Isabella/Sonny relationship, and that makes the film. I love the scene in Jose's nightclub where they dance close, oblivious to the fact that this dance is putting them both in danger. It's just the two of them. The most heartbreaking moment in the film is the ending, Isabella on the boat, moving away from Sonny. Their eyes stay locked as she moves away, but when she's outside of sight, he turns away and goes back to his life. We then see her, still looking to the land. She turns around, and in that moment, she have given up everything she knows. The man she loves has ruined her life and now she's alone.

But, that's business. This thing happened between them, and then they must move on. In Mann's films, the personal is always sublimated to the professional, and nowhere is that pain more apparent than in those final moments. The music builds, Sonny walks into the hospital, he's back on the job and that brief escape into another identity is left as nothing but a dream.

This is an astonishingly beautiful film, and more than any other, makes a strong case for the potential superiority of digital to traditional film. But, it's not just the camera, it's what Mann does with it, allowing the visual landscapes to convey character emotion. When Sonny and Isabella are in the boat, he belts her in, then we move out to a wide, swooping helicopter shot following the boat in its smooth course over the water. I love the moment when he buckles her, we see her as a strong woman, not used to this kind of treatment, he's a bit too gruff, but they each appreciate the other. When he's returning from Cuba, the smooth waters are gone, it's rough and the boat hops over every wave, struggling to return.

Another shot I absolutely love is Isabella getting off the plane. Mann gives his people fantastic sunglasses, and Gong Li has never looked better than she does walking down that staircase towards Sonny. Their frazzled encounter in the back of the car after that tells us everything we need to know about their love, it's passionate, it's fast, and it can't last.

This film is a world you slip into. Yes, there's a story, but it's more about getting lost in the undercover world, the glamour and the dirt. In doing so, Mann makes unique use of the power of cinema not to tell a story, but to instead convey a feeling, and he does it incredibly well.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Battlestar Galactica - 'The Passage' (3x10)

When talking about Collaborators, I talked with concern about the fact that the episode seemed designed to return the show to the status quo. The next couple of episodes dispelled that for me, but this is another off episode, marking two out of the last three that just weren't very good. This slumping back to the status quo is even more noticable placed against the groundbreaking, phenomenal opening run of the season. I had no desire to see any more of these standalone military episodes involving jumps and keeping the fleet together, and I was hoping that we were done with this kind of stuff after the second season jump forward in time. However, we're back in first season territory with this one, an episode with a story I feel like I've seen twelve times already.

The show is frequently frustrating because there's such a dichotomy between the good episodes and the bad ones. The first four episodes of this season were as good as anything that's ever been on television, just phenomenally intense storytelling. And then an episode like this doesn't even have a chance of hitting those peaks. In serialized storytelling, there's bound to be peaks and valleys, but with so many potentially interesting storylines to tackle, why come up with the spotlight, then kill for Kat, backed by this lame, out of nowhere food crisis. The food crisis could produce some good storylines, but this didn't expand much on similar episodes we'd seen before involving a water crisis and other issues with moving the fleet.

In the main storyline, there were a couple of good moments. I really liked Kara giving her the sleeping pills and the awkward farewell as she knew Kat was going to die. And, the wall of pictures still holds a lot of power, but it felt like a contrived attempt to create emotion, the story didn't earn it.

So, I was basically waiting for them to get back to Baltar and the cylons. There we get some interesting progress, though I was left wanting more. We get the setup for a showdown on this planet, between humans and cylons, setting the stage for the big midseason finale. They always find a way to bring the show's quality back for the beginning and endings of seasons, it's just a matter of keeping the consistency, and this episode is so obvious weak and misguided, you're basically watching just for hints about what will come next week.