Saturday, December 23, 2006

Best of 2006: Top Ten Songs

It's time for another best of list, this one chronicling the top ten songs of the year. I limited it to one song an artist, I'm not sure that there would have been repeats, but just for the sake of mixing it up, I got different groups in here.

10. Scissor Sisters - 'I Don't Feel Like Dancin'

Somewhere on Youtube, I hope there's a Ted Danson fan video using this song. It sounds like a fusion of Elton John and the Beegees, a song so infectious and catchy, just hearing it will actually prevent you from sympathizing with the song's narrator. You will feel like dancing! That was an awful start to this countdown. Anyway, the song's string line is fantastic, mixing perfectly with the falsetto vocal. That said, my favorite part is the instrumental breakdown, and the smooth transition back into the verse.

9. The Pipettes - Pull Shapes

Yes, they're a rather gimmicky band, and yes, the one with the glasses looks like the most generic indie hipster girl imaginable, but it doesn't matter because their music is so damn catchy. This song is already at fever pitch by the time first vocal comes in, heralded by a swirling ascent of strings. The breakdowns on the "I like to..." part take things down, allowing for greater satisfaction at the full return on the chorus. The 60s was a time of massive symphonic pop songs, and this band is bringing back that tradition. I'd love to see them live at some point, but for now, you can enjoy this Beyond the Valley of the Dolls inspired video.

8. Men, Women and Children - Time for the Future (Bang Bang)

Probably the most obscure song on the countdown for your average blog reader, it's surprsising to me that MW&C never caught on with the blog circuit since their electrodancerock stylings would be right at home on Fluxblog. This song is a driving mix of deep bass and high string line. I love the guitar line underlying the whole song, and the driving build to the robot-sound filled chorus. There's all kinds of crazy stuff going on in here, it's one of the best fusions to date of guitar rock with dance beats. Unfortunately, the only video available is from a poorly shot live performance.

7. Goldfrapp - No. 1

We've covered the 60s, 70s and 00s, let's fill in the 80s. A lot of techno pop albums close out with a slower, more emotional song. No. 1 starts with a warm, really emotional synth line. I don't know what it is, but something about that 80s synth just says feeling to me. I think it comes from the use of Yaz's 'Only You' in both The Office and Fallen Angels. Anyway, this song starts great, with that synth, but it doesn't say in soft mode, a bass comes in and gives the song some energy, making it work for both the lounge and the dancefloor. Alison's vocal is ethereal and beautiful as always.

6. Cansei De Ser Sexy - Music is My Hot Hot Sex

The opening riff has a dark fatalism, casting a shadow over the lighter verses. This builds into the dark, but totally dancable chorus. I love whatever the muted screamlike sound is that's placed throughout the song, and the almost desperate quality of Lovefoxx's vocals. My favorite part is the Portugese breakdown in the middle, a mess of layered vocals over the dark instrumental. There's no official video for the song, but there is a R. Kelly Trapped in the Closet fanvid set to it. So, check that out.

5. Gwen Stefani - Wonderful Life

It's like the 80s song Depeche Mode never made, which is fitting because Martin Gore guests on it. The driving bass is pure Mode, but, much like the New Order collaboration, 'The Real Thing,' her voice, plus an 00s sensibility makes it sound fresh. As I mentioned before, techno pop albums frequently go out with the most emotional song, and this is the dark highlight of her second album. The dark synths hover over everything, but it's the higher pitched synth that comes in for the song's finale, and its contrast with the bassline, that's the real highlight.

4. Justin Timberlake - My Love

It's already been hailed as the best song of the year by a number of sites, and it's easy to see why. The song is instantly memorable, with a catchy chorus and exciting rhythm to the verses. It's not like the verse is a buildup to the chorus, it has a catchiness all its own. There's also a nasty guest rap by T.I. Hearing the song acoustic, it's pretty good, but when you throw on the avant pop synth soundscape of Timbaland, it moves into the realm of all time pop classic. The rising and falling background lines practically dance for you, and the wash of brightness on the chorus is liberating after the busy verses. It's a masterful pop construction.

3. Belle and Sebastian - Sukie in the Graveyard

Speaking of great rising synth lines, this one hooks you with its opening synth riff then builds into the soaring, quick talking verse. There's so many words in here, it's the song with the best lyrics of any this year. And it's also got a nasty guitar solo/instrumental breakdown in the middle. I love the mix of sunny sounds with the dark lyrical subject matter. It all builds to the final chorus, backed by a great trumpet riff. The song always makes me think of Claire from Six Feet Under, and that's a good association.

2. U2 - Window in the Skies

They released two songs this year, and this one stands with the best work they've ever done. 00s U2 managed to fuse the anthemic style of their 80s work with a bit more darkness. Rather than looking out at endless possibilities, it sounds like they've been through some hard stuff, but are going to persevere. I love the string line underscoring the vocal, and the way it builds to an incredible energy release as they hit the chorus. The high point is the overdubbing of Bono's spoken word part with the chorus towards the finale. It stands with the best songs on their last two albums.

1. Nelly Furtado - Maneater

Timbaland again produces a masterpiece. This song is the perfect fusion of 80s and 00s sensibilities, creating a driving, dark perfect pop song. Timbaland places the incredibly catchy synth riff under the verse, so that's just as strong as the chorus to most songs. And then he drops a chorus that's just as catchy, ascending from the bass of the verses. Tim's work begs for dance remixes because he manages to fit so many catchy bits into each song. The ending part, where she sings "She's a maneater" repeatedly is catchy enough to launch its own song. In welding all these fantastic pieces together, he creates a song that easily stands as the best of the year.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Weekend Update

Six Years

In six years, it'll be December 22, 2012, the day that The Invisibles tells us is the end of the world. Will it be? I don't think it'll be the literal end of the world, no jump in the supercontext yet, but maybe it'll be the culmination of a wave of technological and thought advancement that will push us to some higher level of thought, as in Promethea 31. I plan to reread the entire Invisibles series on the day, and then go out and dance in the streets as flakes of reality drift down through the air. Issue 3.1 is my favorite single issue of any comic ever, the perfect culmination to the series.

And if you want a bit of Inivisbles reading to celebrate, check out my comments over here on Pah!, or the excerpts below:

It’s been a while, so I may be a bit hazy on the specifics, but the basic idea is that all time already exists, but that doesn’t mean that we’re reenacting something that has already happened. Rather, every moment is now, so when they go back to the Revolution time, they’re not changing history, they were already there in the past same with King Mob and Edith in the 20s. Yet, they are experiencing in for the first time in that moment.

When Robin goes in the time suit, she’s moving to a different point in the continuum, and she’s scared about whether she’ll do a good job. But, Jack tells her that she already did, because everything worked out in the future. So, no matter what she does, she’ll do the right thing. Her mission is already accomplished.

In terms of the fiction suit, I think his idea is that the fictional universe has its own agency, so from our perspective it might look like 2D ink on paper, but inside the world, it’s full and alive. The fiction suit is used as a metaphor for the writer, when Morrison writes he dons a fiction suit and is able to manipulate the characters in the world. John is essentially the writer, donning a number of guises to ensure that certain events occur that will bring about the end of the story.

We are all one in the supercontext, but we need to go through time to grow and mature and become one. When John goes into the timesuit he gets thrown outside of time and becomes aware of the nature of humanity, the way we’re all connected, so he can re-enter at different points in the time continuum and manipulate events to his will. Post volume two, Robin has the same experience, getting thrown outside of time into the supercontext. Then, she is aware of the fallacy of separation, but on her previous trip through time, she was not, and remained alone as a singular being.

The Invisibles is absolutely massive. I wasn’t blogging back when I read it, but I’d imagine if I had been, I’d have written about nothing else, because I was totally immersed in the series for months, dissecting stuff.

The difference between John’s time travel and Robin’s is that John leaves his own path through time to experience someone else’s. It’s definitely ambiguous territory, but the impression I got was John moved beyond 4-D space out into 5-D, where he was able to view all time at once and also become aware of the events that need to occur to ensure that humanity reaches the point where it can enter the supercontext. So, he enters the timestream in various guises to bring about desired results. He doesn’t have personal agency, he’s moved beyond that, become aware of himself as merely one piece of a much larger entity. He makes that leap before others do, and it’s that move beyond individual loyalties that allows him to work both sides of things.

So, you’re basically right, Robin is still experiencing time linearly, so she must write her own story, while John is aware of how everything will play out, and just performs the tasks he already knows are necessary to make it happen.

What were you referring to with Orlando, when he cuts off the faces and puts them on his own, essentially assuming the identity of those he’d attacked? That would be a more literal adoption of identity. Orlando was treated as something of a rogue force, preserving the division of humanity until Fanny destroys him. Of course, Orlando was wearing a white suit…

I would definitely agree that talking about the Star Wars universe diminishes the power to the text itself, but it is also the greatest testament to its power, the idea that it can inspire so much creation around it. Morrison was experimenting with a lot of extratextual context for The Invisibles, but ultimately it’s about what the individual reader brings to what’s in the book, and what they get out of it. I don’t think he’s interested in people messing around with fanfic and the like, he’d rather they write the fanfic as change in their own lives in the real world.

The ending Seven Soldiers stuff has a lot of interesting material. For me, the highlight was Zatanna, but the end of Bulleteer is great. Mister Miracle is interesting as a series that stands somewhat apart from the rest of the project, I didn’t much like it the first time through, but on the second read, I looked deeper and got a lot out of it. If you enjoyed the first two issues and the conclusion in one, you’ll probably love what happens in three and four. It’s full of really deep, layered thematic stuff.

I’d agree that The Filth is the deepest thing Morrison’s done since Invis, and almost functions as a fourth volume. I love the series, but Seven Soldiers had such fantastic moments, particularly in Zatanna and Guardian 4, I’ve got to give it the edge.

And, regarding mirror/anti-mirror and righteousness/wickedness, breaking down those barriers is what almost all Morrison’s work is devoted to, evolving beyond duality and embracing all of humanity.

Twin Peaks Season Two

This week we also finally got the official announcement that the second season of Twin Peaks is coming out on DVD in April next year. I haven't watched an episode since 2003, and I'm planning on going back for the rewatch when the season comes out. Twin Peaks was something special, a feeling more than a narrative, with moments of magic unparalleled in film. I'm really looking forward to finally seeing the final episode on something better than a grainy VHS tape.

Films to See

I went to see Babel earlier this week, on a Thursday afternoon, and inexplicably, the film was sold out! I don't know what's up there, but I've got to get to that before the end of the year, as well as Children of Men, Curse of the Golden Flower, Pan's Labyrinth and possibly Volver and Little Children. On top of that, I've got a stack of DVDs at home, including Brick, Inside Man, The King, The Proposition and Gabrielle. I'm trying to cover as many of 2006's essential movies before doing my top ten list, but regardless of what I see, it'll be out on New Year's Day. I've got some other top ten lists coming up this weekend though.

Babylon 5 (1x07-1x09)

The show's been picking up in these past few episodes. I'm not sure if it's actually a pronounced change in the quality of the show or just me adapting to what the show is and accepting it on its own terms, but I've been enjoying watching it a lot more. These three episodes continue to develop the show's world and plant some interesting hints for future plotlines. There's still some frustrating deficiencies, but in general, the show is doing much better.

'The War Prayer' again deals with the issue of Pro-Earth groups messing with the mission of Babylon 5. Here, it's given a more personal spin through Malcolm's relationship with Ivanova. I suppose the show's setting means that most new characters are going to be introduced by suddenly cropping up on the station, but Malcolm's appearance felt a bit too similar to Catherine's a couple of episodes before. The dynamic between Ivanova and Malcolm was virtually the same as well, a reluctance to restart an old relationship gradually gives way to a renewed connection. Here, we get the twist that he's the mastermind behind the attack on the poet, a not exactly shocking twist.

In general, I'm not a huge fan of the important character from someone's past suddenly returns plot, though it's easier to accept seven episodes into the show than it is three seasons in, as on Battlestar Galactica's Hero. That said, I hope it doesn't happen again, I'd rather see character relationships developed in the present. The episode also suffers from a bit of a copout ending, where the captain doesn't have to kill the alien woman and easily defeats Malcolm's crew. I've talked before about 24 as a massive turning point for TV shows because it was the first time characters were given these seemingly impossible choices and not given an easy way out. Jack Bauer would kill that alien woman if it meant saving many lives, and that would be painful to watch. On this show, there's always some easy out for the characters, allowing them to avoid dealing with the really hard decisions.

I did enjoy the storyline with Londo and the two Centauri people seeking shelter. Increasingly, it seems that a major thread of the show will be watching these alien races move beyond their restrictive traditions and embrace a new, more open way of life. Babylon 5 is, as the credits say, "the last, best hope for peace," but it's also the model for a society in which people can grow, independent of cultural traditions. Babylon 5 is moving things forward while the homeworlders remain conservative, reactionary even. That is true of both the aliens and the Earthers.

'And the Sky Full of Stars' has the best premise of any episode yet, but the execution isn't quite there to bring it to great. The episode feels a lot like The Prisoner, which featured these kinds of elaborate mental puzzles to test its hero and discover his secrets. What we do find out from this episode is that something very suspicious is going on with the captain, is he a Minbari sleeper agent? Delenn is also apparently less trustworthy than she appears. If I had to guess, I'd say that Delenn is being manipulated by the Grey Council and will wind up in conflict with them over what to do with Sinclair. Considering the theme of the show, the idea that Babylon 5 is the way to deal with societal problems, it wouldn't make sense to have one of the ambassadors betray the station. Rather, the society around her will try to destroy it, and he'll stand with Sinclair against them. But, who knows, maybe the show will get more edge as it goes on. I certainly wouldn't have expected what happened in season six when I was watching Buffy's first season.

There's some interesting filmmaking stuff to show Sinclair's mental reality, but I feel like more could have been done. The show in general feels a bit dated, hailing from a period when television cinematography just couldn't compete with film, unlike today, where your best TV shows are shot better than the vast majority of movies. I think that's important to keep in mind watching in this, I have to adjust my sensibilities and just accept the work of this period.

What's less acceptable is Michael O'Hare's acting. He's ok in the normal dialogue scenes, but when called upon to carry the episode with dramatic material here, he just doesn't make it. This was his 'Emmy episode,' and he didn't step up to the plate. The show really needs either a strong center of gravitas, like an Edward James Olmos, or a Han Solo rogue character, someone who's having a lot of fun on the station. Sinclair does neither.

But, the hints planted about what's going on with the Captain are very intriuging, and the effects on the battle sequences were better than anything on the show to date. What I like most about these episodes is the way they're illuminating the background of the world, and I get the sense that JMS could give you the entire history of this universe. That's a refreshing change from shows that are clearly making it up as they go along.

That brings us to 'Deathwalker,' another episode that lays hints about the show's future, hints that are more interesting than the fairly standard A story. The conflict surrounding Deathwalker herself is well done, and gives us further insight into the history of this world, and the various alien races' places in it. The resolution of the story was a bit of a copout though, with the Vorlons destroying the anti-aging solution. I thought that Earth Central would steal the solution for itself, it wouldn't make sense to have the anti-aging solution in play going ahead with the series, but the idea of having to kill to use it gives it some dramatic potential. Having the solution destroyed makes it feel like the story itself has no particular consequence.

While that may have no consequence, the surrounding stuff will clearly have an impact down the line. We get a better sense that the Minbari may be more treacherous than they appear on the surface. The Narn are the upstarts, likely the last of the great powers to emerge, other than Earth, and they believe that they could rule things.

We get further development of the Vorlons as well. Talia is the most interesting human character, working an Emma Frost thing. She is used by the Vorlon to allow him to experience a specific human emotion. I like having him in the background, observing the humans, they're clearly leaving him in play for a big storyline in the future. The shots of Talia with the killer were some of the most atmospheric, and visually interesting of the show to date. The only stumble was the final scene, which told us nothing we couldn't already figure out. And even though I mentioned before that the Vorlon fighter killing Deathwalker was a bit of a copout, it works really well to develop his character. He may abstain from voting in the council, but that's only because he'll cast the ultimate vote when the time comes.

So, I'm pretty happy with the show looking ahead. Even if the main stories aren't completely working, there's always a lot going on in the background, and the world is more and more interesting as details are filled in. In sci-fi, there's always a certain amount of ridiculousness to get past, and this show makes no concessions to the mainstream. Watching Battlestar, you get the sense they're saying "Yes, it's called Battlestar Galactica, but it's not like that, you can watch this too." Babylon 5 puts itself out there as a sci-fi piece, one that could easily be criticized for ridiculousness. You have to buy into the world, and the more the show goes on, the easier that is to do.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Hostel: The Problems with American Horror Cinema

Hostel is a movie that received a lot of the same criticisms that have been launched at 'Asia Extreme' filmmakers like Chanwook Park, Takashi Miike and Kim Ki-Duk. There's certainly superficial similarities between their films, with the heavy use of extreme violence and torture within the plots. Miike even turns up for a cameo in Hostel, which is what prompted me to watch the film in the first place. I also watched it because I'd heard a lot about the similarities with these Asian filmmakers and I thought maybe I was wrong in dismissing the film as horror schlock, perhaps that was just the same ignorant critics who dismiss the best of Asia. It's not, this film is pure horror schlock and it makes clear what separates mainstream American horror films from similarly themed Asian films. And, as with many things I write about here, it's the total embrace of pop! in Asian films.

Watching Hostel, I was actually surprised by how restrained the violence was. The buzz I heard indicated it was an absolutely sadistic nonstop progression of gore. That's not really the case, the first half is all setup and when we do get to the violence, it's nasty, but not particularly disturbing. Yeah, the eye getting cut out was really nasty, as was the slitting of the heel, but it's nasty on a superficial level. I felt more aware of it as a nasty makeup effect than as something the characters were actually feeling.

That's largely because the characters just weren't particularly interesting. I think Roth did a good job of capturing the way some people speak, but that's not quite enough to make them interesting. I suppose the point of the film was to comment on American arrogance, the idea that they're there not for culture, just to fuck some European chicks. And, of course, they end up getting fucked themselves. I was actually waiting for one of them to be raped, I feel like that would have been a more fitting reversal of roles. But, instead we get the torture and death sequences.

My big issue with the lengthy buildup to the torture stuff is that the characters don't ever feel real. In most American horror movies, there's a buildup to the scares rather than actual character development. There's some attempts here, and I suppose it could work for some people, but these guys never felt like anything more than caricatures to me. Now, there are real people like them, but we never get to know them beneath the surface. They each seem to have a characteristic and they act according to that characteristic. That means that we don't particularly care about them when they get caught up in the bad stuff that happens towards the end. Compare this to a similar torture scene in Casino Royale, where there's actual concern about what's happening to Bond.

In general, one of my big problems with horror movies is the fact that they're designed to scare you. This movie wasn't anywhere near as bad as something like The Grudge, which had something pop out and make a loud noise every couple of minutes just to keep you scared. The two genres that horror most resembles are comedy and porn. All of these genres are based around creating a base reaction. If people laugh, a comedy is successful. If people are scared, the horror movie is successful, right? Well, I don't think that's true. The problem with a lot of horror and comedy films, and I suppose porn too, is that the producers go for that base reaction rather than trying to tell a good story/make a good film. Comedy's a lot more funny if it's about someone you know, that's why Buffy is one of the funniest shows on TV, we know the characters so well, stuff that would be marginally funny with strangers is riotous with the Buffy gang. It's the same with horror, Six Feet Under's "That's My Dog" is one of the scariest things I've seen because it's happening to someone we know. Would the story be as effective as a standalone film? I don't think so.

In an hour and a half film, it's obviously tough to make us care about the characters, but I never got past the sense that these characters were developed as an obligation rather than out of real passion for their arc. Now, I will agree that these people at least have personalities, unlike most American horror characters.

So, the film wasn't great, but it was competent and entertaining. However, the ending left me with a really bad feeling. I'm not sure if it's meant to be a "Hell yeah" moment when Paxton kills the guy, that seems to be what the film is saying, but for me, it felt like he'd become just as bad as the people he fled from. This seems to contradict the character we'd seen for the rest of the film.

Takashi Miike appears in the film, in a quick cameo, and I think comparing his films with this one reveal a lot of what makes his cinema more entertaining and more genuinely terrifying. Miike's films take a wide variety of approaches to the horror genre. Audition is a film that, like Hostel, was hailed for its nastiness. What's surprising when watching it is the way the first half of film plays really well as straight drama. We care about the guy and are caught up in his story. He doesn't feel like his story takes place in a horror movie universe, and that makes it all the scarier when things go crazy at the end. Miike's filmmaking there is confounding and challenging, an art cinema approach, where the presentation is as important as the violence that's being presented. So, Audition is a good movie that just happens to have some nasty stuff in it.

This is a difference from American horror movies, where they all seem to take place in a horror movie universe. In the real world, a guy following you down the street at night can be scary, in a horror movie, not so much, because you're expecting things to go bad. The genre dictates the rules of the world, and there, a man following you down the street is pretty tame compared to what we've seen before. A similar problem occurs in romantic comedy, where you see two characters arguing and instantly know they're going to wind up together.

Ichi The Killer takes a different approach, going absurdly over the top with pop excess. This is a movie where there's such joy taken in depicting the violence, you enjoy it as black comedy as much as horror. Evil Dead II takes a similar tact, embracing the absurdity of what's happening. I think Ichi is still scary in the same way that Hostel is, but rather than having moments of horror and moments of quiet, the entire film is a world of bizarre horror. That's what Inland Empire does too, raise the stakes, make the entire second half frightening, rather than doing the traditional scare beats we see here in Hostel.

A lot of the torture horror genre is influenced from Asia, the pinnacle of which was Oldboy. Oldboy has a lot of surface similarities with Hostel, but it works much better because it taps into much deeper emotions. Oh Daesu experiences really awful things, and we have a better understanding of why he's doing what he does. The violence is still very nasty, but it's used to illustrate character, rather than having the character be an excuse for the violence. Having him cut out his tongue is disturbing, but it's as much because of what it means for the character as it is for the nastiness of the act itself.

And on a filmmaking level, Park uses the film as a chance to indulge in stylistic excess, with music and shots pushing everything to an incredible, baroque level. Hostel never ascends in this same way, the shots are fairly conventional and the music isn't used for anything but typical scare beats. I did like the use of 'How Do' from The Wicker Man, but other than that, nothing stood out. The shots weren't interesting, the most horrific moments in film, such as Irreversible, use the shots to maximize audience involvement. Here, the shots remained aloof, keeping us distanced from the characters' pain. If you want to make truly horrifying cinema, look to the swirling camera, pounding soundtrack and degraded mise en scene of Irreversible's Rectum sequence.

And that scene is part of a brilliant film. Hostel doesn't try to be anything more than a good horror movie, it may acheive that, but he never reaches the operatic heights of his Asian idols, who know that narrative has its place, but the unique power of film is in using stylistic flair to engage the audience.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rocky Balboa

I was a fan of the Rocky films when I was younger. They always used to air on Channel 11 here in New York, and to this day, I don't think I've ever seen the full versions of Rocky II or V, only the TV edit. The promo for Rocky V, with him dramatically proclaiming he would go "One more round!" was much quoted in my circle. But, I hadn't seen any of the films in a while and was neutral on this new Rocky movie. After seeing it, I think Stallone completely pulled it off, making exactly the film he wanted to make and bringing some dignity back to the series after the ridiculousness of the last few films.

The first Rocky worked because it was a classic underdog story, later films tried to raise the stake to keep Rocky an underdog, but when a guy has his own robot and a mansion, it's a lot harder to relate to him as an everyman. I feel like the motivation behind this film is similar to what Brian Singer was trying to do with Superman Returns, forget about the bad sequels and get back to the core of what the character was about. That works better here because nostalgia is placed at the center of the storyline. In Superman, the characters didn't feel like people who had been through a painful five year separation, they looked even younger than the people in the original. And, the original just wasn't a good enough movie to earn this massive budget homage.

Rocky Balboa works better because it gives the viewer all the emotional beats they would want from a Rocky film. The movies had been refined into a formula, but this one manages to make all those old beats fresh by giving Rocky a major uphill climb. For one, Adrian's death still haunts him, her image is all over the film and the first half is basically about him slowly withering away, lost in the past. He's still comfortable, the restaurant seems to be doing well, but he's back on the street. I feel like Rocky V was trying to recapture that grit with the streetfight stuff, but it didn't really work. Here, the slow pace of the first half does a great job of letting us know where this character is now.

Certainly Stallone will never be hailed as a chameleonic actor, but no one could play this role like him. The barely sub-text of the film is the equation of Rocky's comeback with Stallone's own comeback in making the film. Every speech where Rocky talks about how he may be old, but he's still got a fire could apply equally to Stallone and his desire to get this film made. The real life parallels give the film more emotional meaning, and as the film does succeed, you're rooting on Stallone the filmmaker much like you're rooting for Rocky the character.

It's a risky move to have the first half be pretty much devoid of action, but it works. We're made to care about the characters again, and that makes the fight emotionally involving. The fight becomes more than about just winning in the ring, it's about proving himself worthy of the chance to fight again.

I enjoyed the first half, but the film really took off with the training montage. It's become a much parodied cliche since the first film was released, but it still works. Hearing that theme song, with new soaring trumpet improvs, and watching Rocky train was a really well executed sequence.

The major thing that bothered me about the fight was the ridiculous amount of product placement. They make a joke about it earlier with Paulie, but still, I'm hoping someone got paid by Golden Palace. Also, having the TV footage didn't work so well, it's much better to stay in the reality of the fight, using the announcers to narrate, but not using actual TV titles.

Other than that, the fight was well done. I like that Dixon has a hand injury, making it at least somewhat plausible that Rocky would be able to fight him. They set up the fact that he didn't have the 'heart' to fight a truly great boxer, but if he's had thirty-three knockouts, you'd think he'd be able to handle an old guy. But, it felt credible, and that's what mattered. Throughout the fight, there's a bunch of interesting stylistic devices used. Some felt a bit gimmicky, but it worked on the whole, immersing you in Rocky's subjective view of what was happening. It may not be the most original filmmaking, but I was thoroughly caught up in what was happening and thrilled when Rocky did get back up in the final round.

Throughout, the score was great. It's a very classical style score, commenting directly on scenes, with variations of the main theme. In scoring movies, a theme is your best friend. In this movie, you put the theme song on anything and it's instantly a great scene. I'm not sure why recent movies like Spider-Man refuse to build a credible theme song for the hero. Maybe it's cheap, but in a movie like this, the goal is to involve you emotionally and it's best to use whatever tools are available to you. Perhaps the best musical moment was the return of the end of fight music, setting up the great finale, a final farewell to the character.

Yes, there's some cheesy moments in here. If you didn't like the first Rocky, I doubt you'll enjoy this movie, but if you have affection for the character, this will give you exactly what you'd want from a Rocky movie. By directly engaging with the fact that it's ridiculous to make another Rocky movie, Stallone succeeds in making a film that proves that there is still another great film in the character, and in the man himself.

Kim Ki-Duk's Time

Kim Ki-Duk is one of the most consistently interesting filmmakers working today, creating movies that all inhabit a universe of their own, a universe he's been building over ten years of filmmaking. Typically, his films feature a minimum of dialogue, and center around prostitutes and/or water. Time represents a departure from some of these trademark themes, the characters talk quite a bit and though there is some water, there's no prostitutes. Time is a more conventional film than his previous works, taking on aspects of conventional thrillers rather than the discomforting bizarreness of his other works. I think that makes it an easier film to watch, but one that is less consistent in achieving the odd magic only he is capable of.

For me, the film's opening chunk is the most problematic. Kim Ki-Duk is frequently accused of making misogynistic films, a criticism that I would generally consider widely off base. The exploration of women in 3-Iron or Samaritan Girl is nuanced and emotionally true. Yes, he puts his female characters through some awful ordeals, but so did Douglas Sirk, and he's hailed as one of the finest directors of female characters. In 3-Iron or Samaritan Girl, we're made to understand why the women are suffering, and we experience the moments of violence that they undergo right with them.

What makes this opening troubling is that Seh-Hee's motivation is completely irrational. She winds up seeming shrill and unsympathetic. Watching this through, I was troubled by the lack of shading in her character. We are meant to consider this behavior ridiculous, and the end of the film demonstrates that Seh-Hee is now aware of how ridiculous what she did was. However, that growth doesn't excuse her irrationality in that moment. Considering the whole film hinges on this, I think it would have been possible to treat her jealousy in a more rational way.

Like a lot of Kim-Ki Duk films, this has a dual perspective structure. We follow Ji-Woo for the first half of the film, his struggle to deal with Seh-Hee's sudden disappearance. The film is designed to show that the love Seh-Hee and Ji-Woo had was great, giving them both exactly what they needed. In the moments where they're together, there is happiness. Outside, they are unable to find that same connection with anyone else, and yet, through their fear of losing each other, they wind up destroying their relationship.

Ji-Woo's journey into the dating world reinforces the superficiality he feels trying to be with anyone but Seh-Hee. His love for her creates a deep guilt about seeing anyone else, and his attempts to actually be with anyone only spiral into worse and worse situations. I'm not sure if the broken glass in the hotel is actually caused by Seh-Hee, that doesn't matter so much. In Kim's films, character psychology is reflected in the conditions of the physical world, so his guilt about being with someone other than Seh-Hee is made physical through the breaking glass. Something similar happens later when Seh-Hee goes to the man's apartment and find a whole bunch of evidence to lead her to belive it's Ji-Woo, the world reflects her desires.

By this point, Seh-Hee has given herself quite a conundrum, she is competing with herself for Ji-Woo's affections. She has a wonderful time with him at the sculpture park, but he remains tied to Seh-Hee. I'm not sure what she wants him to say when she asks what he'd do if Seh-Hee came back? Does she want him to say she's over the old her, fully in love with the new one, or would that in fact validate the very fears that motivated her to get plastic surgery in the first place? Basically, neither answer is good and there's no way for her to be happy, because telling the truth would make Ji-Woo think she's insane.

And that's what happens in the fabulously bizarre scene where Seh-Hee goes to see him with the mask on. That mask was very freaky, the sort of lo-fi, but deeply disturbing scare that Lynch put to great use in Inland Empire. This film is the turning point of the film, where our perspective switches from Ji-Woo's to Seh-Hee's. The parallel structure is nice, with Seh-Hee now forced to experience the same frustration and uncertainty that Ji-Woo did in the film's first half. I'm not sure why he chose to get surgery, I suppose it's primarily to punish her for what she did. At this point, Ji-Woo disappears from the story and we experience Seh-Hee's pain. Here, Seh-Hee sees the folly of her plan, she condemned Ji-Woo for looking at some women, but now she looks at every man, thinking that they could be the one she loves.

Visually, the film is less expressive than Kim's best work, his films about mute characters require incredible visuals to tell the story, here dialogue does more of the work. That said, there are still some great moments. I love Seh-Hee sitting on the hand, just above water, as well as when she lies down next to the statue.

The whole story leads up to a horrific act of violence. In Kim's films, violence is frequently the only means through which characters can express their emotions. Here, the death of someone who might be Ji-Woo indicates to Seh-Hee the full folly of what she did. She so despises herself, she again seeks to escape into the anonymity of a new identity.

This leads us back to the film's beginning, in a seemingly illogical narrative loop. How could Seh-Hee bump into herself from the future? I would aruge this, like many Kim conclusions, makes sense from a psychological perspective, not a literal one. Earlier, when Seh-Hee sits down at a man's table, she seems to initiate a similar loop as the one that led to her own plastic surgery. So, jealousy becomes a vicious cycle, perpetuating itself ad infinitum. She bumps into her future self, setting up the idea of plastic surgery in the first place.

Ultimately, the film is saying that plastic surgery doesn't change anything. Because the same person is underneath, we'll still be trapped in the same behavioral loops. The ending makes this literal, she can change her appearance, completely dissolve her identity, but she can't change the person inside.

I think there's parts of this film that are very effective, but as I said before, it doesn't match up with the best of Kim Ki-Duk's work, which taps into a raw emotional power that's very rare in cinema. But, he can only make the same movie so many times, so it's good to see him moving beyond his trademark obsessions and expanding his narrative universe.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Inland Empire: The Second Viewing

I did a pretty massive writeup on the film after seeing it for the first time, but after a second viewing last night, things are a lot clearer and I think I can fill in some of the gaps lacking in my original analysis.

More generally, I'll just say that this film is not as hard to get as people make it out to be. It's not an abstract bunch of random scenes, though you could just read it on that level and enjoy it that way. The quote I'd apply to this film is "If everything means something, everything means nothing." You could read every single element as a piece of a carefully constructed narrative world, comprehensible with thorough analysis. Or you could just read it as a message from Lynch's subconscious, given meaning only by what we see in it, not from anything inherent in the film itself. Watching it again, it's clear that things are structued in a specific way and you can find meaning in the film.

I said it back when the film first screened, but I'd imagine Lost Highway and even Mulholland Dr. must have seemed completely incomprehensible to the first bunch of viewers. It was only through critical work that a consesus emerged that helped people to understand the movies. This film is the same way, initially critics are puzzled, but as more people see the film, particularly on repeat viewings, it will become more and more clear. I don't think the film will ever be as accessible as Mulholland Dr., but it will be easier to watch and understand. I got a much clearer view of everything the second time through, and it felt much more cohesive, less random, less schizophrenic.

The critical element I missed on my first viewing of the film was 'The Phantom.' Struggling to keep track of who was who, I didn't follow this guy through the movie, and it turns out that he's one of the critical figures. The Phantom follows in the tradition of BOB or the Mystery Man, a figure with some kind of extradimensional power, an embodiment of evil itself who menaces our heroine. Nikki first discusses The Phantom in one of her monologues, she also mentions that he has a sister who has one leg, a figure we'll see crop up later in the film.

I would argue that The Phantom is the 'ghost in the machine' of the Blue Tomorrows story, he's the one perpetuating the curse and destroying everyone who comes into contact with the script. He draws them into the world of the story and imprisons them there. For the Polish Woman, this is literal, she is trapped in Room 47, and I believe 47 was the name of the original Polish script. Nikki's imprisonment is not so literal, she is not trapped in a room, she is trapped in the world of the character, unable to escape and return to her own life. As the movie goes on, things get worse and worse for the character, her initial love affair with Billy goes bad when he rejects her from his house.

It's difficult to figure out how the film works because everyone is playing different characters, and there's a lot of blurring with dreamlogic. However, one thing I didn't catch on the first viewing was the fact that Julia Ormond played Billy's wife. So, at the end of the film when she stabs Sue, it could be that she'd gone insane after hearing about the affair, and driven to kill Sue for that reason. So, the scene at the police station could actually take place after the stabbing. Or, it could be that she went insane, checked into psychiatric counseling, broke out, then stabbed Sue. Alternatively, she could reflect Sue's guilt about having an affair with Billy in the first place.

'Blue Tomorrows' is clearly a melodrama, so it would make sense that the affair within would go wrong and lead to destruction for all people involved. In the Polish story, we see that Julia Ormond has stabbed someone, possibly the main Polish woman, though I'm not sure about that. The whole middle section of the film takes place within the universe of the film, something that I think is critical to understanding what happens there. Sue's affair with Billy made her pregnant and that caused her the problems with her husband. Julia Ormond stabs her where she does precisely because it will kill her child. As a side note, I absolutely love Dern's performance in the street scenes, so incredibly raw.

This street scene is meant to parallel the opening scene with the Polish woman reduced to prostitution. In both cases, the women cheat on their husbands and are made to feel like whores. Their guilt winds up driving them to actual prostitution. I feel like the gang of girls hanging around with Laura Dern are her conscience, embodying her fear of what she's becoming. They also have access to some kind of supernatural energy, the only ones to cross between the Polish storyverse and the American storyverse.

Throughout the film, we see scenes from the Polish version of the film, a parallel universe version of the events with Sue. If you look at them that way, it's much easier to understand what's going on because it's one story, just split between the two characters. However, there's still one scene that's somewhat perplexing, the 'seance' scene. Here, the husband goes to a bunch of people and they seem to channel his wife. I would argue that this is her real husband, seeking his lost wife, he hears her, but cannot make contact. In the real world, the husband does love the Polish woman, as evidenced by their loving embrace at the end. So, this scene may take place in a reality where he's trying to save her from imprisonment in Room 47.

This leads us to the Phantom. As I said before, he is the malevolent force that locks our heroines in the destructive loop of the story world. There's a very fairy tale feel about the idea of the cursed story, like this guy has put this script out there to entrap people in a spiral of suffering and evil. Perhaps he is like the Man from Another Place in FWWM, getting nourishment from the Garmonbozia (pain and suffering) of others. Certainly this script puts the main characters through an awful lot of pain and suffering.

We see The Phantom in a number of scenes, generally moving through the background, but his most critical appearance is near the end. After Sue 'dies,' Nikki returns to the filmset, but she still seems possessed by Sue. She wanders into the theater, where she watches herself projected on the screen. Here, she is confronted with the fact that despite the director calling cut, she remains trapped in the world of Blue Tomorrows, perpetually locked on the screen, unable to return to her own life. This is a state parallel to the Polish Woman.

She moves through some hallways, gets her husband's gun, then goes out and encounters The Phantom. She shoots at him, then, in perhaps the most horrifying moment in any film ever, he stares back at her with a grotesque version of her face. I don't know what it is about that image but it's very, very disturbing. After this, she shoots him again and seemingly blows a whole in his face, at which point he is defeated and we go to a beautiful shot of a purple burst of light suspended in darkness.

Watching this movie again, I was wowed by the photography. The first half hour is a little shaky, but after that, this is absolutely beautiful. The closeups on digital have a clarity and urgency that just isn't present in film. I think we're so used to the textures of film it lost the magic, and the rawness of this DV brings back some of that mystery. It is a striking, and yes, beautiful, film.

So, her defeat of the Phantom frees her from the spell of the cursed movie. Nikki wanders into Room 47 and frees the Polish Woman from her imprisonment. I feel like Nikki is transferring the freedom she received to the Polish Woman through that kiss. And, side note, why can't the Polish Woman have a name? Does anyone know if she does? After being freed, they both are able to return to their homelives, and much like Blue Velvet, the good feels that much better after an excursion into possible darkness. This is a return to optimism after the only hope in death finales of FWWM, LH and MD. I love the way Laura Dern looks at the couch and now sees a pure, idealized version of herself, rather than the utterly broken, dirty one she turned into over the course of the film. Her performance here is on a whole different level from most cinema acting.

To summarize, Nikki is an actress who signs on to appear in a film that is cursed. As she works on the film, she gets caught up in its spell and finds herself trapped in the characters' life, forced to endure a spiralling series of awful experiences. Concurrent with this, a Polish woman has reached the end of the spiral, and is trapped in a hotel room, crying, thinking about what she's lost. Nikki, as Sue, goes through a symbolic death, and the film's story ends. Yet, she remains trapped in that world. She confronts The Phantom, the extradimensional being responsible for the evil in the story, and kills him, thus freeing herself and the Polish Woman to return to their lives.

This leads us into the bravura end credits sequence, one of the most fun scenes in any Lynch film, and also one with some tie backs to what happened previously. Earlier in the film, Sue, in her monologue, said that The Phantom had a sister with one leg. That is the woman we see at the end, who says sweet. Earlier in the film, one of the girls says "Sweet," I would argue that indicates that both the girls and the woman are extradimensional beings, only these ones are not devoted to evil, as the Phantom is. In Twin Peaks, we see a number of characters who just seem to exist, not serve good or evil specifically. The girls cannot help Laura Dern, rather than they convey messages, much like The Man From Another Place or the Giant.

The woman with one leg is clearly tied to the blue haired woman from Mulholland Dr., both stating a word to close out the film. My reading of the final word is that after all the awfulness, Laura Dern's character is just happy to be in this world, all she can say is "sweet."

From there we go over to a woman in a blonde wig with a monkey, this is Niko, the woman referenced earlier in the Asian girl's monologue. Is this monkey the same one seen in FWWM? Do they exist in the same extradimensional universe? It's quite possible, I would argue that this scene takes place in a world like the red room, that is why the Laura Dern we see is dressed in the pure, ethereal dress, it is a moment of transcendence beyond the concerns of mortality. I don't think she's died, rather I think she's experiencing a moment of happiness after her great ordeal. There, Niko can exist as this star idea, rather than as who she actually is. Niko is basically doing the same thing that Diane did in creating Betty in Mulholland Dr., making a successful, happy alter ego to cover up her actual painful existence.

I really love Laura Haring's appearance here. It's so clearly just a bonus for Lynch fans, and that's what makes it great. This scene is just an excess of cool stuff, and her expression is great when she blows kisses to Laura Dern and Nastassja Kinski. The hopping monkey with strobe light is pure Lynch, and one could argue both he and the carpenter tie in with the extradimensional characters of FWWM. Plus, that song just tears it up for the finale, say what you will about the previous three hours, that last minute, where the song goes very quiet, then comes back for the climactic ending with the camera tracking back from Laura Dern through the singers is a great final moment. And, even after three hours, I was wishing the film would just keep going. It's such a wonderful world to get lost in, I didn't want it to end.

So, that's what I got out of the second viewing. Let me now address a couple of points from the comments on my first post.

One thing that seemed like a major detail is the element of "evil being born" and "a murder", indicated by the "new neighbor" lady in the beginning. Later on we find out that the Polish woman's son perhaps died. I'm thinking maybe his premature death was the result of an abortion, since we see the screwdriver being plunged into Sue's stomach as well as Julia Ormond's character. We also have the image of the woman in the dress(I couldn't really tell who it was) lying on the floor with her mid-section ripped open.

I really wish there was a transcript of Grace's speech, I listened closely, but there's so much in the film, it's tough to remember exactly. I suppose the boy who goes out and brings evil could be The Phantom. He would seem to be the source of all evil in the film, and that sort of supernatural birth would be fitting.

As for the son's death, that death happens in the storyworld, in real life her son is fine. So, I would agree that it's likely an abortion, or perhaps her husband beating her forced her to have a miscarriage. Sue also lost her son, which goes along with what I'd mentioned in my original review, that Nikki seems to tap into something in the Polish Woman's actual life through this script. The Polish Woman actually seems to live in the house that Laura Dern inhabited as Sue. In the case of the Polish Woman, her actual life seems to have much more in common with her role in the film. I'll need another viewing to figure that out exactly though, I feel like it's definitely there, I just need to see how the scenes are structured again

I think the critical thing is that both of their experiences represent their worst fears. For Nikki, it's that her cheating with Devon will ruin her marriage and plunge her into poverty and prostitution. She seems to lack confidence in her own ability to be a successful actress, and that's likely why she married such a wealthy man. If he rejects her, she loses the security and her fear is she'll wind up out on the street. This also ties in to her fear of being a whore, if she did marry for money, she would already see herself as a kind of whore, and that's why she imagines herself hanging out with those girls.

For the Polish woman, the great fear is being separated from her husband and child. She sees her cheating, forced upon her by the script, separating her from him, leading to the death of her son and sexual enslavement in Room 47. However, she is ultimately freed from that entrapment and returns to her family.

As for the identity of the woman on the floor, I'm not sure, I'll have to look out for that on the next viewing.

It's my thought that the Japanese homeless woman is speaking about herself - or herself in a symbiosis with the Dying Degraded Sue - much like the Julia Ormond character with a screwdriver sticking out of her gut was speaking, irrationally, of herself - or of herself in a dying and involuntary symbiosis with and invisible and God-likely powerful Nikki Grace.

There's certainly parallels between Nikki/Sue and Niko. I think it again is about Sue/Nikki having to confront her own worst fears, the idea that she was just putting on this role of a movie star, like Niko wears the wig, when in reality both of them are dying whores. The screwdriver in her gut would tie in with the hole in Niko's vagina. If we read it as Julia Ormond targetting her uterus, both Nikki/Sue and Niko would lose their ability to have children, and the possibility to find the domestic bliss that Lynch's characters seek. I'm not sure if the Japanese woman herself experiences this, it's unclear why she's sitting out on the street, though if she is homeless, then that would tie in with Sue's ultimate fear. In both this film and Mulholland Dr., Lynch uses homelessness as the worst fate for actresses, to be completely spit out the system and wind up a bum on the street.

Ultimately, all the women in the film seem to be on a spiral towards the streets, where they find prostitution and death. This is likely a result of the Phantom's influence, by destroying him, she frees all of them from that spell. And the Japanese woman is definitely a part of this.

There's so much in this film, if you've seen it, definitely comment, I'd love to discuss it more and expand more on exactly what Lynch is doing.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Battlestar Issues

Started from this Barbelith Post

For me, the two best things the show's done are the miniseries and the New Caprica arc, and the rest of the episodes have always been somewhat inconsistent. I really liked the first season, but it had a bunch of weak episodes, and not until the season finale did they reach the level of the miniseries again.

What made the miniseries and New Caprica so great was the extreme odds against our characters. The show has been very reluctant to play out negative consequences for its people. There's changes, but seemingly there's always an attempt to bring us back the old status quo. This means that there's not that much tension in the standalone episodes, or even the cliffhangers. I didn't find it particularly egregious to show the result of the cliffhanger in the promo because this isn't the kind of show that has the courage to put the main characters in real danger.

Compare that to something like 24, where there's a lot of tension because pretty much anyone could did at any time. Alternatively, you could do something like Buffy where the stories all have major consequences and lingering character arcs. The BSG people go through stuff, but there's not that same sense of consistent forward progress. In this season, Tigh went through some truly fantastic stuff, but it's pretty much done now, same for Starbuck.

Basically, the show just isn't willing to play out the consequences of storylines that will detach it from the status quo. Going into this season, I assumed New Caprica would be the new status quo for the show and last for at least a season. The episodes there were riveting, and it really did feel like anything could happen. This new cliffhanger we've got is the same kind of thing that could have happened in season one or two.

There is some forward progress, but not enough. It's possible to do a lot of standalone episodes and have them accumulate in character development, as in Angel or The Sopranos season five, but these standalones seem to happen, then be forgotten. I think it was a huge mistake to end New Caprica so quickly, and part of what made the show seem to lag in the second half of the season is that it feels old next to the bold new stuff in the first half.

I think the issue is a lot of people are uncomfortable with the development of the cylons beyond just an evil force out to get the humans. I've read a lot of reviews complaining about the baseship storyline, saying that it's taking the mystery away. Now, that might be true, but mystery gets old after a while, I think the cylons are much more interesting than the humans, their culture is fascinating and the more that gets revealed, the more interesting it becomes. Now, I would agree that the piano music/dissolve style got a bit old after a while, but the baseship segments were still much more interesting than the stuff on Galactica.

One of the show's best episodes was Downloaded, which gave us a totally different view of the cylons, and seemed to herald a moment where the cylons would try to help humanity rather than extreminate them. I think that's a much more interesting direction to go in than to just return to the same setup we had for the first two seasons, as has been done now. The show is always more interesting when the line between cylon and human is blurred. Look at the Leoben/Kara storyline from early in the season, what makes it so fascinating is that Leoben has a legitimate desire for love, we can understand his motivations, and the 'evil' of his actions comes out of an understandable place. That's much more effective than having the cylons as an all purpose evil force without any sort of motivation.

Ultimately, I feel like the basic status quo of humans on the run from the cylons just doesn't work anymore. Episodes that focus on character issues still work, like 'Unfinished Business,' but something like 'The Passage' feels very outdated, something that belongs back in the first season. The show needs to grow beyond those episodes, beyond the obvious status quo and into a new form. New Caprica did this and it was the best episodes the show's ever done. Hopefully the second half of the season will do the same thing.

Best of 2006: Top 10 Episodes

With the year almost over, it's time to start the list making, I'll be putting a new list out every other day until the end of the year, and our first is the ten best TV episodes of 2006. This list is tough to do for a number of reasons, one is some shows are just better than others, so is a pretty good Sopranos episode better than a great Gilmore Girls episode? I tried to balance things here, but there's a good amount of repeat appearances here.

10. Arrested Development - 'Family Ties'

Watching the last four episodes of Arrested Development in one go, as they were broadcast, was a surreal experience, with the show going to more bizarre places than it had ever gone before, and this episode was one of the highlights. Michael hires Nellie, a prostitute he thinks is his sister, to work at his office and raise morale. There's hilarity in the show itself, and on a meta level, because Nellie's played by Justine Bateman. Wow, this show enjoys going to the incest place, and it's always funny. The capper is the revelation that Nellie's pimp is actually Gob's puppet Franklin.

9. 24 - 'Day 5: 7:00-8:00"

It's tough to distinguish standout episodes of the show, what with the really heavy continuity. However, this premiere still stands out nearly a year later. They teased that you shouldn't miss the first five minutes, usually a hollow promotion. Not here, killing three major characters in a period of ten minutes established again that this show has no limits, anyone is in danger, and that's what makes it work so well. You actually believe that anyone could die, so every episode is suspenseful. Maybe it's a bit gimmicky, but it's necessary to keep the show fresh and exciting.

8. Gilmore Girls - 'I Get a Sidekick Out of You'

Much like Buffy's sixth season, this was all about plunging the lead character into awful emotional trauma and repression. Lorelai's underlying concerns spill to the surface in the most painful scene of the series' entire run, her drunken ramble at Lane's wedding. It's tough to watch, and is the highlight of the episode. But, there's a lot of the quirky comedy stuff the show does so well in there too.

7. Friday Night Lights - 'Pilot'

Not that the show itself isn't great, but this Pilot was just unbelievable in setting up a completely unique world for the show to inhabit. The lengthy non-dialogue sequences were great, and by the end, I really cared about the result of the game, and the victory was a fantastic payoff. This was a great start to the best new show of the season.

6. Battlestar Galactica - 'Occupation/Precipice'

One of the best season openers of all time, this was an incredibly tense, emotionally wrenching two hours. The show again returns to the loaded political commentary of the miniseries, and also tracked our characters through the worst moments of their lives. And it's all capped by the powerful image of a cylon firing squad about to gun down Roslin and Zarek. I'd never seen a world like this on TV before.

5. Arrested Development - 'Development Arrested'

As I mentioned before, the show seemed to spin out of control as it reached this bizarre, fantastic conclusion. Lindsay's attempt to sleep with Michael was hilarious, completely messing with the fictional world the show had built over the past three seasons. George Michael's trip to second base was another highlight, though the biggest laugh for me was the return of Anyong. The show may have been cut down too soon, but with a finale this good, I can't be too mad about that.

4. The Sopranos - 'Mr. and Mrs. John Sacrimoni...'

The season definitely had some issues, but the first half was as consistently brilliant as any previous season. This episode, chronicling Tony's first public appearance after the shooting, was a fantastic exploration of masculinity in the mob world. Johnny's tearful breakdown as he was taken back to prison, Vito's continuing issues with his sexuality, and Tony's new outlook on life all caused problems. Tony's attack on his driver at the end was the perfect cap to the episode.

3. Battlestar Galactica - 'Downloaded'

The gem of the otherwise troubled second half of season two, this episode gave us our most intriuging look into the cylon world yet. I love Six and Boomer's uncertainty about their place in the cylon hierarchy, and the episode ending murder of D'Anna was shocking. Unfortunately, most of what this episode explored was abandoned to recast the cylons in a more obviously evil role in season three. But, this one still stands out as a masterpiece.

2. Battlestar Galactica - 'Exodus II'

The capper to the New Caprica arc, this is the best episode the show's ever done. The effects were dazzling, better than anything I saw in the cinema this year, but what really makes it powerful is how satisfying it is to see humanity get a victory after the oppression of the first three episodes. There's so many fantastic moments here, Tigh killing his wife, Baltar's confused flight, the Pegasus' destruction. This episode was so good, everything after has felt a bit lackluster.

1. The Sopranos - 'Join the Club'

In the real world, it's an emotionally raw exploration of familial grief and worry, as Tony lies in a coma. Edie Falco's monologue should have come with an Emmy, and the others get great material too. This has the same power as Six Feet Under's 'Ecotone.' But, that's not all we get. The allegorical storyline of Tony as Kevin Finnerty is one of the best things the show's ever done, intellectually challenging and extremely revealing of Tony's psyche. The layered complexity of this episode is something you'd only see on The Sopranos, and that's why, despite this season's problems, it's still on a whole different level from anything else on TV.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Babylon 5 - 'The Parliament of Dreams' and 'Mind War' (1x05-1x06)

These two episodes were an improvement over the first four, further developing the show's world and alien cultures, and generally telling better stories, even though some of the major issues from the previous episodes persist. However, I am getting sense of the depth of the universe and that has me really intrigued to see how things develop in future episodes.

'Parliament of Dreams' is explicitly designed to deepen our understanding of the various alien cultures by giving us a glimpse of their religious ceremonies. It's troublesome territory to so explicitly separate everyone by certain 'racial' characteristics, but I think it works here if you view it more as cultural differences. The alien races are more like old world nations, while Earth is clearly equated with the United States, a blend of cultures and traditions, such that it's impossible to isolate one Earth religion, rather it is in the mixing that we are unique. Presumably a major thread of the series will be the way that the alien cultures are forced to move beyond their old prejudices and find peace.

While he worked well in 'Born to the Purple,' Londo was a bit broad here, literally falling over the table. However, at least he's putting some effort in, a lot of the human people are still completely emotionless in their performance. The Minbari religious ceremony was appropriately reverent and one of the best visual moments in the series so far. In general, the series seems uninterested in doing really interesting visual stuff. Shots are very basic and there's no attempt to do really strong visual storytelling. That's not about the effects limits, it's more about the choice to play stuff out with dialogue rather than visuals. Of course, in TV, it's only recently that we've seen shows with visual presentation to match the quality of the writing.

The Captain is still something of an absent center, though his encounter with Catherine was probably his best material yet. We get a better sense of him as a character, but I feel like the performance just isn't there to make me care about him. Though it's not just him, the scripts still use too many cliches, the people talk like people in a movie talk, not like people in real life talk.

G'Kar is the standout character so far, he's got some complexity and the acting stands out through the makeup. His pettiness is a nice contrast to the human cast, who are generally stoic and noble. Also, having multiple plot lines going during the episode helped the pacing.

'Mind War' is my favorite episode of the series so far, focusing on a telepath who has evolved too fast, causing problems when he tries to interact with normal humans. We also get further development of the Psi Corps, with the appearance of two Psi Cops. Talia is one of the more interesting characters on the show and it was nice to see more development of her. The old teacher comes back storyline is a staple, and it generally worked here. However, the guy playing Ironheart went way too over the top overacting it. It's like he was trying to make up for everyone else underplaying things, and that wound up throwing the show out of balance. His creep down the hall at the end of the show was just ridiculous in how much overacting he was doing.

However, the end of the episode is great. Ironheart seems to transcend the boundaries of physical humanity and become a kind of god. He then passes on some of his TK power to Talia. I'm intrigued by his comment that he'll see Sinclair in a million years, that one remains unexplained. Even the visual effects worked there, with his astral body against the stars. I'm imagining that was an X-Men reference, as the whole Psi Corps thing seems to draw a lot from there. It looks just like Xavier's astral body when he duels with the Shadow King. I'm assuming having Ivanova say "Who watches the watchmen?" was another comics reference.

There seems to be a recurring theme of corporations trying to use technological advances for profit and war. In 'Infection,' it was the organic weapons and here it's the TK potential. There is a fight between people who want to keep the tension between races and those who want to bring them together. That's looking more and more like it's the thematic core of the series.

I also really liked the story with Catherine and G'Kar. Her incessant talking to the computer was a bit much, but the end, with the discussion of ants was great. This episode is full of Morrisonesque ideas, and this is a critical one, the idea that we're only a small piece of a much larger universe. G'Kar is becoming more layered every week and here he's thankfully free of having to do goofy comedy bits.

I think what the show really needs now is a Whedon style sense of humor about itself. There's some jokes, but they don't really work. Whedon always knew exactly when to puncture the show's seriousness and absurdity, which made this odd world more accessible to the audience. We could accept whatever came up because at the core of the show were three very relatable characters. Here, we don't have that same entry point, so it's easier to criticize the show from the outside. I'm not saying they should break the fourth wall down and just mock things, rather, be more aware of how ridiculous some of what happens is and acknowledge that in the story world.

Even as Whedon would make a lot of jokes, he never let those jokes mess with the dignity of the characters, we were meant to laugh with them, rather than at them, and a lot of the time, I feel like we're meant to laugh at the ridiculousness of some of the Londo bits. Those bits go too far and just aren't funy. Go more for subtle wit than the really broad comedy things.

And in general, try to get the characters more emotionally involved in things. It can be contrived to have people going through huge emotion in these standalone episodes, but to really know the characters, they need to open up more. That said, the creation of more recurring elements and interepisode continuity is a great sign. These two episodes were a big jump over what came before, and hopefully the show will keep moving forward.