Saturday, December 30, 2006

Little Children

The 2006 film catchup continues with this excellent film. Most reviewers have equated Little Children with films like American Beauty and The Ice Storm, and that's certainly a valid comparison, however, it's not like this is a ripoff of those films. There's room in cinematic suburbia for a number of different visions.

The film's trailer was one of the more striking I saw this year, using the sound of a train whistle and ticking clocks rather than typical musical score. Those motifs are repeated in the film's opening, creating a strong feeling of unease. These two sounds weren't arbitrarily chosen, the train and the clock are the critical symbols in the two main characters' lives.

The train is the vessel by which characters move from their suburban homes to their urban workplace. For Brad, the whistle mocks him, reminding him of his unemployment, his failure to become a typical suburban father. When he goes to take the bar exam, his wife drops him off at the train station, the typical gender roles reestablished, however, he quickly abandons the chance to pass the bar exam and gain societal status, preferring to continue his affair with Sarah, his escape from the pressures of his everyday life.

For Sarah, the clock is what gives her day structure. There's the 10:30 snacktime, and then the wait for her husband to return so she can go on her daily walk. She mocks the mothers who have their children on regimental snack schedules, but she herself is just as much a slave to routine. For her, life is all about waiting for brief moments of happiness. At first, it's just being alone, later it's abou passing the dull 48 hours of the weekend so she can return again to the pool and Brad.

The film uses a narrator, something that's frequently criticized in films. That's because the narrator is usually telling us what we already know, however, here I think it works because he tells us the characters' thoughts rather than their actions. So, when we hear that Sarah thinks of herself as an anthropologist, we're also aware that she is not as distanced as she appears to be. In a movie, you've got a bunch of tools available, and voiceover is one. If it can help the audience get something more out of the film, there's no reason not to use it. I love visual storytelling as much as anyone, but for conveying exposition, it's frequently easier to just say it right out than go through a clumsy dialogue scene to convey the same thing.

For Sarah, that anthropologist line is critical. The film is about her process of losing that distance and becoming just like those other suburban mothers, it's about accepting her lot in life. She's so frustrated by the mothers, and their refusal to see beyond the world that they live in. She is not quick to condemn Ronnie, and scoffs at the idea that he should be castrated while the others just nod along. When Brad arrives, he provides her with the chance to show her distance from them. She's willing to engage with him rather than just view him as a fantasy object.

However, as the film progresses, Brad becomes the exact same fantasy to Sarah that he is to the mothers. Only, she's actually with him rather than just viewing him from a distance. Brad is the escape from her boring life with her husband, and even though her relationship with him is an attempt to escape suburban monotony, it winds up locking her into the life inextricably. She falls into a routine because it means seeing him, and this once aggressive feminist is reduced to spying on his wife from her car. This scene feels a bit goofy, but that's exactly the point. She's ashamed to be doing it, but she can't stop herself, that's what her whole character arc is about, getting caught up in something she knows is stupid, and for a moment, believing it could lead to real change.

The book club scene is a bit on the nose, but sums up her arc well. Having the other woman call Bovary a slut was something I could definitely see happening, and Sarah's change in perspective on the book is a great indication of her changing perspective on life. She is no longer an academic, removed from her environment. She is Bovary, trapped in a world she can't stand, and tricking herself into believing in escape.

Brad's plight is a bit different. He is completely emasculated by his relationship with Kathy, perfectly summed up by the scene with the jester's hat in the beginning. He is raising his son, but Aaron still responds to his mother more. Brad has absolutely no power, and he longs for the freedom he had in his youth, a freedom exemplified by the skateboarders. Brad is still an arrested adolescent, the prom king quarterback of the football team.

What attracts him to Sarah is the fact that she needs him as much as he needs her. he doesn't get that from Kathy, who's utterly self sufficient, viewing him as a nanny, or even another child. Sarah has the same frustrations about life that he does, and they can escape together. This culminates in the scene after the football game, where they kiss and decide to run away together. Again, they seem more like teenagers than adults, seeking an escape from the parents who want to keep them apart. In that moment, they both believe that they can escape, but ultimately, we know that it's not going to happen.

After pledging to utterly reject their suburban world, they're both confronted with an event that makes them give up the dream of escape and commit fully to their role. For Sarah, that is the confrontation with Ronnie at the park. Whereas she once found the mothers' panic ridiculous, she now finds herself deeply scared. She does try to comfort him, but when Lucy goes missing, she hunts for her, full of fury. When she does find her, she shoves her into the carseat, no longer someone who just happens to have a kid, she becomes a mother there. By not putting her in the carseat, Sarah was valuing her own comfort over her child's safety. Now, she forgets about that and decides to go back home because it's what Lucy wants, abandoning her own dream.

Brad finally talks to the skateboarders and is given the opportunity to indulge in the ultimate youthful play, ditching his appointment to skateboard. For a moment, he finds the exact escape he was seeking, soaring through the air, he is young again. But, he crashes down to Earth, and, injured, he literally rejects the idea of leaving with Sarah by giving his note to one of the skateboarders. That dream is for a younger man, and he is now grown up.

The ending is sad in some respects, but realistic. Together, Brad and Sarah would have likely found the same problems they had with their respective spouses, it was the novelty that attracted them, their mutal imprisonment more powerful than anything inherent to themselves. The film is about the way they move from outsiders to insiders, and accept their roles within the community. Yes, they lose something of themselves in the process, but, it's the only viable option for their futures.

This is all paralleled by the story of Ronnie, who similarly struggles to find a place for himself in the community. He resists and continues to indulge his 'psychosexual disorder.' However, in the end, he also destroys that which separates him from the community and makes a bid to conform. Will they accept him after he's castrated himself? I doubt it, but I think they'll be less openly hostile.

The stuff with Ronnie frequently felt like a different movie. I read a couple of reviews which said that his story steals the movie from Brad and Sarah, I'd disagree. I think their stuff was fantastic, and his, while good, also felt a bit cliched. I don't think the film would be stronger if that plotline was cut out, but perhaps trimming it would have made it work better, as a comment on the main storyline rather than a subplot that distracts from the film's core.

The one misstep in the film was the Slutty Kay stuff. This sort of over the top comedy didn't mesh well with the more subtle humor of the rest of the film. I think doing something about the husband's internet porn addiction is a valid choice, but this was too broad.

Other than that, I was thoroughly caught up in the story this film was telling. The narration gave it a different feel than some similar films, and the acting throughout was top notch. The film barely expanded beyond New York, and that's unfortunate, it's certainly worth seeing.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Babylon 5: 2x03-2x05

After the supercharged start of the season, things slow down a bit and retreat back into a standalone episode structure. I didn't love any of these, but they were stronger than comprable episodes from season one because each episode is somehow tied in to the developing story of the Shadow War.

Based on the title, 'The Geometry of Shadows,' I was expecting a big episode, but what we get is an episode with some good stuff, and a story that doesn't really work. The dud is the Drazi conflict. It's meant to be nonsensical, but it winds up making them look stupid. If anyone could just take the sash and become leader, wouldn't that be a better battle strategy than just attacking each other? I suppose the point is they're so stuck in a specific worldview, they couldn't think outside the box in that way. But, it doesn't really work.

Better is the story with Londo. The best scene of the whole episode is actually the first, where Londo meets with a representative of the Centauri government, and they talk about his potential rise to power. I like the new decorations in his room, particularly the picture of himself on the wall. You get a real sense of the new power going to his head, something that will likely figure large in the character's future.

The technomages are potentially interesting, I'm assuming they'll turn up again in the future. The most important scene is sthe final one with Londo, where Elric drops some hints about what will happen to Londo, and it's not looking good. I do have to say that the name Elric is pretty cheesy, this isn't supposed to be Dungeons and Dragons.

Next up is 'A Distant Star.' This is my favorite of the three episodes. For one, we get a guest appearance by Twin Peaks' Russ Tamblyn. I like the relaxed feel of the episode's opening. By avoiding any major conflict, we're able to get a better sense of the characters. Sheridan is clearly uncertain about being stationed on Babylon 5. He's an explorer and a warrior, not a diplomat. That's why he delegates more of his duties on the station than Sinclair did. He not only wants to empower Ivanova, he also can't be bothered to deal with these petty alien disputes.

Things pick up towards the end of the episode, with the well executed hyperspace rescue sequence. Again, we get a hint of the shadows' power, with their quick destruction of the squad leader. I thought that Warren would wind up being taken captive by the shadows, leading to an extended Battlestar style subplot, but that's not to be. He returns and we get a pretty happy ending, with a sitcom style wrapup to the diet plotline, a plotline that is quite funny. But, underlying this happy ending is our knowledge of what's out there and the destruction it promises for the crew. That development at the end gives the episode a relevance beyond just the standalone story.

There's a similar relevance to 'The Long Dark,' but the A story is season one level. The guy playing Amis is absurdly over the top and just doesn't work with the story. He crosses from the line from insane to just goofy. I get the point they were trying to make, but it just doesn't work, and even tying the story to the Shadows at the end doesn't help much.

The story involving Mariah and Franklin isn't much better. The show's strength so far isn't romantic drama, particularly when it's clearly for a standalone episode, not a long developing relationship. I'd like to see some of the major people get romantically involved, but this kind of story is contrived to serve the standalone plot, not build on long term character development.

So, these three weren't the best, but they never reached season one levels of bad. The Shadow threat continues to build, and hopefully we'll get some payoff soon rather than just these hints. In particular, I'm hoping to see more of G'Kar. His brief appearance in 'The Long Dark' is good, but we still haven't gotten a followup on his suspicion that Londo was involved in the attack on Quadrant 37.


I finally saw this today, a film I'd wanted to see since it was screened at Cannes, but somehow missed for the couple of months it's been in release, and I am definitely glad I did. Inarritu's first two films are both interesting, but they lack the scope that this film has. 21 Grams is one of the most relentlessly depressing films I've ever seen, what makes this film stronger is the way it mixes moments of beauty and peace in with the heavier stuff, so we get a total emotional experience. It's like Irreversible, the bad stuff is even worse because when we know how good things can be.

I'm hoping that Inarritu was making a thematic trilogy with his first three films, because it'd be a bit excessive to go back to the same well again. That said, there are some crucial differences from his previous work. The basic show how one event affects various characters in unexpected ways remains, but rather than the strict separation of stories we saw in Amores Perroes, everything here is intercut. There's some of the chronological fracturing of 21 Grams, but it's used in a much less confrontational way. Instead of disorienting us through the blending of time periods, the disparities between the various storylines are used to create dramatic irony, by giving us information that the characters don't have at that point. This is most notable in the juxtaposition of the Richard/Susan storyline and the Amelia storyline.

In the film, the four storylines remain distinctly seperate. The characters from the storylines never cross over, the closest we get is the phone call from Richard to his house. The lack of implicit connection thankfully means we avoid any ridiculous Crash moments, the audience is allowed to make the connections rather than having them forced upon us. The first storyline, and my least favorite, involved Yussaf and his family. I'm never a big fan of 'village life' stories, maybe it's shallow, but I enjoy visual glamour, the neon glow of a city to a dusty desert farm. This one starts out slow, but by the end, it's picked up. Yussaf's surrender to the police is tough to watch.

In all the stories, Inarritu does a great job of quickly setting up the characters and the world they live in. Just looking at the place he lives, we know who Yussaf is, while Susan's refusal to risk drinking the local icecubes tells us all we need to know about her. Her storyline was visceral and full of tension. The theme of the film is the way that failures to communicate lead to awful consequences, and here we get a fantastic sense of just how alien this world is for Richard and Susan. They are there as tourists, to experience the exotic, but only from the safe confines of a tour bus. When that bus is attacked, all order breaks down, their safe haven from the 'real' Morroco is gone and they drive off the bus route into the village.

The difference in privelege and values is clearly evident. Susan does not want to be operated on, likely afraid of infection, unaware that her life is in the balance. The whole sequence does a great job of capturing what it's like when someone gets injured like that. The people on the bus are sympathetic, but don't want to get themselves hurt for someone they barely know. Richard completely loses perspective and rails against anyone who's not working to help Susan.

We get a great sense of how much of an ordeal this is, the stitching scene is painful to watch, and it's all capped by the fantastic scene at the payphone. I'd seen that image in all the film's promotional material, but in the context of the film, it's absolutely devestating. In that moment, Pitt makes you forget about Brangelina and all that tabloid stuff. He's so in that moment, and the juxtaposition of his son's happy recounting of his day with Pitt's crying is phenomenal. It's even more affecting because of what we know will happen after this conversation, the ordeal that the kids will go through. That's the best use of the chronological displacement, to completely change the meaning of this conversation by showing the other end now. 21 Grams felt like the time displacement had no particular purpose, here it's carefully considered and makes for a killer emotional moment.

The other end of that conversation leads to another great plot thread. Towards the end, the story confronts you with the outside perspective of what happened. Amelia wanted to go to a wedding in Mexico, so she took the kids she was supposed to be watching across the border with her drunk driving nephew, then abandoned them in the desert so she could flee the police. But, going through it with her, we have a completely different perspective on the events. We are so immersed in her subjectivity, it's painful at the end when the police won't even consider her side of the story.

What makes this storyline work is primarily her deep connection to the kids. It's basically a parent-child relationship, and I think she has some pride in taking them to her home and showing them her culture. They are having fun at the wedding and she is too, I love that the scenes there are played with joy in the moment, it's a temporary escape from everything else around them, into music and dancing. That makes it even worse when things go awry towards the end.

A series of small mistakes at the border leads to the major mistake, when Santiago drives off. The costuming and makeup on Amelia at the end tells us all we need to know about her state of mind. She is completely lost, and it makes sense for her to go off in search of help. The ending is tough because we know she'll never get a chance to tell Richard her side of the story, and even if she does, he won't care. He'd have to see it from her point of view, as we did, to really understand what happened.

That leaves one storyline, the highlight of the movie and the one that really makes it more than anything Inarritu had done before. Chieko is a Kim Ki-Duk heroine in a Wong Kar-Wai world, and her story is so powerful I think Inarritu might have been smart to make it into a standalone feature. Kim Ki-Duk uses the inability to speak as a way to show the distance between people, and also the deep connections we can make that transcend words. To him, speech is a societal defense mechanism to guard our rawest emotions. Chieko does not have this option, she struggles to express herself, and winds up seeing her physicality as the only option.

Chieko has a deep pain from her lack of connection with the world around her. The sequences in which the sound cuts out and we see the world as she does, people talking, musicians playing, but no sound, are startingly effective in showing how she experiences the world. I was wishing we could hear what was going on, and then was only after a short shot, it would be agonizing to view the world like that all the time. The scene where the guy comes up to her at the arcade game and she is unable to communicate with her is painful. The rest of the film has a lot of raw stuff, but it takes place on a big, global canvas. I feel like her storyline is much more relatable, Richard may be struggling to find help for his wife, but eventually he will, and then he can return home to a comfortable, easy world. Chieko does not have that option, she will always find it difficult to connect with 'normal' people.

Seeing her failure with him, she decides to use the asset that speaks loudest, her body. In seeking physical affection from all around her, she is trying to break the shell that distances her from the world. She cannot hear, cannot talk, but she can still feel, and evne if it's fleeting, she wants to experience that kind of communication that transcends words.

The film's best sequence, and one of the best in any film this year, is when Chieko goes to the club with her friends. She seems to be making a connection with that guy, he understands her inability to hear and is able to deal with it. They forge a connection while moving through the city and when they enter the club, she almost seems to hear the music. In the moment when she sees her best friend making out with that guy, she shatters, both her best hope for love and her best friend gone. She now drifts through the streets alone. What makes the moment so powerful is the whiplash transistion from Chieko's happiness to complete devestation, from inifinite possibility to sad resignation.

Stepping back from analysis, let me just say that the club sequence was visually dazzling. I love the swirling lights and strobe effect, particularly on Chieko after she sees him kissing her friend. I also love the way he cut the music out to give us a sense of what it's like for Chieko at the club. We watch as she seems to hear the music by watching everyone else dancing, and then struggles with the transistion between songs. It's so visually excessive, immersing you in this moment and I absolutely love it. This is what cinema should be.

So, Chieko is absolutely desperate for some kind of connection, so she calls the police officer. She wants someone who won't be able to turn her down, just someone to be with, who she assumes will want to be with her. She tells him what she thinks he wants to hear, and tries to keep him from leaving. Then, she emerges naked and stands in front of him. This nudity was necessary because it emphasizes her vulnerability. She has no power in the situation, offering him all of her, forcing herself on him, and crying when he rejects her. She just wants to feel, but societal restrictions constantly get in the way. There's something so sad about that, and it's easy to imagine her mind buzzing, desperate to tell someone how she feels, but unable to do so.

Completely rejected, she stands out on the balcony, contemplating suicide. It's her father who finally holds her hand, reaching out and breaking through the shell she lives in. She is desperate to feel, desperate to know that someone does love her and she isn't completely alone, and he's the only one who's able to do that for her. Here, I think she realizes that throwing herself at men isn't going to get her what she wants, there's a deeper kind of feeling, a catharsis she finds at the film's end.

I thought this storyline was just amazing. I really liked the rest, and it wasn't like I was just waiting for her to come back, but it had so many of my favorite things in cinema, and such a fantastic visual environment to work in. It would have been easy to not include it and make the film narratively tighter, but for me, it was the highlight of the film.

Throughout the film, there was a great emphasis on visual storytelling. The language differences, and a deaf protagonist, meant traditional dialogue wasn't going to cut it. So, we got a lot of visual communication, but throughout, there were also moments with no dialogue, dwelling on wonderful images. The score, with its driving, looping rhythmic build worked great with these moments, particularly at the end of the film. It was never cloying, creating a mood that allows us to feel rather than telliing us when to do so.

I think this was easily the best of the Inarritu trilogy. It was the most ambitious, with a mix of locations and characters. But, what really made it work was that I cared about the characters and was right with them on their emotional journeys. I've also got to give respect to the acting throughout, with everyone immersing themselves in character, an immersion that allows us the audience to completely accept the narrative reality. This is a great film and I think you'll be seeing later this week on my top ten list.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Babylon 5: 'Points of Departure' and 'Revelations' (2x01 & 2x02)

By the end of the first season, things were picking up, but they really come together with the beginning of the second season. There's more subplots and they're all interesting, rather than struggling to fill the hour with a standalone plot, we're overflowing with story and I'm really eager to see more.

The season opener introduces our new captain, John Sheridan. The transition between him and Sinclair is pretty smooth, tying into the larger storyline with the Minbari well. I'd complain that we never got a better farewell to Sinclair, but I wouldn't want to see O'Hare trying to act an emotional farewell scene. I didn't hate the guy, he just didn't have much range. When he needed to be in charge of station business, he was fine, but when he was put in peril or had to dig deep emotionally, he didn't seem to have what it takes.

Bruce Boxleitner seems to have better acting chops, even though we're still getting introduced to him in these first two episodes. His acting in the scenes with his sister was stronger than what we'd seen from Sinclair. He feels more human, and that's critical to making the show emotionally relatable. We've already got Ivanova to cover the stoic side of things, it'll be nice to have someone who's a bit more open. I wouldn't say he instantly erases any memory of the previous commander, but the transistion was as smooth as any replacement of a show's main character can be.

I was a bit surprised with the lack of Londo and G'Kar in the season premiere. I suppose the need to introduce Sheridan meant there wasn't time for them, but still, it meant the premiere was missing something. Despite the development with Delenn, the Minbari remain the least interesting of the alien races. The Earth-Minbari war is clearly critical to the show's mythology, but this re-enactment of it didn't have much dramatic potency.

What was interesting about this episode was the revelation of why the Minbari surrendered. This provides the perfect reason for Sinclair to leave, and also explains why he was charged with command of the station in the first place. I guessed that Delenn was becoming some kind of Minbari-human hybrid, which was confirmed in the next episode. I'm not sure how this will play into the show's overall mythology, but so much of the series is concerned with the different groups trying to find common ground, genetic crossing between species would be a great representation of this. G'Kar is apparently working on his own version of this, though he apparently hasn't slipped one past the goalie and produced a Narn-human hybrid yet.

We also get the introduction of a new character, Warren the fighter pilot. While watching the first season, I said the show needed a Han Solo type, and he's apparently filling that role. We don't get much development, but a more roguish character could be a good contrast to the devotion of the rest of the crew. This episode also has an appearance by Robert Foxworth, of Six Feet Under. And, the show seems to have transistioned into a more serial mode, giving us the annoying cliffhanger of Delenn's emergence from the chrysalis. It's a good sign for the show when I'm really annoyed that the episode has ended.

The second episode followed up on most of the plot threads I was interested in from the first season finale. The opening spotlights the show's improved effects. They're still not great, but I can see why this CG was such a breakthrough. The ships move in dynamic ways, a major constrast from the models on Star Trek: Next Gen. There's something very powerful about the Shadows' attacks, they seem to be working on an entirely different level from the other ships, just cutting right through them.

G'Kar was one of the best characters in the first season, and he's evolved into an even better one here. The petulance is still there, but he's now scared, the unknown threat of the Shadows forcing him into action, even reaching out to Londo. For some reason, we've got a new person playing Na'Toth, the makeup means she looks the same, but the different voice is a bit jarring. Still, the scene with the two of them is fantastic, and also shows that the episode where he wanted that flower for the religious ceremony wasn't just a throwaway. It's a critical setup for what happens here.

Londo, the other standout character, gets drawn deeper into the world of the Shadows. The seemingly innocuous favor Morden asks him for winds up leading to the destruction of a Narn ship, and potentially major trouble for Londo himself. The great tragedy is that Londo is so completely oblivious to the big picture, and what he's done. He's still thinking in individual terms, unaware that everything is threatened. The best moment of the episode, perhaps of the series to date, is when G'Kar realizes that Londo is the one who tipped off the Shadows. This is one of those "It's on" moments, where you just know that something huge is going to happen down the line.

In that moment, it becomes clear how well developed these characters have been. Watching this episode, I was wondering why the show couldn't have just been this good from the start. A large part of it is that the characters and world took time to develop, bringing in the Shadows at the beginning wouldn't have had the same meaning it does now. I'm sure a show today would start right with the Shadow threat, because the patience just isn't there. But, part of it is just sloppy writing in the first half. I think it would have been possible to do the development while still doing some kind of overall arc to ease the show past bad episdoes like 'Infection' and 'TKO.'

This is a pretty packed episode, we also get the emergence of the new Delenn. I covered that above, but I'll just add that it made no sense to have her emergence be so built up as a suspenseful moment when they already showed her new form in the credits. I suspect part of it was they didn't want to have to do the makeup on her, but it also works with the thematic development at this point.

The Garibaldi stuff was also solid, setting up a conspiracy on Earth. As I've said before, the primary moral thesis of the show seems to be Babylon 5 good, everything else bad. So, it would make sense that the Earth government would be just as corrupt as the other races' homeworld. The involvement of the Psi Corps in this is very interesting though, and I'm guessing we'll see Talia stuck in the middle. She's clearly very uncomfortable with a lot of her duties, and may not want to act when the Corps calls upon her.

I thought this episode was fantastic, the show has really picked up and I'm guessing the next episode, 'The Geometry of Shadows' will develop things even more. The show still has a somewhat standalone structure, but there's a lot of ongoing subplots, and that makes it much more interesting to watch.

One thing I haven't mentioned that I think is critical to viewing the show is the fact that it's in the past tense. The opening voiceover comes from some time after the events of the show take place, and seems to indicate that the station no longer takes place. We're watching a story that has seemingly become cultural mythology, and it's logical that we would be given these bits of foreshadowing. That tense ties in with the fact that the whole show is so planned out. Most shows are constructed as they go along, not here, and I think that's why JMS can be confident to do the voiceover like he does. It's unique, and makes for a different kind of viewing experience. It's like the whole story exists, and we're having pieces filled in as we go. The hints give us enough to imagine what we're missing, but only he can fill in the pieces exactly.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Babylon 5: 1x17-1x22

I'm now through the first season and it's pretty clear that this show is something special. On an episode to episode basis, there's still issues, but the bigger picture is emerging and the season finale in particular was a significant leap over everything we'd seen before. There's some tough cliffhangers and I'm excited to see where the show goes in the second season.

'Legacies' develops the distinction between the warrior Minbari and the religious Minbari. Minbari culture seems to draw a lot from Ancient Greece, with the religious analagous to Athens and the warriors like Sparta. This episode sets up Delenn's conflict with Minbari culture as a whole, a conflict that will come to its head down the line in 'Babylon Squared.' It didn't quite make sense to me why the Minbari warrior guy blamed the Babylon security team for losing the body when he made such a big deal about having his own people watch it.

The more interesting part of this episode was the b plot with Ivanova and Talia fighting over the future of young telepath Alisa. Once again we see Ivanova's deep aversion to the Psi Corps, as well as more contrasting of the alien cultures. The actress playing Alisa is pretty bad, but the people around her get some good material, so the storyline was worthwhile. Whoever's the casting director on the show really needs to be fired, what kind of show loses three of its actors after the pilot because they were too bad? And, other than the old school sci-fi people, nearly all the one time guest stars are bad.

'A Voice in the Wilderness' has some good stuff, but doesn't really pick up until the second part. The planet storyline seems motivated more by a desire to show off effects than a story that needed to be told. I did like Londo and Delenn going into action, particularly Londo getting in touch with something more noble present in him. But, ultimately this wasn't that compelling.

As a two parter, I've got to question the bizarre placement of the cliffhanger. There were numerous obvious stopping points, like the Captain trapped in the cave, but instead they stop on a seemingly arbitrary point when something comes through the gate.

The best part of this episode is Garibaldi's attempts to get in touch with Lise. We see him more serious than usual, and the ending, where he finds out she's married, is devestating. I was not expecting that, and you can tell it totally destroys him. It's the toughest emotional moment of the series so far.

'Babylon Squared' is a strong episode on its own terms, following the mysterious reappearance of Babylon 4 and the evacuation of everyone on it. However, what's really interesting here is the hints about the future of the series. I'm not sure if the screwy time displacement is related to the Shadows or not, but clearly it will play an important purpose down the line. Zathras was a bit of a goofy character, but he says some stuff that could be of major interest down the line, specifically this idea of the one. Why does he say Sinclair isn't the one when he apparently is?

The glimpses of the future we see during the battle are very interesting. There's massive chaos on Babylon 5, presumably as a result of the Shadow invasion. But, the most interesting scene in the episode is the revelation of the one. Sinclair apparently went back in time to try and change things, but he received the time stabilizer too late, so he was unable to convey whatever message he's trying to convey. This is clearly a Sinclair from the future, and considering he apparently leaves the series after the first season, having him go on some kind of mission outside of time would be a good reason for his exit from the station. It seems that Sinclair is going around with Delenn, the reason she's not shown probably has something to do with the transformation she's undergoing at the end of the season. She's had a plan for Sinclair for a long time, and going outside of time is apparently a part of it.

The whole idea of having a Sinclair from the future come back is probably a bit less shocking than it would have been back in 1994. Something similar was done on this season of Heroes. However, the knowledge that JMS actually has the series mapped out means that this is more than a gimmicky ending, it will actually tie into something that happens down the line. As the season has gone on, it's become clear that most of the episodes do have a purpose beyond just the single story, this season is all about setting up the world of the show so that we can move into the conflict with the Shadows next year. The knowledge that we're actually going somewhere makes it a lot easier to accept the show's flaws. I'm assuming that Babylon 4 still has a major part left to play in the overall story of the show.

'A Quality of Mercy' features three different storylines. The one involving Laura Rosen and her medical machine has some interesting thematic stuff, but is generally underwhelming. The most important part is what it says about Dr. Franklin, he's someone who's locked into his specific idea of what medicine should be, and has trouble believing that something outside the norm could actually be useful for combatting illness. This is the most development we've got with him since 'Believers.' While the issues are interesting, the stories centered around him usually aren't the show's best.

Elsewhere, we get more development of Talia's fear of being in serial killer minds. I'm assuming that she'll come in conflict with the Psi Corps down the line as a result of what her duty does to her. So far, she's been a great proponent of the Psi Corps, and it would make sense for her faith in the organization to be challenged.

The funniest storyline here is Londo taking Lennier under his wing. Considering what happens in the next episode, this one does a good job of again setting up Londo as a selfish, manipulative guy. This is a good example of using comedy to set up character traits that will then pay off in a dramatic fashion down the line. It makes him uneasy when Lennier takes the blame for what happened, he is out for himself so much that it shocks him when someone acts so selflessly.

It all builds up to 'Chrysalis,' a really strong first season finale. Much like Buffy's 'Prophecy Girl,' this episode is a jump over everything that's come before, paying off a lot of development while setting up a lot more questions that will presumably be dealt with in the second season. There's development on a lot of fronts, so I'll tackle it character by character.

Sinclair gets engaged to Sakai, the most significant development in any character's personal life in the whole series. O'Hare has gotten better, but I still feel like he doesn't have the capacity for emotion that's needed to make truly powerful moments. He feels very theatrical, while TV rewards the smallest emotional reactions. The best TV acting is when the person seems to be the character, as in the case of Peter Krause on Six Feet Under or James Gandolfini on The Sopranos. It's tough to watch them in something else because they seem to belong so thoroughly to the world of their specific show. But, judging from what I've read about the show, JMS isn't going for that sort of method style realism. He restricts improv and that means there's more of a distance between the actor and their role. The actors are there in service of his overall story, rather than in a collaborative role. The show's strength is its massive, detailed arc, not its characters, at least so far. If this is Sinclair's last episode, he doesn't get much of a sendoff.

Londo gets some very interesting development. Throughout the series, he's been a morally ambiguous character, but at his core, good. Now, Morden and the Shadows give the Centauri a great advantage over the Narn and Londo stands to benefit, but he's uncomfortable with the sacrifice that power required. He does have a conscience, but it is so frequently sublimated behind his desire for power and wealth that even he forgets about it. Londo is the show's most interesting character and this deal with the Shadows opens up a lot of possibilities. He is now endebted to the shadows, and he'll likely be given another situation where he will have to sacrifice life for power. A while back, I said he was primarily funny hair and an accent. No longer.

The scene where the Narn base was destroyed was very effective. Despite the CGness of the effects, we still got the power of the Shadows and the extent of their destruction. The scene with Sinclair and G'Kar was very strong, bouncing from the comedy of his trio of women to the heavier stuff, in which Sinclair articulates the history of the Narn. They are trying to avoid ever being taken over again, as they were by the Centauri, and have completely overcompensated, becoming the destroyers of other planets. It seems that G'Kar and the Narn will be the first to fight the Shadows, he's already aware that some new power has announced itself in the galaxy.

Over with the humans, we get another very effective space destruction scene, in which the President's ship is destroyed. This episode piles on a lot of bad developments, and by the time the ship is destroyed, you're already pretty raw. Seeing Ivanova crying was one of the most powerful images of the series yet. Garibaldi's injury was a bit of a stock cliffhanger, but it worked well to set up the extent of the conspiracy on the fleet. Presumably, the Shadows had paid Deveraux to send the jamming equipment to the president's ship, and now their agent on the ship is clearing up the loose ends. I love this sort of vast conspiracy stuff, the whole episode had a very X-Files feel, with a whole bunch of epic events occurring across the galaxy.

The final, most mysterious thread is Delenn's transformation. She offers to tell Sinclair what happened to him on the line, betraying the orders of the Grey Council. Unfortunately, he doesn't get to her in time and when we last see her, she's in some kind of weird cocoon, undergoing a transformation. I'm not sure what this transformation entails, or why she's doing it, but I would guess it will move her away from Minbari tradition and could cause a rift with the Grey Council. And, will we ever learn the mystery of the Line?

So, this was a great season finale. It reminds me of, as I said before, Buffy's 'Prophecy Girl,' and The X-Files' 'The Erlenmyer Flask,' all the series' best episodes to date, raising the bar for emotional intensity and mythological scope. I wasn't fully sold on the show until around 'Signs and Portents,' and ever since then, it's been layering in more and more elements of the overall story. An episode like 'Babylon Squared' makes you appreciate the five year plan because it's clear these aren't just random ideas thrown out there to see what will stick, it's a carefully layered and plotted thing, with occasional bits of foreshadowing thrown in to tease future events. I'm sure that episode means a lot more after watching the whole series, but for now, I'm satisfied by knowing there's a mystery out there, one that will eventually be solved.

The first season definitely has a lot of issues, but I think its badness is a bit exaggerated. It takes a while to get used to the storytelling style, particularly if you're used to something like Battlestar, but once you understand the way the world works, there's a lot to appreciate in each episode. I was meaning to check the show out for a long time, but the bad buzz on the first season kept me from doing so. 'The Gathering' sucked, and the first few episodes are shaky, but I can already see the makings of something very, very special here and I can't wait to see it develop.

Luckily, I had a lot of time over the Holidays to burn through the first season quickly. It's on to the second tomorrow. I could see this show reaching Buffy levels of addiction, because it's not just using the same old TV drama tricks. It's a different style of storytelling, a vast mythology waiting to be uncovered. So, it draws on The X-Files tradition, but here, there actually is logical development, not just make it up as you go along storytelling.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Best of 2006: Top 10 TV Series

It was a pretty good year for TV. Three of the series on this list are new ones, and a couple of old ones reached new heights. Perhaps best of all, only one series on the list is over, so we could see some returners next year.

10. Entourage

It wasn't the show's best season, but it's still one of the warmest, funniest comedies on TV. The characters may not be the most admirable, but the show maes you appreciate them for what they are. There's a large element of fantasy here, but it's not like they're flaunting their wealth, it's like you're a part of their crew, the fifth member of the entourage. This season's highlight was the Almost Famous homage in the second episode, and Martin Landau's guest arc. The ending took a convincing turn to the dramatic, with a great cliffhanger that sets us up for an interesting fourth season.

9. Heroes

The show suffers a bit from Lost syndrome, namely the sense that they're making it up as they go along with the goal of keeping the audience watching rather than putting character development at the priority, but every single episode has delivered something fascinating and worth watching. It's one of the best looking shows on TV, and while it might not reach Watchmen level, it's at least up to Rising Stars level in terms of a superheroes in the real world story. If the show does pay off the major hints they've been laying, we could be in for something really special. I'm happy that such a decidedly genre show is finding success with a mainstream audience.

8. Rescue Me

I'm still going through the third season, up to episode nine, but it's been good enough to place it here on the list. The show is capable of incredibly powerful scenes, as we watch Tommy's cold exterior crack, some very broad and hilarious comedy, and also some missteps. But, the show's remarkably consistent, I've never disliked an episode, and even though some of the developments in this season were contrived, the cast makes it watchable. If nothing else, Leary and Tolan manage to perfectly capture this world and the values of those who live in.

7. Big Love

I wasn't too keen on this show when I first watched it, but it grew one me as the season went on. The characters developed nicely, particularly Margie and Sarah. The conflicts between the internal values of the Henrickson's and the world at large are ripe for drama, and give the series a central moral focus that prevents it from drifting off into soap opera. I'm not sure if there's five seasons of drama in this show, but there's a couple more at least, and a cast this good can make even fairly standard scripts into gold. In terms of pure acting chops, no cast on TV can match this bunch.

6. Gilmore Girls

This ranking is for the end of the sixth season, not the stuff that's aired in this TV season. That year was one of the show's best, finishing the story of Lorelai's deep repression depression surrounding the sudden appearance of Luke's daughter April. Lauren Graham did her best work in the series' entire run, culminating in her wedding toast breakdown and rush to Christopher at the end of the year. The show's millieu never changed, but now we could see deep pain beneath Lorelai's snappy banter. It was tough to watch, but made for incredibly compelling TV.

5. 24

After the first season of 24, I thought it would be impossible to top it, certainly nothing could match the scope of having Jack's family kidnapped and a presidential assassin on the loose. Well, each season has raised the bar, and this was no exception. I'm not sure if it was better that season four, but we got some of the best stuff on the show yet. The opening, wiht Palmer and Michelle's death was shocking, and Edgar's death was one of the saddest moments of the series to death. More than before, we got a sense of how the day's events affected those involved. And, as always, at the center was Jack Bauer. I like that the show now acknowledges Bauer's superhuman skill at saving the world. This is better than any action you'll see in the movie theater.

4. Friday Night Lights

The best new show of the year, this is that rare show that has a totally distinct voice. Like Freaks and Geeks, this may use a high school setting and some soapy plotlines, but it belongs our reality rather than TV reality, and that's refreshing. The cinematography is consistently fantastic, as is the music. Lately, the characters are getting deeper, and the show's getting funnier. It's smart, entertaining and addictive, everything a great TV show should be.

3. Battlestar Galactica

If I was grading the show on its best work, the seven episode run from Downloaded to Exodus II, this'd easily be at number one. At its best, no show on TV can match the moral complexity and scope of the series. However, the other episodes have been frustratingly uneven. It's precisely because the show can be so good that it's tough to watch an off week. But, the good definitely outweighs the bad, the first four episodes of this season was one of the best runs of any show ever.

2. Arrested Development

Only five episodes aired this year, but they were some of the series' best. In the final run, things just went off the rails into increasingly bizarre territory. There was the absurdly meta Save Our Bluths, followed by the classic Justine Bateman hooker episode. Then the Iraq episode and finally the series finale. When the show got cancelled, I was really hoping it'd get picked up by Showtime, but the series finale did such a good job of tying everything up, I didn't need anymore. The show was always odd, but never more so than in the final run. It's the best sitcom ever to air on American television, and at least the cancellation means we'll never have to suffer through a compromised or lesser version of the show.

1. The Sopranos

This season received a lot of criticism, largely because of the two year gap between the fifth and sixth seasons. The first half of the season was as strong as the show's ever been, with a run of six classics. The Sopranos seems to operate on a whole different level from every other show. While I love Six Feet Under and Buffy more, they feel like typical TV shows done at the absoulte apex of the form. The Sopranos is artier, more challenging and ambiguous. When you watch a bad episode of most shows, you usually think you're smarter than the show. Watching the backhalf of the season, I felt like I wasn't smart enough to fully appreciate it. Chase deliberately messed with our expectations and it was frustrating. I think he might have gone too far in dedramatizing things, but he's always succeeded by doing things differently, and even if this isn't setup for something big in the final miniseason, it's still compelling on its own merits. The show is about the decline of the mob, and it's fitting that we see Tony not go out in a bang, but instead just fade out. The end of the season did a good job of dramatizing that change. It might not be as far ahead of everything else as it once was, but the show is still operating on another level from the rest of television. That's why it's the best show of the year.

Babylon 5: 1x13-1x16

The first episode in this chunk is the title episode of the season, 'Signs and Portents.' It's the series' strongest episode so far, full of teases about the future, the introduction of what I'm assuming will be the series' main villain, and even a pretty solid effects sequence with the final battle.

I'm assuming that the "What do you want" guy is a Shadow operative, seeking out the ambassador most susceptible to corruption to use as an in for getting access to the station. One of the best things about the episode was the way it built up the raiders as a pretty impressive foe, and gives you a triumphant finale when they defeat that force. Then, everything shifts when the Shadow ship comes out of nowhere and destroys the raider ship. That's a pretty dramatic announcement of presence.

I was already aware that something called the Shadows would be part of the show's mythology, so I got what Ladira was talking about with the prophecy that Lord Kiro would be killed by Shadows. But, it was still a great entrance when they appeared. Kiro's weakness is his greed, and it looks like Londo will be similarly challenged, his desire for wealth placed against his obligation to do good. As he says, he is out to bring the Centauri, and himself, back to glory, and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

The "What do you want?" guy was a bit gimmicky, but I think he worked well to clarify the various ambassadors' goals. JMS likes posing the same question to the different alien species because it gives us a chance to understand their cultural values through their response. Here, we see that the desires of the various species may not peacefully coexist, they will either have to compromise or go to war.

I also liked the followup on Sinclair's missing day. This thread has been building, and here we learn that the only reason he's in charge is because the Minbari insisted on him. I'd guess that we'll see a conflict between the warrior caste and the religious caste, with Delenn caught in the middle. I'm not sure if we'll see Delenn actually betray Sinclair, rather I think she'll get caught in a moral quandry, trapped between her duty to the Minbari and her friendship with Sinclair. But, clearly we're heading for some trouble down the line.

The other notable element of the episode is the final vision. Here we see the station on fire, a shuttle flees, then it explodes. As Ladira says, the future is always in motion, but I'm guessing you don't set up the station blowing up, then not pay it off at the end, particularly considering the opening voiceover, which calls Babylon 5 "the last of the Babylon stations." I'd guess that somehow sacrificing the station will help defeat the Shadows, or some other foe, and in its death, the galaxy finds some kind of peace. But, we'll see. There's still a lot of episodes to go.

After the goodness of 'Signs and Portents,' we crash back down with one of the worst episodes yet, 'TKO.' I don't know why sci-fi producers continually think boxing episodes are a good idea. Battlestar's worked in spite of the boxing and Angel's 'The Ring' was one of the series' weakest episodes. This episode doesn't even have any of our major characters in danger, it's just a random guy. It's not that awful, but there's very little of use in the main storyline.

Ivanova's subplot does give us some good character background on her. The death of her father was shown, but barely touched upon, and it's good to see a followup. That said, the Rabbi character was a bit stereotypical and it was pretty obvious that Ivanova would eventually agree to sit shiva with him. But, this episode gives us a real glimpse behind her tough exterior, and that makes it worthwhile.

There's another rather weak episode after this, the nonsensical 'Grail.' I'm not sure whose idea it was to bring the quest for the Holy Grail into the Babylon 5 world, but it doesn't really work. I suppose the point is that the act of searching is more important than the result, but it comes off a bit ridiculous. One of the major weak links is the guy playing Jinxo, who's just ridiculously bad. The scene with him and Sinclair together was almost too much bad acting to take.

All through the episode, I was trying to figure out who the guy playing Aldous was. A trip to IMDB revealed that he was Thomas Eckhardt from Twin Peaks. He brought some real gravity to the role and even looked pretty good attacking people with his staff. He sold the material as best as he could, but it was just so ridiculous, it was hard to take.

The episode's best parts involved William Sanderson and his Kosh related scheme. Kosh remains mysterious, and his anonymous suit makes it easy for people to take advantage of his mysterious reputation.

Next up was 'Eyes,' a bounce back after a couple of down episodes. Here, we see the consequences of everything the core three have done over the course of the series start to catch up with them. Talking about 'By Any Means Necessary,' I said Sinclair seemed to avoid any real blame for what he did, but here that's addressed, and it's clear that he caused a lot of problems with Earth Central. This episode deals with one of the series' central conflicts, Sinclair's conflict between his loyalty to Earth and his loyalty to the station.

The episode draws on a lot of past events, particularly what happened in 'Mind War.' Ivanova's deep fear of psychic probes is interesting, that's the one thing that punctures her stoicism. I like that she doesn't whine about having to submit, she just submits her resignation. She's someone who just does sutff and doesn't think much about it. Her feelings seem to haunt her, like she's so desperate to hold onto that moment of psychic contact with her mother, she won't ever let anyone else in.

This episode also has the funny, but rather nonsensical subplot involving the motorcycle. Lennier's intrigued reaction to the motorcycle as a symbol of 'rebellion and sexual prowess' is great, though the CG on their final ride through the station doesn't quite make it.

So, there were a couple of duds here, but also the show's best episode yet. More than anything, it's becoming clear that the show has a deep memory, every action has consequences and something big is coming up shortly, with the threat of the shadows.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Babylon 5: 1x10-1x12

These three episodes continue the trend of the last three, featuring main stories that are alright, but full of a lot of interesting background stuff that further develops the world and the characters. If I was watching the show through when it first aired, without assurances that it would improve, I would probably be frustrated by the way it was going, but knowing that things will pick up shortly, I'm pretty pleased with how it's developing.

Most shows that come on draw on archetypes we're already familiar with, for both characters and setting. Watching Rescue Me, we're already familiar with the context of these peoples' lives, there's no need to clarify exactly what a firehouse is or why they're doing the things they do. That makes it a lot easier to jump right into the action. There's no need to clarify what happened on 9/11, that's part of our cultural memory, but the Earth-Minbari War or the ongoing feud between the Centauri and the Narn isn't. So, it's going to take a while to get things started, and that's why I'm forgiving of the flaws of this season. Using fiction to create a plausibly other world is something that's not attempted too much, but when it succeeds, as in the case of Lord of the Rings or Star Wars, you create a new form of cultural mythology. To create another world and make it believable is the closest humans can get to being gods.

But, if he is a god, JMS still has to work on some of the basics. While the world may be other, a lot of the plots are fairly standard. For example, 'Believers' sets up a fairly standard medical drama plot, clearly drawing parallels to Earth's extreme religious groups and their conflict with science. There's a lot of potential story there, but the route they choose is fairly standard. I admire this episode for the ending, where the parents kill their son. That was an unexpectedly gutsy move and gives the episode pretty much all the power that it does have.

This recent run of episodes seems designed to focus on one of the supporting cast and give them some development. This was the episode for Dr. Franklin and it does a good job of setting up his values, and showing how his total devotion to the practice of medicine could end up causing major problems down the line. In this case, the parents just killed their own son, but if he does something like this again, they might end up going after Franklin himself. He seems perfectly ready to leave the station, almost like he wants to be martyred for his beliefs. In that respect, we see how he's not too different from the religious extremists he's railing against.

The other interesting sequence in this episode was when the family goes to the various alien ambassadors and tries to get them to take up their cause. It does a good job of showing the species' attitudes, with the Narn out for power, the Centauri out for money and the Vorlons remaining decidedly ambiguous. This is an episode that would look utterly ridiculous out of context, you've got to just accept the show's world if you're going to enjoy it.

'Survivors' is the best of the three episodes, though it still suffers from some clumsy execution. Once again, a person from one of the characters' pasts returns, thankfully Lianna is not an old lover. One thing the show really needs to work on is the fightscenes, they've all been pretty lame so far, perhaps closer to real fights than most TV stuff, but the big sound effects betray that reality. It's tough to do good fights on a weekly TV series, but this one looks like they just roll the camera and tell the actors to improv it.

The episode reveals some darker layers of Garibaldi than we'd previously seen. He's an alcoholic who has failed at countless security jobs before coming to Babylon 5. This tells us that either he really turned it around at some point, or Earth has such total disregard for Babylon 5, they'd send this frequent failure to head the station's security team. The best scene of the early going is the meeting between Londo and Garibaldi. Londo is always out for his own self interest, and he's one of the most interesting characters on the show so far, sometimes going a bit broad, but always entertaining.

The creature bar sequence was a bit predictable, the drunkenness coming off like TV drunk acting, not real drunkenness. But, I did like when Lianna finds Garibaldi and says "Drunk again, Uncle Mike?" It's a line that could be cheesy, but it worked really well in context and made clear that this guy has a lot of unresolved issues from his past. Babylon 5 is his last hope to save his name.

Rather predictably, he finds a way to save face and prevents the fighters from being blown up. What I did really like was the way this was tied to the previous attacks from Homeforce. There's been a lot more continuity lately, much like Buffy season one, even though it's generally standalone episodes, the characters clearly remember what happened from week to week. Earthforce is building as an enemy of the station and I assume they'll play a bigger role as the series goes forth.

Much like Rachel the replicant, Lianna lets her hair down and opens up to Garibaldi in the end. Things turn out well, but the episode is still tense, and does a good job of showing the conflict between the station and Earth Central.

'By Any Means Necessary' is a riff on the classic mining strike story, even referencing Matewan. I've seen the movie Matewan and this didn't do anything that I haven't seen before. A number of episodes have tried to make the point that the world of Babylon 5 isn't much different from ours, and that's good to do, but I think there's a potentially more interesting spin on the strike storyline than this one. Plus, the ending is sort of a copout, it would have been good to have someone from the military saying that losing the money they're now paying the dock workers will make the station less safe. We do get some ambiguity in the fact that Sinclair has now angered Earthcentral, but he still seems to have avoided real consequences of what he did.

The strength of this episode was the conflict between Londo and G'Kar. They're the two best characters on the show and seeing their pettiness matched up against each other was great. It also allowed us to see beyond their over the top comical sides. I love the scene with the hooded G'Kar doing the religious ceremony, there was a real power there. And, having Londo still angry about what happened in the first episode was a great callback. It gives the universe more reality if everything does have lingering consequences.

So, that subplot saved the episode from drifting into cliche. The next episode is called 'Signs and Portents,' also the title of the season, so I'm expecting it to be a pretty big one. We shall see.