Saturday, January 06, 2007

Babylon 5: 'Comes the Inquisitor' and 'The Fall of Night' (2x21 &2x22)

It would be pretty hard to top the greatness of 'The Long, Twilight Struggle,' an episode that plays a lot like a season finale, wrapping up the Narn-Centauri conflict and moving on to a rebuilding phase for the story. These episodes move from payoff to rebuilding, though 'Night' does give us resolution to some major ongoing mysteries and sets things up for a very tumultuous season three.

'Comes the Inquisitor' is reminiscent of 'And the Sky Full of Stars,' both episodes recall The Prisoner and its mindwarping interrogation sequences. The main plot raises some interesting issues about the Vorlons, but ultimately doesn't tell us much we don't already know about the characters. As we find out in the next episode, the Vorlons are likely responsible for many of the supernatural sightings on Earth, be they angels or UFOs. More on that later, in the context of this episode, it seems like the excuse to do a story that JMS wanted to do. I suppose Kosh chooses this moment to test his people because he knows that the great war is about to break out, however it seems rather arbitrary.

The interrogation itself is designed to prove that Delenn and Sheridan are willing to sacrifice themselves, even if it means no glory or honor for themselves. The way things are set up however, it tells me that they're willing to sacrifice themselves for each other. I'm curious to see how their relationship plays out, the end of this episode brings them even closer together, it's one of the major open threads going into season three. If this was a Joss Whedon show, they would be about to get together when Sheridan receives a call letting him know that his wife is still alive. I know that JMS likes to torture the people in his universe, but I haven't seen a tendency to force real pain on his main characters, as Joss did so frequently.

Having recently read From Hell, the revelation that this guy is Jack the Ripper is interesting in that it's more evidence of the power of Jack as mythology, to linger long after the man is dead. Sebastian even comments, he is remembered, but not as a person, only as Jack, this culturally constructed mythological figure. Even more than the in story content, the fact that JMS chose to make a story using Jack the Ripper is evidence of the killings' lingering fascination in our society.

Elsewhere, G'Kar struggles to maintain his fragile power base. The best moment here is in the elevator with Vir. Vir has previously been used primarily as a comic character and contrasting that behavior with G'Kar's intensity is a great choice. I was guessing that he'd try to use Vir to get a communication from Narn, further developing Vir's uneasiness with the direction of Centauri policy. But, I think the direction they went was a more realistic choice. Sheridan's aid to G'Kar here is critical in setting up the events of the next episode.

In general, this episode was better shot than most. There were a lot of striking closeups used, going closer than the camera usually does on the show. We also got some very strong visual storytelling, as in the afforementioned elevator scene.

That brings us to the finale. This episode was another really strong one, though not quite matching 'Twilight' or 'The Coming of Shadows.' There are some shows, like Buffy or Six Feet Under, where the seasons are structured as individual stories and, consequently, the season finale is a massive payoff. Babylon 5 is structured more like Angel, where the stories drift across seasons, meaning the season finale is less important than it would be on other series. Certainly this is a key episode, but it's just one among six or seven critical episodes in the season.

The most interesting development here is the way the two major plotlines of the season, the rise of the Centauri/Shadow threat and the corruption of Earth's government, come together. The arrival of Lantze comes at the worst possible time, with Sheridan having pledged to guard a Narn ship. Because we've viewed the war largely from the Narn perspective, we're totally behind Sheridan when he tries to offer aid to G'Kar. I particularly like the opening scene with Garibaldi and Sheridan talking about the change in Londo, the fact that you either feel sorry for him or fear him has been exactly my reaction to his development.

Considering it was a season finale, I was expecting something a bit more jampacked with events. The first half of the episode is pretty leisurely, spending a lot of time developing NightWatch. This group has sold a number of station personnel on its mission, and that's beginning to cause problems for the station in general and Zack in particular. There's clearly a communist witchhunt allegory here, with people getting taken down just for criticizing the government. The arrest of the shop owner at the end is a particularly strong visual.

Nightwatch seems to be offering Ivanova the same kind of deal that Morden gave Londo back in 'Signs and Portents.' Welles asks her what she wants and she replies honestly, appreciating any help he might give her, presumbly in exchange for a couple of small favors down the line. I doubt she'll be as stupid as Londo was, but it'd be interesting to have her question Sheridan more next season, and possibly even make a play for command of the station. The human characters are all pretty much unanimous in their support of Sheridan's goals, more conflict between them would add another layer to the next season.

But, there's certainly going to be enough conflict to go around. I was very surprised when Lantze announced the Earth's alliance with the Centauri. I'd just been assuming that Earth would realize the Centauri's danger and eventually side with the Narn, particularly when the Shadows emerged, but having the Earth government aligned with the Centauri actually offers a lot more interesting story possibilities. It puts Sheridan in a tough position, having to work against his own government's agenda.

This is all foreshadowed nicely by G'Kar's speech in the corridor. He's lost so much of his majesty, reduced to being that crazy guy preaching on the street and even hiding behind a bush to be present at the ambassadorial negotiations. He still has a critical piece of information, the connection between Londo and the Shadows, which will likely come into play later in the season.

I'd have liked to see what Delenn thought of the proposed Earth-Centauri alliance. How will that figure in to the existing plans that she made with Kosh? It's not really touched on, but I'm assuming much of next season is spent dealing with Sheridan's split alliance. He's fighting a war on every front now, and even his own ship isn't safe, with Night Watch constantly undermining his authority. If Earth remains aligned with the Centauri, how can he continue to do the diplomatic work Babylon 5 needs to do?

At the end of the episode, Ivanova claims that the station is now the last, best hope for victory. But, what is victory? Isn't victory for Earth now victory for the Centauri? This is another clear World War II parallel, with Earth having won the victory of peace, totally oblivious to the fact that the Centauri will not stop their advances because of a treaty. They will use this treaty as shelter until they have so much power they can overwhelm Earth.

The end of the episode felt a bit rushed. I assumed the 'Great War' meant war with the Shadows, not the Narn-Centauri conflict. But, it's been pretty warrish out there, so I can't really say I was lied to. The final scene, the ISN broadcast of the Shadow video, doesn't seem immediately troubling. But, Delenn claimed that their greatest advantage was that the Shadows didn't know anyone knew about them, this means that advantage is gone.

That leaves one major thing to address from the episode, the revelation of Kosh's true nature. After so much buildup, it would have been easy to disappoint, but this revelation did not. I love the fact that everyone sees him as something different. His glowing light body was very cool, with a truly alien, yet warm feel. That moment is a nice capper to his overall arc for the season, getting more and more drawn into the goings on with the station.

As the season ends, everything is in chaos and we get pretty much no resolution. But, without a gap between the seasons, that's not a problem. Season two was a major leap forward for the show. Season one had a few good episodes, a bunch of okay ones and a bunch of weak ones. Season two had a few truly astonishing episodes, a bunch of good ones and only a few okay ones. I was completely assured that JMS knows what he's doing and that all the pieces we see will resolve themselves in interesting ways. The show went to depths I've rarely seen in fiction, and I'm guessing will go even further before the series is through. On to season three, 'The Point of No Return.'

Friday, January 05, 2007

Babylon 5: 'Divided Loyalties' and 'The Long, Twilight Struggle' (2x19 &2x20)

With these two episodes, it is on. 'Divided Loyalties' has some issues, but is still the best Psi Corps episode yet and, as seems to happen increasingly frequently, I've got to cede the title of best episode yet to 'Twilight Struggle,' which is unlike anything I've ever seen on TV before, or in any other medium for that matter.

The first crucial thread of 'Divided Loyalties' is the return of Lyta Alexander, the telepath from the pilot. I assumed she was dumped due to poor acting, like a couple of others from that episode. However, she's pretty good here, and this is a perfect point to reintroduce her character into the series, with the Vorlons becoming critical to fighting the Shadow War. Lyta brings news of a traitor, sending Babylon 5 into chaos.

This is a densely packed episode. Seeing as its apparently her last episode on the series, Talia and Ivanova's relationship progresses forward quickly, confirming what I'd suspected earlier, that there was something going on between them. Talia has a pretty smooth game, using that air duct problem as the perfect excuse to get closer to Ivanova. I like the dynamic between the two of them, and it would have been interesting to see that relationship move forward. So far, we haven't seen any of the main characters involved in a relationship and it could certainly add another layer to the show.

But, instead of that, we find out that Talia is the traitor. My major issue with this revelation is that it plays out too fast, she wanders in, gets scanned and all of a sudden everything's changed and she's leaving the station. Considering her prominent role in the series to date, a slightly longer farewell would have been nice. Now, it's possible she may return, as they flashback to here, Kosh does have some kind of record of her personality. But, if they were going to try to bring her back, you'd think they'd keep her on the station, not send her off to Psi Corps. I do like the final scene with Talia and Ivanova, with Talia mocking Ivanova's emotional outreach to the old Talia. The story isn't perfectly handled, but it's still very good.

My favorite part of this episode was actually the end, where Lyta goes to see Kosh again. The opening scene, where the guy collapses in the sewer just abused the smoke machine, but here it worked better. Lyta does remember what she saw in Kosh, and it seems to be something so powerful, just returning to that moment gives her peace. The song his mind sings to her is a nice tie in with the ship singing the Doctor to sleep a few episodes ago. She asks him to show her his mind again, he complies and we get a closeup on her eye as she cries. It's one of the show's best visual moments and an unexpected, but perfect, moment to go to credits on.

I've got to see if there's some followup on what happened to Talia, but right now, I feel like everything went down a bit too quickly. I was reading and saw there was some behind the scenes tumult prompting Andrea Thompson to leave the show, but even so, this one deserved a bit more time to breathe. Still, I'm assuming she'll be replaced on the station by Lyta, and she was quite good in this episode, I'm eager to see how she develops.

I thought that was a good episode, but after seeing 'The Long, Twilight Struggle' it feels like a mere diversion. This episode is simultaneously the show's biggest, with two massive space battles and multi-planet spanning action, and its most emotionally focused, as the radically divergent arcs of G'Kar and Londo continue to play out.

The episode starts with Londo on Centauri Prime, being asked to use his Shadow allies, just one more time. This has happened before, and as before, Londo reluctantly agrees, even though recent events have shown that he has no reason to trust Refa. He feels that he has started down a path and must see his destiny through to its end. While he has done some awful, awful things in the past, this act goes beyond that, turning him into a genocial mass murderer. After 'The Coming of Shadows,' I thought Londo had gone as far as he could go, but this took everything to another level.

It's tough to watch as the Narns arrange the military operation that will bring about their own destruction. JMS likes to give his characters the chance to avert their destinies, G'Kar finds out the Centauri know about their planned attack, and he tries to get his government to turn back, but they, like Londo, feel that they have started down a path and must see things through. G'Kar has moved beyond this kind of thinking, he's become more rational, but he can't convince his people to do the smart thing and protect the homeworld. By giving characters foreknowledge of what will happen, JMS actually gives them more agency. They are not victims of plot manipulations, rather, they are shown a potential future and are given the chance to turn back or keep going. Unfortunately, everyone seems to keep going.

The Shadows once again rout a Narn force. The effects here are fantastic, and the Shadows remain a powerful visual. It's tough to watch them tear through the Narn ships. When the guy decided to turn back, I was like "Ok, that's smart," but then the Shadows break out the hyperspace destroying weapon and all the Narn are killed. That moment was just harrowing, the whole sequence is very powerful. Beyond any future narrative purpose, the jump destroying weapons fit in perfectly with the theme. In both Londo and the General's case, they're given the chance to turn back, but cross the point of no return. The General comes to his senses, but it's too late, he cannot escape the fate he has chosen.

This segues into another dazzling space battle, as the Centauri bombard the Narn homeworld. This sequence is also deeply powerful, playing on our own fears about weapons of mass destruction. The Centauri have clearly crossed a line that civilized people should not cross. Their leaders are only concerned with conquering territory and trying to achieve a semblance of this mythologized Centauri empire. Londo standing on the deck, watching the battle is one of the best images the show has presented so far.

In this episode, we see two Londos. In private, he is deeply conflicted about what he's done, arguing with Refa, only grudgingly agreeing to use the Shadows. He never saw the consequences of his actions firsthand until now and I think that destruction deeply distrubs him. He's a fundamentally moral person, but has gotten caught up in this web of bad decisions that pushed him over the line. In that moment, he knows it and dreads the eventual consequences of his actions.

However, when we see him in public, he is fiercer and more in command than ever. Londo dreamt of becoming Emperor, and now he is aware of just how much power is potentially at his command. In the Council scene, any vestige of the fun loving guy of the first season is gone, when he yells at Delenn and Sheridan, we see only a monster.

Concurrent with Londo's rise is G'Kar's fall. It's been heartbreaking to watch his journey over the course of this season, as every thing goes wrong for him. It all began in 'Revelations,' when he realized that Londo may have collaborated with the Shadows in destroying the Narn colony. From there, it's gotten worse, he is powerless to stop the Narn from attacking the Centauri supply lines and can't even go to Narn to die with his people. Instead, he is forced to seek sanctuary from Babylon 5.

The scene in the council meeting is just devestating as we watch this once proud man reduced to absolute nothing. He sits hunched over, just taking whatever Londo tells him. In this episode, the show goes incredibly dark, not only is the entire Narn homeworld conquered, the Centauri force upon them an incredibly strict peace treaty that leaves them with no agency at all. I was shocked by how bad things got here, I criticized the show early on for its sitcom like happy endings. That has totally changed, I've never seen a show follow through on the consequences of developments like this one has. There is no status quo, characters are constantly changing and the situation is constantly getting worse. The worse things get, the more satisfying the eventual victory is. Because the show has gone to such a dark place, it means that any small victory will have huge meaning. That's what made the miniseries and New Caprica arcs of Battlestar Galactica so powerful, and here, we seem to headed for something that will dwarf even those fantastic stories.

G'Kar's defiant speech to Londo gives us at least a measure of consolation. He walks out of the room proud, even though he is powerless, he has the desire for freedom and that will fuel him long after Molari's lust for power burns out. That scene is incendiary, G'Kar and Londo were great together back in the comedy days of season one, now there's so much between them, you can't help but think of Londo's dream and the inevitable end for these two.

G'Kar's final scene with Sheridan reminds us of how close the Centauri and Narn came to peace. He remembers a moment when he saw Londo as an ally, and again we're aware of the disastrous effects of Londo's choices. Each time he is given a chance to draw the line and save lives, and each time he fails to do so. Of course, G'Kar is the one with the most information on the Shadows and is already suspicious of Londo. Connecting Londo to the Shadows could lead to the downfall of the Centauri Republic and help the Narn regain agency over their homeworld.

Elsewhere, we get further development of the Sheridan/Delenn relationship. Before, I was wondering if it was just me seeing something there, but it's pretty clearly in play, Sheridan is aware of Delenn's feelings and he's unsure how he feels about it. I thought I caught a little twitch on Delenn's part when Draal mentioned Sheridan's wife, that could cause some major complication down the line. I wasn't thrilled to see Draal return, but the trip down to Epsilon 3 was entertaining, and the weapons he offers will likely enable Babylon 5 to be the center of the defense against the Shadows. With the two of them, I also really like the opening scene of 'Loyalties,' where we find out Delenn eagerly awaits the Minbari gossip column. Her adoption of human characteristics has been fascinating to watch.

This episode was packed with stuff. I didn't even mention the Rangers, who seem to have a critical role to play. The most intriguing part about that is the fact that Kosh openly supports them. His neutrality is dissipating in light of the imminent start of the war. Things end with an inspirational speech, and the knowledge that within two episodes, the great war will come upon us all.

Just when I think the show can't go darker, or get better, it drops another masterpiece. I can't wait to see how this season resolves itself and then move on to season three: Point of No Return.

2007 Movie Preview

2006 was a pretty good year for cinema, a lot of my favorite directors had projects coming out, and most of them turned out quite good. And next year looks like it should have an equally exciting plethora of new films to delight and enthrall.

10. Electroma - This is Daft Punk's film about a robot's quest to be human. It's supposedly very experimental, and seems like the kind of thing that could be either great or tedious depending on your mood. But, I love the trailer and I'm very curious to see what they do as film directors. I'm not sure what the status of this is, it showed at Cannes back in May, but I havent' seen much since. Hopefully it will re-emerge and get a 2007 release.

9. Smiley Face - This year, Gregg Arkai became one of my favorite directors, and I'm eager to see some new work from him. that said, this one sounds like a much more straight ahead mainstream comedy than he's done in the past. There's nothing necessarily wrong with that, as long as he maintains his own voice in there. The plot, surrounding a woman who eats some pot brownies and has a crazy day offers the potential for some Doom Generation or Nowhere style craziness. After the intense drama of Mysterious Skin, he's earned a lighter film.

8. Be Kind Rewind - Another director's lightening up for a more accessible mainstream comedy. However, with Gondry at the helm, it's sure to be idiosyncratic and full of weird, wonderful images. The premise, that a guy who work sat a video store gets zapped with a magnet, erases all the tapes, and has to remake them himself, is absolutely ridiculous, but full of comic potential. Jack Black is great in the right role, and this sounds like it has the potential to harness that School of Rock go getterness. The combination of him and Gondry should be brilliant.

7. Grindhouse - Tarantino has never made a film that's less than great, and he's only gotten better as time passed. So, I'm going to check out anything he does. That said, I feel like this film will allow him to indulge all his worst instincts, and the premise, a slasher film with a car as the killer, is pretty inane. Without considering the director, the Robert Rodriguez side of the project looks a lot more interesting, Rose McGowan with the machine gun leg is genius and we've even got Freddy Rodriguez, Six Feet Under's Rico, in the film. Ultimately, I think this will be a joycore film, full of so much love from the creators, you can't help but get caught up in it.

6. Sweeney Todd - Burton made a virtually unmatched run of quality films from 1988-1994, but since then he's been a bit underwhelming. After the good, but not great Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I said that he should do a musical, so I was excited to hear he'll be adapting Sweeney Todd. I haven't seen the show, but the subject matter fits perfectly into his visual world. Rarely do you see a musical that fully uses the possibilities of cinema, I'm really excited to see what Tim brings to it. On top of that, there's a fantastic cast, Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman, Sacha Baron Cohen and even Anthony Head. This has the potential to be Burton's best film in a long time.

5. I'm Not There - Normally, I would be disgruntled that we're seeing yet another musician biopic. These films are usually boring reenactments of culturally iconic moments that give no real insight into the person they're interrogating. The only two musician biopics that really worked were Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story and Velvet Goldmine, both directed by Todd Haynes, and what do you know, he's directing this film as well. Haynes is a conniseur of pop culture, using cultural trends to examine the direction of society as a whole. Superstar and Velvet Goldmine are more about a time and place than specific people and I'd imagine this film will be the same. The fact that there's seven actors playing Dylan could potentially be gimmicky, but it makes me think this'll be a crazy, surreal film and that's a good sign. He's never made a bad film and I doubt he'll go wrong here. Plus, the cast is just fantastic: Julianne Moore, Cate Blanchett, Christian Bale, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Heath Ledger to name just a few.

4. There Will Be Blood - Finally we're getting a new Paul Thomas Anderson film. Magnolia is the best film of the past twenty-five years, PTA the rare person who's equally adept at writing and directing. Paul himself said he didn't think he'd ever top Magnolia, and I'd agree, but I'm still eager to see new work. There's not too many details out on the project, but I've got to say, a period piece of this nature is not what I'd really want to see from him. Still, all his films are amazing in their own way, and someone with his talent is going to make films that are full of compelling details even if the whole doesn't work. I'm eager to see some stills or a trailer because right now I really have no idea that this movie will be like. It's just PTA's name that earned it this place on the list.

3. I'm a Cyborg (But That's OK) - After wrapping up the Vengeance Trilogy in spectacular fashion, Park Chanwook moves on to a lighter, but still odd, comedy. The premise of this one is great and I think it has the potential to be that rare kind of movie that is simultaneously very funny and very touching. It's difficult territory, but the hard edged sensibility of Park means we won't drift too far into melodrama. And, as the trailer shows, virtually no one working today can make images as striking as Park's.

2. Southland Tales - Many of my favorite films have been described as self-indulgent messes, so I wasn't too wary when Southland Tales got savaged at Cannes. I'm increasingly less concerned with narrative coherence, instead interested in seeing moments of cinematic transcendence, and even the bad reviews concede this film offers those. Kelly's Donnie Darko is one of the best films ever, even though every re-edit and comment he makes about the film makes it sound like he has no idea why it worked in the first place. But, I still believe in him, this one sounds so over the top weird, I can't wait to see it. If Inland Empire showed us anything, it's that a three hour, barely narrative piece of directorial self indulgence can be utterly satisfying. Of course, Kelly isn't Lynch, so this one could really just be bad, but there's only one way to find out.

1. My Blueberry Nights - Wong Kar-Wai is the best film director of all time, he has redefined the way the medium can be used, inventing a totally different, more emotional, language for cinema. No one works like he does, and no one makes films like his. So, a new Wong Kar-Wai movie is an event. 2046 was a great closer to one part of his career, and My Blueberry Nights offers a lot of changes. The major one is that he's shooting in America, in English, with an American cast. I love the Hong Kong cityscapes his characters usually inhabit, but Happy Together worked well in Argentina, pushing WKW to even more visual experimentation. Perhaps shooting in America will do the same. An article I read about the shooting made it sound like this will have plenty of classic Wong Kar-Wai moments, though they're taking place in a Midwestern diner instead of a Hong Kong fastfood stand. He's got a fantastic cast, and the way he works, he seems to push people to their best work. And, it'll be great to have my first viewing of this movie in a theater instead of on an import DVD.

In addition to films, there's a few other things I'm eagerly awaiting.

True Blood - Alan Ball's work on Six Feet Under is some of the best writing ever, and I was thrilled to hear he's doing another HBO series. This one involves vampires. A supernatural conceit like this should allow him to mix things up a bit from Six Feet Under. Rarely do you see a TV auteur like Ball do a second series, primarily because a series uses up so much story, how much can one man have left? Clearly, SFU was very personal, and I'll be curious to see how the way he reimagines his trademark themes to fit in this new genre context. I'm not sure if the show will actually premiere this year, but whenever it starts up, I'll be there.

The Sopranos - More HBO, we're going to finally see the end of The Sopranos in April. There are a select group of TV shows that I consider to be in the pantheon, the absolute best series, and The Sopranos is the only one is still on the air. I'm really curious to see what happens in the final season, will Chase continue the lethargic, introspective style of the second half of the sixth season or will things rev up and end in fire? I'd guess it'll be more of a fade away than a burn out, but we'll see. Even when it's frustrating, there's no current show that can match it.

New Babylon 5 - I've still got a lot of material to go through, but I'm happy that JMS is doing some new stuff in the Babylon 5 universe. The direct to DVD format has been much discussed as an option for continuing cult shows with a small, but devoted fanbase. I would love to see the movies become wildly successful, and possibly open the door for the Buffyverse direct to DVD movies Joss wanted to do. He claimed it came down to a budget issue, so maybe some success here would inspire Fox to do an about face and fund those movies. Maybe it's been too long, but if Babylon 5 can return after eight years, why can't Buffy after only three?

Buffy Season Eight Comics - Speaking of Buffy, if we can't get DVD movies, at least there's something coming in. I'll be picking up a monthly comic again for the first time in a while. It's been too long since I spent time with these characters and I'm eager to see what they're up to. The preview pages indicate we're still in a season seven millieu, which doesn't thrill me, but I'm sure there'll be some great stuff in there as well. I don't know that a project like this has ever been attempted, a canon continuation of a series in comic book form by the original creators. I'm excited to see how it works.

Morrison/JH Williams Vertigo series - This one is the most hypothetical. In a recent interview, Grant said he was working on an original series for Vertigo with JH Williams on art. The two of them did amazing work on the two Seven Soldiers bookends, in the first creating an entire universe of believable characters and then destroying it in only thirty pages. The second was a hypercompressed pop speed pill, one of the most dizzying, awe inspiring single issues I've ever read. Morrison's projects are frequently riddled with artist problems, the few times all has gone well on art, as with Flex Mentallo, We3 or Kill Your Boyfriend, he's made masterpieces. The thought of JH on a long term project with Morrison is almost too much to handle, I just hope that it happens.

Babylon 5: 'Knives' and 'Confessions and Lamentations' (2x17 - 2x18)

These two episodes have some decent stuff in them, but generally feel like a break before the season revs up for the final run of episodes, in which we will finally see the moment when "the great war came upon us all." Having that statement in the opening credits, along with the image of the Shadow ship, has definitely affected the way I viewed the season. Early on, everything seemed to be buzzing around them, and I figured that the outbreak of the war was imminent. But, the Narn-Centauri conflict came up, and the Shadow story has stayed on the backburner. It's barely touched on in these two episodes, at this point we know pretty much all the background on them, the next step if for the Shadows to make themselves known and instigate a war that will engulf the galaxy.

For now, we continue to develop things slowly. The most interesting part of 'Knives' is Londo's storyline. Again, we see him dealing with the consequences of his search for power. First, I've just got to comment on how brilliant the picture of him in his quarters is. It's the ultimate representation of his ego, and can be used to show him as either a comic fool, or a menacing figure. It's a small thing, but adds another visual layer to all the scenes there.

To some extent, this story is a retread of what we've seen before. It's not news that Londo is power hungry, and that that hunger is distancing himself from everyone around him. What this episode adds is further evidence that Londo has chosen the wrong allies on all counts, with both Morden and Refa. Refa is clearly a devious figure, and I don't know that Londo is fully aware of that. Sometimes he seems totally lucid about the actions he's taken and other times you get the sense he thinks he's acting in the good, unaware that he's a puppet of these larger interests. I don't say that as a criticism, I think it's a great ambiguity, and ties in with the fact that he probably goes back and forth on that very issue.

Londo claims he is acting in the service of returning the Centauri to glory, but in the service of that goal, he is destroying the very proud tradition he hopes to restore. The two most noble Centauri we've seen are the Emperor and Urza, and Refa has acted to destroy them both. However, Londo has gone too far, and now must play out the consequences of his actions. It's tough to watch the scene at the banquet where he realizes that he must fight Urza. He thought it would be easy to manage his power, but he's now placed in an awful situation where he has to kill his friend.

The duel itself could have used a bit more pizazz, but the end was great. I like the fact that Urza went to the ship on a suicide mission, and Londo's eventual realization that this was so. He's drifting further into melancholy, as it becomes clear things aren't working out as he planned.

The story with Sheridan is a bit more obvious. The playing out of the story itself isn't particularly interesting, it was clear that Sheridan was having some kind of visions, transferred to him by this dead guy. Where it got interesting was in the final moments, where we find out Sheridan served as the host for some kind of time-traveling entity, and get our first followup on the mysterious appearance of Babylon 4. I feel like this story was meant to let us know that they haven't forgotten, that story is still in play, and presumably Babylon 4, with future Sinclair aboard, will return at some critical point in the story's future.

As with the Sheridan storyline in 'Knives,' the main story in 'Confessions' isn't that interesting as it plays out. The plague storyline isn't something particularly original and I feel like we've seen five episodes with Franklin desperately racing against time to cure some disease. I guess there's only so many stories you can do with the character, but I think we've seen the same behavior too many times now, there's got to be some payoff to his obsessive commitment to his work. Give him some negative consequences rather than just continue to tease that something bad might happen to him as a result of his work habits.

So, the actual playing out of the episode wasn't particularly notable, however, the ending worked very well. Much like 'Believers,' this episode sets up a typical TV problem and leads us to believe they've found a solution, only to pull everything out from under at the end and give the bleakest ending possible. The scene where they open the isolation area and find all the dead bodies was quite powerful, particularly Delenn's emotional breakdown. The fact that the entire race was wiped out, to no particular concern of most people, was a good capper. Perhaps it will be the knowledge that if he had only worked faster, he could have saved this race that will finally push Franklin over the edge.

Beyond the main story, the thing that left me wondering about this episode was Delenn's relationship with Sheridan. We've seen the two of them on a 'date' before, and now they do the same Minbari style. Her tearful embrace of John at the end was clearly more about the death of the Markab than anything else, but I definitely feel like something's going on between the two of them. I'm curious to see if the show will cross species lines with a relationship, the possibility is definitely there.

According to Keith, things intensify after episode 18, I'm very curious to see.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

X-Factor and the Catastrophic Rebirth of Jean Grey

During my eight month readthrough Chris Claremont's original X-Men run, I bought Essential X-Factor. Now, I'd read some of the early X-Factor issues, and knew they weren't very good, but having so much new X-material at such a low price was too sweet an offer to resist. I didn't actually start reading the book until a couple of days ago, and it lives down to my expectations. Rarely have so many quality stories been rendered completely nonsensical in the service of setting up a book. Let us delve deeper.

The book begins with two issues that give us the retcon that allowed Jean Grey to return to life. Retconning is always tricky territory, for every William the bloody awful poet, a retcon that fit perfectly with what came before and brought a lot more depth to the character, you're going to get five nonsensical, story killing developments. Bringing Jean back was a bad idea from the start, the power of the Dark Phoenix, the reason it stands out so much in comic book history, was largely the ending, where a hero had to face up to the consequences of her actions, not just forget about them and do something new next month.

So, the retcon was destined to fail from the start, bringing Jean back, no matter what Marvel's party line would tell you, does numb a lot of the power of the original story. The primary theme of the Phoenix storyline is that power corrupts, infused with this cosmic spirit, Jean gradually loses touch with humanity and responsibility, she indulges in all her personal fantasies, with Jason Wyngarde, and then proceeds to treat the universe like a toy. Given such power, we see that anyone could give in to these impulses and become a monster. So, the Phoenix force is a neutral power, it takes its emotion from Jean. When that emotion is love, as in the initial crystal universe saving storyline, it can be a powerful force for good.

When she becomes corrupted however, the Phoenix force becomes too dangerous to exist. Jean herself is caught between the pleasure she gets from enacting her new power and the morality she held before. Her personality has been warped, but part of the original her is still in there, and she gains control for long enough to aim the laser at herself and die on the moon.

The retcon alters things so that the real Jean was locked in a cocoon under the ocean while the Phoenix moved around in an exact duplicate of her body. Now, they claim that the Phoenix was pure evil, but some of Jean's goodness fought through and caused the entity to destroy itself. This just makes no sense, why would the Phoenix fuse the M'Kraan Crystal and save the world if its nature was evil? And, it utterly invalidates the original story's point about the corruption of power, replacing it with the maudlin idea that Jean's goodness somehow shown through and forced the Phoenix to kill itself.

One of the problems with this ressurection of Jean is that she's not a particularly interesting character on her own. Like Scott, she has no edge, she's just someone who wants to do good. This is boring, Scott's most interesting time under Claremont was when he was getting into the relationship with Maddy Pryor. He knows he only likes her because she looks like Jean, but that doesn't stop him from going forward with the relationship. So, Scott at least has a little edge, Jean now returns to a boring, pre-developed state.

The major problem with X-Factor is that the original X-Men were generally boring characters. Claremont made X-Men the success it was, and he did so with his people, not these five. So, we've got a bunch of rather boring superheroes lumped onto a team with an absoultely ridiculous premise. The idea of them as undercover mutant hunters seems like it would only feed into prejudice, by making mutants seem devious and secretive. Now, I believe later in the series, they acknowledge that it was all a scheme by Cameron Hodge to undermine them, but at the time, it was clearly meant to be seen as a good thing. It is weird to see Cameron Hodge here, with a human body, not a giant spider thing.

The Jean rebirth was pretty poorly handled, but I think the greater crime of X-Factor #1 is what it does to Scott and Maddy's relationship. What happens here is that Scott finds out Jean is alive, promptly leaves his wife and son without any explanation and apparently has no plans to return to them, instead returning to superheroics. Now, there are some hints that Scott is uneasy about what he's doing to Madelyn, but the fact that he leaves his wife in that manner is pretty much unforgivable.

The book tries to makes us believe that it makes more sense for him to lead this team because he can do more good than he can as a husband, but that just doesn't click. He could be a superhero, and still have his wife and child with him, the real reason he goes to New York and joins the team is because he's still in love with Jean. There's something a bit creepy about Scott, who's been through so much, trying to restart a relationship with Jean, who's living in such a different world than him. I know the passage of time is screwy in the comics world, but emotionally, Scott has grown so much, beyond the sort of childish love that he and Jean once had. He may be able to have a relationship with her in the future, but it's wrong to try to be with her right out of the cocoon.

If you're positioning Scott as the hero of the book, it's a critical mistake to make him such a bastard right from the start. Now, I always have been a huge fan of Madelyn, her story is so sad, she'll always be second best to Jean in Scott's eyes. One of the best moments in Claremont's entire run is during Fall of the Mutants, right before Maddy is going to sacrifice herself to save the world, she tells Scott she still loves him. She took all the awfulness that was heaped on her, and still was ready to let herself die in service of a cause. What happened to her afterwards, in Inferno, was all justification to get Scott and Jean together without guilt.

Reading X-Factor, and the two other issues, made me appreciate just how far ahead of everyone else Claremont was. His emphasis on character growth and continual evolution was unlike anyone else, and a stark contrast to the conservatism inherent in the premise of X-Factor. His run on X-Men is one of the great achievements in serial storytelling, no matter how much Marvel screws with it through retcons like this.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Babylon 5: 2x13-2x16

This run of episodes is one of the series' most consistently strong to date, paying off a lot of long developing plots in a way that opens up some really strong potential stories for the future. It's still not quite there every week, but the overarching narrative is progressing so well, I'm willing to forgive a couple of stumbles along the way.

'Hunter, Prey' is the weakest of these episodes, with an a A story that recahes season one levels of irrelevance. The point of this episode is to continue developing the corruption of the Earth government, but I think we've got that already, so this one ends up feeling like filler. It's fun to watch Sheridan and the B5 crew show up the general, but there's not much else of note.

What is interesting here is the further development of Sheridan's odd relationship with Kosh. Back in the dream, Sheridan got the idea that Kosh is grooming him for something and in this episode and the next, we see Kosh take him under his wing and teach him some odd lessons. I liked when Ivanova tells Sheridan that he's talking like a Vorlon now, because I too was unclear on what exactly was going on with him. I definitely got the emotion of the "pure beauty" sequence, the idea that even in the worst parts of this station, there are sights that will dazzle those who take the time out to look at them.

As we eventually find out, the Vorlons are the last of the ancient races, the others have "moved on." This idea seems heavily inspired by Tolkien. At the end of Return of the King, the ancient peoples go across the Grey Havens, leaving humans to rule over the age of men. It's the same kind of thing here, the Vorlons may be powerful, but they have few ties to this world, their time has passed. However, to ensure the future, Kosh must pass on his knowledge to Sheridan. He must show Sheridan how to view the world in the way he does, only then can they win the war against the Shadows. And, once that task is complete, Kosh and the Vorlons will be able to move on as well. I really like this idea of the ancients, it gives even greater scope to the story.

In 'There All the Honor Lies,' we get further insight into the world of the Minbari. Unfortunately, the Minbari are the least interesting of the alien races, probably because they're the least human. JMS implies that the humans and Minbari have the deepest connection, but the flawed, struggling Narn and Centauri seem to have more similarities to what we are. I suppose he's taking an optimistic view of humanity's future, presenting the Minbari as a potential future for us, a group to emulate. But, a group like that isn't going to be as interesting to watch, and though the Minbari murder storyline causes some good tension, it doesn't work as well as it might have if there was more ambiguity. We know that Sheridan was in the right and it's only a matter of proving that. If he was less certain about what he did then the story's moral questions would have been more compelling. As it is, we're just waiting for the Minbari guy to tell the truth and exonerate Sheridan.

The most interesting ongoing thread with the Minbari this year has been Delenn's struggle to deal with her new hybrid nature. The human side of her seems to be more emotional than she was used to, and that makes it difficult to deal with the pain she's feeling, facing rejection from all around. Her attempt to negotiate a medium between humans and Minbari seems to have thoroughly failed and she's now a flashpoint for their tension. As I've said before, the series' main thematic point is that Babylon 5 is good, a source of peace, while the homeworlds are myopic, seeking only to forward their own agendas. Delenn is now the physical embodiment of the compromises they seek on Babylon 5, and those who reject her are the people who will stand in the way of the peace process.

This episode also gives us the hilarious subplot involving the Babylon 5 store. This one walks the line of being too meta, but it ends up working because it's very funny. I was freeze framing the DVD to check out the Londo and G'Kar action figures, and any time Londo appeared in the same frame as the action figure version of himself, I was cracking up. The episode gives us a lighter side of Londo than we'd seen recently, but it works. He still clearly cares about Vir and the people around him, he's not yet aware of the extent of what he's done. When the consequences of his actions start to emerge, then we'll see a total change in him, but for now, he's tough in negotiations, but still kind to those he knows personally. His rapid rise to power has made him appreciate those who were loyal to him earlier even more.

The episode ends with the almost surreal comedy of the bear tossed out the airlock, floating in space. It's a good comedy bit and is weird enough that it avoids the sitcom flavor of some of the first season's endings. I don't now mind meta comedy, as long as it's funny.

'And Now for a Word' was a very good episode, but I feel like it would have had more impact at the time. These sorts of gimmicky episodes have been used on a lot of shows in the past ten years, and as a result, it doesn't feel as bold as it must have back when the show first aired. It's still cool to see things from a different perspective, but I just sort of accepted it, I wasn't wowed by it.

Stylistically, I would have liked a bit more grit. Today, you could have shot this on high end DV, as a nice contrast to film, but here, it's on the same stock, so only the somewhat shakier camera work differentiates it from the show's usual cinematography. Now that we're so used to handheld, verite style camera work in fictional shows, this doesn't particularly stand out. Friday Night Lights or Battlestar look more 'realistic' than this episode did. That said, the on screen graphics gave us some interesting information, and the interviews with Earth personnel gives the best insight yet into how the Earth government views Babylon 5.

This episode is quite prescient in its depiction of a conflict over purported weapons of mass destruction and a US government that is none too eager to heed to UN regulations. Babylon 5 has always been positioned as essentially the UN, but never more so here. They talk about using the station as a means to prevent another major war following the Earth-Minbari conflict, but with time passed, it's lost its purpose. I'd imagine Bush would say the same exact thing about the UN, he certainly didn't listen to it when it came time to invade Iraq.

Battlestar Galactica is consistently hailed for its topicality, it's from a decidedly post 9/11 mindset. Babylon 5's first season came from a totally different, more hopeful political time. This season seems more relevant to today, the fundamental series conflict between globalism and selfish nationalism is always going to be relevant.

The news format allows for the most fun piece of the episode, the Psi Corps commercial. It's a bit obvious in its parody, but it works both as comedy and as a look into the way that the Psi Corps wants to present itself. This episode is most interesting in showing how perspective and intent affect presentation, the way events are skewed to support the Earth government's agenda.

Beyond the format, there's a lot of really strong story stuff here. The conflict with the Centauri transport is similar to what we already saw in 'Acts of Sacrifice,' and I'm guessing that's the reason they chose to go with the news presentation, to keep things fresh. In the documentary interviews, we mostly see what we already know, but there's some interesting character insights. Delenn's near breadown is tough to watch, and G'Kar's description of the Centauri invasion of the Narn homeworld connects it closely to our own planet's colonial history. I like the juxtaposition of G'Kar and Londo's wildly different accounts of the Centauri occupation. When Londo's in the public eye, he remains a skilled diplomat, always skewing events to serve his own agenda, and his recent success has given him the confidence to be even bolder with his interpretation of the truth.

The past few episodes sway the viewer decidedly to the Narn side of things, so I like that they have the Narn ship come in and attack the Centauris. It complicates things and is indicative of how war really works. If one side isn't playing by the rules, the other isn't going to either, even if that attack may be 'wrong.' I love the scene at the end where she asks G'Kar is he thinks Babylon 5 still works and he responds in the negative. His loss of faith in the diplomatic process is one of the show's most compelling arcs.

Based on its title, I was expecting some big developments from 'In the Shadow of Z'Ha'Dum,' and it delivers. The episode's best twist occurred in the teaser, when we find out that Morden was on the ship with Sheridan's wife. It's a brilliant twist because in the answer it gives us about Morden, it opens up so many new story possibilities. As 24 shows us, it's always good to have our hero have some personal involvement in the conflict.

This episode reveals a ton of background on the Shadows, a lot of it could be deduced from what we'd already seen, but it's nice to pull all the pieces together. It turns out that it's human explorers who woke the Shadows from their rest. Considering the show so wholeheartedly endorses space exploration, it seems odd that human exploration would be the cause of this massive threat. I suppose the point is that we must be responsible in our exploring, or it could lead to awful consequences. The Shadows are now assembling their forces, and I'd imagine they'll make themselves known just in time for a season ending cliffhanger.

The Shadows either hired or killed all the people on the Icarus, and considering the fact that the story is available, I'm assuming Anna is still alive, perhaps coerced into aiding the Shadows. That could lead us to a fantastic conflict where Sheridan has to choose between attacking the Shadows and killing his wife, or putting the galaxy in danger by letting them go. When you set up the pieces like this, the story practically writes itself. I'm assuming there'll be some twists in there, but it was a brilliant choice to connect Morden with that piece of backstory.

This episode also gives the Captain a bit more edge. One of my main problems with the human characters so far is that they're too good, there's little moral ambiguity in their behavior. Here, we see Sheridan breaking the law and even putting Talia in deliberate psychic danger, all in the hopes of getting the information he needs. It's the most interesting the character has been and I hope we continue to see him pushed into this morally ambiguous territory. He knows that his wife could potentially be alive, and that's going to change the way he approaches war with the Shadows.

Morden has become this show's equivalent of The Smoking Man, only appearing occasionally, but providing our human link to a vast conspiracy. His total calm in the interrogation room is great, and leaves me wondering whether he actually doesn't remember what happened, or was just saying that. Considering he probably wasn't an evil guy when he went out on the Icarus, it's quite possible he was reprogrammed by the Shadows to serve them. He certainly looks evil when he's talking with those two Shadows in his cell. However, he, like Londo, may have been lured to their side by some kind of material reward and is now thoroughly ensconced in their world. Reprogramming would make it easier for Sheridan to get his wife back, with him eventually breaking through to the real her, however it's also possible that she's just being held prisoner because the Shadows know she could be valuable down the line. Putting the personal and professional responsibilities of the hero in conflict is the key to great drama and that's what this episode has done for Sheridan.

This was a fantastic episode that filled in a lot of backstory and opened up some rich potential directions for the series. Already, Sheridan is aware of some connection between the Centauri and Morden, and pursuing that connection could lead back to Londo. If the Minbari become aware that the Shadows are working for the Centauri, that could lead them to ally with the Narn. I'm guessing that the Narn-Centauri war will eventually segue into the war with the Shadows, with Earth/Minbari/Narn going up against the Shadows/Centauri, but only watching more episodes will tell for sure.

2006 Screening Log: Part II

Here's all the films I saw in the second half of 2006. The ones with an asterisk are films I'd seen already, but rewatched.

Five Star
A Scanner Darkly (Linklater)
Nashville (Altman)*
Mysterious Skin (Araki)*
3 Women (Altman)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman)*
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (Coens)*
All That Jazz (Fosse)*
Miami Vice (Mann)
Goodfellas (Scorsese)*
Idlewild (Barber)
Ellie Parker (Coffey)
The Godfather: Part II (Coppola)*
Manderlay (Von Trier)
Samaritan Girl (Kim)*
Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (Meyer)
The Science of Sleep (Gondry)
The Doom Generation (Araki)*
The Departed (Scorsese)
Inland Empire (Lynch)
Last Days (Van Sant)*
Marie Antoinette (Coppola)
Blue Velvet (Lynch)*
Crash (Cronenberg)
Wild at Heart (Lynch)*
Blade Runner (Scott)*
Casino Royale (Campbell)
The New World (Malick)*
The Fountain (Aronofsky)
Mulholland Dr. (Lynch)*
Kamikaze Girls
Babel (Inarritu)

Four Star
About Schmidt (Payne)
Images (Altman)
Clerks (Smith)*
Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story (Winterbottom)
Clerks II (Smith)
Hotel (Figgis)
Snatch (Ritchie)*
Collateral (Mann)*
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (Mitchell)
Bucket of Blood (Corman)
Faster Pussycat, Kill! Kill! (Meyer)*
Daft Punk: Interstella 555*
Captain Blood (Curtiz)*
Vixen (Meyer)
Stranger than Paradise (Jarmusch)*
Scarlet Diva (Argento)
Borat (Charles)
Poison (Haynes)*
Layer Cake (Vaughan)
George Washington (Green)
Time (Kim)
Rocky Balboa (Stallone)
Little Children (Field)
Children of Men (Cuaron)

Three Star
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (Verbinski)
Jesus Christ Superstar (Jewison)
Stealing Beauty (Bertolucci)
Manhunter (Mann)
Splendor (Araki)
Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton)
Kiss Kiss Bang Bang
Little Shop of Horrors (Corman)
Hard Candy
Shadows (Cassavetes)
Down in the Valley
Three Times (Hsien)
The Prestige (Nolan)
Matewan (Sayles)
Tongues Untied (Riggs)
The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things (Argento)
Trust (Hartley)
The Great Yokai War (Miike)
Center Stage (Kwan)
L'Enfant (Dardennes)
The Queen (Frears)
The Black Dahlia (De Palma)

Two Star
Popeye (Altman)
The Passenger (Antonioni)
Memoirs of a Geisha (Marshall)
California Split (Altman)
Cache (Haneke)
The Illusionist
The Hitch Hiker
Battle Royale
Sweeet Sweetback's Baadassss Song (Van Peebles)
Little Fugitive
Suicide Club
A Portrait of Jason (Clarke)
Harlan County, USA
Killer of Sheep (Burnett)
The Moderns (Rudolph)
Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant)
Daughters of the Dust (Dash)
Kicking and Screaming (Baumbach)
Quintet (Altman)
Hostel (Roth)
Battle in Heaven
The Proposition

One Star
Aeon Flux
Whale Rider (Caro)
Altered States (Russell)
Park Row (Fuller)
Salt of the Earth
Pink Flamingos
Harlot (Warhol)
Vinyl (Warhol)
A World Without Thieves
American Dreamz (Weisz)

Subtracting stuff I'd watched before, here's the overall ratings breakdown.

Five Stars: 16
Four Stars: 17
Three Stars: 22
Two Stars: 25
One Star: 10

So, there were a lot of really good movies, but I also watched a bunch of clunkers. I've covered most of the canon at this point, so the new stuff I watch is likely to be more experimental. That means that sometimes it's great, but a lot of the time, it doesn't quite make it. For comparison's sake, here's the figures for previous years.

First Half of 2005:
Five Stars: 16
Four Stars: 27
Three Stars: 34
Two Stars: 23
One Star: 32

Second Half of 2005:
Five Stars: 9
Four Stars: 30
Three Stars: 29
Two Stars: 18
One Star: 11

First Half of 2006:
Five Stars: 8
Four Stars: 32
Three Stars: 50
Two Stars: 45
One Star: 14

Monday, January 01, 2007

Best of 2006: Top Ten Films of the Year

With this, we shall bid farewell to the year that was and move on to something new. This year had a lot of really great films, and for me, represented a continuing evolution in the way I view cinema. I'm less and less interested in narrative, more interested in style and emotion. The year's best film is a perfect example of this, and a lot of others on the list are too. So, read on and find out...

10. Idlewild - I was waiting for this film for a while, and, apparently unlike the rest of the world, it totally lived up to my expectations. The musical is one of the most distinctly cinematic genres, and this is one of the few film musicals that feels fresh and now. For whatever reason, it's become a conservative genre, rehashing the same classic hits and packaging pre-existing songs into cash in jukebox narratives. This one does use some pre-existing songs, but it feels distinctly new and alive, incorporating those songs seamlessly into its world. The final performance sequences rank with the most purely fun material you'll see at the cinema this year. It may not be boldly groundbreaking, but it delivers on exactly what it promises.

My Review

9. Manderlay - Von Trier remains one of the most challenging, confrontational filmmakers working today. This film, finally released in the US in early 2006, expands on the world of Dogville, presenting a similarly constructed allegorical world that poses challenging questions about the United States and its history. It's ridiculous to criticize Von Trier for making this in spite of the fact that he's never been to the US. He is aware of what our national policy has produced, our attitudes have global reach and he is forcing us to confront those attitudes. The stage setting never feels gimmicky, instead it allows us to focus on the actors and their characters. While it doesn't quite match Dogville, this is still extremely powerful cinema, anchored by a fantastic lead performance from Bryce Dallas Howard.

My Review

8. Funky Forest - This is the oddball on the list, a Japanese film I saw at the New York Asian Film Festival. It's a three hour long journey through a hyperactive subconscious, full of comedy skits and bizarre images. This is truly like nothing you've seen before, a relentless assault of strangeness. There's the deadpan comedy of the Guitar Brothers, the oddness of a UFO abduction and alien dance sequence and the hilarious Homeroom stuff. Like another bizarre three hour film on this list, it's more an experience than a narrative, and that's a great use of cinema.

7. Babel - Inarritu expands on his previous work, taking the small scale dramas of Amores Perroes and 21 Grams and throwing them onto a global canvas. What makes this film so powerful is the way we're completely sympathetic to every character when they're on screen, in spite of the fact that their agendas are in conflict. But, seeing the events from their side, makes us realize that there's no us/them, it's all one massive human organism surging forward. Chieko's trip to the nightclub is one of the year's best scenes, a fantastic swirl of light and motion. This is the best multicharacter ensemble drama since Magnolia.

My Review

6. The Departed - It lacks the intellectual gravitas of some of the films on this list, but few can match it for pure entertainment value. Scorsese takes Infernal Affairs as a base and then throws on massive amounts of operatic excess, in the acting, cinematography and violence. Every single actor seems to be having the time of their life in this movie, and Wahlberg in particular has never been better. The film allows Scorsese to create a canvas of pop excess, one that was still compelling even though I already knew what would happen next. This is what a remake should do, take the original story, but film it with a different spirit. The restraint of the original is all gone, replaced by a distinctly American voice.

My Review

5. Marie Antoinette - Another vastly underappreciated film. People who criticized the film for its embrace of materialistic excess totally miss the point. For Marie, consumerism is the only way to escape from the strict, limited role she fills in the court. Few moments in film are as joyous as the montages of her at her country estate, the Malick inspired journey through beautiful natural landscapes, and her nighttime frolic with her crew. This is the most alive, real period film since Barry Lyndon, and part of what I think is so jarring is that the film depicts its historical subjects as people with flaws rather than caricatures out of history books. Even if Marie wasn't exactly like this, she was the eighteenth century equivalent of a Paris Hilton, so it makes sense to position her in that context. I can guarantee that this will one day experience a positive critical and cultural reevaluation.

My Review

4. The Science of Sleep - I was a bit shocked to find this film on no other top ten lists I've seen. This darker 'remix' of Eternal Sunshine goes to a rawer emotional place than that film, replacing Charlie Kaufman's ironic wit with a character arc that's distinctly Gondry's. I love the way a small, everyday story is made huge through the dream sequence visuals. In our own minds, minute conflicts, like the letter incident, are played out as epic dramas, and few films have captured that sense better than this. The film feels so close to Gondry, it's painful to watch some moments, that's the sign of a good film, that it can move us so. Bernal and Gainsbourg have fantastic chemistry and I love the ambiguity of the ending. This is a film full of visual wonder and emotional power, that's what the medium is all about.

My Review

3. The Fountain - A wildly ambitious film, I'm just happy that Aronofsky finally got a chance to tell his story. This is the kind of movie that's pounced on by critics for not quite acheiving what it sets out to do, and I'd agree that there's some missteps. But, I'd rather see a film that's so challenging and packed with material that doesn't quite make it than one that sets out to do something small and aces it. The Fountain is the most cosmically alive film since 2001, and though its scope is more focused, it still tells some vital truths about the human experience. The final twenty minutes or so are absoultely sublime, with two of the year's most powerful images: the plants bursting out of the conquistador, and the future Tom being ripped apart in a burst of light. No moment in cinema this year made me gasp like seeing that small white dot of light on a black screen explode into a gush of image and beauty. With this, Aronofsky proved he can do more than just his 'hip hop montage style,' and I'm very curious to see where he goes next.

My Review

2. INLAND EMPIRE - Ordering these last two was the toughest thing about this list. I went back and forth a bunch of times, and came out with this order. But, these last two films are nearly equal, and both a jump ahead everything else on the list. Anyway, what can I say about this film that I haven't already? It's a totally new use of cinema and one of the boldest artistic reinventions of any director ever. After two viewings, it's only just begun to reveal its secrets, and I think I'll watch this film again more times than any other on this list. There are moments in here that have an almost mystical power, like nothing I've ever seen before. I love that Lynch continues to push his art forward, while it may not be as consistent as Fire Walk With Me or Mulholland Dr., there are moments in here that eclipse anything he's done before. And the closing credits sequence is one of the most joyous things I've ever experienced in film, the perfect capper to a strange, enthralling journey.

My Review (2) (3)

1. Miami Vice - I went back and forth on the number one, but a third viewing of Miami Vice put it over the top. I was enthralled right from the opening cut, which dumps us into a nightclub with no exposition, no context, only a weirdly outfitted dancer and the sounds of Jay-Z/Linkin Park. The DV photography is absolutely gorgeous, the best use of the new technology to date, giving us seemingly endless cityscapes and oceans that stretch out as far as we can see. The relationship between Sonny and Isabella is perfectly presented, giving us just enough that we can feel what the characters are feeling, a search for joy in the moment, but always aware that the relationship will not last. I love the final moments of the film, as Sonny watches Isabella disappear out to sea and they each return to their lives. Beyond narrative, Mann has an unparalleled eye for aesthetic greatness, be it in the sequence at Yero's club, or just in Gong Li's fantastic sunglasses and suit when she's walking off the plane. The film creates a cohesive, stylish world, one you drift into when you watch it. That's what I want from a movie, to be fully immersed in something totally other, yet completely relatable. This film did it, and that's why it's the best movie of the year.

My Review (2)

Next up, I'll post my Screening Log for the second half of 2006, with star rankings for everything I saw. Then, at some point later in the month, I'll post my Academy Award nominations/winners, which will wrap up 2006. And tomorrow, look for my preview of 2007's films. Six of this year's top ten films, the top six, were in the 2006 preview, so it's worth taking a look at. And here at the start of 2007, just a thanks to everyone who read the blog last year, and keep reading this year. And, just to recap.

1. Miami Vice
3. The Fountain
4. The Science of Sleep
5. Marie Antoinette
6. The Departed
7. Babel
8. Funky Forest
9. Manderlay
10. Idlewild

Best of 2006: Top Fifteen Albums

Has anyone else on the internet done a top albums of the year list yet? I don't know, I haven't seen any. Seriously, I'm a bit behind on this, but there's some different picks, so perhaps you'll find somethin worth checking out.

15. Jenny Lewis with the Watson Twins - Rabbit Fur Coat: Few albums create such a well defined world as this one does. The title track features a fully developed narrative that makes it hard to believe Jenny was a child star, not a poor girl in the South. The songs are in a country gospel style, but there's enough of the driving rhythms of Rilo Kiley to keep things interesting. "The Big Guns" is suitably charging, while "Rise Up With Fists" has a wonderful, relaxed rhythm. But, the highlight is the ethereal "Born Secular," a startlingly beautiful mix of vocal harmonies.

Standout Track: Born Secular

14. Nelly Furtado - Loose: She's got the best song of the year on here with 'Maneater,' relentless, 80s inspired, but distinctly 00s. Timbaland fills the album with weird, expansive synths, in simple, but memorable lines. The synth part on 'Promiscuous' gives a great base for the flirting vocal interplay between Furtado and Tim. I've heard that song so many times and it just never gets old. Other strong stuff is the wistful finale, 'All Good Things,' and the glitchy, trip hop 'Afraid.' A lot of people criticized Nelly Furtado for putting on a new persona for the album, maybe that's true, but just listening to it, you get a standout example of distinctly 00s pop.

Standout Track: Maneater

13. Peeping Tom - Peeping Tom: Mike Patton is the most versatile vocalist working today, able to seamlessly move from assaultive screaming to smooth crooning. His best work is distinctly experimental, and the greatest knock on this album is that it's something of Patton by numbers. But, Patton on autopoilot is still worlds better and distinct than most people at their best. 'Five Seconds' is one of the nastiest album openers I've heard in a while, starting with the ultra smooth delivery of "Strolling through the slaughterhouse of love," eventually cutting into his more assaultive scream style for the chorus, then quickly scaling back for the verse. That's what makes Patton so special, the contrast and variety of his vocals. This album has a whole bunch of great stuff, particularly 'Mojo' and 'I'm Not Alone.'

Standout Track: Five Seconds

12. Men, Women and Children: Electrodancerock is my favorite musical form to emerge here in the 00s, and I think bands like The Rapture are one day going to be hailed as pioneers. They opened the door for a band like Men, Women and Children, one of the smoothest fusions of dance and rock to emerge yet. The album opens with gnashing guitars, then segues into an ultrasmooth disco rhythm. That perfectly sums up what the band does, mix rock and dance elements into something that's a lot of fun to listen to. There's no bad track here, you could drop any of these on a club floor and get people moving.

Standout Track: Time for the Future (Bang Bang)

11. Bruce Springsteen - The Seeger Sessions (We Shall Overcome): This album initially seemed the definition of throwaway, if Rod Stewart is any indication, the covers album is a prime sign of artistic atrophy. Rather than approaching these songs with an acoustic, one man style, Springsteen arranges them for a full Dixieland band and creates one of the most fun albums of the year. I love the extended instrumental solos, particularly on 'O Mary, Don't You Weep' and 'Eyes on the Prize.' More than any other album this year, I wish I could just jam with these guys, drop my own solo in there. This is exactly what a cover should do, preserve the message of the original song, but expand on it in some way.

Standout Track: Eyes on the Prize

10. Phoenix - It's Never Been Like That: I've got to start by saying that this album was a bit of a disappointment. Alphabetical is one of my all time favorite albums and it took a while to get used to their new direction. However, there is a lot to appreciate here. 'Long Distance Call' joins the pantheon of their other perfect pop singles. The other songs rely less on their trademark warm synths, going for a straight rock direction. 'Sometimes in a Fall' builds to a fantastic release in the chorus, and emotion infuses all the songs. Still, it feels less distinct than their best work, and that's why this is ten, while Alphabetical was the second best album of 2004.

Standout Track: Long Distance Call

9. Morrissey - Ringleader of the Tormentors: He keeps the momentum from 2004's brilliant You are the Quarry going with another fantastic set of songs. You'd think the guy would have less angst at this point, but there's still plenty of emotional trauma to draw from. The epic opener 'I Will See You in Far Off Places' is full of eclectic instrumentation, making it unique from other work in his catalogue, but it's the driving rock songs like 'You Have Killed Me' and 'In the Future When All's Well' that form the core of the album. The ridiculously excessive finale 'At Last I Am Born' is distinctly Moz in its theatricality, no one else could pull off that song, but he does it seamlessly.

Standout Track: The Youngest was the Most Loved

8. The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics: As with "It's Never Been Like That," this album had the misfortune of following two masterpieces. I think the Lips did a great job of building on what worked in 'Bulletin' and 'Yoshimi,' and also bringing in new elements. No one sounds like they do on the bizarre pop of 'The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song' or 'The W.A.N.D,' but my favorite moments from the album are the Pink Floydian 'My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion' and 'Pompeii am Gotterdammerung.' Those songs feature absolutely gorgeous psychedlic instrumental sections.

Standout Track: My Cosmic Autumn Rebellion

7. Gwen Stefani - The Sweet Escape: Making a comparison that will likely cause rock purists to cringe, this is the "Amnesiac" to "Love Angel Music Baby"'s "Kid A." That album was a revelation with its 80s inspired pop songs. It's one of my favorite albums of the decade. This one has some songs that are just as good as the best on there, "Sweet Escape," "Early Winter," "4 in the Morning" and particularly "Wonderful Life" are all perfect. Unfortuantely, the other songs are more disparate in quality, the opening single, "Wind it Up" is pretty bad, and there's a few forgettable crunk sounding songs mixed in there as well. I think listeners of the future will view this album and its predecessor as one unit, and likely appreciate it more as a result. But, if you were to take the six best songs off this album and the six best off "LAMB," you'd have the best pop album of all time.

Standout Track: Wonderful Life

6. The Pipettes - We Are the Pipettes: From 80s inspired pop to 60s inspired pop, this is just a perfect a record. 60s girl group music was great, and this stands with the best of it. The lush strings and vocal harmonies help make the simple songs sonically memorable. The lyrics are clever, and things never repetitive, a major potential problem with a group like this. Any track on here could be a single.

Standout Track: Pull Shapes

5. Scissor Sisters - Ta Dah: Continuing the journey through decades, we stop at the 70s, for another fantastic era aping pop album. The opening track, 'I Don't Feel Like Dancin', co-written by Elton John, inhabits the same space as the Beegee's best work. 'Lights' is another high point, using a great horn line for a song reminiscent of 'Superstition.' 'Land of a Thousand Words' and 'I Might Tell You Tonight' are top notch ballads and 'Kiss You Off' proves they can still do more modern style electropop. It's shiny, smooth pop, and I'm really hoping to get to see them live in March.

Standout Track: I Don't Feel Like Dancin'

4. Goldfrapp - Supernature: Continuing their evolution from ambient downtempo songs to driving glamrock pop songs, this album proves they weren't lying when they titled an album "We are glitter." The albums opens with a string of three perfect pop songs, the atmospheric synths of their early work still present, but now backed by club style bass. There's a bit more humanity in a song like "Ooh La La" and particularly the finale "No. 1" than in their early work. "Time Out From the World" proves they can still do lower tempo, chilled tracks, but it's the driving pop songs that linger. They've released five singles off the album and they're all great songs. This is their best album yet, and I hope they continue to evolve in this current direction. My only request would be that she brings back the siren-like high pitched vocals used on 'Lovely Head,' mixing that with these club style songs could create something totally new.

Standout Track: No. 1

3. Justin Timberlake - FutureSex/LoveSounds: Of all the albums on this list, this one feels the most like one cohesive work. While his debut had some killer singles, it didn't really flow. Here, the tracks bleed into and out of each other, stretching out into interludes that bridge them together. More generally, the album moves from the ultratechy mechanical opening, with the title track and 'Sexy Back,' gradually becoming more organic, culminating in the acoustic finale. Unlike a lot of people, I thought 'Sexy Back' was a fantastic first single, and it sounds even better in context, after the almost Nine Inch Nails style title track. Timbaland drops so many fantastic instrumental loops in here, each song feels like it has the potential for a great ten minute club mix. I already covered My Love here, some other standouts are 'Love Stoned,' which starts as a driving club song and segues into a gorgeous indie rock style by the end. 'What Comes Around...' isn't quite 'Cry Me a River,' but it's pretty damn close. There's not a bad track on here and they flow so well together, Timberlake and Timbaland are working on a whole different level from everyone else in pop music. I'm glad that some of the most popular songs of the year are also some of the best.

Standout Track: My Love

2. Cansei de Ser Sexy - Cansei de Ser Sexy: Another mix of dance and rock, this album is just so now, breaking down generic boundaries and, above all, embracing a pop sensibility. Their disco style basslines are infectious, as in the opening buildup on 'Let's Make Love and Listen to Death From Above.' The driving 'Alala' and hilarious 'Art Bitch' are also highlights. The album is unrelentingly dirty, something I didn't even notice for a long time, because I was so caught up in the driving dance beats. It's simple, but infectious, if you wanted to show someone where music is going, you couldn't do much better than giving them this album.

Standout Track: Music is My Hot, Hot Sex

1. Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit: It feels like ages since I heard this album, but in that time, nothing has topped it. I think Dear Catastrophe Waitress is their best album, but it wasn't a sustainable direction, this album is the perfect fusion of all the different eras of B&S, while at the same time establishing a more upbeat status quo. A track like 'Sukie in the Graveyard' might have been played as a lowkey acoustic number in the past, now it's uptempo, with a great synth line and a killer guitar solo. 'White Collar Boy' is a great anthemic track and 'Song for the Sunshine' is a weird, 70s style funk song. The other albums on this list generally take one thing and do it well. This album is all over in terms of style and tempo, while still maintatining a cohesiveness. No song this year can match the fragile pain of 'Dress Up in You,' but one track after we're into the exuberant 'Sukie in the Graveyard.' No band today can match the scope of their catalogue, and the quality of this album bodes very well for their future. I can't wait to see what's next.

Standout Track: Sukie in the Graveyard

Babylon 5: 2x10-2x12

It's a big blog day today, later on I'll be posting the year end best lists for both films and music. But, first, more Babylon 5. With the start of the Narn-Centauri War in 'The Coming of the Shadows,' I wasn't sure how the show would structure itself. Would we go to a purely serial format? Not exactly, while the war hangs over everything, it remained in the background for the first two of these three episodes. Much like the Shadow threat in the beginning of the season, we always get some hints about what's going on, but the show is still mostly standalone episodes.

In that respect, the show's structure reminds me of The X-Files, where there was a clear divide between the standalone episodes and the mythology episodes. Thankfully, they do acknowledge major events in the standalones here, and most of them tie into ongoing plots in some way. However, it is still frustrating to go through these less important stories and have to wait for followup on the major events.

I had heard that 'GROPOS' was a really weak episode, and those lowered expectations meant I actually really enjoyed the episode. Anything's going to be a downturn after 'The Coming of Shadows,' but this one does an admirable job of thematically tying in with what we saw there, as well as developing the ongoing story of corruption in the Earth government. If I have one complaint about this episode, it's that it's using something of a stock story, and stock characters, with the soldiers on leave. I feel like I've seen this before, the fighting, the camaraderie.

But, I think that's partially the point, to show that these behavior patterns are always going to be part of being a soldier. Putting your life in danger means having a devil may care attitude, and that means starting a bar fight for no apparent reason. In the case of Dodger, it means seeking out small moments of emotional release wherever she can find them. In this case, I felt Garibaldi was rather misunderstanding in the way he treated her. He knew what she wanted, and when someone's just passing through your space station, it's not the time to talk about wanting a long term relationship. In most shows, you usually don't have one of your main characters having a one night stand without any consequence. Witness what happens to Skinner or Mulder in The X-Files. Here, they choose to emphasize Garibaldi's emotional pain and confusion, which forces him to ultimately push Dodger away.

A part of the episode that didn't work so well was Franklin's relationship with his father. This felt cliched, and also covered the same territory as most other Franklin storylines. He always has to proclaim his sacred duty as a doctor and defend that against some outside force. I'm assuming it's building towards some major crisis later on, but I think we get the idea by this point.

A more effective piece of the episode was Delenn getting bullied by the soldiers. In this, and the next episode, we get a great sense of how disconnected she is, caught between two worlds, but belonging to neither. For the people on Babylon 5 who are committed to diplomacy, that is the inevitable conflict, forced to place the good of the galaxy as a whole above their loyalty to their own world. When she's kicked off the Grey Council, B5 becomes her only chance to make things better.

The thing that makes this episode work is the finale, where we see that all of the soldiers we knew have died. The ending makes the episode because it puts their actions in context. All these people knew they could die at any time, they were prepared to accept it, but I don't think the people on Babylon 5 were. A major theme of the show is the idea that war is awful and destructive, and this ending perfectly conveys that.

Next up is 'All Alone in the Night,' an episode with a rather goofy A story, but a lot of good stuff in there as well. Sheridan's kidnapping just doesn't work. They always like to put the Captains in action situations, and that works sometimes, but here, the set looked fake and the story itself was pretty nonsensical, and, at a time when there's so many warring factions out in space, it seems odd to have it be a random ship that attacks the Captain.

That said, I loved the dream sequence. This one seemed inspired by Twin Peaks, with its ambiguous dialogue and heavy stylization. What do I pull from it? It looks like Ivanova will die, as anyone who's watched the Six Feet Under opening credits, a crow does not bode well for one's future. And, Kosh will apparently have some major role to play in the future, though he remains decidedly ambiguous now.

While I may complain about some of the show's pacing with regards to major story development, I love the fact that Kosh remains in the background, still mysterious. Today, I feel like people would be complaining by midway through the first season that they haven't gotten all the answers they want. I think people neglect to realize that answers are never satisfying, it's the journey there. Now, in the case of Lost, I think they forgot to develop characters and tell a story, instead they just teased mysteries, and that's why people were so frustrated.

The ending fits thematically with what I was saying before about Delenn. Sheridan is technically betraying the Earth military, his only true loyalty is to Babylon 5, and when he calls the others in, they too pledge loyalty to the idea of diplomacy over their own homeworld. This development is a perfect thematic fit because the whole point of the show is that Babylon 5 is the only hope for peace, while the homeworlds are only seeking power for themselves. Even the Minbari are now on the path to war, things are getting worse for the galaxy. This also confirms that the conflict with Psi Corps and the Earth military will be the show's major B-story going forward.

The best episode of these three by far is 'Acts of Sacrifice,' which gives us our first major insight in the Narn-Centauri War. The opening is very well done, both in terms of effects and in terms of emotional engagement. The sequence recalled the Rebels' escape from Hoth in Empire, and is one of the few works to capture that same reckless spirit of fighting against a seemingly invincible foe.

This moves us into G'Kar's quest to obtain military aid for the Narn cause. Both the humans and Minbari say that they would love to help, but can't get the homeworld to agree on it. If it was up to Sheridan, would he send in major military aid? I'm not sure, I think he's too canny to fully commit to one side, particularly when it would mean the potential loss of a lot of Earth soldiers. Delenn's reason for not helping G'Kar is a brilliant use of continuity. She knows that the conflict between Narn and Centauri is an ongoing thing that is only going to get worse with this war, and helping one side will just perpetuate the cycle of violence.

However, both she, and we the viewers, know that G'Kar is less to blame for what has happened. He's the one who was willing to make peace back in 'The Coming of Shadows,' and is justifiably trying to defend his people. He believes he can convince the Earthers and Minbari to offer him aid, and his attmepts to conform to their rules of behavior causes problems within the Narn community. This whole storyline is masterfully executed, showing how much G'Kar has grown. He understands how the Babylon 5 diplomatic system works, and is willing to play by its rules, even if it means subjecting himself to physical harm and eventual emotional reaction.

The scene where they tell G'Kar that they can only offer him meager aid is the high point of the episode. Here, we see that all his effort could not sway them. He will get help for his people, but nothing he can show, and nothing to aid in the war. It is a good thing, and the diplomatic side of him knows that, but the warrior side wishes he could have more. He has to keep his emotions in check, and thank them for hte aid, playing by their rules, but outside he breaks down, in a mix of laughter and tears. He's been spiralling downward over the course of the season and is likely headed for a major break in the future.

The other major storyline focuses on Londo. Following 'The Coming of Shadows,' I was wondering how they'd keep Londo as a regular character. He seemed to cross a line there, and that's reflected in this story. Rather than show him as an outright villain, we see the same guy, now forced to deal with the effect of his actions. He seems to have become a kind of mafia don, fielding requests from many friends he never knew he had. Londo is smart enough to recognize the hollowness of their affection, and he seeks true friendship from Garibaldi. Of course, Garibaldi is aware that Londo has crossed a line and is not really comfortable treating him in the same way he did before.

It's interesting that we're still made to feel sorry for Londo, despite viewing him as a total bastard in the G'Kar parts of the episode. The scene where he's at the bar at closing time is so sad, and even when he does drink with Garibaldi, it's a totally hollow feeling. I like how everyone is scared of him, even though he detects no change.

Elsewhere, Ivanova's Earth sex was one of the funniest things the show's done so far, a nice counterpoint to the dark stuff going on elsewhere. The humor on the show has definitely picked up, early on it was a bit sitcom, but the darker general tone means the humor stands out more. It's like on Buffy, season six was both the saddest, darkest season of the show and the funniest.

So, this was a strong run of episodes. I would have liked more on the Narn-Centauri War, but this last episode was fantastic, and I'm really excited to see where things go next.

Sunday, December 31, 2006

Babylon 5: 2x06-2x09

This run of episodes features the series' best so far, along with some lesser, but still strong hours. I approached the first season as a prologue, something that wouldn't have that much merit on its own, rather it was a necessary step to reach the riches the rest of the series held. So, when I hit the end of the first season, and the crackling opening of season two, I figured the series was in the home stretch, ready to take this Shadows arc to greatness. But, that's not exactly what happened. The standalone episodes here are a marked improvement over season one, but the series still has some issues with consistency. Maybe it's just that an episode like "The Coming of Shadows" is so good, it makes everything around look a bit shabby.

I'm not sure if 2x06-2x08 were set up as a deliberate arc, regardless they form a nice thematic trilogy surrounding Talia and the Psi Corps. She's a character who wasn't developed much in the first season, and it's good to see her getting some time. The B5 universe is the best treatment of what would happen if people actually developed psychic powers that I've seen. In something like X-Men, there's just telepaths running around, and someone with Xavier's powers could easily wreak massive havoc on the world. In reality, those powers would be tightly controlled, and the inevitable conflict between the safety of the individual and the safety of society as a whole makes for great drama.

The immediately notable thing about 'Spider in the Web' is two of the guest stars: Adrienne Barbeau of Carnivale and Jessica Walter of Arrested Development. It's weird to see Walter in a serious role after the absurdity of AD. It's nice that the show consistently brings in guest stars from shows I like. The episode has some other notable stuff, specifically the further development of Psi Corps. I'm always a fan of government conspiracy and secret experimentation, so the stuff with Psi Cop Thirteen was very interesting. These three episodes indicate that Psi Corps will be the second major villain as the show goes forward, after the Shadows. The glimpse of their headquarters in the San Diego wasteland was very cool. It's interesting to see the state of the various homeworlds, and scenes like that make the show feel less claustrophobic. Rather than just being a ship, the show is an entire galaxy.

This is an episode that's notable more for the information it brings to the overall series development than for the actual story it tells. The ongoing conflict with Mars positions Earth in the role of England, to Mars' thirteen colonies. Normally, Earth is equated with the United States, I suppose the point of the Mars stuff is to show the cyclical nature of history, new stuff will always replace the old, and those who try to fight it, like HomeGuard, are resisting the natural force of evolution.

Next up is 'Soul Mates,' a good blend of comedy and darker overtones. This is likely the last time we can view Londo in such a comic light, he crosses a line in 'The Coming of the Shadows' that makes it much tougher to relate to him in the way that we do hear. This episode again demonstrates the way that power is corrupting him, as he uses his privelege over his wives to garner favors and good treatment. It was a bit predictable that he would choose Timov in the end, precisely because she was being so stubborn, and because she was the most developed of the three. But that didn't prevent it from being a fun storyline, and a good stop on his character arc.

This episode also gives us a guest appearance from the guy who played Holtz on Angel. He's a great actor, so it was good to see him here, and what a universe crossover it was when he sells something to the Giant from Twin Peaks. Anyway, this episode did a good job of continuing the development of the Talia/Garibaldi relationship. Garibaldi's a very sympathetic character and it's tough to watch him get shoved aside for Stoner, right when he was making a connection with Talia.

All the characters on the show seem to have some major trauma in their past, and quite frequently the person who caused that trauma will turn up on the station. In this case, Talia's forced marriage to Stoner fits right in with how they've been developing her, the memories he brings up bring up more doubts about the morality of the Psi Corps. He offers her a 'cure' for her psychic powers, and it's unclear whether that cure would work. Even if it did, I don't think she would take it. Though she may suffer sometimes, I think she recognizes that the psychic powers are critical to her self definition, and to take them away would mean taking away everything she's known her whole life.

Those doubts carry over into the next episode, 'A Race Through Dark Places,' which is a sequel to one of the first season's best episodes, 'Mind War.' I really like the way these three episodes were placed back to back, chronicling the development that makes Talia denounce the Psi Corps at the end of this.

Before delving into this, I'll just mention how good the dinner scene with Sheridan and Delenn was. I always love the struggle of non-humans to become human, as with Anya on Buffy. It's a great chance to point out the absurdity of our customs, and also ponder what it actually means to be human. There's opportunity for comedy, as done here, and poignancy, as in 'GROPOS.' Sheridan sure seemed interested in Delenn, are we headed for an interspecies relationship? I'm not sure if it will happen with these two, but I'd imagine there will be something down the line.

This episode brings back Bester, one of the series' best villains to date. He's there to hunt down this underground railroad of telepaths, which is being run by Dr. Franklin. Franklin is consistently shown with something of a death wish. He's doing unorthodox and illegal things to help people, unconcerned with the consequences these actions could have for him. In light of 'GROPOS,' it's possible this is all an attempt to prove that he's tougher than his father, and just as willing to take risks. Regardless, I'm assuming it will lead to some bad conseqeunces for him in the future.

Talia is kidnapped by the group, and they use information and positivity to change her, rather than threats. This works because we're on the side of the refugees, so we're rooting for the character to help them. I do like the followup on the stuff with Ironheart, the deep connection that telepaths feel. This was also touched on with Ivanova and her mother, and connecting with these people means that Talia has to help them.

The misdirect with the psychic vision directed at Bester definitely worked on me. I was really shocked when Talia killed them all, surprised that the show would make such a bold choice. It was a bit disappointing from a boldness perspective to see them quickly renege on that and reveal it was a hallucination. However, from a character point of view, it makes much more sense for Talia to develop this way. That said, it would have been interesting to have one of our main characters in such tricky moral territory.

The final scene of the episode was well done, building on the connection already established between Ivanova and Talia. I'm not sure why she didn't go to Garibaldi instead, considering the fledgling relationship between the two of them. Is there something more than friendship going on with Ivanova and Talia? If the show was airing today, I'd say yes, but that sort of thing wasn't as common on TV back in the mid 90s. It would be fitting for Ivanova to fall in love with a telepath, someone who could give her that same deep feeling she got from her mother, but the fact that she had that boyfriend, Malcolm, indicates she's not a lesbian. That dynamic probably wasn't intentional, but I'm just saying, that's what I got out of it.

That brings us to the series' best episode so far, 'The Coming of Shadows.' Going into this one, I was expecting a lot. Not only is it the season's titular episode, it also promises major development in the ongoing mystery of the Shadows. The episode did not disappoint. The major difference between Babylon 5's 'wham episodes,' and similar episodes on something like Buffy or The X-Files is that the B5 ones not only give major development for present events, they provide a glimpse of the overall arc, perfectly doled out teases of what will eventually happen to the characters. After watching this, I was like "Wow, it's on between the Narn and Centauri," but I was also like "Wow, things are not looking good for Londo in the future." That's something unique in television, most writers have no idea where their characters will be three years out. Having the whole story means we can see these pieces of the future and only later realize how it all connects.

Speaking of connecting the future, this episode brings back the much maligned Captain Sinclair. Even though I was cracking on him frequently, it was great to have him back. O'Hare has a great voice, and when called upon to be stoic and authoritarian, as here, he's great. It's only in more emotional situations that he ran into problems. Sinclair is in charge of the Rangers, a group of human and Minbari who apparently have a lot of knowledge about the Shadows and the overall threat facing the galaxy. I'm assuming that O'Hare himself didn't want to return that much, so having these Rangers is a good chance to keep his spirit in the show. I'm aware of the TV movie 'Legend of the Rangers,' so apparently they'll have a large role to play in the show's universe.

In addition to contacting Garibaldi, Sinclair has a message for Delenn. In 'Babylon Squared,' we saw future versions of Delenn and Sinclair on some kind of mission in the past. He contacts her here, presumably initiating the contact that will eventually lead to their journeys through time and space. It's a great followup to that previous mystery, the brief scene letting us know that they still know what's going on.

But, the main concern here was Londo's corruption and the outbreak of the Narn-Centauri War. Starting on the Centauri homeworld, this episode gives us a wider scope than the show has previously undertaken. In Centauri society, there is a generational divide between the older, who are content with their reduced position of power within the galaxy, and the younger, like Lord Refa, who seek to return the Centauri to a position of preeminence. Londo ostensibly believes as Refa does, it's what he tells Morden back in 'Signs and Portents,' however, through his position on Babylon 5, he's also more aware of the other cultures. To him, the Narn are not a faceless mass, though he may dislike G'Kar, there is a bond between the two of them.

It's painful to watch what happens to G'Kar in this episode, he is the one who steps up and goes to the Centauri Emperor's gathering. He is humbled by the Emperor's message of peace and for a brief moment, he really believes that things can change. The scene with him and Londo at the bar is brilliant because of our conflicted feelings. We're watching G'Kar, filled with hope, and we know that all his hopes will soon be dashed.

Londo's path to corruption has been one of the most compelling arcs of the series so far. I love it because there was no one moment where he 'turned evil,' nothing has changed in him as a person, he's just made a series of choices that have compounded to the point where he is now irrevocably trapped in this bond with the Shadows and the quest for power with Refa. So far, his work with the Shadows has been one sided, they've done his bidding and he hasn't paid for it. Only when the Narn ship was destroyed on the rim did he get a sense of what his actions are resulting in. Here, he begins to understand the consequences of what he's doing. His choice to attack the colony started the war, and soon I'm sure we'll see that the Shadows don't just give for no reason. They will call on him for favors, and when the people on Babylon 5 find out about the Shadows, they'll be none too happy to find out that Londo has betrayed them.

His tragic trajectory is reinforced by the dream. Back in one of the first episodes, he mentioned dreaming that he was killed, with G'Kar at his neck. Here, we get a glimpse of that, but it's unclear whether what we're seeing is a set future, or just one possibility. I love the shot of Londo watching the Shadow fighters over the Centauri homeworld, and also the quick change from his coronation as emperor to rotting flesh on the chair. The makeup on old G'Kar and Londo was great, though the choking played a bit goofy. Some more chaos in the camera movement might have made the scene work better.

Throughout the show, I sometimes wish that JMS has a directing partner, like Aaron Sorkin has Tommy Schlamme. JMS is clearly a gifted storyteller, but unlike Joss Whedon, he doesn't seem as interested in film as a form. The show is very strong visually, but generally in what's being shown rather than how it's being shown. Now, this was a time when TV was decidedly less cinematic than it is today, but still, a moment like the Emperor's hallway walk shows how cool things can be, and a lot of the time, the show just doesn't work as well as it could in terms of cinematography and visual construction. This episode is actually pretty strong visually, that's more of a general criticism.

The effects in this episode were uniformly strong. The Londo outside shot was notable, as was the start of the Narn-Centauri war, with a whole bunch of ships moving through space. The effects here give me hope that we'll see some great stuff as the 'Great War' approaches.

The rawest emotional moment of the show so far is G'Kar's breakdown after finding out the Centauri destroyed the colony. In that moment, I wanted him to go and just assault Londo, he'd been so thoroughly betrayed. Sheridan's approach was obviously more logical, but in that moment, you feel what G'Kar is feeling and don't want him to stop.

It's interesting watching this episode because I'm a huge fan of both Londo and G'Kar, and I'm rooting for them both, even though their intentions are opposed. Still, Londo seems to have crossed a moral line here. He has killed nearly 250,000 Narn, on top of everyone he's killed before. He's gaining power, but I see a major fall in his future. I love the fact that they're doing this arc and taking him down this dark path. It's unlike anything I've seen on TV before.

The episode begins with the Narn-Centauri War breaking out, and I'm assuming a new status quo for the show. This will likely lead into war with the Shadows, but I'm really curious to see how it develops. I have seen GROPOS, but that doesn't touch on it too much. And that one will be reviewed in the next post, I think this one's long enough.