Saturday, January 13, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x04-3x06

This is a strong run of episodes. In most cases, the A story is okay, but the stuff going on in the background is fantastic. At the start of each season, JMS has done a bunch of standalone episodes, presumably to attract new viewers. It's somewhat frustrating, but he always manages to put something important in. 'Dust to Dust' is the best of these, starting out solid then metamorphosing into something fantastic. But, let's track back and start at the beginning.

'Passing Through Gethsemane' is notable for two guest stars, one being Patricia Tallman back as Lyta Alexander, the other is character actor legend Brad Dourif. Dourif's always fun to watch, and this is one of the rare cases where a guest character pretty much carries the episode. He's so good that you don't mind putting our main characters in the background for a bit. I like the fact that Brother Theo's group was set up back in the first episode, and lingered in the background for a while before getting their own storyline. It's not that tough to do this kind of advance planning, and it makes the episode feel like part of a whole, rather than just an isolated happening. Even though it is a standalone story, that sort of continuity places it clearly within the world of the show.

I really like the scene where Edward talks with Delenn about the Minbari religion. The show frequently indulges in these philosophical digressions with Delenn and generally they work. I could see these speeches bothering some viewers, but I find them consistently interesting, it's always good to see a show that's concerned with exploring the larger issues of the universe, not just whatever's happening to its characters this week. I also like the idea of connecting the story of Jesus with the story of Valen, implying that all gods hail from the same universal idea, they're just viewed through different lenses. It's a cool idea in general, and also ties in nicely with the theme of universal connectedness that's central to the series.

The way the Edward story unfolded reminded me of a good X-Files standalone. The idea behind it is strong, and it plays out well. The crucifixion imagery was a bit heavy handed, but it worked well enough, and the ending finds a nice mix of touching and creepy.

Elsewhere, we get Lyta's return to the station. Lyta's look is just fascinating to me. She's good looking, but not extremely attractive, rather there's something about her eyes that looks kind of alien. That quality fits perfectly with what she's doing now, working as a telepath for the Vorlons. As we see at the end of the episode, she seems to have taken on some non-human qualities. I'm uncertain what was going on there, was Kosh absorbing her memories, or was that actually his spirit transferring from her body to his suit? I'm not sure yet, but both possibilities hold a lot of potential interest and I assume it'll be followed up on soon. Also of note is the scene with Londo, she is beyond the human desire for material wealth, and there she takes the chance to flaunt her power over him. Good stuff.

'Voices of Authority' has a lot of good stuff, but also some plot developments that come dangerously close to Deus Ex Machina. Draal returns here and offers our heroes a chance to contact the first ones. Ivanova's vision sequence was pretty cool, though I feel like a bit more could have been done filmmaking wise to make us feel like this was a truly otherworldly experience. Apparently using her psychic abilities, she tracks through time and finds a message from the Vice President discussing the assassination attempt.

My big issue with this plot development is the fact that it makes no logical sense in the universe. They just all of a sudden get the evidence from some psychic plane, are able to capture it on to a data crystal and then put it out to the world. It would have been better to have them fight to find this evidence, handing it to them sucks the story of drama. The physics of the Epsilon 3 thing are unclear, so maybe it worked in JMS's conception of the machine, but for me, it felt unearned. I did love the look of the first ones' ship, though I'd have thought these guys would be beyond petty jealousy now, and not be so easily swayed by Ivanova's reverse psychology.

Elsewhere, we get a visit from Julie Musante, Ministry of Peace liason. A lot of the show's guest stars are not good, but she was great, throwing herself full on into the role, selling both the dramatic and comedic parts. The great drama here comes from the conflict between freedom and security. Earth was apparently changed a lot, with the eradication of poverty and all problems! Or not so much, they just pretend the problems don't exist anymore, and blame anyone who doesn't have a job for not wanting to work. Similarly, they have equated criticism of the government with treason, and are curbing free speech, just until this current conflict is over. This episode is nothing if not relevant to today. It's a bit heavy handed, but generally works. I particularly like Zack's conflict. He's kept outside of the station's inner circle, but is openly welcomed into Nightwatch. Is it any surprise he'd be inclined to support them? In the long run, the Ranger crew's secrecy could wind up backfiring and alienating potential allies.

On the comic side of things, there's the great scene in Sheridan's apartment. I particularly like the line "You're about to go where everyone's gone before." Even though I take issue with criticizing women for being sexually aggressive, the line's funny enough it works. Ivanova's shock when she appears there is fantastic. So, this episode worked well, it retreaded the thematic material of the previous Nightwatch episodes, but there was enough forward progress it was worthwhile.

Next up is 'Dust to Dust,' an episode that starts out alright, then become phenomenal at the end. Bester returns to the station and there's the predictable unease among the crew. Ivanova threatens to blow up his ship, but is stopped and we move into what seems to be a fairly standard buddy cops who hate each other, but work together to solve the case thing. The Garibaldi/Bester dynamic is fun, and I have to say, I agree with Bester when he says he hopes they could work together again sometime. The final revelation that Bester and Psi Corps are behind Dust is a great twist which makes perfect sense. Their xenophobic fear that it will be used by non-humans is thematically appropriate as well.

But, that's not what lingers from the episode. By the end of the episode, when we returned to the Bester storyline, I wasn't even sure that stuff was from the same episode I was watching, this thing was completely hijacked by the G'Kar/Londo development. Londo is excited to have Vir back on the station, but not particularly impressed by his report back. Vir has none of Londo's cynicism, he accepts everything the Minbari have to say at face value and that naivete draws Londo's criticism. During their conversation, they could just as easily be talking about the Centauri homeworld as they are about Minbar, there's an emphasis on fading glory. Londo fears that the Minbari will try to reclaim their power, his only frame for behavior is his own, and if he was in charge of Minbar, he would likely lead them on a campaign to gain more power in the universe.

G'Kar's dust trip sends him into Londo's mind, on a tour of various significant moments from the past. The black void interrogation is reminiscent of both 'And the Sky Full of Stars' and The Prisoner. I love the scene where Londo is sent off on his ambassadorial mission, they have no confidence in him, and no sense of how important Babylon 5 will turn out to be. Londo has built up power and confidence, but G'Kar saw his greatest weakness there. He also sees Londo's meetings with Morden, and confirms that Londo was the one who gave the order to destroy the Narn colony. He apparently still hasn't made the connection between Londo's allies and the Shadows, but that will presumably come shortly. When Garibaldi finally looks at the book, he'll see the Shadow ship and find out that G'Kar was right all along.

Just a side note, how many shows does this mark that have used those black contacts? It's been featured on The X-Files, Carnivale and Buffy. Interestingly, the X-Files' Piper Maru, which debuted the black contacts, aired a mere four days after this episode.

After the adventures in Londo's mind, we go into G'Kar's mind, where he encounters his father, who tells him a new path. G'Kar was ready to embrace peace back in 'The Coming of Shadows,' there he was thrilled to give up the fight, but Londo's actions meant that wouldn't happen. Betrayed, he returned to his old warrior ways. But, this encounter with his father changes his mind and sets him on a different path. The speech that his father gives is beautiful, everything about the sequence is great. As he ascended, taking on the glow of Kosh, I wasn't sure what was going on. Was G'Kar visited by his God, was his father an angel, did they just reuse the Kosh effect to make it look cool?

Moving out, we see Kosh standing over him, satisfied. The fact that Kosh gave him this vision is brilliant, it gives an explanation for what exactly happened, and also raises questions about Kosh's role in this war. He's become more involved as the series has gone on, and this direct intercession in someone's mind is perhaps his boldest gesture yet. I've been waiting for G'Kar to become a part of the Ranger crew, but they remain frustrating oblique towards him. I feel like the purpose of his imprisonment is to atone for his sins, both the obvious attack on Londo, but more generally his pride and aggression in the past. He has been profoundly changed and when he does his penance, he will come out into the world with a new, different message.

The question I have now is how this changed G'Kar will eventually become the killer we see in Londo's vision of the future? Will he again be betrayed? If the series so far tells us anything, it's that things will go bad for G'Kar, so even though things are looking good now, it will all eventually come crashing down. I'm curious to see both how long this new outlook on life will last, and how it will eventually be destroyed.

Well, coming up after one episode is the big three episode run of 3x08-3x10. The picture on the DVD certainly makes it look like things are really on. After the stuff with the Narn and Centauri in the second season, I feel like there's really no boundaries on what could happen, anyone or anything could go, and I'm guessing things are still going to get a lot worse before they turn around.

United 93

I didn't see United 93 when it came out, not because it was 'too soon,' rather because I'd heard it described as a non-political straight ahead thriller. After seeing the film, I would agree that it is thrilling, one of the most tense, exciting films of the year, but in retrospect, it's an essentially pointless film. The film is entirely dependent on our outside cultural knowledge for its impact, if you look at the film as a standalone entity, what makes this different than countless B action movies, where our hero triumphantly defeats some ethnic terrorists to ensure the safety of America?

After watching Schindler's List, I wrote this post, discussing the impossibility of making a good film about a culturally charged real event. What does make a film about the Holocaust fifty years later tell us, other than that something awful happened and we shouldn't let it happen again. That may be a valid message, but it's not a particularly interesting one. Setting a film in the historical past always drains it of urgency. With rare exceptions, like Barry Lyndon, there's no vitality or importance to films set in the past, they've already happened and made their cultural impact. I don't think there's anything shocking in Schindler's List, you go in knowing what to expect, and receive the emotional charge that was expected.

Unlike Schindler's List, United 93 is set a mere five years ago, and as a result, it should have more relevance to today's political scene. The film was so charged that people criticized it for coming 'too soon' after the event. After seeing the film, I have to say this film is about four years too late. In the six months or so after the event, 9/11 was a tragedy, after that it became a political object, endlessly distorted to serve the interests of a President out to create a war without end. Even this week, Bush was using 9/11 to justify the war in Iraq and a potential invasion of Iran. The destruction of the towers was an awful event, but the real tragedy is how Bush used what happened to forward his agenda, and actually wound up killing more Americans than the terrorists did on that day.

For me, that is what 9/11 is now, and to make a film like United 93 that naively addresses the day itself without any comment about what would happen after seems hopelessly dated. This is the sort of film we needed a year after the event, as a way of processing things. I think the film does a wonderful job of capturing the shock of the day, the disbelief of the air traffic controllers who laugh at a hijacking as something quaint. Watching those sequences has heavy dramatic irony, we know what's going to happen and want these characters to figure things out. Of course, we know they don't, and in a stunning sequence, the air traffic controllers at Newark watch the plane hit the tower.

That sequence has a lot of power, but it doesn't really earn the power, it just uses a culturally charged image to produce a reaction. In the world of this film, why should we care about anything that happens to the vast, anonymous cast? Now, I think it wouldn't have worked to give obvious emotional hooks to what's going on, but I think Elephant gives a good model for how to use a cultural tragedy in the service of ideas, rather than just recreating something on screen. In Elephant, we see various viginettes showing characters' everyday lives. These viginettes are interesting on their own terms, and we know just enough about the characters to identify with them. I think Elephant would have been a good film without the school shooting ending, but with the ending, it becomes a great one. Van Sant uses the cultural memory of Columbine, and then deflates that mythology, bringing it down the brutal reality of just a frustrated kid with too many guns.

In some respects, I think that was the goal of this film, to bring 9/11 down to a personal level, but it just doesn't succeed. It makes no sense to cut between five different air traffic control rooms. It's just a bunch of anonymous characters talking about the same stuff. I think it would have been more effective to focus on one guy's journey through that day.

The parts on the plane were more effective, but to me, the film just felt like an episode of 24. It was really exciting to watch the passengers prepare their resistance and I was rooting for them as they rushed the cockpit and things descended into chaos. I loved the filmmaking in those final moments, a rush of chaotic camera moves, blood and violence everywhere, as the plane descends toward the ground in a fantastic closing sequence. But, really, what did this film do that 24 hasn't done? It's that same embrace of the essentially conservative action message, cheering on as Americans take down some foreigners. Harrison Ford might as well have been on there telling the terrorists to "get off my plane."

If the filmmakers' mission was to create a compelling action film, I think they succeeded, though from that point of view, I've got to question the lengthy air traffic controller stuff. If the goal was to make us experience what these people felt on 9/11, I think that was pretty much accomplished. But, if the goal was to make us think about the days' events in a different way, I think they failed.

A mere two weeks after 9/11, 24 began, and as the show has progressed, it's been a barometer of post 9/11 thought, an alternate America constantly under attack from terrorists, where torture has seemingly become the only alternative, and a place where the president and big business are constantly working together to create a feeling of terror among the American people. The show has no consistent message about our post 9/11 world, but the schizophrenic mix of liberal and conservative paranoia is precisely what makes the show so relevant for today's world.

And, two years after 9/11, Ron Moore made the new Battlestar Galactica , a work that essentially takes 9/11 into a sci-fi context, and in that work, he creates an emotionally devestating, riveting piece of fiction that tells us a lot more about the way our society reacted to 9/11 than United 93 did. The miniseries was basically the same story as United 93, but full of more interesting characters and concepts, and a deeper exploration of what the attacks mean to society as a whole. Since then, the show has explored our post 9/11 society from every angle, and while the cinema was hinting at current problems with period pieces like Jarhead and Good Night and Good Luck, this season's opening New Caprica arc was the only important reaction to the War in Iraq that's been produced so far in cinema. Freed of the need to be historically accurate, and non-biased in representing real events, the show can get to the core of the issues that matter to our world today.

I think people need to realize that it's never too soon to address what's going on in our world. The War in Iraq is killing people everyday and cinema needs to address that fact. If we'd had films like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket in the early 70s, maybe the Vietnam War wouldn't have gone on so long. Today's Iraq War is a massive catastrophe and it's time for filmmakers to stop being 'impartial' and start interrogating the reasons for this war and the culture it has created in dynamic, exciting ways, not just polemical documentaries. The way to do that might be through the use of genre, as in New Caprica, or maybe it's just in not trying to tell stories about our entire society, as in Syriana, and instead just focus on a few people and demonstrate the way their lives have been changed in this new world. Apocalypse Now doesn't indict the war through an in depth exploration of its causes and global consequences, it does so by immersing us in the mental space of the soldiers and showing that they're not liberators, not peace-bringers, they're just trying to survive in the chaos.

So, I enjoyed United 93 as an action thriller, but as a political or important film, it's grossly lacking. 9/11 isn't about the actual attack anymore, it's about the symbol that it's become for Bush's conservative agenda, that's the story that needs to be told and we can't wait until the time is 'right' for that to happen.

An Evening With David Lynch and Donovan @ Lincoln Center

Lynch has been going all around on a promotional tour for INLAND EMPIRE and his book, Catching the Big Fish. Lynch is a great speaker, and obviously a master filmmaker, so I always like to see him speak. Back in September 2005, I saw him speak at Yale, a promotional event in conjunction with the Maharishi University of Management. Here, I was very impressed by his discussion of filmmaking, but less thrilled with his discussion of transcendental meditation. Back in October, I saw him again, at the New York Film Festival. Here, he stuck mainly to film, and it was much more interesting to listen to.

This event had more in common with the Maharishi tour, though it wasn't so strictly focused on promoting meditation. Rather, it was a celebration of what Lynch had done, and another venue for him to promote his general ideas on meditation, creativity and life to a large audience. Entering the theater, I was looking down at a moody stage, populated with a grand piano, bongos, guitar and a couple of podiums. Things started up and Justin Theroux came out to ask Lynch a bunch of questions that had been submitted by fans earlier in the evening.

I've read so much about Lynch that very little he has to say is surprising to me anymore. He told some classic stories, the Toby Keeler's dad becoming an artist story, the getting into meditation during Eraserhead story and a lot of general discussion of his creative process that I was familiar with. The best new material was an odd, funny story about how Lynch discovered masturbation. As he said it, in the fourth or fifth grade, some friends told him that you get a really good feeling if you rub a certain part of your body, and the more you do it, the better it gets. He was very skeptical, but decided to try it, he didn't get anything, but then the feeling starting rising, and it all hit him. The reason for telling this story was to say that the feeling you get from TM can actually top the orgasm because it never ends.

I respect Lynch's interest in TM, and I think it's critical to his success as an artist and in life in general. But, it can be tiresome to continually hear him talk about it. I suppose the whole point of the evening is to promote this stuff, not give me anecdotes about the production of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, but Lynch is much more interesting talking about film than when repeating the same beats about TM and the unified field. I suppose I wasn't the target audience for this, having already heard him do virtually the same presentation, but still, give us some more info on the experiences making the films.

It was still fun to hear him speak, but I think the two of us need to take some time off, so he can get some new stories to tell. I suppose it's the same with any artist, they create a myth that has a set of anecdotes. I have the same experience with Lynch as I do with Grant Morrison, the new interviews mostly retread stuff I've already heard, with a sprinkling of new material in there. When I actually met Grant, it was surprising to hear him talk so openly about the meaning of the end of The Invisibles, and what exactly the supercontext entailed. I was used to the Lynch style of total ambiguity with regards to the intentions of the film.

I think their difference in approach is largely due to the medium. Grant has little control over the end product of his work, he writes it, and sends it off to the artist. Lynch writes, directs and edits, refining the film until it's exactly what he wants. Grant doesn't have the same luxury, and as a result he can be more open about where the published work doesn't convey everything he intended. Plus, Lynch's work is never meant to be an espousing of personal philosophy. The Invisibles is a cosmology, it is Grant's view of the universe, so it serves a dual purpose. Lynch's doesn't, it's just an experience in the moment.

I deeply respect Lynch for not giving people the 'answers' to his films, he knows that meaning lies in the mysteries. In the book, he talks about how people know much more than they think they do, it's just a matter of talking about the work and bringing that knowledge to the fore. I would agree with that, in looking at works like Seven Soldiers or INLAND EMPIRE, the more I wrote about it, the more I understood what were initially rather opaque pieces of art.

I bought the book at the event and read about half of it on the trainride home. That tells you something about how dense this book is, but it does have a lot of good material in there. I think Lynch on Lynch is a more essential book to understanding his work process, but there's a bunch of good stuff in there. I particularly like the advice he has for people making their own films. It's not a great value at $20, but if you can get it cheaper, it's worth picking up. If you have a coffee table, this'd be a great book to put on it, with a bunch of short chapters that you can pick up and read in the downtime between other stuff. After I finish reading it, I might do a more in depth writeup, though I feel like I've already covered most of the issues raised by the book.

After Lynch, we got a performance by Donovan. I'm only really familiar with one Donovan song, 'Atlantis,' and I was disappointed that wasn't played. But, it was still a good show. Donovan has a great voice, and he told some bizarre anecdotes between songs. It was interesting hearing him analyze the songs he'd written years ago, finding meaning in them he didn't have then. I would have liked a few more people in his band, to vary the sound more, but considering it was free, I left happy.

So, this was another entertaining event from the Lynch foundation, but I'd prefer to hear Lynch speak with a focus on film, rather than this general lifestyle promotion.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

500th Post Spectacular!

It all started inauspiciously back on March 1, 2004, with this post, which claimed that...

This is a place for me to archive my postings from various places on the web, and in the process, create a little time capsule of my thoughts at a particular time.

I put some message board posts on there, but it wasn't until October 2004 that the blog proper began with this post about Cowboy Bebop. And things kept going from there, until roughly three years after the first post, we're at the 500th. To note this occasion, I'll be going back through the entire history of the blog to spotlight what I'd consider my best posts. There's no spoilers below, so read on, if you've already read/seen the works in question, you'll have some reading material here, if not, I'd reccomend checking out all this stuff.

Was the Past Really Better (I) (II) - This was an early article that explored the way memory warps our perception of things, specifically with the creation of 'Golden Eras' of music and film. Most of this is still relevant, particularly the comment about the pitfalls of 'ironic nostalgia.'

Writing People/Finding Meaning in Discussion: On Linklater and the Before Duology - These are two lengthy articles. The first explores the way that fictional characters seem to take on a mind of their own as you write them. This segues into a discussion of Before Sunset, and a lengthy analysis of Linklater's oeuvre and what makes his films unique. After seeing Before Sunset, I was so in love with his dialogue heavy style of filmmaking, this article reflects my feelings at that time.

The Office (II) - Because it's ostensibly a comedy show, you don't see that much in depth thematic analysis of The Office. After rewatching the series, I wrote two lengthy pieces on it, exploring the thematic intent of the show. There's a lot of layers in there.

Top Ten TV Moments - This is exactly what it says, my top ten favorite TV show moments. In retrospect, I'd place OMWF over the Office ending, but I wrote this right after watching The Office, so it still had that shiny glow of the new.

And the Work which Has Become a Genre Unto Itself... - This is an extremely long analysis of Cowboy Bebop, which I wrote after rewatching the series. I've read very little academic analysis of the show, there just isn't much out there, if you've seen it, give this a read, there's so much in the series, and you can easily watch it without unpacking it. This may be the longest post in the history of the blog.

Pop!/More Pop! - These two posts are critical to understanding my approach to fiction. I'll frequently throw the word pop around, and if you're curious what exactly I mean by it, read this two parter.

Promethea: Until the End of the World - Another massive post, this one an analysis of the last eight issues of Promethea. It's an astonishing work and worthy of better analysis than I can give it. But, this is my reaction.

Better to Burn Out than Fade Away - This is an analysis of Angel's final season. I wrote it after my first rewatch. Angel season five is my third favorite season in all the Buffyverse stuff, and it's one of the most thematically dense.

Time Destroys All (Irreversible) - Irreversible is one of the best films I've seen in the past five years, and one I just love talking about and analyzing. It's a perfect example of what I want from cinema because it's simultaneously a visceral experience in the moment of viewing, and full of material to consider after.

Irony and Filmgoing - This is a more general post, discussing my issue with the 'ironic filmgoer.' It's a major problem to this day, so consider it.

Ten Works that Changed My Life (I)/(II) - This a critical post for me personally because it explores the works that shaped my personality. And, if you're a regular reader, you'll probably see the way that these works shaped my perception of everything I watch/read.

Magnolia: PTA's Masterpiece - It's one of my absolute favorite movies, and this is my definitive statement on the themes and construction of Magnolia. If you haven't seen this movie, watch it now, then read the post.

Six Feet Under: Goodbye - If you want to check out my reviews of the entire last season, and some additional analysis, go here, I chose to link this post because I wrote it right after seeing Ecotone for the first time, bowled over by what happened there. Other than the last episode of Twin Peaks, I was never so shocked watching an episode.

Making Films About 'Real' Events - This post explores my personal bias against films based on real events. I think it's a shortcut to use our cultural memory of real events to produce an emotional reaction, and makes it impossible evaluate films centered around events like the Holocaust and 9/11 on their own merits. Battlestar Galactica is a more valuable exploration of what 9/11 meant to our culture than United 93 is.

X-Men: Wrapping it Up - This post was the culmination of my eight month long readthrough of Chris Claremont's original X-Men run. Again, I spotlight this post because it's an extensive analysis of something I haven't seen addressed in a critical fashion. Sure, a lot has been written about the Dark Phoenix saga, but to really appreciate what Claremont did, you have to look at the development over the course of the whole run. It takes a bit to get used to the style, but Claremont's work on this title is one of the greatest, most influential long form narratives ever created.

The New World of TV and Film - Here I explore the idea that TV has surpassed film as a storytelling medium. To quote the final sentence: "Conventional wisdom holds that The Godfather is one of the top five movies of all time. If The Sopranos does everything The Godfather does and more, doesn't that mean that The Sopranos is better than any movie ever made?"

Meeting Morrison - Over the course of the blog, I've met many of my idols, but no meeting was cooler than talking with Grant Morrison about the Supercontext. If you ever have the chance to see the man speak, do it, to speak to the mind that created The Invisibles was an awe inspiring experience.

Seven Soldiers Wrap Up - Speaking of Morrison, this is the index of my coverage of Seven Soldiers. The thing I love about Seven Soldiers is that it practically demands blog-length analysis. There's so much in the work beneath the surface, unless you've broken it down and thought about it, you haven't really read it.

From Hell: Gull's Ascent - Another major blog project was the read through of From Hell. Gull's Ascent was my favorite part of the book, and the most thematically rich. This post brings in The Invisibles and a lot of general Moore/Morrison concepts to look at the work.

And that brings us pretty much up to the present. What does the future hold? Probably more of these longform review/analysis projects, we've still got a ways to go with Babylon 5, and I'm planning on doing a re-read of Grant Morrison's New X-Men soon. But, pretty much whatever interesting comes up, I'll write about it. And, if you're interested in checking out more of the archive, all the blog posts are indexed here.

Winter 2007 Movie Preview

January through April are usually the most barren months of the film calendar. I've still got a bunch of leftover '06 stuff to get through, specifically Pan's Labyrinth, Curse of the Golden Flower and Perfume, but other than that, it could be a slow time. Let's see what the studios have for us...

January 26
The Host - It was last year's top grossing film in Korea, and it's also been getting great internet buzz. I'm not usually a fan of monster horror films, and all I can picture for the film is Flukeman from The X-Files' episode of the same name. But, if it's got such good buzz, there's probably something worthwhile here. I'll probably end up seeing this on DVD at some point.

February 9
The Lives of Others - I don't know much about this one except that it got a bunch of awards over in Germany, and I've read a bunch of good things online. This is another one I'll probably see on DVD eventually.

February 23
Black Snake Moan - I loved Brewer's Hustle and Flow, and this follow up looks like it'll tap into that same Southern exploitation flavor. I love the posters and the cast is great. The plot, Samuel L. Jackson chains Christina Ricci to a radiator in her house to cure her of her wickedness, is thoroughly odd, and I'd imagine this'll be a really fun, crazy movie.

March 2
- Other than Fight Club, I'm not a big Fincher fan, but this film will benefit from its March release date. Put this out in December, amidst a whole bunch of quality films and it's a low priority viewing, put out in March, when I'm looking for anything that at least tries to be good, and it's a must see. Plus, I'm eager to see his digital photography in action. Plus, the cast has a ridiculous amount of hipster cred, with Jake Gyllenhaal, Chloe Sevigny, Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo.

March 9
- I'm not a big fan of the book, but the trailer for this is just nasty good. Of course, I'm guessing it will turn out like Sin City, where the trailer is an absolute masterpiece, and the film itself is just good. I'm just not that into Miller's view of the world, and since this one appears to be pretty faithful to the original book, it'll be bound by his themes. Still, I'm sure it'll be great fun to watch.

March 16
- Danny Boyle's made two really great films, and as he showed in 28 Days Later, he can bring a lot of humanity to genre filmmaking. This one's got a great cast and a cool premise that I'm confident Boyle can pull off. Should be cool.

March 23
- This was on my 2006 film preview a year ago, and it's good to see it finally getting released. Besson seems to have sailed off into kiddie film purgatory, and this could wind up being his final live action directorial statement. The man can capture great images like few others, and I loved his last live action project, the unjustly maligned The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc. Stop making sequels to The Transporter and start making more of your own films, Luc.

April 6
- By far my most anticipated film of the season, this project looks to be thoroughly entertaining. Sure, it's not a particular challenge for either director, but perhaps the dual film format will push them to try and top each other. New Tarantino is always worth getting excited about.

April 13
Hot Fuzz
- Spaced is genius, and Shaun of the Dead was a lot of fun, so I'm eager to see whatever Pegg and Wright put out. Throw in Martin Freeman, Steve Coogan and Bill Nighy and you've got pretty much every interesting comic in Britain. It should be a great time.

April 20
The Kingdom
- The plot doesn't really jump out, but the backstage talent does. On story, there's Michael Mann, coming off of 2006's best film. Directing is Peter Berg, coming off the brilliant pilot for Friday Night Lights. In the film we've got Chris Cooper, Jamie Foxx, Jason Bateman, Richard Jenkins and Jennifer Garner. The trailer's a bit generic, but there should be something worthwhile in here.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Babylon 5: 3x01-3x03

Season three starts off pretty strong, then settles in for a couple of solid, but unexceptional episodes. In season two, JMS started with a burst of energy, carried over from season one, then scaled things back for a while, doing a bunch of loosely connected standalone episodes. Things didn't really rev back up until 'The Coming of Shadows.' In those standalone episodes, it would typically be a standalone plot, with some connection to the overall Shadow development revealed at the end. Here, we have a standalone story that draws on the events of season two to fuel it. Other than 'Matters of Honor,' none of these really pushed the arc forward, but they're all important to fleshing out the current status quo for the world.

Let me start with the new credits sequence. I love that they change the credits every year, and provide hints for what will happen in the credits themselves. Ivanova is now doing the voiceover, picking up where she left off in 'The Fall of Night.' Previously, I'd just assumed that the Captain did the voiceover, I'm not sure if there's a significance to the switch. Most of the images we see are from season two, so it's tough to comment on the future, but things generally do not appear to be going well. It's a very somber voiceover, backed by images of violence and conflict. Talia has definitely left the show, as has Na'Toth, who never seemed to appear after the original actress left. Joining up are Zack and the new character, Aragorn, oh wait, Marcus Cole. I was surprised Talia didn't make the credits, but considering she is on the cover of the season box, I'm assuming she'll make her presence known shortly. One other credits issue I'm curious about is why Peter Jurassik and Andreas' credits changed order.

The opening of the season is quite exciting, with Marcus escaping from a Centauri attack on the Ranger training base. The scene is very well constructed, dropping us right into the tumultuous world, and establishing the desperate lengths people are going to to escape the Centauri attacks. Marcus definitely seems like a Lord of the Rings character, I'm assuming the Rangers name is drawn from there. But, I think he'll be a good addition to the show. He's only been in one episode so far, but I could see him developing in an interesting way. Hopefully they'll actually invest the time to do that, rather than just have him appear occasionally without any real focus, like Warren in season two. I'm not sure if Warren was ever meant to be a real character, or just there to die at the end of the season, but it seemed like no time was invested in making him human. Hopefully they won't do the same thing here. Even if he is there just to die, make us care about him, and that payoff will be a lot more emotional.

This episode finds Londo regretting his continued alliance with the Shadows, deciding to 'go straight,' and break things off with Morden. Unfortunately, it's much too late to mean anything, Morden happily breaks things off because he's already working with Lord Refa. Refa lacks Londo's moral troubles over what the Shadows are doing, so he's perfect prey for Morden. Morden makes it clear that the Shadows don't want to be challenged, they want the Centauri to take over a specific part of the galaxy, I'm assuming they want to consolidate enemy power, so when the time comes, they can defeat the Centauri and take over the entire galaxy. It's possible they don't want the Centauri to expand for the obvious reason, they don't want to be attacked on their own territory, but I think they're too powerful to worry about that. Instead, I think they don't want the Centauri to overextend themselves and weaken their own forces. Clearly, it's in the Shadows' interest to have the Centauri in power, but it remains unclear exactly what their endgame is.

Earth clearly has some major factionalism going on in its government. As we find out at the end of the episode, Psi Corps and at least some other parts of Earthdome are in alliance with the Shadows. Is the guy they sent to Babylon 5 aware of this? It remains ambiguous, but clearly this alliance will pose major problems for Sheridan and Babylon 5. How can they find a war against the darkness when their own army is against them? Will battling the Shadows mean turning themselves into outright outlaws? Part of the reason for strengthening the relationship between Delenn and Sheridan was likely to make it clearer which was the good side and which was the bad. Because we're aware of Delenn's goodness, Sheridan can turn against his own government, confident that he's doing the right thing. I'm really curious to see how the Earth/Shadow/Centauri alliance develops, it's not touched on again in what I've seen so far, so I'm still waiting for some further development.

I was surprised that Londo said outright that he saw that ship in a dream. I would have thought he'd be more canny about revealing that, but maybe he was just so shocked, he said it without thinking. Or, it might have just been a way to remind viewers of his dream. It made more sense for G'Kar to talk about the connection, he's been saying this for so long, yet no one listens to him. I'm guessing that down the line, G'Kar will join the Ranger alliance, he's clearly got the respect of Sheridan, but nobody's made the connection between what he was warning them about and the Shadows yet.

Elsewhere, Sheridan gets his new ship, the White Star. The ship is pretty cool, and their battle with the Shadow ship is great. They get a small victory here, but I'm assuming the trap them into a jump point tactic won't be a good longterm strategy for victory. From a narrative point of view, giving them this ship makes it easier for the action to expand beyond Babylon 5. Now they can travel wherever they want to go and still stay on a set. With a war this big, action will certainly be happening off station, and now it's easier to cover those territories.

'Convictions' is an episode that's probably more politically relevant today than it was back when it aired. In light of a war, civil liberties are being restricted and a mad bomber is on the loose, blowing stuff up and causing havoc. This is more 24 than Babylon 5, and I think this sort of story doesn't work to the show's best instincts. It always feels a bit off when the Captain goes into action himself, be it Sinclair or Sheridan. It makes sense within the story, but the show doesn't do hand to hand combat so well. It usually works best when we see the people on the station commanding their influence over space battles. That actually feels more personal and relevant than the sort of action scenes we see here.

This episode does have some good bits, particularly the Londo/G'Kar elevator sequence. So far, they've each been in all three episodes, and I'm hoping they're bumped up to every episode cast member status. To some extent, it makes their appearances less special, but both of them bring such great energy, it's good to have them on. G'Kar's high pitched voice taunting of Londo is great, if a bit broad. But, on the verge of passing out, I don't think he's concerned about keeping his comedy subtle. From a thematic point of view, the elevator storyline reveals their critical differences. Londo is always looking out for his own self interest, and expects other to act accordingly. However, G'Kar has been burned before and would rather take Londo down with him than save them both.

On the whole, the episode has some good stuff, but isn't totally satisfying. The main story is rather perfunctory and, while it may be thematically fitting for this era of the show, it's just not particularly exciting to watch.

'A Day in the Strife' is stronger, though still not quite at great status. Here, we get a cornucopia of plots. The least interesting is the probe sent to the station, this is a season one level occurrence with a pretty anti-climactic resolution. JMS clearly enjoys talking about philosophy, and a lot of those conversations are great, but the issues raised by this aren't particularly interesting.

More interesting are the trade guild negotations. The thing I really liked here is that there's no resolution whatsoever. It's an impossible choice, you cannot work fast and safe without charging more, but people aren't willing to accomodate the changed conditions, they want things to be like they were before. As the episode ends, the negotiations rage on, no end in sight. I also really liked the resentment aimed towards our main characters from the average citizens. None the groups are able to appreciate what the others have to do.

Also, Na'Far, a representative of the Vichy government, is sent to Babylon 5 to coerce the Narn into going along with Centauri rule. I liked that Na'Far wasn't a cardboard villain, you could understand his point, he was just trying to work within the system to protect his people. But, it turns out that these people would rather put themselves and their families at risk than give up on the hope of freedom. Londo was right when he said their pride was not yet broken, I love his totally callous treatment of Na'Far, talking to him like a slave, and Na'Far has no choice but to take. Londo can see just a flicker of pride in him, and chastises Na'Far for it. Rarely has Londo been so outright nasty to someone, he has so much more power, there's no reason at all to be the least bit diplomatic.

G'Kar is ready to sacrifice himself for the people on Babylon 5, but they wind up stopping him and supporting his rule. G'Kar is the Narns' last, best hope for freedom and they're willing to sacrifice anything to ensure he has the chance to work. While last season was about totally destroying G'Kar, here we're starting to see things turn around. He has the support of his people and Sheridan, and is already building a resistance against the Centauri. It's still not good, but I could see things getting better for him as the season progresses.

Londo arranges to have Vir sent away, effectively ridding himself of his conscience. He appreciates Vir, but too often Vir is bringing up legitimate points about Londo's moral corruption. He doesn't want to face what he's done, and as a result, he arranges to have Vir shipped off. In getting rid of Vir, Londo is further isolating himself, he now has no one he can talk to left on the station. While Delenn may meet with him and do a favor, she pointedly tells him that they never talked, they were never friends, and she is not likely to have much affection for the man who instigated genocide against the Narn.

The final plot thread here was Franklin's addiction to stims. I think the dinner scene with Garibaldi was a bit cliche in its "I don't have a problem" obviousness. Yes, that may be what someone would say, but I'd seen that scene too many times before. I like the fact that we're finally getting some consequences for Franklin's work/stims addiction and I'm curious to see where the plot goes. While I had issues with the rest, I loved the final scene where Franklin lies to Garibaldi and says he worked the whole night without doing any stims. I like that there was no obvious commenting on his lying, he's very casual about it and the only thing to let us know something is awry is our knowledge of what actually happened.

So, the show is going along well now. I'd like to see things rev up a bit with the Shadow War, but we're still exploring the new status quo, with the Centauri in control of the Narn. Presumably, JMS wants to do stories about that before moving on to the next stage in the war. I'd guess there'll be three or four more semi-standalones before revving things up to the next level with the Shadows.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Miami Vice: The Director's Edition

I swear this is the last post about this movie, but hey, at least it's not another post about Babylon 5. Yesterday, I watched the Director's Edition of the film, which Mann claims is not a director's cut, rather it's just a different version. There's not that many differences between the two versions, and in most cases, I prefer the theatrical cut. I think what's most interesting about watching the Director's Edition is seeing how the stuff that Mann cut wound up making a more unique, focused film, cutting stuff that clarifies plot elements and provides the kind of pleasure the studio was advertising, replacing it with a more abstract, purely emotional experience.

The biggest difference between this edition and the theatrical cut is the opening, and it's the difference that made me buy the theatrical cut in the first place. The opening of the theatrical cut is one of my favorite film openings of all time. There's no titles, no background, we're just dumped right into a club, Linkin Park/Jay-Z going, and we spend the rest of the first half hour or so getting caught up on the narrative setup. Of course, the first time I saw the film, I didn't really get caught up at all, I just let the experience wash over me without worrying about narrative specifics.

The boat race sequence just doesn't work, but I could see why Mann might have wanted to include it. For one, it provides some glamourous action for the opening, the sort of thing viewers of the series would have been expecting from the film. Also, the sequence does give us some context for the club scene. It's interesting to have a better idea of what they're doing in the club, but it doesn't enhance our enjoyment of the film, and that's why I think this opening sequence was the best cut that Mann made. Opening the movie in the club was a bold choice, but it's perfect because it jumps us past all exposition and waiting, right into what we're there to see.

Reading about it after, I found out that the second track in the club sequence is a remix of Nina Simone's 'Sinnerman,' the song that was featured over the credits of Inland Empire. Mann has such a fantastic ear for music, that's a fantastic song and it segues into Goldfrapp. Great work.

For me, and I think for Mann too, the major focus of the film is the relationship between Sonny and Isabella. The scenes that are added generally distract from that focus by either filling in more background narrative information, or further developing the other characters. An addition that really hurts, even though it does convey important new narrative information, is the phone call/dinner between Rico and Trudy. In the film, Jamie Foxx gets virtually nothing to do, and these scenes give him the chance to do a bit of emoting, plus set up the bombing later in the film. However, by having him on the phone, we lose the original focus of the scene, which is Sonny and Isabella's eye contact as she's driving away. Then, that diner scene after just holds up our forward progress on their relationship.

I'd imagine there's even more material on the various people in the crew, and from a creative point of view, I think Mann was smart to cut that stuff for the theatrical cut. However, I think the added information of the new edition would make the film work better for the 'average viewer.' The theatrical cut is a Wong Kar-Wai style art film in the guise of a summer blockbuster, and that's why it largely fell through the cracks, marketed to one audience, but intended for another.

I was shocked to see Vice get some love on year end top ten lists, beyond just mine. Both Slant lists featured the film and Manhola Dargis had it on hers for the New York Times. I thought I was the only one who loved this film, but there's others out there, and I'd imagine as time passes, more and more people will recognize the film's greatness.

The middle segment of the film, tracking Sonny and Isabella's relationship is pretty much unchanged. There is one new scene, where they stand on a balcony and talk about her mother. I felt like this was unnecessary, the same material was covered in the scene with the picture, but it was good to see. Mann's eye for shots in this film is virtually unparalleled, there's so many memorable images, most of them a result of the framing and lighting that Mann and Dion Beebe choose. I particularly love the scene in Yero's club, the way the rest of the world seems to disappear as Sonny and Isabella dance with each other.

An addition I'm not sure about is putting 'In the Air Tonight' over the final showdown. It does work, but I think it makes the scene less tense than it was in the original version. On the one hand, it's a more enjoyable aesthetic experience, but I think it hurts the narrative. On the whole, I would say it was a smart cut. That said, I would have kept it over the scene where Rico and Sonny are in the car, leading up to the showdown.

The best scene in the new edition, and the only one I really wish was still in the theatrical cut, is the scene where Isabella is attacking Sonny in the car. In the theatrical cut, we only get a glimpse of her anger at finding out he's a cop, this extends that initial anger, making it more effective when she gives up the fight and just accepts what happens at the end of the film. Gong Li was great in the scene, that alone made the director's edition worth watching.

I also preferred having the film end with 'In the Air Tonight' over the credits, I liked the defiance, it fit perfectly with Sonny's walk into the hospital. So, while there's some worthwhile stuff in the new edition, when I watch the film in the future, I'll be sticking with the original cut. This new edition is most interesting because it demonstrates how a few subtle cuts can make a film much more evocative and emotional, as well as much tougher to follow. But, as I've said before about the film, the plot is just a shell to get us to the emotional relationships that are at the core of the film.

Watching the film again, I finally realized what work it was most reminiscent of, and that's Cowboy Bebop. The emphasis on lush visuals backed by great music is the primary point of connection between the two works, but there's also the themes, following people who are emotionally shut and then forced to confront challenging emotional situations. For the viewer, they reach that same emotional place.