Friday, March 23, 2007

The Colour @ Pianos

Originally on Blog Critics

I think it's sometimes easy to forget about the power of a great rock concert. The spectacle has been parodied so much, you can lose sight of the essential power of seeing a bunch of guys make great music. In my review of their album, I noted that The Colour aren't the most original band in the world. They harken back to '70s classic rock blues inspired acts, but their sound isn't the kind of thing you hear a lot of today, and their live show has an energy and passion I haven't seen at a concert in a long time. They totally owned the room and put on a great, albeit short, show.

The concert took place at Pianos, in a small space at the back of the bar. There couldn't have been more than 100 people there, probably closer to 60 or 70, and a lot of them seemed to be industry people. I was frequently brushed away by professional photographers, capturing the action, and there were a couple of conspicuously suited men monitoring the action. The show was likely meant as a showcase, and if so, I'd think the suits must have left happy, because they put on a great show.

The set opened with an intense, driving version of "Black Summer," and kept the energy up all the way through. On the album, the tracks feel very precise, with the band hitting their marks exactly, giving it a sometimes mechanical feel. Live, this was not the case at all. They were very high energy, particularly lead singer Wyatt Hull, who roamed the stage like a contemporary Jim Morrison, dancing and wielding his mic stand like a snake charmer. He frequently leaned out into the crowd, getting a big reaction from the audience.

One of my major complaints about the album was that the songs felt too restrained, with no room for emotional blowups. Live, we still didn't get the extended instrumental jamming of a Led Zeppelin, but the intensity of their playing made that superfluous. Virtually every moment had the intensity of a guitar solo, even a slower song like "Silver Meadows." The highlight was a raucous version of "Devil's Got a Holda Me."

It was almost overwhelming to see the band in so small a space. They had arena, or at least club, ready moves, and could have easily captivated a much bigger crowd. It felt a bit awkward thinking they were putting on such a show for so few people. But, it was nice to get a chance to see the band in so small a venue.

My only real complaint is that the show was so short. They started around 11:20 and only played until 11:55. I'm not sure if there was a curfew or something, but even at $10 a ticket, 35 minutes felt a bit short. The crowd was definitely ready for an encore, and there were plenty of solid tracks from the album to play yet. If the show was meant mostly as a label showcase, I could see why they wouldn't play as long, but still, I felt like one more song was needed.

But, I suppose it's better to leave them wanting more. I thoroughly enjoyed this show, this kind of rocking live show really stands out against the generally more subdued concerts you see from most bands today. In this case, their ties back to classic rock make them stand out. It might not have been something special back in the '70s, but I haven't seen another band like this today, and I'm eager to see them again.

The Colour - Between Earth and Sky

Originally on Blog Critics

The Colour fit right in with the early '00s wave of ‘The’ bands, like The Strokes and The White Stripes, drawing on '70s rock to form their sound. They’re one of the best of this wave of bands that I’ve heard, going a bit more epic than the punk or electro leanings of a lot of their contemporaries. I’m a big fan of blues inspired classic rock, and this album delivers twelve really catchy, fun songs.

Their songs are primarily structured around guitar melodies, and there’s a bunch of driving, catchy riffs pushing the songs forward. There’s also a wide variety of guitar sounds, working both driving lines and lyrical melodies that interplay seamlessly with the vocal, as on "Just a Taste."

Vocalist Wyatt Hull has a unique voice, generally singing pretty high up without crossing over into falsetto. There’s some gorgeous wordless vocals on "Save Yourself" and particularly “Silver Meadows,” creating a fantastic, ethereal atmosphere. The latter is the album’s highlight, with piano and tambourine building into a chorus that just hangs in the air, hitting a really emotional chord. It goes to that bittersweet emotional place without being sappy.

The first song to grab me, and the first single, is “Devil’s Got a Holda Me,” a driving blues rocker that sounds a bit like The White Stripes. It’s got a great stop and go guitar riff, which builds into a descending chorus. It then builds to a multi-vocal stomp, which slows things down, making the return to the chorus even sweeter.

One potential issue with the album is the fact that it isn’t breaking any new ground. I heard pieces of Led Zeppelin, The White Stripes, T. Rex, early U2 and others here. If this album had been released in the '70s, it would have probably been a bigger hit, but it would also have been pretty routine. However, you don’t hear this kind of music that much today, and I’m really happy to see it return. It’s always frustrated me that harder edged rock became dominated by bands that just don’t sound good. The heavy distortion of nu-metal and rap rock artists was tough to take, and I much prefer the hard, but not ugly sound of '70s rock. The Colour do some pretty heavy songs, but they never cross over into fits of screaming or nasty sound.

My personal issue with the album is the fact that only on occasion does the band reach a really emotional place. I’m not sure if it’s their fault or the producers’, but at times the playing felt too solid, almost mechanical. The beauty of Zeppelin was the feeling that anything could happen, it felt like the song was being born in the moment, and each guitar solo is full of emotion and invention. Considering this is their first album, they’ve probably been playing these songs for a long time, so it’s logical they’d be tight. But, I can’t help but want a bit more life and energy at times.

“Black Summer” is built on a driving, Morricone like guitar line, and it goes into a great chorus, but I want something a bit more, a really sick guitar solo or some kind of crazy breakdown. Things do slow down for a while, but when they build back up, it’s into the same line. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a really good song, but I feel like it could be ever greater.

Part of the reason I focus on “Black Summer” is because it’s one of the more riff based, blues sounding songs. Only two of the songs on here top four minutes, which is fine for the more pop sounding songs, like the catchy “You’re a Treasure” and “Can’t You Hear It Call,” but the classic rock songs could benefit from a longer running time. People may frequently criticize Zeppelin’s excess, but I don’t think anyone would want a three minute version of “When the Levee Breaks.” Looking ahead, I would point to that kind of song as a model for The Colour, something that would let them showcase their musicianship.

I’m seeing them live tomorrow, and I’m curious to see what they do with these songs in concert. It’s possible they’re a band like Phoenix, who record really tight songs on their album then tear them up into extended jams live. I’d love to see that because these songs are so catchy, based around really strong riffs and full of room for improvisational jamming. They could easily drop a great ten minute version of “Black Summer.”

“Our Children Were the Stars” is another really good song that could be more. The track has a slow, winding guitar build through its opening section, then turns into a stomping, piano backed breakdown, with a repeating vocal line soon accompanied by a soaring guitar melody. But, just when the track seems to be headed for something bigger, it goes back to the first section, the ends. I found myself wanting a major release towards the end of the album, a moment were they would just cut loose. To some extent, we get that on the last track, “Dirge to Earth and Sky” which has a great climactic build to a soaring chorus, but it still didn’t give the raw emotion of the best songs like this.

Despite that criticism, I really like this album. It’s always tricky territory to criticize an album for something it’s not, what is here is very good, and it’s that goodness that makes me want it to be just a little bit better. I don’t listen to much contemporary rock music, I stick mostly to electro and indie stuff in the present, and I’m actually quite glad to find a band that does all the great things that '70s era classic rock does, but is recording today. I’m excited to see them live, and I’m eager to see how they develop on future recordings.

Amy Winehouse - Back to Black

Amy Winehouse is a big in Britain, not quite there yet in the States, singer-songwriter, and Back to Black is her second album. Sonically, it draws on 60's girl group and classic R&B sounds, and without major revamping makes them sound relevant for today.

"Rehab" is the opening track and lead single, plunging us right into this retro 60s world. I was liking things right from the catchy opening verse, “They tried to make me go to rehab, but I won’t go, go, go,” and I was hooked on the album with the dramatic entrance of a rhythmic horn and percussion line to underscore everything. Horns, both saxophone and brass, are the primary backing elements, working in conjunction with percussion on songs like “Just Friends” and “Me and Mister Jones.” My favorite horn line is the ascending trumpets on “He Can Only Hold Her,” which are matched perfectly with corresponding backing vocals.

“Me and Mister Jones” is an early standout, with 50s style doo wop backing vocals, and a great deep sax line, all a bit incongruous next to lyrics telling the story of the time she missed a Slick Rick gig. The best line here is “What kind of fuckery is this?” I was baffled for a moment, not expecting the F bomb to be dropped in something that sounded right out of the 50s, a testament to the world her music created. “Wake Up Alone” features a rising and falling guitar line that simultaneously channels the actual 50s and the odd revisionist 50s of David Lynch films.

“Back to Black” is the best track on the album, an emotional plea that’s backed by a fantastic bouncing piano line that soars into strings during the chorus. It slows down, then surges back to a cathartic final chorus. Listening to this track, I’m thinking that Amy would be a great choice for the next James Bond theme song.

Throughout, she uses lush instrumental arrangements to create a strong mood. The songs sound like standards, I could see Sinatra singing “Love is a Losing Game” on a 60s TV special, or The Supremes doing “Tears Dry on Their Own.”

I love electronic music, but I’ve always considered it a shame that the rise of electronic music and hip hop pretty much obliterated the orchestral pop of the 50s and 60s. This album shows that sound is still relevant today, and if anything sounds fresher because of its long absence. There’s a reason that so many classic pop songs endure, they’re great works of pop art, and I’m glad that Amy has come along and added to that canon.

I’m not sure about her chance of catching on with the American public. Unfortunately, we’re still resistant to something like this, that’s out of the contemporary paradigm of pop music. She’s going over with the blogrock audience, but I don’t think she’ll ever find the mainstream success she had in Britain here.

However, that doesn’t detract from the fact that this is a fantastic album, full of songs that sound simultaneously fresh and classic. There’s not a bad track on here, and my only real complaint is that the album’s only 35 minutes. Amy’s got a fantastic voice, and the album is a joy to listen to. I think you’ll be seeing this on a lot of best of 2007 lists when the end of the year rolls around.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #1: 'Black Science: Part I: Bangin'

This issue is a revelation, the series bursting out of its cocoon and emerging as a glamourous butterfly, ready to conquer the world. I don't just want all my fiction to be like this, I want my reality to be like this. Reading this issue again, I was just ecstatic, thoroughly enjoying everything here....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

I think there's a tendency to view the Star Wars trilogy as more than just films. They're not analyzed as constructions, they're looked at more as a universe that's always been there. Certainly that's the way I approached the films when I was younger, the plot couldn't have gone any other way, this is what happened. I'm not sure if this will be true of the current generation, but it seems like whatever films were already made when you became a fan are above reproach. I know a lot of the people who saw ANH and Empire in the theater have major issues with Jedi, I never did, and I still love the film, but I'm also more aware of some of the flaws therein. Certainly Lucas hasn't done anything to help the films' reputation in the critical community, with his endless, generally negative tinkering, and uneven prequel films. But, put that all aside, and take a look at Empire Strikes Back.

When someone asks me what my favorite movie is, I usually respond Empire Strikes Back and Magnolia. I need to get some indie cred in there, because Empire isn't representative of my general taste. However, if I had to pick one film as my favorite, it would be this one. I sometimes wonder if it's really that good, then I watch the film again, and realize that it is an unparalleled achievement in cinema. This is the pinnacle of narrative cinema.

The film works wonderfully on so many levels. I still love the original Star Wars, A New Hope, but compared to Empire and Jedi, it feels like the universe is still finding itself. The film has more ties to the 70s, in both the look and language. Empire feels timeless, another world that is completely familiar and believable. It's probably not a coincidence that the film Lucas had the least direct involvement in has the most naturalistic characters and believable dialogue. The banter between Han and Leia in particular is really sharp and funny, like the best of classical Hollywood cinema, and throughout, the emotion is running high.

The film that Empire reminds me of the most is Casablanca. In each case, we see a small group of rebels acting against a massive force out to destroy them. I love that dynamic, largely because I feel like victories only have meaning if the characters go through really bad stuff on the way to that victory. It's why I loved the New Caprica arc on Battlestar Galactica, why I loved Buffy season six and why this film is so good. Right from the beginning we're in a desolate place, the triumph of ANH's finale long forgotten. Every moment of this film is submerged in a foreboding darkness, due to the unrelenting nature of the Imperial threat. There's no exhale moment, we never think that everything will be fine, and the intercutting maximizes the tension at all points.

I think this film deserves respect as a piece of art cinema for its visual aesthetic alone. All the Star Wars films are full of visual wonder, but in the prequels, Lucas seemed to just throw in a bunch of random stuff. That also plagues parts of ANH and Jedi, the best design moments in the trilogy are those with a stark minimalism. We see that in the Emperor's throne room in Jedi, echoed again in the opening rescue of Palpatine in Sith. In both cases, the design draws our attention to the focus of the scene, the Emperor. Aesthetically, the colorless Imperial ships are great, and more believable than the ornate design work of the prequels. One of the great innovations of Star Wars was the idea of the lived in future, and that just didn't come across in the prequels. Part of it was the nature ofthe story, that was a more civilized age, but it also meant we didn't get anything with the character of the Millenium Falcon.

Every environment in this film is designed to mirror what the characters are feeling at that point. Hoth is oppressively cold, and you can see that in the costuming. There is no retreat from that cold, even their shelter is an ice cave. The outside is even more bleak, total nothingness at first, then broken by the approaching Imperial walkers. The snow battle is innovative and fun, while still being dark. Here, the Rebels aren't fighting to win, they're fighting to get away, and that feeling is conveyed in the desperation of everyone involved. I love the way the base collapses around them, Leia still not wanting to leave.

This is the film where Vader really comes into his own. In ANH, he's subject to Tarkin, just the muscle, not a leader. Looked at in the context of the six films, I would argue that Vader retreated into this intimidating persona after believing that he had killed Padme. What he wanted in Sith was the power to rule the galaxy with the woman he loved. He did what he did to save her and give her the chance to make the world she wanted. Without her, he has no particular drive and is willing to do whatever the Emperor wants him to. It's not until he learns of Luke's existence that he is reborn, tapping into some of his humanity and rediscovering his dream, of ruling the galaxy with someone he loves.

That is why he is so driven throughout the film, right from the incredible entrance. After the discovery of the Imperial probe droid, we cut to space, and the first entrance of the Imperial March. This song is one of the all time great film music compositions, and it scores a ballet of Star Destroyers, moving through the sky, leading up to Vader on his command ship. Most of the moments people think of when they talk about Vader as a villain are from this film, the legendary 'forgiveness' of Captain Needa, as well as the choke over the video monitor of Admiral Ozzel. This is the only film where he's in total control, and reaching fanatical heights as leader of his troops. Just on an aesthetic level, the character is fantastic, that suit the ultimate representation of evil and menace.

One of Lucas's favorite storytelling tricks is intercutting. This comes to a fore in the brilliant final battle of Return of the Jedi, balancing three narrative strands, but that film, and ANH, are generally linear in their progression. In Empire, the entire film is structured around intercutting, jumping between Luke's story and the Falcon's story. The intercutting allows for easier narrative elipsis. On one level, the entire film makes no sense, the Falcon story appears to be taking place in real time, while the Dagobah stuff is at least a week of storytelling time. Was there ever an explanation for this? Ultimately, it doesn't really matter, the intercutting makes it work because we just accept coming back whever they choose to put us back.

I prefer the stuff on the Falcon, but both story strands are great here. Harrison Ford is really charismatic as Han Solo, a perfect roguish, but ultimately good guy. Him and Leia have a fantastic rapport, which is well developed across their scenes together. The dialogue is fantastic, the two of them speaking that 40s Hollywood coded rapport way. One of the major reasons the prequels suffered next to the originals is that they didn't have any of this energy. Everyone bought into the mission, and played by the rules. There was a serious need for a Han Solo style character.

In general, the characters in this film feel very real. I don't think any of the other films have the emotional relatability of what's going on here. The acting is fantastic too, with everyone going to a raw place by the end of the film. You can see so much sadness and wear on Leia and Luke by the end of the film, such that just getting the chance to stand there together, away from the fight for a moment, is a happy ending.

The Yoda scenes are justifiably legendary. While I really liked the CG version of the character in Sith, I think this puppet version is an even better actor. Watching him go from crazy food stealing nut to Jedi master in a moment is a transition that would be tough for a flesh and blood actor, but Frank Oz totally pulls it off. I thoroughly enjoy the training sequences, particularly the odd slow motion dream sequence. This planet is another example of the visuals mimicking the narrative content. Luke is exploring the mysteries of the force, something so vast you can only see a small piece at a time. So, we've got a planet with so much mist and swamp, you can barely see in front of you.

When I originally watched these films, I assumed that everything Yoda was saying was correct, and that everything the Emperor said was wrong. One of the best things that Sith did was to call into question that binary view of things. The prophecy said that Anakin would bring balance to the force, but it's ultimately Luke who does that because Luke is able to successfully fuse the intellectual power of the Jedi with the emotional power of the dark side. In Sith, Yoda sends Anakin to the dark side when he basically tells him if Padme dies, she dies, it's a part of life. What awful advice to someone who's in an emotionally bad place, and he gives it again to Luke here, saying that his friends might die, and he just has to accept that. Both Luke and Anakin are unwilling to play by the typical Jedi rules, and that leads to a paradigm shift in Jedi, when Luke forces Vader to use his emotion to defeat the Emperor. It's reminiscent of Buffy, where she decides that her emotions are an advantage in fighting, not a hindrance. It's also reminiscent of the Vorlon/Shadow conflict in Babylon 5, the need to find a third path.

The Dagobah sequences end with one of the film's visual highlights, Luke's takeoff followed by the "There is another speech." This is a moment that works on all levels, visually dazzling, with the shifting light and shadow on Yoda, narratively revelatory and wonderfully performed by Oz.

The entire Cloud City sequence is basically a tutorial in how to successfully execute the climax of your film. Rather than just having a bunch of explosions, they narrow the focus, creating emotionally apocalyptic moments that push everyone to the absolute edge. Having C-3PO get shot right after they walk in creates an instant tension surrounding things. Throughout, there is no respite for our heroes. When they first see Lando, he's backed by a whole bunch of troops, and even when he embraces Han, the tension isn't quite gone. The attack on 3PO keeps it there. It would have been interesting to play Lando's betrayal as more of a shock, make it seem like they really got away, then break things down, but it wouldn't have fit with the film. The whole point of the movie is that there is no escape from the Empire. I really love the moment when Lando sees the broken parts of 3PO sitting in a box and asks Han "Having trouble with your droid," and he says "Nope."

If I could see an extended version of any scene in any movie, it'd have to be what happens after Vader asks them to sit down to eat. The moment when they open the door and see him is just incredibly badass, Vader pulling the gun across the table. Plus, he really stands out agains the white interiors. When the stormtroopers show up behind them, you just know they're fucked. Do they actually eat? What do they talk about at the meal? These are all things I'd love to know, but alas, I never shall.

From here on, the Cloud City scenes have a desperate energy, Lando trying to salvage things, but getting shut down at every turn. Vader has no scruples, but Lando has no choice but to go along with things. Han is tortured for no reason, on a nasty sparking device, and then led to the carbon chamber. That scene has always been one of my favorites, and for good reason. It is a beautiful piece of cinema, working on so many levels.

One of its greatest assets is the visual. For all you can criticize Lucas for, I don't think anyone can say he's not a visual filmmaker. The man knows how to make an arresting image, and for that reason alone, he deserves respect. I can think of very few environments in cinema as vividly realized as the carbon freezing chamber. An orange-red glow covers everything, steam hanging in the air, blue light corridors stretching off in a seemingly endless distance. Below them, light peeks out of metal grates. Vader loses any definition here, becoming just a silhouette, a menace.

Emotionally, this scene imprinted deep on me. It's similar to the farewell speech in Casablanca, two people who love each other, with no choice but to be seperated. As Han is led on to the platform, Chewbacca loses it. Han calms him, and in that moment, Leia sees how much he's grown. He is a hero, and he'll take his fate if it means keeping them safe. This leads to the classic "I love you," "I know" exchange. This moment says everything about the two characters, he doesn't even have to say "I love you," she knows he does, and just to hear her say how she feels means everything to him. They steal a kiss before he descends, and that moment is just so on, so good. One day I hope to make a film with a moment that powerful, two people finding solace in each other against this massive approaching threat.

On top of that, we've got arguably the greatest film score of all time. I read that Williams record 109 minutes of music for this 129 minute film, there's virtually no moments that aren't punctuated by score, and unlike a lot of recent scores, this one really helps take the film to another level. In recent years, we've seen a retreat from theme songs. Could anyone say what the X-Men or Spider-Man theme were? No, but how many memorable themes are there from this film alone? Easily five or six, all of them brilliant, enhancing the film. Through the use of leitmotif, associating specific musical cues with the characters, Williams is able to tell us exactly what the characters are feeling through the music. When Han and Leia's theme plays at the end, we know what both she and Luke are thinking about. In the carbon chamber scene, Han and Leia's theme bleeds into a pounding version of the Imperial March as Vader's triumph becomes clear. The best film moments are those where music and visual fuse together into something beyond either one, and virtually this entire film works on that level. This is the greatest film score of all time.

Seldom have I seen a film in which our hero takes as much punishment and loses so resoundly as Luke does when facing Vader. The entire sequence consists of him being thrown through a variety of environments, continuously under assault. I love the network of tunnels and hallways they pass through, particularly the big room with the window that Luke is thrown out of.

Intercut with this, we've got the high energy of Leia's escape from the city. They're under fire from all directions, such that when they do finally escape, it's an intensely satisfying moment. I love R2 struggling with the door, stormtroopers pressing on them, then opening it to a soaring orchestral cue. He emerges from the steam in another fantastic image.

The "I am your father" scene is another one that's been parodied so much, is such a part of our cultural landscape, it can be hard to go back to the original and view it fresh, but after going through this entire film, I'm in the same place that Luke is, completely beaten down, with nowhere left to go. After an entire film of chasing Luke, Vader finally has a captive audience. Here, he makes his pitch, the same pitch he made to Padme back in Sith. He's always been willing to turn on the Emperor, he just needs an ally to do it, and his son is the perfect candidate. Having seen Sith, Vader's motives are a bit clearer, an he's more sympathetic. This all builds to Luke's leap off the tower. He will not give in to the dark side, and unlike his father, he turns down this offer of power, willing to sacrifice himself if necessary.

Following this, we get a scene that has a really odd power, Luke calling to Leia. There are certain moments in cinema that reach a supernatural place, Lynch does this a lot, and this does too. Leia's facial expression as she hears him, Luke's pain as he calls out to her. He is pushed literally to the edge of things, there is nowhere left to go, and he hangs there, waiting. As they rescue him, the two sides of our story are finally brought back together, and they move off to escape.

But, before that there's another scene with that odd power, Luke's dialogue with Vader. We can tell that he's already accepted Vader as his father, and if their ship had been pulled in, he very well may have agreed to join him. The characters are all completely broken at this point, they have nothing left, except for R2, who finally, after an entire film, fixes the hyperdrive, and the Falcon jets off, safe at last. From the moment where Luke went after the meteorite, two minutes in, to this moment, this is no letup, it is a constant pursuit constant danger, and no victories for our heroes. That is a triumph of screenwriting, to sustain that intensity for an entire movie. It's a large part of why it's such a special film.

In the end, we finally get to rest. Lando and Chewbacca are off to rescue Han, but for Luke, Leia and the droids, it s a chance to recover. I love this scene, all the films, including the prequels, have really strong final moments, and I'd hesitate to say one is best, but there's a lot to be said for the emotion we get here. Luke and Leia stand at the window, watching the Falcon leave, as Han and Leia's theme soars on the soundtrack. It builds as we pull back, the entire fleet together, a bit of hope for the future. Continue back as the music builds and then cut on a swell to the theme song and credits. It's a perfectly executed finale, and I'd imagine it was incredibly frustratng back in 1980.

It baffes me how people could criticize this film because everything is working so well. The effects team does astonishing work, which both tells the story and is aesthetically beautiful on its. I love the Falcon's diving, spiralling escape from the Star Destroyers, and few shots in the trilogy can match the serene power of the Falcon drifting off with the garbage as the Star Destroyers blast away. The production design is also wonderful, creating alien, yet familiar environments, all wonderful to look at. The editing is another major strength, keeping things moving, but giving us time for character moments. I've already mentioned the score, and I'll also hail director Irvin Kirshner for getting great performances out of everyone involved.

I absolutely love this movie, it was my favorite film back in 1989 and it still is, and unlike some other movies, it's not because of lingering childhood affection. Watching this, I was wowed by just how good it was. My mental memory of the film is on an old VHS I got in the 80s, watching it on DVD it looked so clean, and I saw new parts of the movie with the wider aspect ratio. I'd seen the film in widescreen before, but only a couple of times compared to the twenty or thirty times I saw it on VHS.

If you haven't watched this in a while, pull it out again and give it a look. It really holds up. Tonight I'm going to be rewatching Return of the Jedi, and I'll probably write that one up tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Invisibles #25: 'And a Half Dozen of the Other'

This issue baffled me on the first read through, a seemingly random piece of 70s pastiche tacked onto the end of an otherwise tightly structured volume, and things didn't become any clearer as we moved into Volume II. I had pretty much forgot about it when I reached Volume III, which picks up right at the end of this issue. It's odd to tease a story that won't continue for another 22 issues, but looking at it now, this reads as a great segue into the more hyperpop world of Volume II....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The X-Files: 'Pilot' (1x01)

Having finished Babylon 5, I figured it was time to return to The X-Files and give the series a revisit. I've seen bits and pieces over the years, but haven't watched an entire episode since the show ended. The awfulness of the last two seasons has obscured a lot of the series' merits. The show has a lot of issues, but at its best, it was as good as anything ever on TV. I've been thinking about it a lot lately, largely because of The Invisibles reread. I think the series is as representative of the 90s as any other, and even if Duchovny had stayed with the series, I don't think it would have worked in a post 9/11 era. That's because the conspiracies of the 00s aren't anywhere near as fun as the 90s, and even when they're brought to light, no one particularly cares.

So, it's a nice nostalgia trip to hop back fourteen years to the beginning of the series. The first season was never my favorite, I preferred the massive, baroque conspiracy two parters that started in the second year and continued through the sixth. Those episodes were so great, it was always frustrating to go back to the standalone episodes after. I think the series would have been better served as a three year arc, with only the best standalones still in there. Depending on how things go, I might skip through some of the weaker standalones on this rewatch. It's a long series, and I don't know if I want to give 45 minutes of my life to watch 'Space' again.

The first thing we see in the series is the logo, no opening credits yet, then a title that claims the episode, or perhaps the entire series, is based on actual documented events. I think that's playing pretty loose with the facts, but I'm assuming the goal was to show that this was a different kind of sci-fi series, one that played by the rules of a cop show. That's how most of the episodes were structured, a crime happens, they go in and solve it. I'm not interested in procedurals, shows that do the same thing every episode. That's largely because I'm so aware of the manipulative techniques writers use to build character, there's very few people I can care about after only 45 minutes. If the mytharc wasn't part of the show, I wouldn't have been interested in watching it.

I actually didn't start watching the show until 1998. After the movie came out, there was so much press, I was like, I should just check this out. I saw an episode called "Mind's Eye," starring Lily Taylor, and enjoyed it. Then I watched "The End," which hooked me. I didn't know what was going on, but I saw pieces of this massive conspiracy and wanted to know more. The Smoking Man was always my favorite character and he had me hooked right from the start.

This was the first drama I loved. I hunted down every episode and caught up by the start of year seven. I stuck with it through the bad days of the last two seasons, always hoping for a return to quality. It wasn't until I watched Twin Peaks and Buffy that I realized a show could have a really high level of continuity, and a uniform story vision. The X-Files, for all its good traits, always felt like they were making it up as they went along. I would argue that the show actually concluded in a satisfactory fashion, season six was the climax and season seven was a fine denouement. 'Requiem' would have been a perfect season finale, perhaps with a movie as wrap up. But, it just kept going, and that really tarnished the legacy.

But, we're not there yet. The story of the first episode is fairly standard stuff for the show, a mysterious murder, a wide variety of suspects and a conspiracy within a little town. It's not bad, but it's not great. Particularly after seeing the whole series, this isn't anything special.

What is special here is the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson. If Chris Carter had cast his show like Babylon 5 (i.e. poorly), it would have never been a success. B5 was a success because of JMS, The X-Files succeeded because the two leads are just so much fun to watch. In this episode they're not as strong as they'll become later, but that star quality is there. Duchovny has a more unhinged quality than he does later, seemingly provoking Scully with his sometimes ridiculous lines. Clearly the goal is to portray him as a guy who's a bit off in the head, but that fades a bit as the series progresses. It's odd to hear about Mulder's backstory, which also fades. This episode feels the need to justify why he's working on these odd cases, but coming to the series later on, I just accepted it, and I feel like the audience would here too. After all, we've chosen to watch a show about weird stuff instead of a standard cop show.

Most pilots have some kind of a standalone arc, leading the foundation of the series' premise, but also working as standalone pieces. Studio 60 told a complete three act story in its pilot, a story that was better than what the series would become. Here, we pretty much get that, by the end, Scully is believing that Mulder's ideas may have some validity, and she's ready to support him in his work. We also get some nice development of the bond between them in the two hotel room scenes. The scene where she shows him the bites on her back sets the ground rules for their relationship, they're close enough that she can go there in just her underwear, but there's never a thought that they might cross to a romantic relationship, for now at least.

One of the things I like about the pilot is the way they throw in a bunch of random weird stuff. There's the time loss, the troubled digital readouts, the sort of things we didn't need to see later in the show, but it's nice to get them. The time loss in particular is a cool scene, with Mulder's ecstatic reaction at experiencing something weird. I think they got numb to that as the series went on, but here it's still a thrill to actually encounter something weird.

The series' skeptic/believer dynamic became the foundation for countless future TV partnerships, and it's a strong one. The basic conflict is the same we see in From Hell, between reason and wonder. Scully is looking to fit everything she sees into a pre-existent paradigm, Mulder is totally open to anything, wanting to create a new paradigm. I found myself really identifying with Mulder's excitement at everything that was happening to him. The character is really fun here. I also like how this episode keeps things somewhat ambiguous, there's no clear evidence of alien involvement, so Scully's continued skepticism makes sense. After a while, they stopped bothering to give any credible alternate explanation for what was happening.

The other great thing about this episode is the omnipresent government conspiracy. I always loved the idea that Mulder was battling this vast impersonal force, and right from the start, The Smoking Man is covering everything. His episode closing journey through the vast evidence room is fantastic, and prefigures so much of what's to come in the series. It gets a bit frustrating after a while to constantly have the critical evidence, the 'key to everything,' destroyed, but it's still fresh here.

The show does feel a bit dated. Mulder uses a slide projector, not a powerpoint, and all the computers seem to be running DOS. Plus, Scully is a victim of some early 90s fashion, though not as bad as what she'll be subjected to later in the season. This episode was shot a year after Twin Peaks went off the air, and you can definitely see the influence. Mulder is a lot like Cooper, the eccentric, but ultra-skilled FBI investigator who rolls into a small town and turns it upside down. The series' tackling of dark topics also owes a debt to Twin Peaks.

It was really fun to revisit this first episode, and it made me eager to rewatch some of the show's best times. It's been so long since I've seen it, stuff that once felt tired again feels fresh. I won't be writing up every episode, but I'm sure I'll cover some more of my thoughts on the series as I'm going along.

The Invisibles #24: 'Goodbye Baby Rabbits'

The volume proper wraps up in this really solid issue. This one brings us some more information on the nature of the universe as a whole and gives Dane some further crucial development. When I reached this point in the series the first time through, I was really enjoying it, but not quite getting all of the cosmology. On the reread, it's clear that pretty much everything you need to know has already been set, but the first time through we don't have the mental tools to process it. We're still trapped in linear time perception, unaware of the larger whole....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: 'Crossroads: Part I' (3x19)

This was a really great episode, probably the strongest since the tumult of the second half premiere. This episode brought to the fore one of the issues that's been challenging me all season, and that's my uncertainty about the creators' moral stance with regard to the characters and their troubles. Virtually every work has some kind of message it's hoping to convey to the audience, and even if there are morally ambiguous characters and actions, we have a general idea of what good is. Look at Babylon 5, it's clear that Sheridan and his crew are in the right, and even though we can understand the motivations of the Shadows and Vorlons, I don't think any viewer is going to side with them. But, in the case of this episode, who are we supposed to side with? Everything is caught in a morally ambiguous mess.

This isn't necessarily problematic, I've still got someone to root for, and that's definitely Baltar. I've never liked Adama and Roslin as much as I think we're meant to, I think they work really well together when they're away from work, as in the brilliant scene on New Caprica in 'Unfinished Business,' but when they're the two headed authority figure governing the fleet, they're not so appealing. The coldness and inhumanity they exhibited in various episodes across the season is such a contrast to Baltar's struggling humanity. I've always found him fascinating and seeing him becoming a reluctant messiah figure it a lot of fun. My sympathies were with him this entire episode.

I think Lampkin makes a strong defense, pointing out the hypocriscy of criticizing Baltar for compromising when the Resistance completely compromised their moral standards in an effort to fight the Cylons. He makes the point that resisting the Cylons likely would have led to more death in the short term, and no change in the long term. If Baltar hadn't surrendered, they could have just destroyed the Galactica, and then the humans would never have gotten off New Caprica. He might not have been courageous, but he was pragmatic. Yes, he was looking out for his own interests, but does anyone really believe that if he hadn't signed the Death list, the Cylons wouldn't have just killed him and appointed a new president?

Even though he makes a good defense, I can't help but feel like there aren't some major cards they didn't play. I was assuming the major secret Lee was going to pull on Roslin was her theft of the election. I don't remember if the majority of the fleet heard about that, but bringing it up would inherently cripple her credibility. If she was willing to break the law to get herself elected, and then return to power under very shady circumstances, her criticism of Baltar would be completely unfounded. I think it was a major mistake not to bring that up. Throughout the season, I've complained about Roslin's easy return to power, and the fact that no one has a problem with her almost monarchial inheritance of the presidency. I hope to see that brought up next episode.

I also hope to see more about the support for Baltar. They keep calling him the 'most hated man alive,' but he seems to have a big following, and I'm assuming that will play some role in the finale. I've heard there's a big twist, but am avoiding spoilers. If I had to speculate, I'd imagine it will be something like the fleet splintering, and half following Baltar to the Cylons. Clearly there's some sleeper agents in play, and someone is revealed to be a cylon. That revelation could undermine the distinction between human and cylon.

I really liked seeing Lee working for Baltar. He's always been one of my least favorite characters, but with this arc, he's picked up some Kara's roguish spirit. It's a lot more convincing than the faux darkness they put him through in mid season two. If there is a schism in the fleet, he might side with Baltar's crew. I'd think it was a conflict of interest to have the defense attorney's father as the judge, but we'll let that go.

I mentioned last week that it's really tough to make courtroom scenes interesting, but they pulled it off here. There was huge tension in both the Tigh and Roslin questionings. Another fantastically tense scene was Six and Tigh's discussion in her cell. I really wish we got to see more of her feelings about being on Galactica, she's barely got any time since jumping ship. There was a scene of her and Gaius in the promo last week, so hopefully the two of them will be reunited next week.

The music thing raises some issues. Tigh, Tori and Anders were all down on New Caprica, but I'm not sure of any other connection between them. I could certainly see Tori and Anders being cylons, but I feel like having Tigh a cylon would make virtually no sense. He was imprisoned by them, so it's possible they put some kind of tracking device or implant in his head, but I don't know when they would have done that to Anders and Tori. Were they imprisoned at any point? I suppose it's possible they're all sleeper agents of a sort, with Tori and Anders as actual cylons and Tigh as just implanted with something. Regardless, Tori looked very hot with the zombie chic look.

I also really liked the opening sequence. Roslin seems to be in the same theater that we saw at the end of the first season, the place between life and death. Hera was previously seen there, as the 'child' of Six and Baltar, will she be back with them by the end of the season? The look of the sequence reminded me of Inland Empire, the scene with Laura Dern in the movie theater. Most of the time, you can't tell the show is shot on digital, but I could here, and I think it worked to the scene's advantage.

Well, things are up in the air, but I'm pretty confident that the season finale will work well. More generally, I'm frustrated by the meandering nature of the back half of the season, but the show has never let me down at the end of a season. I just hope if this major twist creates a new status quo, they actually stick with it, and don't return to the current situation. If the show has only two seasons left, there's no reason we can't spend them in a constantly evolving state.

The Invisibles #23: 'The Last Temptation of Jack'

In another bit of synchronicity, right before I was about to read the issue, I flipped over to the Sci-Fi channel and saw that The X-Files was on. A quick bit of examination revealed that this was 'Sixth Extinction II: Amor Fati,' the episode in which Mulder is tempted by an easy life away from The X-Files. Like this issue, it was inspired by Scorsese's 'The Last Temptation of Christ,' and like this issue, it is awesome. It's one of my favorite episodes of the series, a really ambitious piece of TV. This was the perfect prelude to the issue, one of my favorites in the volume....

I've taken down my posts on The Invisibles because they're all coming out in book form. The book, Our Sentence is Up, features revised and expanded versions of each blog post, covering every issue of The Invisibles, plus an extensive interview with Morrison himself. Visit your local comic store and order a copy now!

Sunday, March 18, 2007

The Failings of 300 and the Dangers of Comic Adaptation

I saw 300 last week and really disliked it. So much has been written about the film, I don't want to go into a long review, but I have issues with the film on two levels. One is the ridiculous values the film is espousing, the Spartans were all barely developed characters with a nasty idea of right and wrong, and we're supposed to value them as heroes. I found the Persian society much more appealing and Xerxes odd appearance and behavior were a lot of fun next to the uniformity of Sparta. He was all about having fun while conquering the world, and you just didn't get that vibe from the Spartans.

But, I had more issues with the narrative and stylistic choices of director Zack Snyder. My major issue was with the constant stream of pointless dialogue and voiceover. The film had a lot of visual flair, but it didn't have any truly cool cinematic moments. The reason for that is primarily because the characters would never shut up. The Matrix's lobby fight sequence is one of the coolest scenes ever captured on film, but if you had a ponderous narrator saying "Neo and his band of fighters entered the lobby and mowed down a bunch of guards," it would be distracting. The visuals are telling the story, you don't need some guy nattering on endlessly. It distracted from the visuals and took me out of the story. Good narration, as in The New World or Wong Kar-Wai films, can work like music to put you in the mental place of the story, this one did the complete opposite.

The other major issue I had was with the awful cheesy line dialogue. How many times did we hear Leonidas say "And tonight we dine on blood!" Or perhaps "For breakfast today, blood!" Or even "Tonight we dine on hell!" Just shut up and let the visuals tell the story. You don't build drama by having someone say cheesy lines, you do it with moments of silence, tense closeups, the calm before the storm. Your really cool warriro doesn't even have to say anything, we just see his eyes, and we know that it's on.

This movie was sold to and supported by the 'fanboy' audience. I enjoy some fanboy targetted films, but this movie, like Sin City, feels like it should be a trailer, not a feature. It's all about creating cool images, but there's no emotion stringing those images together. Compressed into two minutes, it's awesome, at two hours, it's exhausting.

But, make these complaints and you'll always get the same response, "But that's how the comic was." Guess what, that's no excuse. Comics and film are two different mediums, comics that try to be films always wind up feeling like a pale imitation, and films that try to be comics have the same problem. What comics can do so wonderfully is allow you to dwell on images, and create interesting juxtaposition of text and image. Look at Watchmen for a class on what comics can do that no other medium can. Comics can be a lot denser than film because we have more time to absorb things. That's why works like Promethea and The Invisibles work better in comics than film, their complex cosmologies would either wind up being too dragged out and preachy in film, or just fly by the audience, with no comprehension.

The major difference between film and comics is time. In comics, you control the pace, you can stop to ponder a moment or you can read through really fast, just reading the text and skimming the images. You can also hop back and forth through time, by turning the pages. If you want to have a flash back, just do it, you have more control of the experience.

That's why it baffles me to see comics that read like storyboards. The medium's assets lie somewhere between books and film, and the total elimination of captions takes away one of the medium's most unique assets. Telling me a comic is like a movie on paper is the worst pitch. Why would I read a movie on paper when I could just watch a movie? And similarly, why would I want a movie that is slavishly faithful to a graphic novel when I could just read that graphic novel?

In translating 300 to the screen, Snyder brought all the elements of Miller's work, but he didn't add anything. If you just want a slavishly faithful rendering of the tale on screen, he did fine, but if you want to see a film of 300, he failed. For me, the major thing that film has over comics is music. It's astonishing that Snyder would pay so little attention to music in creating this film because that's where he can make his mark. A good score or song selection can make a movie so much better. For me, film is about the fusion of visuals and music to create an emotion. Through his incessant narration and awful lines, Synder makes it impossible for the score to create the kind of operatic treatment this story deserves. If I was making this film, it would be virtually dialogue free, just some terse, more realistic dialogue.

I guess I've been away from mainstream films for a while because with both this film and Ghost Rider, an even worse movie, I was baffled by the constant talking. These directors have no confidence in their visual storytelling abilities, particularly with these stories, the image has power, but that power is drained by the constant shitty dialogue. These characters talk like characters in a movie, saying one of three kind of lines. There is direct exposition, setting up the plot and future twists. There's character exposition, seemingly throwaway lines that give background on the characters, but are so transparently expository, they take you out of the film's reality. Then there's the cheesy line, bad jokes and faux cool callouts that basically kill the momentum whenever they're said.

The one liner can work occasionally. "Dodge this" in The Matrix is a great moment, and in a movie like Batman Returns, the over the top nature of the reality means characters can say absolutely ridiculous things and not take you out of the movie. Catwoman's cheesy lines only draw you further into the odd world of these characters.

Batman Returns is the best model of how to make a comic book film. Burton takes the essence of Batman, filters it through his own thematic concerns, and then pushes everything into an incredibly over the top visual universe. The film is the work of someone who's just unhinged his imagination and is letting it spill on the screen. Batman Returns is a film that is taken to 11 and pulls it off. 300 is a movie that wants to go to 11, wants to be this totally crazy world where weird shit happens, but it feels like a poseur. It's the difference between someone who's actually drunk and someone who's just pretending. On the surface, they may look the same, but when you can tell the person really isn't drunk, he just looks silly. That's how 300 feels to be, it's not authentically nuts, and that prevents it from reaching the sublime level of weirdness that Batman Returns or Domino hit.

And a large part of what makes Batman Returns and Domino so over the top is that they know how film works. Each film presents us with a succession of astonishing visuals, which are combined with perfectly chosen music to become cohesive film moments. You couldn't do Batman Returns in any other medium, it's about more than the story, you can see the love of cinema's possibilities in every moment.

That's why I'm really worried to see Zack Snyder adapting Watchmen. I get the feeling we'll get a recreation of the graphic novel, not a film. I want someone to come in who takes the narrative and images of the book, but concentrates on turning them into a filmic experience. Use a prominent score, and impressionistic editing to recreate our mental experience of the book, not the actual ink on paper. You don't need to change the plot, that transcends the medium, but the film must have a style that is as innovative as what Moore brought to comics. I don't know if that's possible, but unless you feel like you could do it, there's no reason to bother adapting the book into a film.