Friday, April 13, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #8: 'Sensitive Criminals: Part 1: Poor Little Rich Girl'

‘Sensitive Criminals’ marks a retreat from the hyper-violent stylization of the volume’s first two storylines, returning to something that’s a bit closer to Volume I era storytelling. But, we keep the hyperpop style of Volume II, creating a perfect merge of the two Volumes. Only Grant could make an issue primarily devoted to setup so strong and emotionally engaging....

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!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Friday Night Lights: 'State' (1x22)

The season finale, and hopefully not series finale, had pretty much everything that makes the show great, but also made a couple of missteps. Still, I think this will be remembered as one of the best seasons of any network show ever, and if it isn’t renewed, it’ll appear on countless “Shows that Shouldn’t Have Been Cancelled” lists.

I’ll start with what didn’t quite work in this episode. I’m not sure that it was a mistake to win state, not winning would have meant we’d spend all next season dealing with the same goal as this one, winning state. Winning opens up new possibilities, will the players be as motivated now that they’re state champions? Will they get cocky and complacent? This season was all about Dillon as the underdog, what do you do when you’re not the underdog anymore? So, I don’t think them winning was a major mistake.

However, I do think the game itself could have been handled better. This episode needed a lot more time, I’m sure there was easily another 45 minutes of stuff in there. The two best games were in the pilot and in ‘Mud Bowl,’ games that brought things to massive emotional heights, making me desperate for the team to win. Here, it felt more like the midseason games, where we’d see some highlights, then move on. The game never felt like the real focus, and that was a mistake in the season finale. The only moment that really had me emotionally was the half time speech, and the shots of everyone in the crowd.

I also am not thrilled with having Tami be pregnant. If the series is over, it’s fine, but if it continues, it’ll mess with the mature dynamic between Eric and Tami. I’d imagine the goal is to bring in more conflict, can Tami still work at the school, how will Eric deal with having to give up his dream? But, that’s obvious conflict, and this show has done a good job of avoiding those usual pitfalls. Pregnancy seems to be one of the go to plots for TV writers, but it rarely leads anywhere good. I’m not expecting an X-Files style debacle, but it’s still not a great choice.

Other than that however, this was a wonderful episode. We had the humor, in the Landry stuff, some sadness, in the banquet scene and the Matt and Julie on the stairs scene, and some inspirational stuff from that speech and in the last scene. I feel like everyone got some good moments in the episode, and the state game did keep things unified. If the show is over, I think it went out with everyone in a good place.

I think the best way to gauge the success of a TV episode is to see how much time is spent without dialogue. Here, we had the great sequence where the team walks out into the stadium, and just marvels that they’ve gotten there. There was also the fantastic parade sequence, which united everyone one last time, and showed where they all were emotionally. It was wonderfully scored and a really great capper to the season.

I hope the show comes back, but if it doesn’t, it went out strong and I’m sure I’ll enjoy future episodes on DVD. I think it was near impossible to top the power of ‘Mud Bowl,’ but this episode still did more to me emotionally than virtually everything else on TV. I think the greatest strength of the show is the way it make things that would feel sappy on any other show feel totally true and emotionally real. I sincerely want the best for these characters, and if I never see them again, I wish them well.

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #7: 'The Sound of the Atom Splitting'

The series hits its most violent level in this issue, which has some really memorable moments, but ultimately this storyline winds up as the only Invisibles arc that feels a bit padded. It’s a lot denser than most comics out today, but compared to the density of ‘Sheman’ or ‘Entropy in the UK,’ there’s just not that much here.

The cover of this issue is my least favorite Bolland cover. It feels more like a Preacher cover, an attempt to shock the reader. Luckily, it’s not a Glenn Fabry level of nasty, but still, I’d rather have seen Jack and Fanny dancing on the cover than the Harlequin....

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, April 10, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 2 #6: 'The Girl Most Likely to'

After a run of brilliant issues, the series stumbles a bit with ‘The Girl Most Likely to.’ While there’s still a lot of good stuff here, it goes a bit too far out of reality, turning more sci-fi than usual, and that doesn’t really fit with this series. Particularly in Volume II, the series is all about a heightened version of our reality, not an entirely other reality. It seems to come out of nowhere, despite the groundwork laid with Jack’s experience in Volume I. But, there’s still some good stuff here, particularly in the future segment. ...

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, April 09, 2007

Babylon 5: A Call to Arms

A Call to Arms brings this boxset of generally inconsequential films to a close by trying to bring some consequence back. This is certainly the most significant film since In the Beginning, giving us a major development in the B5 universe and setting the stage for another five year saga. I’d imagine this movie played quite a bit differently back when it aired than now, when I know that Crusade doesn’t even make it through a whole season, and this thread of the world’s narrative will wind up essentially abandoned.

But, I’m not aware of how things will fail, so this movie does provide an intriguing glimpse into at least a bit of new B5 material. The stuff with Galen is great, and the ending is quite powerful, however, in general, the film is less consistently successful than Thirdspace or River of Souls. Those two films had minimal ambition, and didn’t really go anywhere, but were fun along the way. This one is much bigger, and does take us places, but suffers from a haphazard narrative structure, part of which is the inevitable tension of bridging B5 and Crusade.

From the standpoint of a B5 viewer, it’s a bit frustrating to not get any meaningful character development for the major players. Sheridan has a new hairstyle, but other than that, everything seems pretty much the same. We gets hints about the telepath war, but no development of that, and my general feeling is that things have been in stasis since the series ended. A large part of the fun of this movie should have been catching up with the characters and finding out how they’ve changed, but the majors feel plugged into roles here, with a narrative imposed on them, not arising organically out of their personalities.

I’m not a big car or tech guy. I love computers, but I’m not someone who’ll drool at the prospect of a 2.3 ghz processor, so the lengthy sequence designed to show off the Excalibur didn’t do much for me. I think JMS was more in love with the ship than most viewers will be, it’s not that exciting to be told what it can do. I can see why they did this, to set up the powers and limits of the ship, but it’s not particularly exciting on its own. The power draining main gun feels like a plot contrivance, specifically designed to create narrative tension.

The new characters are more interesting. Galen the technomage has a bit of a Dungeons and Dragons vibe, but he’s got a lot of potential. The dream sequences where he communicates with Sheridan were visually striking, though a bit let down once you see that they’re just on a stage with painted backdrop. Still, he should be a cool character on Crusade, even if his magical powers seem designed specifically to create easy standalone stories. Hopefully we won’t see too many episodes with Galen senses something mysterious, and sends the crew on a cryptic mission.

Dureena is a more interesting character, infused with a moral ambiguity lacking in most of B5’s characters. Other than Londo and G’Kar, everyone on B5 was pretty standup, having a thief on the ship, even one committed to this mission, will create an inevitable tension. I’d like to see her maintain her edge as the series goes on, she’s certainly got some cool fighting abilities, as seen in the thieves’ guild scene. She reminds me of a Whedon heroine, and that’s a character type I always enjoy. She’s not quite there, but she’s certainly more emotionally believable than any of the characters in ‘The Gathering.’

My major issue with the film is that all the narrative action happens because of outside manipulation. Galen sends Sheridan on a mission, he gets a couple of people together, then goes to defend Earth, all based on these visions. I suppose we needed an excuse to have the thief join the team, but there’s no reason this couldn’t have come out of some detective work, rather than a deus ex machina. It was likely designed to show off Galen’s power, but it winds up feeling cheap.

The final battle over Earth was well executed, but lacked the emotional engagement of the fight against Clarke, which it was clearly meant to echo, right down to a ship sacrificing itself to save Sheridan. When that’s over, the ending is a nice segue into future stories, and makes me eager to watch Crusade. In that respect, the movie accomplished its mission, however it could have been a bit stronger.

In the Beginning was filled with continuity porn, targeted at the hardcore fan. This film could have used a bit more of that, throw in a reference to the Drakh control of Centauri Prime, or even just mentions or Lyta or other characters. They got some in there, but I wanted more updates. I suppose JMS might have done more of this in Crusade, but if this was meant to be the farewell to the original B5 crew, I would have liked a bit more.

Still, if the goal is to start a new series, it’s probably not the best idea to get bogged down in references to the past, and had Crusade gone on to a five year run, I imagine people would look back on this movie fondly. As it is now, it’s a solid story, with some really strong bits. I’m certainly glad I watched it, and I’m ready to move on and judge Crusade for myself.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Babylon 5: River of Souls

General consesus seems to be that these TV movies aren't particualrly good, and I think that's actually made my viewing experience a lot more satisfying. If I'd just heard that River of Souls was a movie set after the end of the series, I'd be expecting something that would address the major issues, forward the characters' lives and tell me something new about the world. But, based on the buzz, I wasn't expecting much of anything, and like with Thirdspace, I wound up pleasantly surprised by this film. It's not one of the best things in the series by any means, but it's a fun story, with a lot of nice character bits. For me, this movie box is basically a segue out of the series, giving me some final moments with the characters to close out the experience of watching the series.

That said, the opening of this movie had me expectng the worse. The lame dialogue and Indiana Jones knockoff character weren't intriuging at all. Outside of my attachment to the series, there's not that much strong stuff in this film, and the opening scene just dragged with lameness. I'm sure Ian McShane is great on Deadwood, but his scenes were the weak link in this film, it wasn't until we got to the station that things got rolling.

Most of this film centers on Captain Lochley and I have to say, contrary to typical fan opinion, I think she's a superior character to Ivanova. Ivanova was really harsh, and only occasionally would moments of humanity shine through. Her speech in 'Rising Star' was one of the highlights of the series, but other than that, I can't think of many great moments with her. I'm guessing that the Byron arc was meant to develop her in the way that Garibaldi's season four brainwashing did for him, but as it was, she was just sort of there, never the center of my interest. Lochley seemed a bit more human, less abrasive. On the journey from Laurel in The Gathering to Ivanova to Lochley we can see the evolution of the same character type, moving from a near robotic inhumanity to a strength mixed with emotional vulnerability.

I think a large part of what makes her stand out in this film is that she's the undisputed leader, not subject to Sheridan. He was such a strong personality that he overshadowed her during season five. Here, she gets to command the station and do her own thing. Even though Garibaldi is back, he doesn't take control of things, and is just part of the team. I could definitely see why people would be frustrated to spend so much time with her, but I think it generally worked.

Because we've already seen 'War Without End' and 'Sleeping in Light,' it's not as big a thrill to see past the end of the series on this show as it would be on others. We can piece together most of the characters' lives post 2262, but it's still nice to check in with them again. It was great to see some new stuff for Garibaldi and Zack, and even Corwin, who once again fails when gving a gift to his commanding officer. This isn't quite as bad as the awkward time with the roses, but the bat doesn't work so well. The bat gag is pretty funny, but I don't know that it's quite as funny as JMS thinks it is. The design of the bat doesn't work so well either, if it's meant to be a love bat, shouldn't it look a little warmer?

The big guest star on this episode, a person I was surprised to see doing the show is...Robbie from Six Feet Under. No, actually it's Martin Sheen. During his initial entrance, I was thinking this must have been the nadir of his acting career, wearing the goofy makeup, speaking with an odd cadence, desperately hoping that he gets cast in this pilot called 'The West Wing.' But, as the film goes on, he gets into character and pulls things off fairly well. It's certainly no Apocalypse Now, but he puts in a good performance, and engages with the reality of the universe better than a lot of other guest starts.

Of the two plots, the Soul Hunter stuff was less interesting to me than the idea of the holo-brothel, but I do like the way JMS used the two as parallel narratives, both dealing with the concept of identity and memory vs. soul. The holo-brothel ties in nicely with 'Deconstruction of Falling Stars,' where we see the crews' image co-opted for use by a fascist government. The holo-brothel brought back some of the seediness of the pilot, and having Lochley as a part of it was an obvious, but satisfying gag. The best moment here was when Robbie says she's more popular with women.

'Soul Hunter' was probably my least favorite episode of the entire series, despite the ties in to future series mythology. But, I think this episode did a better job of dealing with the same concepts. I particularly liked Lochley's out of body experience, and the idea that this race was actually evolving, not dying. This ties in with the Vorlons, and is a precursor of humanity's future. It also works nicely with Morrison's concepts, the idea that evolution means a move beyond the physical, towards a pure energy state. I'm glad to see a work of fiction exploring this idea. There's a lot of rich themes here, all centerng around the question of what is the essential self, is it the physical form or is there something other?

Still, the basic plot is pretty goofy, and it was more the peripheral things that engaged me than the central narrative. As a continuation of the Babylon 5 saga, it's not much, but as an added bonus, it's nice. I'd like to see Lost Tales do something bigger and more meaningful than this, but if it doesn't, I wouldn't mind catching up with our characters and just going on another adventure.

The Sopranos: 'Soprano Home Movies' (6x13)

After reading advance reviews of the first couple of episodes of the season, I was prepared for a premiere that doesn’t exactly propel things forward. ‘Soprano Home Movies’ is a pretty unconventional episode, keeping the focus almost exclusively on the events at Bobby’s country house. At this point in the series’ run, the characters are so well developed that they basically write themselves, and I’d imagine once they came up with the idea of putting Janice, Tony, Bobby and Carmela in a confined space, everything that happened pretty much flowed from there. I thought this was a masterfully executed episode, and a return to a more focused, probing style after the drift of last year’s final run.

The thing that frustrated me about the end of last season wasn’t so much that nothing of significance happened with the plot, it was that not much changed for the characters. Even though the New York/New Jersey conflict has been in a perpetual loop, it never felt so teasing as at the end of last year. But, that wouldn’t even matter if the characters were vital. The major events that did happen seemed to occur in passing, we weren’t placed in the characters’ heads, but here, we’re totally immersed in where these people are at the moment, and allowed to feel everything they feel.

For me, everything in this episode took place in the shadow of the scene at the end of season five’s ‘Cold Cuts,’ in which Janice talks about her success with anger management. Tony, jealous of her progress, taunts her until she snaps, then he walks out of the house, satisfied with himself. It’s one of the many low ebbs for the character, a moment in which his pettiness comes to the fore.

As the weekend begins, Janice notes the way that the relationship between her and Tony has improved. However, when she discusses the way he’s changed since being shot, he starts to get defensive. I would argue the reason he keeps pushing to insult her during the game of monopoly is precisely because he wants to show that he’s still the same. But, when we see him sitting in the chair, staring out at the water, or mentioning after how he’s on the downhill part of life, it’s clear that he’s still feeling the effects of the shooting. It’s particularly notable that Bobby is the one to instigate the attack, not understanding the dynamic Tony and Janice share. Clearly he’s still got some major rage issues, but I would argue that the insulting of Janice is more a nostalgic revisiting of their old dynamic than a genuine expression of malice.

The whole episode had a really overbearing atmosphere, the feel of many years lived, many shared experiences. While the show gets most of its attention for the big violence, it’s the way that they are able to give mundane, everyday happenings grandeur and significance that makes the show so strong. No show is able to provide as much subtext as this one. The characters’ fully developed backstories allow for a shorthand. In this episode, Livia hung over all the events, and in Janice’s treatment of her daughter, we can see a repetition of the exact treatment she was decrying her mother for. She won’t let her daughter go into the water without her, and she’s not likely to deal any better with separation in the future. Janice claims that she inherited more of her father’s traits, but it’s clear there’s a lot of her mother there too.

A lot of writing on the show claims that Livia was the axis around which everything revolved, and there’s been a general lack of purpose since her departure. I’d argue that’s true of the first season, but I think by the end of year two, they’d pretty much outgrown her, and there was nowhere left for her story to go. Even if the actress hadn’t died, I think it would have been wise to remove her in the third season, and develop storylines centered around other things. That said, I like that this episode brought her back to the fore, and showed the way that these characters are largely defined in relation to Livia. I think that’s a central tenet of Chase’s worldview, present right from the first episode when Tony claims that he got in too late, and will never be able to live up to the idealized world of mafia past.

That’s what makes AJ’s story interesting. He’s rejected the fancy world of Tony and Carmela to go live with Blanca, a social regression. Tony justifies everything he did as service to his family, ensuring that they can go to the best schools and have an easier life than he did. However, AJ has jumped back to poverty, and is doing things on his own. I think the character’s transition happened a bit quick, from wayward Blockbuster employee to stepfather, but it works well on a thematic level. I would assume that later in the season, AJ and Blanca will face some real troubles, and then he’ll have to decide whether to run back home, or fully embrace his new life. That would be the logical trajectory of this storyline, but Chase rarely goes for the obvious stories.

But, that’s more about the future. I really admire the decision to do a bottle episode, trap us in the growing awkwardness between the two couples. With no escape, how can they deal with the tension that arises? Basically, they say that it’s ok, but the issues simmer underneath. Tony’s pride suffers, and Janice takes some kind of joy from the knowledge that her husband can beat up Tony. I really loved just spending time with these people again, seeing how they’ve changed and behave in this situation. There were so many wonderful, small moments that only this show can do.

We eventually do get some action, when Bobby ‘pops his cherry,’ by killing the drummer. This scene was really well executed, with the ominous clunking of the shoes in the washing machine. Things wrap up with the astonishing ‘Magic Moments’ sequence. This was a perfect fusion of moment and visual, with Bobby walking in to a kind of dreamscape, this perfect moment of happiness. He may have killed a man, but his daughter still loves him, and as he looks out at the lake, it feels like everything will be okay. That final image was powerfully iconic, one of the best episode closings in a long time.

While I still liked the backhalf of season six, I had some issues, and I think this episode resolves most of them. We’re much more in the characters’ lives, things feel more emotional and events feel more important. It’s not a conventional opener, and I think it’s going to draw a lot of ire, but it’s a great episode, and I’m thrilled they chose to open the season this way. It’s the characters that interest me, not necessarily the mob stuff, and this is a rich character study.

And it does leave us with a lot of issues looking ahead. One is Tony’s mental state. All last season, he struggled to define who he was post shooting. Is he still changed, or has he slipped back to the old ways? His relationship with Christopher is clearly on the edge, and how will Chris deal with being replaced by Bobby as Tony’s right hand man. Plus, we’ve got the federal investigation into Tony’s doings, which seems to be heating up. It’s a lot to look forward to, and if the writing remains as strong as this episode, it’s going to be a great conclusion.