Thursday, May 03, 2007

Purple Rain

I got into the Purple Rain album recently, and that prompted me to check out the film. It’s by no means a flawless movie, but it’s got a lot of energy, and an incredible soundtrack makes it work.

I’m biased to enjoy this film because I usually like musicals, and I already loved the album, so 45 minutes of the movie are going to be entertaining no matter what’s on screen. The film opens with a performance of “Let’s Go Crazy” that’s staged with some odd cuts, and strangely made up people staring at the camera. It reminded me of Fosse, particularly the rapid cutting towards the end. The film sets its own visual style as things go on, but this song had a lot of All That Jazz in it. I’ve noticed that the really rapid cutting, as used at the end of the intro here, has gone out of style. In the 70s, that jarring style of cutting was all the rage. Lately, that extreme cutting has passed, likely because it calls so much attention to the artifice of film. Michael Bay or Tony Scott style rapid cutting works different, using a lot of kinetic movement with the cuts to give the illusion that there isn’t as much editing. Here, the editing is just right out there. It doesn’t always work, but I’d like to see this sort of cutting brought back occasionally, at times it can really serve a film.

The major issue with the film’s dramatic arc is Prince’s lack of skill as an actor. On stage, he’s passionate and overwhelmingly alive. Off stage, he comes off as somewhat robotic, never really connecting with the people around him. For a film designed to tell us his story, he seems very distant from everyone around him. I can’t think of a shot with him and his mother in the same frame. His distance from his parents made me feel like they never actually had the actors together at once, and had to shoot around that. I’m not sure why they chose to go this way, it kept us at a distance from what was going on.

And, from a narrative point of view, it’s hard to start with him already working at the club. I suppose they’re using Apollonia to do the story of new talent struggling to make it, but as it was, Prince’s arc was sort of nebulous. He’s confronted with some issues, and kind of resolves them, but he’s a rather nasty character throughout, so I was sort of torn. I wanted him to succeed, but at the same time, his treatment of Apollonia and the people in the band was so repellant, I wasn’t sure how to feel. The film really depends on your affection for Prince’s music, once he starts performing, you’re totally behind him.

The best musicals use the songs as a way to forward and resolve plot issues, and in that respect, the film is pretty successful. The performances manage to function as more than just setpieces, they comment on the narrative at the moment. ‘Darling Nikki’ is a great example of this, it’s unclear exactly what this says about his relationship with Apollonia, but it works great from a dramatic point of view. Similarly, his glare while watching her perform ‘Sex Shooter’ tells us everything we need to know about his jealousy.

Beyond the music, the thing I loved about this film was the ridiculous over the topness of their outfits. Everybody looks like a superhero. When Prince and Apollonia go out on his purple motorcycle, he’s wearing huge purple high heel boots, purple pants and a pirate shirt. She’s wearing a skin tight full leather suit. I’ve seen less ridiculous outfits in comic books, and these people are supposed to be in the regular world. Similarly, the production design on the store where she buys the guitar is fantastic over the top 80s. Some people would say that the look is dated, I see it more as some weird parallel universe where people once dressed like this. Prince’s sunglasses are another costume worth a mention, huge and very cool. I thought the costumes were great, you might not see me going around in knee high purple high heel boots, but if a costume can provide that much entertainment, someone made the right choice.

As I mentioned before, the odd staging of the scenes with Prince’s parents strip those scenes of much of their emotion. However, the end works really well. The whole movie we’ve been teased with Wendie and Lisa’s demo, the seed of ‘Purple Rain.’ With everything at a low ebb, Prince gets up and performs ‘Purple Rain.’ The camera barely moves, there’s minimal cutting, but it’s still an electrifying performance. Hearing the song at that moment, I’m totally sold on the emotion. The song itself is so epic, through sheer force of its power, it gives the movie a satisfying ending.

Yes, most of the plots aren’t resolved, but it doesn’t really matter. We wrap everything up with a great performance of ‘I would Die 4 U,’ an encore after the climax of ‘Purple Rain.’

So, this movie wasn’t exactly good, but I was thoroughly entertained. It reminds me a bit of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, where the music and enthusiasm behind the film make it a thoroughly entertaining viewing experience despite its flaws. I’d rather watch a movie like this than a professionally made prestige film that lacks passion.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

The Invisibles Vol. 3 #9: 'Satanstorm: Part 4: Digging Up Beryl'

‘Digging Up Beryl’ is another crazy, time jumping issue like only this series can do. The whole thing feels like a drug trip, with time flowing from emotion to emotion, not in any sort of linear progression, the past and future mixing with fantasy and nightmare. It’s a really strong issue, and a nice conclusion this storyline, which is all about stripping off false personas and revealing the truth.

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!

The Invisibles Vol. 3 #10: 'Satanstorm: Part 3: The 'It' Girls'

There's a whole bunch of crazy stuff in this issue, as the characters get drawn deeper into the web of complexity that is this volume. The major themes here are the mutability of personality and the fictional nature of the "war," central themes to the series, but handled in a slightly different way here.

Six begins by comparing the thought reflecting ectoplasm to the war for the destiny of humanity. He's implying that the war shifts with our own changes in thought patterns, and is in fact not a war at all, but merely one entity containing different parts. Just as the ectoplasm isn't actually a naked woman, the war isn't actually two sides at all, it's just one entity that's not yet aware of its true nature. It's astonishing how many times Morrison sums up the whole series in a single quote throughout the book's run, and yet it still took me a reread and much thought to figure these things out. The comic itself is a form of initiation, the first time through, there are many baffling elements, on the reread, you are Invisible, know the game and are better able to understand all the pieces....

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 30, 2007

The Sopranos: 'Chasing It' (6x16)

“Chasing It” was a really odd episode of The Sopranos, both in terms of narrative and visual style. There were a lot of good elements in there, but some of the sudden jumps in character behavior were tough to take, and an indulgence in some TV clichés prevented the episode from being as emotionally powerful as it might otherwise have been. But, after some time to process, and some online reading, I’m coming around a bit on the episode. Still, it’s easily the weakest episode of this part of the season, and arguably of the season as a whole.

I criticized the first part of the season for the fact that not too much actually happened. There was a lot of setup and limp resolution, and you could argue that the episodes drifted too far into inaction. This episode goes in the opposite direction, having a whole bunch of stuff happen, but in an arbitrary way that made it difficult to connect with emotionally. The major issue is Tony’s sudden gambling addiction. Now, there is justification for it, but within the context of the series as a whole, it seems to come out of nowhere. So, regardless of how good the rest of the episode is, it’s tough to accept the apparently sudden change in the character.

The presentation of Tony’s losing streak didn’t help, bringing a whole bunch of gambling clichés to the fore. Tony’s always been a smart guy, and I couldn’t see him putting that much money on a horse when he knows that it’s not likely to win. The nadir was Tony trying to get Carmela to parlay her house money with a bet on the Jets. That scene felt ridiculous, how many gambling stories have we seen with the guy begging for money to put on some sure thing. It was a cliché, and melodramatic in a way the show very rarely is. I’d rather see the elegant minimalism of the early part of season six than the obviousness of that scene.

Now, The Sopranos is a show I like to give the benefit of the down. Amidst the clichés in this gambling story, like the Southern rock backed casino montage, there was some interesting character stuff. You could look at his behavior at out of character, or you could see it as the character changing. The gambling issue didn’t come out of nowhere, the Hesh thing was set up last episode, and hints were laid earlier. The basic idea seems to be that Tony hasn’t all of a sudden developed a gambling addiction, it’s more that he’s always had it, but it wasn’t a problem when he was earning money. As Hesh says, money had is money spent for the Sopranos, that’s not a good mentality during leaner times.

Last season, Tony told Melfi that medical bills from the shooting put him in a bad economic place. She said she always had the impression that Tony had millions of dollars, but apparently that’s not the case. Combined with the loss of Vito, this makes sense as a plot development. The issue is that we constantly see Tony making money, getting a hundred grand from Paulie and Vito after the shooting, making a lot of money selling property to Julianna. I suppose the point is that his excesses are such that he needs constant inflows of money to keep up his lifestyle.

The issue I have is that I think Tony knows better than to gamble in such a destructive way. He’s taken down people like David Scatino, and is well aware that the house always wins when it comes to betting. So, the questions arises, why is he continuing to gamble? It seems to be about getting a rush, the same reason that he makes the ultimate gamble, remaining in organized crime. Yes, he could work for money, but money won feels so much better than money earned. It’s the same hangup that prevented Vito from actually working for a living, these guys are so used to getting everything for nothing, they always look for a quick and easy solution, even if it will cause them damage in the long run.

That all makes sense, but it doesn’t change the fact that Tony comes off as irrational throughout the episode. At this point, it’s difficult to tell whether that’s poor writing, or a crucial development in the overall arc of the series. Certainly, the first part of season six plays a lot better when you know where it’s going, and how the individual episodes fit into the overall thematic picture. That part of the season was all about Tony’s malaise, the desire for thrills to spice up his increasingly depressing existence.

With the first four episodes of this season, we’ve seen Tony moving on an actively destructive path, systematically alienating everyone around him, and inciting conflict where there’s no particular reason for it. At this point, he’s pushed Bobby, Christopher, Paulie, Hesh and Carmela away, and AJ could be next, assuming he doesn’t fare so well in the fallout of the Blanca breakup. Why is Tony doing this? I think it’s that he can have pretty much everything he wants and isn’t satisfied. He came back from this shooting, and saw the world in a different way, and maybe that brief glimpse of a world alive with possibility made it even worse when things descended back to normalcy. What he once accepted as normal now feels grossly inadequate, hence the desire to punish everyone around him.

I think Chase is also actively seeking to confront the viewer with their complicity in Tony’s behavior. He frequently speaks with disdain about an audience that only wants blood, and isn’t interested in what the show is really about. These are the people who idolize Tony and his crew. This season has been about systematically demonstrating what a bastard Tony really is, and that’s tough to take. For all he’s done over the course of the series, we still sympathize with Tony. But, as his behavior becomes more and more irrational, it’s tougher to do so.

I think a part of my frustration with the episode comes from the fact that Tony is acting in a way that I don’t want him to. I know it’s stupid to bet on that race, and he probably does too, but he does it anyway because he’s a guy who can’t control his impulses. Jealous of Carmela’s success, he lashes out at her and reminds her of the ugly truth about what she’s done. He apologizes to her later, but it’s hollow, more about removing her anger than a sincere expression of feeling.

The whole Hesh storyline shows just how far he’s fallen. He pushes away the man who’s arguably his last confidant because of a really petty offense. Tony, who’s done far worse things than ask to get money back, turns on Hesh and basically ruins the relationship. If this is Hesh’s final appearance, which is quite possible, the lesson seems to be, no matter how nice they seem to be, the mob will always turn on you.

Elsewhere, we get some good stuff with Vito Jr. Last season, Tony cautioned his crew about acting rashly towards Vito, asking who would take care of Marie and the kids if Vito died. Phil killed Vito to protect Marie’s pride, but ignored her after that, as her family slips into chaos. This story makes clear the hypocrisy of trying to preserve family pride rather than trying to preserve the actual family.

Vito Jr.’s story echoes Tony’s worst fears about AJ, this is a kid who has no authority over him, and despite the hollow messages from Phil and Tony, is going to do whatever he wants. It’s an impossible situation, created by the public shaming and murder of Vito. Phil created this situation, but he won’t deal with it. Tony at least makes an effort to help, but his own selfishness prevents her from doing what she actually wants.

In an otherwise dark episode, the sight of Phil sitting with the gothy Vito Jr. provided some laughs. Vito Jr. asks them questions they can’t answer, so they resort to rote rhetoric about being a man and taking responsibility.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we see Vito Jr. spiral into awful depression right as AJ’s fantasy of a legitimate life is broken when Blanca breaks up with him. He imagined a whole future outside the mob, but it’s shattered in a moment. We’d previously seen a family member, Tony Blundetto, trying to go legit, only to fail and slip back to the family. Without Blanca, AJ will lose the drive to work, and will likely slip back into his old patterns. If Tony really is crunched for money, is he going to tolerate his son sitting around at home? Not likely.

I really feel like the show needs to give us a full accounting of Tony’s finances to give us an idea of how close to the brink he is. I could see Julianna returning to sell some more of Tony’s property in the future. We’ve already seen the mob becoming obsolete, and it could be Tony’s excess that eventually strips him of power. That would be an appropriate ending, having essentially destroyed himself through his lifestyle, the small time mob overwhelmed by corporate America.

Another part of what made this episode so jarring was the camera work. Gone was the planted, smooth camera the show has employed to date, replaced by a shaky, handheld look. It was jarring, and raised the intensity, but it took me out of the show because it’s not the visual look I associate with it. Combined with the jarring change in Tony, it was tough to take. This didn’t feel like a Sopranos episode, maybe that’s what they were going for, but I’m not sure it wholly worked.

So, this episode had a lot of interesting stuff, but I won’t be able to fully assess it until the season is up, and I see where this took us. I’m giving Chase the benefit of the doubt, but he was in dangerous territory with the fairly clichéd presentation of Tony’s gambling problem.

Crusade: 1x03-1x05

The Needs of Earth, Memory of War, Visitors From Down the Street

These three episodes, with one exception, continue a strong opening run for the series, a much stronger opening than Babylon 5, which also hints at the potential depth of these characters. But, the last of these just fails on nearly every level, hitting depths not seen since Babylon 5’s first season.

‘The Needs of Earth’ touches on a lot of classic JMS themes, and has some good stuff, but drags into preachiness during the episode’s second half. However, the opening, in which Dureena and Gideon go to rescue the guy on the planet is very strong. Dureena is my favorite character on the show, I like her rage, and the way that rage can lead her to reckless action. Last time, I said she reminded me of Faith, and that comes across even stronger here. She’s always prone to dangerous action, putting herself at risk to help others. But, it’s unclear whether this is a purely selfless act, or if she actually wants to put herself in danger as punishment for not being there when her world was destroyed.

I think one of the major issues with her character going forward is that eventually her dangerous behavior should catch up with her. So far, she is able to go through this really dangerous situations with few negative consequences, and I’d like to see her struggle either physical or moral dilemmas. Getting hurt during one of her stunts would be an obvious way to show the consequences of what she’s doing, but a more interesting tact would be to put her in real moral conflict with Gideon and the others on the ship. They indulge her mysterious ways because things always work out in the end, but what about when they don’t? That’s the problem we frequently see with these super capable characters, like your Jack Bauer or Sidney Bristow, what happens when they buck the system and fail?

But, considering we’re five episodes into the series, it’s probably a bit early for that. However, going forward, I’m not sure if JMS would have pushed her to a more ambiguous place. Watching Babylon 5, the first season had a very traditional Manichaean conception of good and evil. Then, in season two, Londo and G’Kar both went to really dark places, shockingly so. However, he never put the human characters through that same kind of journey. His biggest mistake with the series was pushing the reset button on Garibaldi after he went through his traitor arc in season four. Season five would have been much more interesting if Garibaldi had to make up for his transgressions.

Anyway, once this guy gets back to the ship, we go into a reverie about the power of art, and the importance of preserving culture. To some extent, this story gets a bit sappy, particularly with the doctor’s comments on the music. But, the basic idea is great, and I do enjoy JMS’s journeys into philosophical musing. I just wish he was a bit more subtle about it.

As a side note, even though I generally enjoy the music on the show, it was notable that the music in the alien porn video didn’t sound very different from what we usually get. There is a certain porn quality to this score, but I still think it was a smart decision to switch composers. It helps give this series its own unique identity. While it has elements of Babylon 5, Crusade has quickly established its own universe.

Next up is ‘The Memory of War,’ which features yet another mysterious lost civilization. I’m glad that the Drakh plague was only going to take two seasons to cure because I’d imagine going to random planets that are deserted, but full of thematically relevant mystery would get old after a while. What is interesting here is Galen, who for the first time feels like a real character rather than a cryptic plot device. He has the most potential of any character on the show, and it’s good to get more time with him.

The production values on the show are a big jump from Babylon 5. While the effects aren’t always completely convincing, for a TV show in 1999, they’re great, and allow JMS to tell bigger stories than he could back on Babylon 5. The climax with the giant machine was a particularly strong sequence, though I’m a bit unclear on the motives of the zombiefied people, particularly Dureena during that scene. Plus, it bothered me to spend so much time with those obvious redshirts during the mission. I was just waiting for them to die.

Despite those issues, this is the strongest episode of the series to date. Dureena’s walk on the invisible bridge was cool, and there was some strong character development. So, it’s a shame that the next episode was so ridiculously bad. I’m a big X-Files fan, and I believe JMS is too, so this should have been a great episode. However, The X-Files parodied itself so much, and so well, it’s tough to say something original. This episode plays like someone who only has surface knowledge of the series, giving us the most obvious jokes, and not working as a story outside the parody.

A large part of my issue with the episode is the casting of the aliens. Why is the Mulder British? It makes it feel like a vague caricature of Mulder, rather than a sharper parody, and the Scully is a non-entity. The Smoking Man is just generically evil, not the quiet menace of the actual character. These characters hit only the general qualities of The X-Files characters, and that means it’s not as funny to see them do stuff. I would love to see a near exact analogue of Mulder crop up on this ship, but this guy only captured a small piece of the character. Plus, those dreadlock tentacles just looked so stupid, it took away credibility for me.

Now, you may say, just chill out, it’s a funny episode. I did like some of the role reversal alien stuff, but it was too close to The X-Files for me to take seriously as an episode on its own, but not focused enough to work as parody. So, it falls into the nebulous realm of bad parody, which is just reproducing the original in a different context and expecting it to be funny. It’s the same kind of thing as Date Movie or Epic Movie, which mix random pop culture characters together and assume that just the presence of a Willy Wonka analogue is hilarious.

But, other than this episode, the show is going well. I’m still wondering where Lochley is, she’s in the credits, but hasn’t appeared in any episodes yet. And, I’m not looking forward to the inevitable disappointment that the unresolved end of the show will hold. But, at least we’ve got The Lost Tales up, which will give us more Galen and perhaps some resolution to the lingering questions of the series.

Weekend Update

Future of the Blog

So, you may have noticed that The Invisibles is pretty much overwhelming the blog. That's due to the fact that the end of Volume II is just so good, I read the issues quickly and had to spend all my blogging time writing them up to keep up. But, I'm ten issues from the end of the series, and that will finally mark a return to normalcy for the blog. I'll be wrapping up Crusade as well, so the two properties that have consumed this site in 2007 will be over and we'll be back to more general stuff. To be honest, I haven't seen many film worth writing about, not in the theater, not on DVD, but perhaps that will change soon. Also, I'll be back in New York full time at the end of this month, and I'll be working in the city, so I'll be hitting up a lot of concerts and new films. So, we'll be on it as it happens, whatever it happens to be.

Upcoming Concerts

I'm heading into New York next Monday, and while there I'm going to tie in the Arcade Fire and The National show. I've been a big Arcade Fire fan since 2004, and I was angry I didn't get to see the now legendary Summerstage show with David Bowie because I was up at school. But, I'll finally get to see them on Monday. Of the top five bands I want to see live, but haven't seen, they'd be near the top of the list. Others include Sigur Ros, Daft Punk, Radiohead and United State of Electronica. I'll be seeing Daft Punk later this summer, and hopefully the others will circulate through soon. Later this month, I'll be going to a ridiculous week of concerts.

On May 30, I'm hoping to grab some cheap Craigslist tickets to Roger Waters at Madison Square Garden. It's not a full on Pink Floyd show, but probably as close as I'll get. I hate going to shows at a big venue like that, but I heard good things about his show the first time through here. Then on May 31, I'll be seeing !!! down in Brooklyn, followed up by another discopunk assault from Cansei de Ser Sexy the very next day. I may also see The Pipettes on June 5th, we'll see. Regardless, it'll be awesome to work in the city and easily be able to get to these shows.