Wednesday, January 02, 2008

The Wire: 'More with Less' (5x01)

I caught The Wire’s season premiere on On Demand today. Even though I’m glad to see the episode a week early, I really don’t like having the episodes released early. While it’s increasingly becoming a thing of the past, I like having a work released at the same time everywhere, to emerge in a single cultural moment. In Before Sunrise, Jesse talks about a study which showed that people who do crossword puzzles a week after they’ve been released do better, presumably because the answers are somewhere out there in the collective subconscious. The same is true of having the episodes show up a week early, they’re just sort of floating there, and there’s no single moment when the episode emerges. I’d imagine this will be a particular issue with the finale, as The Sopranos shows, a finale can be a galvanizing cultural moment, but The Wire finale will just show up on On Demand at some point, there will never be that shared sense of watching the finale with everyone else who loves the show.

Both The Sopranos and the recent Radiohead album release show the fun of watching people struggle to catch up with something right as it emerges. But, we won’t be getting that with The Wire this season. I’ll be watching the episodes as early as possible, but I’d rather wait for everyone to see them at the same time.

Broadcasting issues aside, the episode itself is fantastic, quickly bringing us back into the world and conflicts that will guide the final season. One thing that’s significant about the season is that for the first time in Wire history, one season is directly continuing what happened in the previous one. You could easily view seasons one through three as a continuous arc, but there were significant tonal shifts between the seasons, most notably with the jarring introduction of the Frank Sobotka crew in season two. Season four set up the post Barksdale status quo, and we’re continuing that story here. The central conflicts of the season are Marlo’s feud with the co-op, and the police attempt to bust Marlo for the bodies.

Because we don’t need to spend a lot of time setting up the status quo, this season premiere feels a bit more accessible than previous year’s. Rather than being chapter one of a thirteen part story, it’s chapter fourteen of a twenty-three part one. That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of new stuff going on, it’s just most of the changes are tending towards what we used to know rather than something new.

I’ll start off by talking about the new element of the season, the newspaper. With only ten episodes in the entire season, I’m a bit worried about how they’ll resolve the myriad character arcs in play, and fit in this newspaper stuff. Now, the show probably won’t give everyone a definitive conclusion. More likely, everyone will reach some kind of stasis point, and life will go on. The central plot conflicts have been in development for a while, so it shouldn’t be too tough to close them out in the ten episodes, and the newspaper will probably play a significant role in that storyline.

After the first episode, it seems like the newspaper will be used more as a pawn/catalyst in the conflict between Carcetti and the police, and the police and Marlo. Already, we’ve seen Haynes link city politicians to drug officials, and their reporting will likely dovetail with Freamon’s investigation into the Clay Davis money. Avon will be returning at some point during the season, and it would make sense that he would feature in the corruption scandal. I’m not sure what happened to Avon’s landholdings, but donated a lot of money to the Davis campaign, and could be involved should a trial happen.

I don’t think the press people will be developed as in depth as the kids were last year. We pretty much know all we need to already because we’ve seen similar people in the other institutions. As the parallel dialogue makes clear, it’s always hard to fight the good fight against the bosses. Haynes is just as disrespected as Lester or McNulty, but he’s going to keep fighting for small victories, like the one he gets in this episode.

I’m thinking that McNulty will leak the news that the police have halted the investigation into the bodies, which would put him in contact with the press characters. I’m also thinking that McNulty will have his eye on Alma, as the target of his returned wandering eye. I think The Wire is the only show on television that would send their attractive female reporter on a mission to a strip club and not even show the scene. HBO probably read that script and told Simon this is the reason you only get a ten episode renewal.

Either way, the press attention is going to be another pressure on Carcetti, who is already getting it from all sides. I’ve talked before about how Carcetti sold himself out at the end of season three, when he shut down Hamsterdam then gave a speech about how they need a new approach to stopping crime. His justification then was he could do a better job stopping crime as mayor, so the loss of Hamsterdam was worthwhile. As mayor, he’s been doing everything in service of the notion that he can make more change if he’s governor. That’s what led him to pass up federal money for the schools at the end of season four, another damning moment that has lingering consequences this season, as he finds the police force getting more and more out of control.

Even though I hate Carcetti the character, I love what Simon and co. did with his story. Carcetti started out as a somewhat annoying, but goodhearted character. You got the impression he really did care about protecting witnesses when he write Royce the letter in season three. There, his political ambition meshed with his desire to do good and all was well. However, as the series has progressed, we’ve seen the way any hopes of doing good are gradually extinguished by his immersion in the system. He’s beholden to so many special interests as mayor, it would be near impossible to really change anything. The budget crisis is similarly vexing, preventing him from any serious bureaucratic restructuring. The system is designed to maintain itself, and real change is near impossible.

But that still doesn’t excuse Carcetti’s awful behavior. He created a problem when he passed over the money, and creates another one when he passes on federal funds here. He didn’t think things through and now has a mutinous police force on his hands. Norman is the one voice of reason in his cabinet, the rest are just feeding his deluded further political ambitions. Carcetti will likely compromise the Clay Davis investigation because a major takedown there could enhance the political reputation of the states’ attorney. He is sabotaging his own people to ensure his position, and around him corruption like the drug dealer move continues to happen. As Daniels observes, the new day in Baltimore is most definitely over.

In general, the change we’ve seen over the course of the series has proven futile. At this point, we’re basically back to the season one status quo. The detail has been reassembled and is using the same surveillance techniques that got Barksdale to track Marlo. However, Marlo is a smarter, more evolved form of gangster. It’s fascinating to watch the one upmanship over the years, the move from beepers to burners to personal communication only. Marlo doesn’t take any risks, and that’s kept him and his crew out of prison. But, eventually they all slip, and the detail needs to be there when it happens.

That’s why it’s such a problem that they can’t get the overtime to track Marlo. The constant police presence will reduce violence, but once it’s gone, the bodies will start piling up again. From a dramatic point of view, I’m not sure why they brought everyone back into the detail only to tear it down an episode later. However, I’m guessing the point is to show that Carcetti’s grand ambitions were not realistic, and crumble in the face of the city’s financial troubles. Carcetti is more loyal to his party and Clay Davs than to the people of the city.

Along with the slip back to season one, we get McNulty’s return to drunkenness. He’s combined his addiction to alcohol with his addiction to the job, and in slipping back on one, he slips back on the other. It’s hard to watch the scene with Russell alone at the house, knowing that she still trusts McNulty on some level. The problem is much like the one faced by Nate on Six Feet Under. McNulty can play at being the good husband and father for a time, but in doing so, is he destroying the real him? Was everything he was in season four a lie? Maybe, or maybe that’s just how he justifies his current behavior to himself.

Either way, it’s good to see McNulty back in a prominent role. In season one, he was the spark that ignited everything that would follow. He got Freamon back to real police work, and helped to set up the whole Barksdale takedown. His role on the show diminished as time passed, and I think there’s a tendency to write him off as the white leading man put in to appease network demands. But, he’s a fascinating study, and a great presence. Dominic West always brings it, and it’ll be nice to see him leading things forward again this year.

The episode is saturated with callbacks to the past. The best is Chris going to City Hall to get information about the Greeks. It’s amazing to see that storyline coming back to the fore. After season two, I assumed it was just a standalone piece, but it’s returning to the fore here, and I love the fact that Marlo is using McNulty’s investigation to support his own. It’s a great use of continuity, a great example of how the show really is one unified long work, broken into five chapters, but all connected. In addition to that great moment, there’s some funny callbacks, like Sydnor reminding McNulty he wasn’t on the port investigation, or the talk about McNulty’s undercover mission in the brothel.

The series has always made parallels between the drug dealer organizations and the government bureaucracy, and this episode did some great work by showing Prop Joe in a similar position as Carcetti. He is facing a challenge from Marlo, and trying to sure his power base. It’s interesting that Joe actually runs a more fair operation than Carcetti, trying to help out his people who have been negatively impacted by the Hopkins expansion. While he obviously does a lot of wheeling and dealing in his interest, Joe sees the benefit of the co-op and is legitimately committed to supporting his fellow dealers.

Part of that is that they are all weaker than him, and the co-op gives him a way to keep control. Marlo threatens that because he’s the only one who offers a real challenge to power, and attempts to sow discontent by pointing out how Slim Charles was passed over for territory. Simon usually talks about the show in the context of its sociological message, but he can make a hell of a story. Over the past season, we’ve been set up for a war between Marlo, Prop Joe, the Greeks, and Omar and the Hispanic gangs, with the police on top of all that. It’s been a perfectly paced build, and if Avon gets involved, it could synthesize all the seasons together for the final climax. I felt like it would be impossible to do something as epic as the Stringer/Avon conflict at the end of season three, but things are building and building here, and this show always pays off its plot points. That meeting was full of ill portent, and it’s only a matter of time before Omar makes his move.

One of the things I love about the co-op scene is the way the police are so close to finding out about the whole co-op, but Marlo brings a girl with him and they look no further. All the acting on the show is phenomenal, but I want to give some props to Robert Chew as Prop Joe, who brings the huge charisma that Stringer and Avon used to carry. Method Man is another fantastic presence, it’s weird to talk about Method Man acting in one of the best works of art of the twenty-first century, but he nails it every time, and looking at his glare at the end of the episode, it’s clear he’s not happy with the way things are.

The thing The Wire does better than any other show is to tell a story in the most efficient way possible. In two scenes, not even three minutes total, we learn exactly where Dukie and Michael are. Michael is emulating Chris, the first adult he can trust as a father figure. He’s trying to be like him, and is apparently moving up in Marlo’s organization. Dukie has no respect on the corner, a couple of lines of dialogue and the shot of him on the stoop convey this. He’s been playing at drug dealer, but isn’t able to do it yet. The entire story of his move to the corner, and failure to succeed is told in two shots basically. The show trusts the audience to follow things, we don’t need a lot of details, just the single shot in the montage at the end of season four, and this pickup here tells the whole story. That’s a testament to the fact that the characters are so well realized, we already know what will happen if Dukie goes out on the street, and can fill in the blanks of what happened for ourselves.

Dukie’s future remains uncertain. Michael cares for him, and is willing to give him an easy life as Bug’s nanny, but Dukie doesn’t want to just take his charity. Michael recognizes the damage that Dukie’s parents did to him, and he also sees Dukie as his last tie to the life he used to have. It’s so sad to think that a year ago, these kids were starting school, that their lives are already so far gone.

Can Dukie come back from this? I hope so, I could see him getting arrested and calling Prez for help, possibly turning witness. Or, Prez might tell him not to say anything, after Randy got totally fucked over last year. But, The Wire always surprises. We know Dukie will fail in his initial venture to the corner, but over the course of the season, he might harden up and become more like Michael. Either way, that storyline is one of the most interesting on the show right now, and I’m eager to see how it develops.

Another of the show’s best strengths is the way they are able to reinvent characters to suit the needs of the story, and rather than feeling contrived, it fits perfectly with the character arc. Look at Prez last year, I think of him as a teacher more than a police, like he finally found his true calling in that last year. It’s not so much that he was turned into a teacher to suit the story, it’s that the person found what he really should be.

This year it’s Herc who gets the fantastic reinvention. I felt like they had exhausted him by the end of last year, when he screwed over everyone in his path. But, he has found a way to fuck up even worse. Probably my favorite moment of the episode is the reveal that Herc is working for Levy. It’s such a perfect twist, and knits everything closer together. He’ll now be using police resources to help out the very drug dealers they’re trying to prosecute. Watching those scenes, and the episode as a whole, made me feel like David Simon had the whole five years in mind from the very start, that he knew where all these people would wind up and expertly navigated them through the years. That Herc, seemingly a comic throwaway character, could become so significant in the overall plot is amazing. It’s a perfect development.

The only major thing I haven’t touched on is Bubbles’ struggle to recover. Again, Simon assumes we’ve seen the whole show. Bubbles went to his sister’s in season one, he’s back here without much explanation because he knows we remember what happened before. And, we get the subtle reveal that Bubbles stole her stuff last time and pawned it. This year, we get the dichotomy between ‘Reginald,’ the person he is without the drugs, and ‘Bubbles,’ the legendary street figure. We’ve never even heard him called Reginald, who is that guy? What kind of life will he have without the drugs, and can he ever get people to trust him again? It’s hard for us to watch his sister throw him out because we know he’s really trying to change, but for her, this is one of many attempts to get clean, and who knows if his resolve really means anything?

It’s jarring to see him all cleaned up, and so much more subdued. He doesn’t have that energy he used to have on the streets. Part of him is missing, and I think that is one of the major troubles people have getting clean. The drugs make you into a different person, and what if people like that guy better? Certainly the death of Sherrod changed him too, forced him to look back and see what his life had become. I really hope that Bubbles doesn’t relapse, that he makes it to at least a somewhat happy ending. After what he went through last season, it would be too hard to watch things get any worse.

No show on TV is as dense as The Wire. This post is 3,000 words, about one episode, and I feel like I only scratched the surface. The show is back and as good as ever, though I do still have some doubts about everything getting wrapped up in nine episodes. We shall see. But, they’ve never let me down before, I’m sure things will go out on a good note.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Best of 2007: Top 10 Films

10. Shoot ‘Em Up - This is one of the most underrated films of the year, primarily because its schlock genre appeal isn’t the kind of thing that most film critics respond to. The thing I love about the movie is the sheer excess of the piece, taking these gun battles to ridiculous extremes turns common action movie tropes into grand comedy. It’s a movie where you’re laughing not so much because it’s a joke, more because the movie is just so excessive, you’ve got to react in some way. I prefer a movie like this to a more grounded ‘realistic’ action movie because it embraces the pop craziness of genre and continuously goes for broke. This is the kind of movie the Quentin Tarantinos of tomorrow will be reviving.

9. Knocked Up - A movie that’s become the first victim of the Judd Apatow backlash, Knocked Up is actually a near flawless mainstream comedy that is both funny and heartfelt. I occasionally get into debates with people about how most people just want to watch movies to be entertained, that’s why an Adam Sandler movie has value. I don’t have any problem with wanting to be entertained by movies, every movie I watch I hope to be entertained by, but most of these movies that are supposedly entertaining are just awful and repulsive both cinematically and intellectually. Why is entertaining synonymous with shut your brain off? That’s why I like Apatow’s stuff, he’s able to make movies that are accessible, but still have a unique, off kilter sensibility. You can watch this movie without wondering why the filmmakers think the viewer is mentally deficient.

I do have some issues with the same Peter Pan narrative cropping up in countless works this year, but Knocked Up makes it work. You believe in the characters, and the actors just nail the film. Beyond the obvious comedy stuff, I love the bizarre digressions, like the acid trip scene, or the wonderfully executed women go to the club scene. It’s a shame that shit like Alvin and the Chimpunks and Transformers keeps making so much money, but at least Knocked Up shows that originality and being good isn’t going to turn the audience away.

8. I’m a Cyborg, but That’s OK - Park Chanwook’s new film doesn’t match the grandeur of his past two movies, but that’s ok. This is still a fun, inventive movie that has some really fantastic moments. I love how he just runs with the bizarre premise, not commenting on the girl’s psychosis, instead letting you get drawn into her world. Scenes like the speech with the vending machine recall the slightly goofy, but still incredibly touching stuff with Tony Leung and the towel in Chungking Express. I don’t think the film ever fully congeals, but as a palette cleanser after the Vengenace Trilogy, it’s a success.

7. Across the Universe - This is another movie that’s flawed on a lot of levels, but has so many dazzling images and moments, it ends up a wonderful experience. The major issue with this film is that it’s another spin on the classic 60s narrative, suburban kids become hippies, get radicalized, get violent, go to Vietnam and come out the other side radically altered. It’s by no means an original story, but a story need not be original to work. The purpose of narrative in cinema is to produce an emotional reaction in the viewer. That reaction can range from laughter to tears to simply trying to wow you with action and effects.

So, even though the film was surely less original, and a less engaging story than something like No Country For Old Men, the movie had me more emotionally engaged. That’s primarily due to the image based storytelling, which produced some truly astonishing moments. I love the avant garde trippy interludes scattered throughout the film, and I really admire the way that, with only a few exceptions, music was used to advance the story, not just exist as spectacle on its own. There’s certainly some goofy stuff in here, but there’s also some of the most beautiful images of the year. People usually judge films on which have the least bad, when they should be looking at which are the most good. No Country is an essentially flawless film, the only flaw was it just didn’t hit me emotionally. This film did, and despite its flaws, it’s still a fantastic work.

6. Sweeney Todd - Todd is a thankful return to quality for one of my favorite directors. Probably his darkest film, it’s a wonderfully sealed experience. He creates a world, and the very simple narrative allows us to dwell in the deluded minds of these characters for the time they’re on screen. Depp is great as always, but the star of the film for me was Helena Bonham Carter, who played the whole film is a bizarre, immoral haze. She stole the film, and her exit was the movie’s most shocking moment. I’d love to see Tim tackle another musical since he clearly has a lot of aptitude for the genre, and making films that are simultaneously visually grand and emotionally focused.

5. Southland Tales - Another movie that’s far from perfect. There are sections of the movie that are just baffling in their meandering pointlessness, but there’s also sections that are so perfectly on, so beautiful and singularly odd that the movie demands attention. By no means does the film match the emotional preciseness of Donnie Darko, however its incredible ambition demands attention, as does its sheer bizarreness. The Justin Timberlake sings The Killers musical interlude is but one of countless scenes that just sort of happen as the film goes along. It’s a film that feels like a whole bunch of ideas, not a finished script, but many of those ideas are so fascinating, it’s not a problem.

What got the film this high on the list was the astonishing finale. The last 45 minutes or so of the film all work, and it goes out on a high note. The strange dance between The Rock, Sarah Michelle Gellar and Mandy Moore is probably my favorite scene in any film this year, and the score by Moby throughout the film is fantastic. It probably could have used another pass at both the script and edit stage, but I think it’s encouraging that a film this bizarre made it out into theaters. The only sad thing is that it was so thoroughly rejected by both critics and audiences.

4. Planet Terror - Robert Rodriguez has made a lot of films that were really close to great, but just couldn’t quite make it. But, this one is outright brilliant, an incredibly fun pop movie that puts on a free clinic for horror filmmakers bogged down in torture porn and self importance. There’s a lot of things working here, but one of the most important is the characters. Freddy Rodriguez is a lot of fun to watch as El Wray, putting Six Feet Under’s Rico out of my mind. Jeff Fahey as J.T. also nails it, with the fun barbecue sauce subplot. But, the person who owns the film is Rose McGowan, who finally gets a role to match her wonderful work in Gregg Araki’s The Doom Generation. It’s like those seven years on Charmed never happened. The machine gun leg was a concept so genius, it really doesn’t need to be expanded on. Most importantly, the film wasn’t just about cool concepts, I really bought these characters as real people and cared about what happened to them.

Along with that caring was the fantastic camera work and score from Rodriguez. From the opening frames, you knew this would be a good movie. I can see why Rodriguez left his wife for Rose McGowan, the opening go go dance is as close as you can come to fucking someone with a camera, and equally great is when he has her literally burn up the film during her sex scene with El Wray. Throughout, Rodriguez used slightly over the top, but effective zoom ins and tight framing to raise the tension. The Grindhouse premise gave him the freedom to do these over the top things without being criticized for it, and to be honest, I’d love to see him do this in every movie. I loved the craziness of the movie, Rodriguez used the genre and style to enhance our experience of the characters. Probably the best compliment I would have been happy to just hang out with these people for 90 minutes, even if there were no zombies.

3. Death Proof - Tarantino just barely tops his Grindhouse counterpart with a totally unique, and extremely fun movie. I think this is a really misunderstood piece. People talk about how Tarantino is retreating more and more into genre and away from realism when this movie is arguably his most real. What can you relate to more, six thieves whose heist has gone bad, or six girls who drive around going to bars and hanging out with people? Yes, the car chase stuff is a genre thing, and some of the style is a pastiche of 70s films, but the first half of the film feels totally true to me. I’ve been at bars like that, and Tarantino creates such fully realized people that it’s a joy to hang out with them for the time they’re on screen.

As with Rodriguez’s movie, the Grindhouse brand gives him the freedom to do some over the top emotional stuff we wouldn’t see in a ‘regular movie,’ most notably the scene where Julia gets a text message and the bar’s music is drowned out by this incredibly melodramatic piece of score. Yes, it’s a bit over the top, but it also tells you exactly how she feels using the language of movies. Despite consisting almost entirely of people talking, Tarantino makes the film visually dynamic and full of momentum. Again, I don’t even need the car chase stuff, I would have been cool if the film just spent the whole movie at the bar with the first set of girls. But, the car chase is admittedly pretty damn cool, and I absolutely love the absurdity of the film’s final moments. It’s a joyous pop confection from start to finish.

2. Daft Punk’s Electroma - Daft Punk show that they’re as skilled at cinema as they are at music, crafting an entire odd world in their debut feature. The movie is very simple, but shot with such gorgeous precision it lulls you into another mental zone. The images they present are as dazzling as anything you’ll see in cinema, from the stark white transformation zone to the gritty, nasty public bathroom scene. It’s abstract art, less about telling you something than about giving you ideas and concepts you can bring your own meaning to. But, that doesn’t mean it’s not emotionally potent. The apocalyptic finale is devastating and powerful. What Daft Punk do here is revive the midnight movie tradition of filmmakers like Jodorowsky. It’s never going to cross over to the mainstream, but for a certain audience, it’s a truly powerful, challenging film.

1. I’m Not There - Todd Haynes confirms his standing as one of the best filmmakers working today with this kaleidoscopic, innovative feature. Not so much a movie about Bob Dylan as a film about the formation of identity and process of reinvention that we all go through, it’s the most metaphysically significant work of the year. Haynes reminds me a bit of Grant Morrison in the way he uses existing pop culture icons as a way to explore the issues that are significant to him and humanity in general. Is making a film about Bob Dylan to explore the nature of identity any different than using Superman as a way to explore mortality? Both are pre-existing icons who serve to enhance the thematic points behind the project.

This film has a dizzying mix of styles and narrative approaches. While Cate Blanchett has been justifiably lauded, no one section jumps out over the others. I loved the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg stuff and the Richard Gere town of Riddle section just as much as Blanchett’s. It’s a really heartfelt, emotional film and one that’s quite substantial. It’s a film about the very nature of human existence, the way we live and how we evolve our concept of self to deal with the world. That makes it by far the best film of the year.

The Corner

While listening to some of the commentaries on The Wire, I heard much talk about the miniseries The Corner, so I decided to give it a look. The show isn’t as ambitious or totally successful as The Wire itself, but it’s still great in its own way, and from a fan point of view, it’s a lot of fun to see many familiar faces from The Wire in completely different roles.

At the beginning of the show, that was the main appeal for me. The first really striking thing about the show is the look, shot on 16mm instead of 35mm, it feels a lot more ‘real.’ When the show opens with Gary walking the streets, talking to the camera, I wasn’t sure if that was the real Gary or the actor.

The first episode of the show is undeniably harsh, the hardest thing to watch in the whole series. A half hour in, I said that this was like The Wire minus everything that’s entertaining about it. Ronnie is the most annoying character on the show, and it’s hard to watch her and Gary scramble around, desperate for a fix. The show isn’t as story based as The Wire, so the opening is pretty much just people going around getting high. That’s probably an accurate representation of the way these people live, but it’s still hard to watch. You don’t have the emotional or narrative hook yet, so I found myself sort of adrift, looking for a character to latch on to.

In this sense, The Wire actors both help and hurt the show. When things were uncertain and discomfortingly ‘real,’ I could look over and see Freamon or Norman, and find something familiar. The realism of the show has been hurt by having these guys we know from the other show in it, but I think it does make it easier to watch.

All of this isn’t to say it’s an unwatchable show. By the end of the first hour, after we get glimpses at what Gary’s life used to be like, things start to come together. The goal of the project is to give you a window into this world, and it helps to know that a dope fiend is made, not born. Gary never wanted to be like this, but a whole bunch of things happened, and now he’s on the street.

A movie like Requiem for a Dream gets criticized for being anti-drug, but in a lot of ways, this is an even more powerful critique. The Requiem characters still look good, and get joy from doing drugs. These guys don’t get joy from doing drugs, if they don’t do drugs, they’re in pain, if they do drugs, they’re just okay. The settings are just so run down, there’s absolutely no glamour in what they’re doing. The total breakdown of Gary’s life is as strong a reason not to do drugs as anything.

As the show goes on, it gets better and better. Once the drug milieu is established, we see characters struggling to get out and turn their lives around, even as De’Andre gets pulled more and more into the game. Unlike The Wire, these people are not involved in high end operations, De’Andre is like a younger version of Bodie, proud to hold his corner with his crew. Knowing what we know about Gary, it’s hard to watch De’Andre go down that path.

One of the things I found interesting about the show is that nearly all the characters do know they have a problem. With the exception of Rita and Scalio, everyone seems to know that on some level, they’ve got a major problem, they’re just so enmeshed in the lifestyle, they don’t see a way out. That’s the point made at NA meeting, getting off the drugs is the easy part, after that you have to live with the fact that you’ll always be an addict, and treated as such by society.

But, they also make the interesting point that being a dope fiend is the hardest job. Certainly, watching these guys hustle all day for ten dollars, I’m tempted to ask why they don’t just get a job to support their drug habit. But, as we see, that’s tough. Things are going well for Gary when he works at the crab restaurant, but when that job ends, he can’t get anything else. Similarly, De’Andre just isn’t socially adapted for work at anything but the corners. His plot illustrates where a lot of the Colvin material in season four comes from. What Colvin’s class was meant to do was help the corner boys get socially adjusted, so they could function at regular jobs. If De’Andre had gotten that kind of instruction, he might have been able to deal better with the authority figures at his job.

But, he has a lot of authority issues to begin with, what with the fact that both parents are drug addicts. When Fran tries to turn things around, she reasserts her authority over De’Andre’s life, but has to deal with the fact that he thinks she’s going to relapse at any minute. Because of what she used to do, she can’t be an authoritative parental figure in his life.

Fran’s struggle to get and stay clean forms the backbone of the series’ backhalf. It’s hard to say what’s writing and what’s reality here, but I like the fact that Fran succeeded in getting things together. The ending was already depressing enough, with the news that nearly everyone on the show died, so seeing the real Fran there at the end, keeping things together, was fantastic. It’s a struggle, but she resolved to change things, and was able to do it. That seems to be what’s needed to get off drugs and turn one’s life around, an iron will and resolve. Gary may say he’d like to quit, he knows what he’s doing is bad, but he never fully commits to turning his life around, and as a result, he winds up in exactly the same place he was at the beginning of the film when we reach the end.

It’s interesting to consider the way the real people behind the characters perceived the film. It must be really hard to watch ‘yourself’ doing some of these things, particularly for Fran. They seemed to film in the same locations where these things really happened, and I’m sure a lot of neighborhood people were involved. Much like The Wire, it feels very real and credible, though the 1993 setting does date things a bit. It’s weird to hear Coolio’s ‘Fantastic Voyage’ dropped at a non-hipster party in 2007.

The difference in style between this and The Wire is also really interesting. Charles S. Dutton directed, and is presented as the primary authorial voice. Yet, for me, it’s primarily David Simon’s work. What Dutton brings to the film is a more documentary style, with a lot of handheld camera work, and that grainy, 70s film look. I think it works for this story, but I’m glad The Wire has a more sedate look. With The Wire, there’s so much going on, and it feels so real already, you don’t need these signifiers of realism. But, The Corner is presenting itself more as a documentary, so it’s logically going to use this style.

Watching the show also makes it clear why there’s so little focus on the addicts themselves in The Wire. Bubbles is our representative in that world, but Simon probably feels like he already told that story here. This could easily be placed as The Wire: Season Zero, and it does give you a much better understanding of a lot of the themes and assumptions inherent in The Wire.

On the whole, it’s a very successful film. I don’t think it comes close to the best of The Wire, but it’s still emotional and a nice way to warm up for the final season. I’d definitely recommend it to any The Wire fans, though unlike The Wire, I can certainly see why people wouldn’t necessarily enjoy it. It’s not as fun a work as The Wire, but once you get into it, it’s got a lot to offer.

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best of 2007: Top 10 Songs

10. The National – “Fake Empire”
The song opens with a rolling piano line that is just mesmerizing and that tentative march forward underlies everything that comes after. Boxer has been rightly hailed as one of the best albums of the year, and for me, all the tracks kind of blend into each other. But, this one stands out, the overture to the entire piece and a wonderful song on its own, particularly during the majestic interplay of trumpet and guitar at the song’s conclusion.

9. The New Pornographers – “Unguided”
A departure from their usual modus operandi, this song stretches over six minutes and has more of a build than their usual concise power pop songs. However, the song is just as emotional as anything they’ve done. Backed by a beautiful tinkling percussion line, the interplay of male and female vocals all builds into the ecstatic, driving chorus. Some songs just beg to be used in a movie, and listening to this one, I can see the scene in my head. It’s the ecstatic reunion of our heroes, hard fought and well earned, a happy ending after all kinds of trouble.

8. Kanye West – “Flashing Lights”
“Stronger” got all the attention as Kanye’s move toward techno and dance, but it’s this track that impressed me the most. The keyboard line is incredible, both danceable and emotional. The strings are haunting, and Kanye’s delivery is strong as well. Much like “My Love” last year, the song would work just as well in a club as it would in a silent, introspective moment. I first heard the song on the radio and was instantly impressed, I didn’t even realize it was Kanye at first, I just knew it was great. This song should have been a massive hit, I’d still like to see it get a big single push.

7. Rilo Kiley – “The Moneymaker”
Huge controversial upon its release, I loved this thing from the first listen. The video perfectly captures the sleazy funk vibe of the song. I could image the band playing this song in the Canadian club from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, accompanying the decadent drinking and drugging of a bunch of dirty people. The riff underlying this song is fantastic, and Lewis’s vocals are among her best. The whole album was great, but it’s this opening salvo that really sticks with me.

6. Timbaland – “Way I Are”
I know a lot of people have gotten a bit tired of Timbaland, but I thought Shock Value stands up well with his two fantastic albums from last year. This song is probably the most typical Timbaland song on the album, but it’s also a flawless pop song. Fusing elements of “My Love,” “Sexy Back” and “Promiscuous,” he creates a kind of uber-Timbaland song. This is the equivalent of David Lynch’s Mulholland Dr., it might not innovate as much as his other work, but it fuses much of his previous work into a singularly successful work.

5. Amy Winehouse – “Back to Black”
The greatness of this album has been largely overshadowed by her tabloid antics, and that’s unfortunate. The whole album is great, but this is the high point, a perfect example of the way she makes 60s sounds relevant for today. The song builds on the percussion line before taking off into the swirling surf guitar backed chorus. I love those tambourines in the background, and this is her most emotional vocal on the album.

4. !!! – “Must Be the Moon”
One of the greatest dancerock songs of all time, this track does not stop bringing it. The bassline is relentless and I love the robotically heavy drumming. I love the rap-style vocal on the chorus, the stripped down nature of that makes the return of the entire band even more powerful. Back at college, when I was responsible for dropping music for our pre-parties, this track was a fixture. It’s one of those tracks you just can’t not like.

3. Daft Punk “Around the World/Harder Better Faster Stronger”
The best moment I’ve ever experienced at any concert is commemorated at 2:48 in the live recording of this song. Both these songs are already colossal hook machines that would have killed live, combined, they become a mutant pop song that just destroys everything in its path. Listening to the track, I’ll sometimes latch onto the “Around the World” bassline and ride that, sometimes hook onto the “Harder Better” vocal, and other times just stick to that crazy synth line. The song just keeps building as it goes on, even during the b-section, which drops some of the heaviest bass I’ve ever heard. This is a track that’s exponentially better the louder it is, only the live experience can do it justice, but put that record up high and you’ll get close. If this wasn’t based off two existing songs, it would easily rank number one on this list, and be a strong contender for the greatest song all time.

2. Justice – “D.A.N.C.E”
While Daft Punk made a resurgence, their protégées at Justice dropped a track that rivals their best. “D.A.N.C.E” is an insane fusion of Jackson 5 and house music, one of the most exuberant pop songs I’ve ever heard. Odds are strong that this track was played at every single party in Williamsburg, Brooklyn this year, and it just never gets old. This was another one that was omnipresent on my college DJ mix, and it never failed to go over. I love the disco style bassline and Goblins sounding synths. It’s a flawless pop song, and should survive on dance floors for a long time.

1. Arcade Fire – “No Cars Go”
This song is extremely special for me, an absolutely exuberant rallying cry, it’s just bursting with energy and dreams, a desire to break free and become something else. The Arcade Fire have a lot of might behind their sound, and no song showcases it better than this. It sounds like there’s a hundred trilling instruments underlying the chorus, and it only builds as it goes into the crazy breakdown in the middle of the song. Win’s shout fo “No Go!” is amazing, but the real highlight of the song for me is the segue between “Well we know!” and the instrumental solo that follows. The song is all about those transitions, taking things down to nothing, then building again to an ecstatic pace. The song’s majesterial finale is like very few things I’ve heard in music. I think the people who lived with me last year hate this song. There were a bunch of nights when I was like “I need to hear ‘No Cars Go’,” and at 2 AM, I’d play this thing real loud, and just get lost in it. It might have woken them up, and I’m sorry about that, but the final minute of this song just left me feeling cleansed and renewed, and maybe that’s worth a wake up.