Saturday, January 19, 2008

X-Men: Messiah CompleX

I’ve been reading the current X-Men crossover, Messiah Complex, as it’s been along, and, one chapter from the end, I think it’s safe to say that it’s been pretty underwhelming. With only 22 pages to wrap up, I don’t think they’re going to be able to salvage this thing. I went into the book really liking Mike Carey’s X-Men and Peter David’s X-Factor, but the crossover format has sucked momentum from those books, and slowed everything to a monotonous crawl.

That’s not to say stuff doesn’t happen. There’s a ton of fight scenes, and a lot of nominal progress, but there’s no real substance here. The setup was, the X-Men try to get the mutant baby, and we haven’t really moved beyond that. That’s fine as a MacGuffin, but you’ve got to have something deeper at the heart of your story. My guess is the writers deliberately wanted to avoid the convolution of previous X-overs, to focus on one goal. That’s cool, but I think it ignores what made previous X-overs work.

The first two X-Men crossovers weren’t really crossovers per se. The Mutant Massacre took an inciting event, the slaughter of the morlocks, and used it as a jumping off point for a story about the various X-teams of the era. It’s an amazing story, one of the best of the ‘grim and gritty’ 80s superhero stories. It works fine if you read just one piece of the crossover, but reading the whole thing you get some nice bonus connections. Fall of the Mutants isn’t really a crossover, the next big event was Inferno, an unbelievably convoluted, excessive, bizarre story, but one with a purpose. Reading Inferno, you feel like they’re struggling to fit all the material into the story. It’s the culmination of 150 issues of plot development, ten years of stories, all leading up to this one story.

It’s got a lot of flaws, but it’s got an undeniable energy. It’s that energy that makes X-Tinction Agenda work, in spite of the plot flaws. No one could break those X-overs down into linear story, but reading them is an experience. You’re immersed in this reality, this mythos and even if you don’t know what’s going on, it’s still a lot of fun. That’s what missing from Messiah Complex, the crazy insanity of the X-universe, the soap opera excess that Claremont was known for. There’s no emotional stakes in the crossover, no subplots of doomed love and broken relationships, just a relentless focus on this one kid, and we don’t even know who it is. I think that reveal should have happened already, if only to make clear what the stakes are.

That’s not to say it’s all bad. There’s a lot of scenes that work on their own, but as a whole, it’s frustratingly single minded. Both this and House of M are such conservative, boring crossovers. There’s no moments that make you say “Wow,” it’s all about playing out what you’d pretty much expect to happen. DC’s Infinite Crisis may be exceedingly difficult to follow, but it’s got moments that just leave you in total awe. As a story, it fails, as an experience, it succeeds. I’d rather read a crazy work like Infinite Crisis, a work that taps into years of mythology and spectacle than something like Messiah Complex, a work that’s competent, but boring.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008


Back in the 60s, there was a genre called the ‘Head Film,’ which de-emphasized traditional narrative in favor of stream of consciousness, visual based immersion in a psychological place. Imagination falls squarely in that genre, recalling strange masterpieces like Head and The Holy Mountain. It’s a film with astounding visuals and a wonderful sense of psychological immersion. You go into this film and you enter a world, one that can move seamlessly from live action to stop motion to drawings, all filled with strange and wonderful imagery.

The movie centers around two twins who are afflicted with Asperger’s and blindness respectively. Together, they form a strange bond and go on a strange odyssey over the course of the film. It’s a folly to talk about plot in traditional terms with a film like this, and that’s something I love. I’ve been going on here about how films need to move away from traditional narrative and embrace the new mission of immersing you in a world. The scenes that don’t work in the film are the ones that exist in a ‘real world’ narrative space. The doctor’s freakout when the twins are missing is the scene that jumps out for me as not working, it replaces the hazy dreamscape of the rest of the film for a moment that feels false, largely due to acting that just doesn’t quite make it. That’s a scene that needed another take.

But, most of the film doesn’t rely on dialogue to convey the story, it uses visuals to replicate the twins’ mental landscape. This is a film filled with stunning imagery, from a cool snowy forest stop motion interlude to a fun human stop motion sequence with the twins. The imagery I liked most focused on the womb, and much of the film seems to follow the twins’ journey back to the place before birth. The imagery is trippy, but resonant. It seems to touch on something deeply human and real within all of us.

At a relatively short one hour running time, the film doesn’t have to be about anything more than just taking us to this strange place, sending us on a visual journey and then getting out. I can imagine a lot of people complaining that the film is just a bunch of visual wankery with no ‘point.’ We’ve been trained to view narrative as the be all and end all of cinema, but that’s not the case. This movie throws back to a time when Jodorowsky and others could make movies that were just weird and trippy for their own purposes.

Along with that, a lot of people would probably say this is a movie you need to see high to enjoy. I think that’s an insulting attitude when considering the capabilities of the human brain. What we consider normal in film, or in life in general, is all a social construct. What makes a rap song any more normal than an avant garde record of someone screaming? Our expectations, and social structures that dictate what normal is. People have trouble engaging with movies like this, and they feel like they need to be in an altered state to ‘get’ it.

After one viewing, I couldn’t say exactly what the movie was about, but I can say that I loved what I saw, and I felt like the journey of the film was complete when it ended. You could do a deep analysis and find acres of meaning in the film’s various images, or you could just glide the surface and find meaning only in the aesthetic power of the images themselves. Either way, the movie is a great, unique experience, and I’d highly recommend it.

The Official Site

The Wire: 'Not for Attribution' (5x03)

The last season of The Wire is starting to remind me a bit of the last season of Buffy, in the sense that there’s a disparity of focus between what I’m really interested in seeing and what we’re being shown. The problem in both shows was the decision to bring in a whole new set of characters when the story is right near the end of its last act. The newspaper people on The Wire aren’t as bad as the potential slayers on Buffy, but with a few exceptions, that storyline just isn’t doing it for me in the way that the other stories on the show are. The police is as strong as it’s ever been, Marlo and gang are reaching a Barksdale crew level of riveting, Omar bursts onto the scene and instantly raises the game, but we’ve still got fifteen minutes an episode that’s back at the establishing stage.

I hate to start with the newspaper section of the show, since it’s been sucking up critical attention, and spinning discussion of the show into a vortex of self reflection, but I’ll start there anyway. I still think the newspaper storyline is at best peripheral to the season, it’s not like the port storyline, which was deliberately designed to dominate the show, it’s inserted as another piece of the puzzle, in the same way the political stuff in season three just appeared on the show and became an ongoing subplot as it went on.

My biggest issue with the newspaper stuff is that it feels off to have a storyline in the getting to know you phase when we’re in the saying goodbye to the rest of the show. This is a consequence of the storyline having to jump in halfway through the overall storyline. The other problem is that the newspaper is another system like all the systems we’ve already seen. The parallels are made abundantly clear, but we have no emotional investment in what’s happening. The reason the school story worked wasn’t because we heard people talking about how bad standardized tests were, it was seeing the disconnect between what the bureaucracy thinks should happen and the reality of what’s going on in the classroom. Without that emotional engagement, the newspaper storyline comes off emotionally flat, even if the points are thematically valid.

For all Simon’s talk about how character trumps story, it’s the characters who make his thematic points work. When we see how the police department works, or how the school works, we understand why it’s woefully inadequate. With the newspaper, I feel like there’s a lot more show, don’t tell. There’s a reason that most TV shows are about cops and doctors, those are professions where the consequence of failure is death. Here, the consequence of failure is a failure to properly serve the community. That really does matter, but it’s harder to make that point, certainly not as one small piece of the larger plot in only ten episodes.

What does work for me is Alma’s story because we’re allowed to emotionally engage with what she’s doing. She’s not talking about what it means to be a newspaper writer, she’s living it in the moment. We enter at the moment where her idealism and reality come into conflict, and it’s great to watch her enthusiasm quickly turn to sadness when she realizes how her stories are treated, even the sensationalized serial killer storyline McNulty came up with. Gus is a likable guy, but he’s already so ingratiated into the system, I feel like there’s nothing he can really do. He can either quit or go along like he is now, doing the best he can. Alma is the closest thing to our point of view character, and has the most potential for change over the course of the storyline.

But, that’s not the real meat of the episode. For his first two years on the show, Marlo and his crew were a nebulous menace, an incarnation of the ‘fiercer’ streets, but not particularly personally developed. This season, Marlo himself has taken a bigger role, following the path Stringer traveled to a more legitimate business model. It’s interesting to see just how ill equipped he is to deal with basic social systems, like banks. This is a guy who totally owns the streets, but won’t trust that his money is being kept in a bank. And, after seeing the kids’ storyline last year, we can understand why. He has learned on the corners, not in the classroom.

Marlo wants to control everything, the money isn’t enough for him, it’s about power too. This is the same kind of thing Stringer was looking for, only Stringer wanted success in the legitimate world. Marlo wants to own the streets, to remove all his competitors and lord over Baltimore. He’s not doing it for the money, he has more than he can possibly spend, it’s more that he just needs power. Simon has called the Greeks representatives of uncontrolled capitalism, and that’s just what Marlo is as well. He’s even taking advantage of corporate loopholes, like bank accounts in the Caribbean. He’s going to learn from his competition, then destroy it.

Marlo’s one great flaw is his excessive pride. We saw it last week when he killed three people to fight back against a slur on his name, and we see it this week when he decides to bring Omar back out of retirement just so he can kill him. Joe realizes this is a foolish idea, he’s older and knows when something’s working to just leave it alone. Cheese tips off Marlo about how to get at Omar, and in the process begins a process that will almost surely lead to Joe’s downfall.

Throughout season four, we saw Chris and Snoop do some awful, awful things, but throughout, they never really lost our sympathy. Snoop is such a presence on camera, you can’t help but like her, and the combination of her joy and Chris’s brooding made for the perfect team. The only moment where you see one of them snap is Chris’s assault on Bug’s dad, and that feels justified. The scene is more about seeing Chris’s inner feelings than it is about the violence. After seeing that display, you somehow feel closer to the man.

After all the murders, it’s only this week that they crossed the line for me. The assault on Butchie was nasty, and cruel in a way that none of their other murders have been. This was purposeful, to get Omar’s attention, but it made it clear just how sadistic these two are. They may take direction from Omar, but the bodies are on their head. Butchie was a great character and it was hard to watch him go out like this. But, it was necessary to get Omar back in the game, and wow, was it time for him to return.

I’m not as huge an Omar fan as some people. In a lot of ways, he’s the Spike of the show, and though I don’t like him as much as I did Spike, he’s undeniably a presence, and it wasn’t until he was gone for two episodes that I realized, we seriously need some Omar. His entrance was amazing. For all the talk about the sociological themes of the show, it’s moments like Omar strolling the streets, giving out candy to kids that put it over the top. There’s a sense of dread hanging over the scene, Omar’s done too much to just walk away, and now he’s got to go back to Baltimore and finish things…again.

If Marlo and Stringer are meant to stand for the oppressive force of capitalism, Omar is the chaos in the system. Corporations can fall when they get too greedy because there’s always going to be individuals out there fighting back. Omar is an over the top character at times, but it’s okay to go over the top when it’s so fun. The Western showdown between Brother Mousone and Omar has nothing to do with reality, but it’s brilliant all the same. The show is entertainment at its core, it’s meant to enlighten and challenge you along the way, but if it’s no fun, no one cares. And, if you read Omar as the force of chaos and individuality in the world, some of his over the top actions make more sense. It’s hard to believe one man could survive this long, but when he’s the avatar of chaos, it starts to make sense. All I can say about his return is that it’s about time.

The force of chaos hits Marlo on many levels, one of which is Michael, the young lieutenant he’s been grooming for bigger things. Turns out Michael isn’t any more thrilled with working than any other high school kid would be, so he cuts out on his corner and goes to Six Flags. I liked that scene because it brought back memories of how these kids were before they caught up in the game. The question you’re left with after that scene is can Michael and Dukie ever go back to being those kids for the long term? Hell, they never really had a chance to be kids because they had to care for their parents.

And, if Michael does continue to ditch his work, what’s going to happen to him? Chris has heard about what he did, how will he react to his protégée not being who he hoped him to be? I want to see Cutty get involved in all this again, and find out what’s going to happen to these kids. It’s easily one of the most compelling angles of the season. With Bodie gone, we lost that connection to the street level, Michael and Dukie are carrying on as best they can.

I feel like the death of Bodie really took something away from the show. He never had that much importance to the plot, but in a lot of ways he was the soul of the show, the ultimate corner kid, someone who’d been through all the major plots and survived. I love the way he went out, but it’s hard to go on without him.

Elsewhere, the McNulty serial killer plot comes to the fore…and no one cares! I liked that twist, who really would care about homeless people dying? I bet a lot of people would kind of happy to have the problem taken off their hands. In a great twist, Lester stands up to support the idea, and recognizes the need to sensationalize things for the media. It’s got to be sick and twisted, and the killer has to have a personality. I’m not really sure where McNulty and Lester will get the bodies to do this, but I’ve got faith that the story will work. The show has always made the point that institutions don’t work, and maybe only a lie will allow good work to get done.

The greatest strength of the plot is the humor surrounding it. I loved how no one paid attention when McNulty tried to get people involved in the plot. The line of the episode is definitely McNulty saying “We have to kill again.” I feel like bringing this plot through the newspaper gang will do a better job of pointing out media failure than characters we don’t know getting laid off will ever do.

On the whole, this was really strong episode. The Marlo stuff is amazing, and the McNulty side of things is great too. I’m really curious to see where things go, and I hope next week brings Carver and Herc back into action.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles - 'Pilot' (1x01)

With the prospect of up to a year without new shows, I figured it’d be worth checking out Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. I really enjoyed Terminator 2, but I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of the film series. However, good TV sci-fi is hard to come by, so I gave it a look. The first episode is consistently entertaining, even as it raises the question of how this is going to support a season’s worth of episodes, let alone a whole series.

The thing that made the show work for me was the relationships between the three central characters. From the beginning, there was an intensity to the emotions that just wasn’t there in the lackluster Terminator 3. What made Terminator 2 so fantastic was the creation of a family amidst the action. The ending works because we care about Arnold as a character, not because of the action stuff.

This show bumps the characters up a few years, so instead of getting a father figure, John is getting a girlfriend figure. After years on the run, we’ve got to assume he hasn’t had much in the way of attention from the ladies, there’s only one woman in his life, his mother. The thing that made the episode work was the bizarre love triangle at the center of things. Sarah is so fiercely protective of John, you get the sense she was only with the guy at the beginning to give John some kind of a father figure. It’s John who has qualms about walking away, not her. She has centered her whole life around him, and it’s hard for her to face the fact that he doesn’t need her to protect him anymore, he’s got Cameron.

It produces a weird dynamic between her and John, they’re very close, and it seems almost too much so at times. I think that’s something interesting to play with, the notion that Sarah’s so obsessed with John’s destiny, her feelings are going to an inappropriate place. And, at the same time, will John fall in love with the robot Cameron? What role does Sarah play in his life now, she’s been bumped out as both source of love and protector? It’s an appropriate metaphor for what it is to have a child grow up.

Unlike a lot of reviewers, Lena Headey as Sarah really owns the show for me. Summer Glau is good at what she does, but she’s right to remain as a supporting character. She doesn’t take control of the show the way Katee Sackhoff did on Bionic Woman, I think Sarah’s strength and slightly unhinged quality are what drives the show. That said, I would like to see her pushed to a crazier place, as she was in Terminator 2. It looks like there will only be three main characters on the show, and the tension between them is what’s going to fuel events. Really, it’s a clash between Sarah and Cameron, with John just sort of standing there in the middle.

So, I’ll give the show a few more episodes. It’s not great, but the production values were pretty solid, and there’s a lot of potential there. The central question is whether they’ll let the premise evolve beyond just running from terminators. There’s a lot of interesting stuff within the mythology, but it’ll take a while to see what the show can do with it. But, I’ll give it another look tomorrow, and ultimately, that’s a pilot’s biggest goal, to get you to the next episode. Perhaps the saddest thing about the show is thinking how perfect a partner it would have been for Joss Whedon's Dollhouse. Damn the strike and its continued existence!

Best of 2007: Top 15 Albums

A bit late on this, but I’ve been busy. Anyway, here’s the top 15 albums for 2007.

15. Kanye West – Graduation
People talk a lot about the sophomore slump, but I think it’s the third album that’s really problematic. Most artists do the same, but more for the second album, but then were do you go for the third? This album has some of Kanye’s best tracks, but also a couple of duds, most notably “Barry Bonds” and “Drunken Hot Girls,” which just don’t work. Still, the good stuff far outweighs the bad. While “Stronger” got a lot of attention, and is a great track, it’s “Flashing Lights” that stands out as his best dance track. “Homecoming” is also fantastic, with a killer piano line.

14. Jay-Z – American Gangster
The master beat the apprentice with a really great album that presents a time spanning journey between Jay’s past, present and imagined life as Frank Lucas. The lyrics tell a really interesting story, and the beats match it with a great 70s soul aesthetic. The opening, with voiceover courtesy of Idris “Stringer” Elba is wonderfully over the top, but it’s the back half of the album that really shines. “Ignorant Shit” and “Party Life” are the highlights.

13. Tori Amos – American Doll Posse
This album was frequently criticized for being too long. At 80 minutes, it is a bit daunting, and cut down to 45 or 50 minutes, it would be a lot easier to endorse. But, there’s no real bad tracks here, and a lot of great ones. I love the ethereal pop of “Bouncing Off Clouds” as well as the haunting closer “Dragon.” And, she thankfully ditches the adult contempo aesthetic of her past couple albums with the rocking “Big Wheel” and “Teenage Hustling.”

12. Bruce Springsteen – Magic
Springsteen’s popularity peaked during the arena rock Born in the USA era, but unlike a lot of other ultra-popular artists, he’s managed to remain artistically vital for over thirty years. This album has a lot to say about the world we live in today, and manages to sound contemporary without reaching for techno beats or something like that. Born to Run feels like it could have come out this year, so keeping that aesthetic works. The standout here is “Girls in their Summer Clothes,” but the record goes deep. Every track has something to say, and does so in an interesting way.

11. The Colour – Between Earth and Sky
They’ve broken up after only one album, which is a shame because The Colour did a great job of reviving 60s style blues rock for today. Recalling Zeppelin and The Doors, this album rocks pretty hard throughout. The songs can bleed together a bit, but “Silver Meadows” and “Save Yourself” are as good any rock songs out this year.

10. Rilo Kiley – Under the Blacklight
A hugely controversial album, I really liked the new direction. It’s 70s soft rock, crossed with dance beats and the occasional hint of Fleetwood Mac. I like bands that change their aesthetic and explore different sounds and styles. “Moneymaker” is a killer single, and even though I like what’s come before, I’m glad that they’re branching out. My guess is this album is the equivalent of Belle and Sebastian’s “Dear Catastrophe Waitress,” a total departure in style that will eventually be integrated into what the band was doing before on their next album. But, this album really stands up, and just because it’s easy to listen to, doesn’t mean it’s not great.

9. Amy Winehouse – Back to Black
I’m glad I saw Amy play back in March because it seems like she’s gone completely off the deep end, into tabloid land and away from the musician who put out this album. She manages to use retro style without sounding like pastiche, this is a really emotional album. While the two big singles are great, the highlight for me is the pop epic “Back to Black,” a flawless piece of work.

8. The National – Boxer
A fixture on best of ’07 lists for a reason, this album creates a world, drawing you in with the great opener “Fake Empires,” then lingering for mini suites of songs that make up the album. They have a very specific sound, the piano and strings bulking up the sound and making for some really unique songs. These are fantastic songs, and the album has a tangibility that few others do.

7. The Polyphonic Spree – The Fragile Army
As with Kanye, the third album presents something of a problem. I loved the massive epics on Together We’re Heavy, but this album scales things back a bit. The songs are still great, and few bands can match the scope of what they can do when all their instruments are in the mix. But, these songs are generally more closed in, avoiding the epic sweep of Heavy, and focusing on more concise arrangement. It’s still a great album, that sounds like nothing else out there, but it didn’t hook me like their previous albums did. But, considering how much I loved those albums, not quite matching up isn’t a huge problem.

6. Timbaland – Shock Value
An album that the critical establishment knocked even as it continues to produce a litany of top singles. People criticized the album for skipping from genre to genre without any sort of clear aesthetic. I don’t think that’s a criticism, I love that an artist can make an album that takes us from 50 Cent to Elton John. The songs are arranged in sections that flow together well, listened to on random, it would be disorienting. But, the sequencing takes us seamlessly from rap to pop to rock, with great songs all along the way. “Way I R” is a distillation of everything Tim can do well in the rap field, and probably the best track, but really, there’s a lot of highlights on here. “Scream” is fantastic, as is “Time.” Like Handsome Boy Modeling School’s White People, it’s a deliriously kaleidoscopic album, but you’d think skipping between genres and styles wouldn’t be a problem for the IPod generation. Listen to this album and you don’t need to shuffle anything, Tim does it for you.

5. The New Pornographers – Challengers
Even as their weakest album to date, this is still an amazing piece. Like the Spree, they tone down the over the top pop and joy of their previous work, going a bit more melancholy. That gives Neko Case some of her finest showcases, particularly “Go Places.” The epic “Unguided” is one of the most emotional songs they’ve ever done, and “Spirit of Giving” is a perfect distillation of the unique, poppy aesthetic of the band. It sounds like nothing else out there, but I wish that everything sounded like this.

4. Justice – Cross
The big dance hit of the year, Justice produced the album a lot of people wanted Daft Punk to make with Human After All, a fusion of hard rock riffs and poppy synths. “DANCE” stole the show, justly, but it’s a top notch album throughout. The beats are heavy, the hooks colossal, it’s a joy to dance to. “Stress” and “Phantom, pt. 2” are two of the album’s best.

3. Daft Punk – Alive 2007
This was a tough one to rank. My memories of the amazing live show are wrapped up in the disc, so I can’t judge it objectively. However, it’s pretty undeniably a fantastic mix. This should have been their greatest hits album, cobbling together pieces of nearly every song in their catalogue into a monster mix. There’s so many classic moments here, the fusion of “Harder Better” and “Around the World,” the mix of “Da Funk” and “Steam Machine,” and the crawling vocal from “Harder” over the base line from “Face to Face.” Throw this on as high volume as possible and just get lost in it.

2. !!! – Myth Takes - Another fantastic dance album, this album represents a huge jump for the band. “Heart of Hearts” and “Must be the Moon” were killer singles, perfect fusions of rock and dance, but the album didn’t stop there. I love “Break in Case of Anything” and the epic “Bend Over Beethoven” really tears things down. The dance rhythms give the music an energy and vibrancy must rock is lacking, their live show at Studio B in May was one of craziest I’ve ever been to, a mess of jumping and dancing. I’d love to see them live again.

1. Arcade Fire – Neon Bible
Funeral was already a great album, but this is a quantum leap from that. The scope of their orchestration is amazing, you hear things on this album you won’t hear from any other band. Think of the huge pipe organ intro on “Intervention,” or the wordless vocal breakdown on “Anti-Christ Superstar.” The album just makes me so happy, so charged. There’s a sense of deep emotion here, some regret and sadness all overwhelmed by the sheer power of the music. “No Cars Go” is the band’s opus, a climax for everything that’s come before, and “My Body is a Cage” is a haunting closer, building from nothing to an epic organ line that puts a perfect cap on the album. This isn’t just the best album of the year, it’s an all time classic. People will be listening and talking about this album thirty years from now.