Friday, July 18, 2008

Odds and Ends

I’ve got a bunch of random stuff to post about, so read on for a grab bag of topics that may be of interest to you, the reader.

Watchmen Trailer

I’ve made no secret of my lack of support for the Watchmen film. I just don’t think there’s any point to doing it, it’s not called comics’ Citizen Kane because it should be a movie, it’s called that because it’s the ultimate use of the medium to tell a story. Though the story is good, I don’t think a film can capture what made the book so special.

But, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited when I saw the trailer had been released. The trailer has its moments, seeing Jon building the structure on Mars was amazing, and there were a few other moments where it was just cool to see them jump off the page. Dr. Manhattan doesn’t look bad, but the whole thing has a very artificial feel. It captures the feel of the art, but there’s a reason superhero comics usually aren’t drawn in a photorealistic style. The characters just don’t look right as real people. The Rorshach design is very cool, but translated to reality, it doesn’t quite make it.

My other big issue is I still have no faith in Zack Snyder’s ability to make the characters feel real. All the dialogue in the trailer is pretty bad, and I can’t imagine him capturing the middle age melancholy of Dan and Lori. But, we’ll see. If nothing else, it looks to be the most faithful Alan Moore film adaptation so far.

As a side note, if any Alan Moore comic is begging for a film adaptation, it’s Miracleman. It’s not as technically ambitious as most of his other major works, and offers plenty of opportunity for big screen spectacle. I see a two film series, one covering the first two books, through the birth issue, the other covering Olympus. But, the rights situation is so fucked on that, I’m probably breaking copyright even thinking about it.

The Dark Knight

Speaking of downbeat comic book adaptations, I’ve made the decision to go see The Dark Knight this weekend, with an open mind. I read Grant Morrison’s review of the film on his blog, and that, combined with the countless other good reviews, sold me. I didn’t like Batman Begins, but maybe this will be different. Certainly Heath Ledger’s Joker seems like he’ll be worth seeing, and between him and Harvey Dent, how much time can we have for the Mysterious Whisperer, aka Batman. I’m hoping this isn’t a Lost season two situation, where I give something another chance because it’s getting such insanely good buzz and wind up disappointed again. But, I want to like it. I hope I like it. We’ll see.

Doctor Horrible

I watched the first two episodes of Joss’s online musical last night and thoroughly enjoyed them. I wasn’t expecting that much, it seemed to play to all the goofier traits that bother me about Joss’s work, but it totally worked. There was a real emotional undercurrent in the story world, and it merged well with the more over the top elements. Horrible/Billy reminds me a lot of Andrew and his fellow Trio members, right down to the use of a freeze ray, but it’s ripe territory, so I don’t mind going back.

I think it’s interesting that outside of the vampires, almost all of Whedon’s male characters are ineffectual and intimidated by women. It reminds me a lot of Claremont’s work, where all the strength is in the females, and males struggle to deal with that strength. How will it play out in the final episode? I’ll find out tomorrow.

My Emmy Nominations 2008

So, the Emmy nominations were announced today. I wasn't hugely thrilled with them, it was great to see Mad Men get a lot of respect, but almost all my other favorite shows were pretty much shut out. How would I have done it? Read on...

Actor (Comedy):
Alec Baldwin – Jack on “30 Rock”
Jemaine Clement – Jemaine on “Flight of the Conchords”
Ricky Gervais – Andy on “Extras”
Stephen Merchant – Darren on “Extras”
Tracy Morgan – Tracy on “30 Rock”

I combined supporting and lead actors for comedy, since I don’t watch enough comedy shows to fill both categories. So, we’ve got a dense bunch of talent here. Gervais’s work in the last episode of Extras wasn’t the funniest performance, but it was the best. Unlike other people in the “awkward” comedy movement, he always remembers the humanity underneath, and that makes it both funnier, and more emotional.

Actress (Comedy):
Tina Fey - Liz Lemon on “30 Rock”
Jenna Fischer – Pam on “The Office”
Melora Hardin – Jan on “The Office”
Ashley Jensen – Maggie on “Extras”
Angela Kinsey – Angela on “The Office”

People may point the American Office’s Pam as the soul of the show, but she’s just an echo of what Gervais can do with his characters, and Ashley Jensen was brilliant on her tragic path through the last episode of the series. I think some elements of the episode were overplayed, but she was great.

Supporting Actor (Drama):
James Callis – Baltar on “Battlestar Galactica”
Austin Nichols – John on “John From Cincinnati”
Ed O’Neil - Bill on “John From Cincinnati”
Andre Royo – Bubbles on “The Wire”
Michael K. Williams – Omar on “The Wire”

Perhaps the richest category this year, there’s another five or ten people you could easily fit here from John From Cincinnati or The Wire alone. However, my favorite supporting performance was Ed O’Neil as Bill. Shifting between a prickly surface persona and the emotionally wounded person underneath, he was consistently the more entertaining character on screen, be it delivering lengthy soliloquies to his bird, or shouting “Jesus Christ! Jesus Christ!” No One was more fun to watch this year.

Supporting Actress (Drama):
Ginnifer Goodwin – Margene on “Big Love”
Christine Hendricks – Joan on “Mad Men”
Keala Kennelly – Kai on “John From Cincinnati”
Emily Rose – Cass on “John From Cincinnati”
Katee Sackhoff – Kara on “Battlestar Galactica”

Katee Sackhoff was brilliant this season, fusing the religious destiny Starbuck with the hardass military Starbuck into a really compelling new evolution of the character. It’s a testament to her performance that I find it hard to imagine her in another role. She just is Starbuck.

Lead Actor:
Kyle Chandler – Eric Taylor on “Friday Night Lights”
Jon Hamm – Don Draper on “Mad Men”
Edward James Olmos - Adama on “Battlestar Galactica”
David Tennant – The Doctor on “Doctor Who”
Brian Van Holt – Butchie on “John From Cincinnati”

Jon Hamm looks like he stepped right out of a 50s movie, and it’s his very guarded performance that makes the series work. With another actor, the mystery surrounding Don’s backstory could have felt contrived or teasing, here it just plays out. Don never gives anything away, and it’s not until the final scene of the season that we get a real open, emotional moment with him. But, the genius of Hamm is that we know what he’s feeling the whole time, even when the character himself won’t face it.

Lead Actress:
Connie Britton – Tami on “Friday Night Lights”
January Jones – Betty on “Mad Men”
Mary McDonnell – Laura Roslin on “Battlestar Galactica”
Catherine Tate – Donna on “Doctor Who”
Jeanne Tripplehorn – Barb on “Big Love”

In her first appearance on the show, she was rather annoying, and not someone I wanted to spend a whole season with. However, over the course of Doctor Who’s fourth season, Catherine Tate’s Donna became the best companion on the show to date, matching Tennant’s swerves between ecstasy and tragedy. I have some issues with how it happened, but her acting in the final episode, as we watched the person she’d become get torn away made the moment one of the most excruciating character fates I’ve ever seen.

Guest Actor
Julian Bleach – Davros on “Doctor Who” (Journey’s End)
Bernard Cribbins – Wilf on “Doctor Who” (Journey’s End)
Callum Keith Rennie – Leoben on “Battlestar Galactica” (The Road Less Traveled)
David Schwimmer – Greenzo on “30 Rock” (Greenzo)
Paul Schulze – Hobo on “Mad Men” (The Hobo Code)

I was talking about the show with someone, and she said that Bernard Cribbins’ Wilf was exactly like her grandfather. I felt the same way, I feel like Wilf tapped into this archetypal grandfather role, such that you were instantly emotionally attached to him. In “Journey’s End,” it’s him telling the Doctor “But she was better with you” that breaks open the emotional floodgates, and his final speech to the Doctor is a beautiful capper for the season.

Guest Actress
Ellen Burstyn – Nancy Dutton on “Big Love” (Take Me as I Am)
Camille Choudri – Jackie Tyler on “Doctor Who” (Journey’s End)
Edie Falco – CC on “30 Rock” (Goodbye Toby)
Alex Kingston – River Song on “Doctor Who” (Forest of the Dead)
Lucy Lawless – D’Anna on “Battlestar Galactica (Revelations)

Lucy Lawless walked onto the show in its second to last episode and immediately took control of everything. Her glee at knowing something that no one else does was wonderfully played, and she had a lot of fun with the role. It was great to have her back on the show, and hopefully she’ll be there for the whole season next time.

Best Writing:
“The Wheel”: Mad Men by Matthew Weiner and Robin Veitch
“His Visit, Day 5”: John From Cincinnati by Alix Lambert
“Forest of the Dead”: Doctor Who by Steven Moffat
“Late Editions”: The Wire by George Pelecanos
“Series Finale”: Extras by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant

These are all absolutely brilliant episodes, each emotionally devastating in its own way, but I’ve got to give the respect to “Forest of the Dead.” The others are more about paying off year long arcs, “Forest” builds several worlds in the hour and brings them all to a smashing close in an emotionally wrenching, mind blowing hour. It’s one of the best episodes of new Who, and definitely the most well written. It’s basically everything I want from a piece of fiction.

Best Direction:
“The Wheel”: Mad Men by Matthew Weiner
“His Visit, Day 9”: John From Cincinnati by Daniel Minahan
“The Stolen Earth”: Doctor Who by Graeme Harper
“Late Editions”: The Wire by Joe Chapelle
“The Hub”: BSG by Paul Edwards

The other episodes are all downers, that push their characters through awful, awful things. But, can’t there be some joy in the world? “His Visit: Day 9,” the series finale of John From Cincinnati is pure joy from the opening frame on. The opening sequence of this episode is one of my favorite film moments ever, the soaring descent from the heavens to John and Shaun surfing to shore. It’s an unparalleled rush, the payoff of the entire series. The rest of the episode keeps the strong energy, particularly during the manic party sequence that closes the episode. The show went out on a high note.

Best Series (Comedy):
30 Rock
Flight of the Conchords
Pushing Daisies
The Office

Extras closed out its run with an emotional odyssey of a TV movie that was at once bitingly funny and really emotional. Gervais approaches comedy differently from anyone else. He stresses character and narrative arcs as much as laughs, and that means that we’re much more engaged with the material. It’s a great story on its own, the laughs are a bonus. I do think some of the musings on fame got a bit self indulgent, but there were enough great moments to keep it strong on the whole.

Best Series (Drama):
Battlestar Galactica
Doctor Who
John From Cincinnati
Mad Men
The Wire

These are all exceptional series. Doctor Who and Battlestar each had their strongest seasons yet, Mad Men had one of the greatest debut seasons of all time, and The Wire was up to the brilliant standard of its previous years. But, one show captivated me like no other, the much maligned, but brilliant John From Cincinnati. JFC was interesting on a narrative level, and featured some of the most fun characters on any series, but what made it so great was the spiritual nature of the series. It wasn’t like a normal show, it was a religious experience in the guise of an ensemble drama, and a window into one man’s view of the world. At its best, it worked like our minds do, dealing in symbols and dreams and archetypes as a way of understanding the world. It will be remembered as one of the most underappreciated series of all time, it’s just taking the world a while to catch up.

Total Nominations/Wins

The Wire - 5
John From Cincinnati – 8 (3)
Big Love - 3
Battlestar Galactica – 8 (2)
Mad Men – 7 (1)
Doctor Who – 9 (3)
Friday Night Lights - 2

Pushing Daisies - 1
Flight of the Conchords - 2
30 Rock - 6
The Office - 4
Extras – 5 (3)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Generation Kill: 'Get Some' (1x01)

Like pretty much everyone else who watched the show, I loved The Wire, and have been eagerly anticipating the start of David Simon’s followup, Generation Kill. Generally, I don’t like war stories, I think the basic elements are all so similar, it’s become virtually impossible to do a war story that isn’t clichéd. Outside of Apocalypse Now, I’ve never really liked the genre. What made Apocalypse Now so amazing was the way it abandoned any pretense of objectivity and delved entirely into a psychological haze, an acid trip journey through the dark side of the human spirit that’s as much surreal mythological odyssey as it is the story of a war.

But, that’s not David Simon’s M.O. He’s all about objectivity and realism, presenting events without comment or context, just letting you get into the world. It worked wonderfully in The Wire, but I’m not sure the same approach will be as successful here. For one, there’s only seven episodes. After seven episodes, The Wire was a really good series, but I think the moments that most people remember are from the second half of the show, the longer it went on, the more complex and emotionally engaging it became. And, it’s going to be tough to give any of these characters real depth in only seven episodes.

Now, it’s not necessary for the characters to be really developed to tell a good story. It’s just I don’t feel like I’m really seeing anything new here. It probably doesn’t help that I watched Brian DePalma’s Redacted last week, a film that covers similar territory as the series. I didn’t feel like I was getting any real new insights into this world in the way that I did when watching The Wire.

I think part of the problem with the series is it has a much more traditional structure than The Wire did. The Wire used multiple perspectives to construct an entire world, and play our emotional attachments to the various characters against each other. We wanted the detail to catch Avon, but at the same time, we didn’t want Avon to be caught. Here, we don’t have that other perspective, so it’s only the viewer’s innate respect for human life that brings ambiguity. The Iraqis in the series, at least so far, are just conceptual, not people.

That’s not to say the show is bad, I think there are some interesting insights into Iraq, and the everyday, not combat-centered approach, is welcome. But, the show just didn’t jump out to me in the way that even the very first episode of The Wire did. The Wire made every cop show cliché feel fresh and real in a way I’d never seen. And, notably, it did so without the usual visual signifiers of realism. It was all in the performance and writing. Here, we’ve got a lot more shaky cam, close-ups and the like, but it feels less fresh, more what you’d expect from a show about Iraq.

Still, a lot of my issues with it stem from a personal bias against war stories. I’m hoping that the more unique elements come to the fore later on. I loved the scene where Person and the crew rip apart the letters from school children, and the drive into Iraq was amazing on a visual level. I’m hoping that it’ll just take some time to get past the expected elements and into something more emotionally engaging.