Friday, December 31, 2010

Best of 2010: Albums

10. Chromeo – Business Casual

This album marks an embrace of the implicit 70s pop elements that had always been present in their sound. While previous albums were mostly 80s dance inspired, this one is a bit more Hall and Oates style, and it generally works really well. It's a bit less kitschy and ironic than previous albums, and the best songs here really showcase Chromeo's strength as song writers. It's not the production that's attention grabbing, it's the ultra smooth melodies and really fun lyrical conceits. The lush string arrangements and wonderful disco bass keep things moving.

9. The New Pornographers – Together

A couple of my longtime favorite bands (notably Belle and Sebastian) released albums this year that weren't notably different from their previous work in form or quality that just didn't hit me for whatever reason. This album is to some extent one of those. I absolutely love the first three New Pornographer albums, but to some extent, I feel like I've absorbed everything they can do. That said, this album stands well next to those first three, hitting power pop highs on “Crash Years,” and going more anthemic on “We End Up Together.” If not quite as classic as their first three albums, it's still a really satisfying set.

8. Mark Ronson and the Business Intl. - Record Collection

Ronson follows up the great 60s inspired covers set Version with the 80s inspired Record Collection. Full of really great synth pop songs, set off with some well chosen hip hop guest spots, this album sounds very fresh, while still paying respect to Duran Duran and other 80s bands. I love the attack of opening track “Bang Bang Bang.” The vocal contributions of ex-Pipette Rose Elinor Dougall are a highlight, particularly on the soaring chorus of “Hey Boy.”

7. Gorillaz – Plastic Beach

A bit more downbeat and low key than previous Gorillaz albums, this one took a while to grow on me, but after listening to it several times, it's clear there's a lot of real beauty in the album. Albarn's orchestration is lush and epic at times, and his combination of traditionally rock instrumentation and atmosphere with well chosen hip hop beats and cameos never worked better. It's not about the clash of styles, it's about their seamless integration. Highlights include the sugar high of “Superfast Jellyfish” and driving bass of “Stylo,” but the album's great moment is the entrance of an electronic hop hop beat on “Empire Ants,” and the layers of dreamy vocal layered on top. It's a very cohesive album, and a great progression for Albarn and the “band.”

6. Bryan Ferry – Olympia

I really got into Roxy Music this year after spending the past couple of years listening only to their first glam rock album. I was surprised to find that their later work was even better, particularly the enveloping atmosphere of Avalon. Olympia picks up the sound of late period Roxy Music and applies Bryan Ferry's unparalleled voice to a series of lush soundscapes you can get lost in. His epic transformation of “Song to the Siren” is the high point, but the driving, U2 in a steam room sound of “Heartache by Numbers” jumps out as well. Like a lot of the albums on the list, it's throwing back to an 80s sound, but doing so in a way that emphasizes the timelessness of the best of that music. Ferry was making it back then, and he's still making it now.

5. Goldfrapp – Head First

It really bothered me when Goldfrapp's previous album, “Seventh Tree” came out, and people wrote about how this one must be more confessional and real, since it was based around acoustic instrumentation, not synthesizers. To me, the synthesizer can be one of the most emotional instruments out there, and a lot of the songs that really hit me on a deep level are based around electronic soundscapes. Head First drew attention for its big 80s sounding pop hits like “Rocket” or “Alive,” and those songs are fantastic. There's nothing at all wrong with doing a big, fun pop song, but the songs that jump out to me on this album are the ones that use the same style of instrumentation with a slightly darker tone to make for an even more intense emotional experience. “Hunt” and “I Wanna Life” are the ones that jump out to me. “Hunt” uses a wonderful acapella bass line, taking full advantage of Alison's unique voice. “I Wanna Life” is a bit more triumphant, but it's an earned triumph, still a pop song, but one that goes the full gamut of emotion.

4. MGMT – Congratulations

A hugely ambitious, and at times frustrating album, Congratulations is a really bold statement for a band that seemed reluctant to claim its role at the forefront of a zeitgeist. To be honest, I wish they had indulged their poppy side a bit more, and not run away from anthemic songs like “Kids” and “Electric Feel.” But, I hugely respect the sonic experimentation and sheer amount of ideas on here. There's about twenty great songs on a ten song album, and that's both the blessing and curse of it. There are moments I wish went on longer, “Someone's Missing” in particular had epic potential, but seemed to end too soon. But, at its best, the sheer variety of sounds and approaches on here is a joy in and of itself. Not every track is great, but it's full of exhilarating moments from the surf rock crescendo that opens the album to the melodic close of “Congratulation.”

3. Scissor Sisters – Night Work

In most other years, this would be number one on this list. I already love the band's first two albums, but this takes it to a whole new level, consistently great from beginning to end, this is one of those albums where it feels like every song could be a breakout single. Fusing 70s disco rhythms with gnarly 80s bass and some harder rock influences, it's topped off by Jake Shears' amazing falsetto voice. The dancefloor workout “Any Which Way” is an early highlight, with a chorus bass line that tears things up, but you could just as easily point to the pounding bass of “Whole New Way,” disco ecstasy of Sex and Violence of the simultaneously sweet and still uptempo sentiments of “Skin Tight” or “Fire With Fire.” It's capped with a prog disco rock epic “Invisible Light” that takes their sound in a slightly satanic direction and manages to both encompass and go beyond everything that's come before.

2. Arcade Fire – The Suburbs

Probably the best band in the world today puts out an album that only reinforces how vital and exciting Arcade Fire is. This album is a suite, full of gorgeous songs, energy and yearning that just sound massive. “Empty Room” is a great example of the album's strengths, a song that's bursting with energy, like a firework about to explode. Regine Chassagne jumps out as the album's greatest strength, and her voice is the soaring counterpoint to the instrumental churn. This is another album that in almost any other year would be number one on this list.

1. Kanye West – My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

It's been pretty remarkable to watch this album come out and get to know an album that already feels like a timeless classic. It's unanimously been chosen as best album of the year, and there's really no way to argue. A lot of bands on here are doing work that's good, even great, but feels like somebody just doing their thing. With Kanye, as with a lot of really great artists, there's a drive to not just do good work, but a need to be the absolute best. It can lead to idiot moments, like the outburst at the VMAs, but it's that same burning desire that drives him to make an album that goes so far beyond what anyone else in hip hop is attempting that it makes it look like virtually every other artist out there isn't even trying. He's taking what worked in the past and pushing it further, as on “Devil in a New Dress,” and creating an entirely new kind of epic hip hop song in “Dark Fantasy” and “All of the Lights.”

The opening moments of “Dark Fantasy” announce this as not just a bunch of songs but an album length artistic statement, one that's starting off with the startling slow motion explosion of beats. This is an album that rocks harder than any rock album in recent memory, as on the guitar solos in “Devil in a New Dress” or the prog stomp of “Power.” This is how I imagine hip hop would have sounded if it had come out of Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd instead of Funkadelic and Sly and the Family Stone.

When you've got an album so good that even a Chris Rock comedy skit feels like a heartbreaking moment, you know this is something special. I love all the previous Kanye albums, but this is an artistic leap so massive, it's hard to think where he could go from here. Even if it's not a concept album per se, the songs all feel of a piece and flow together such that I would point more to great 'moments' on the album than I would spotlight specific songs. It's a real journey, and just as the opening is the perfect primer for the journey to come, “Lost in the World” is a perfect capper for everything that's come before, a delirious journey out of the darkness and into a kind of acceptance. It's an epic tribal celebration that incorporates elements of contemporary indie rock, gospel choir, tribal drums and a spoken word 60s piece to bring it all to a conclusion. This is a real work of art, and an album that I think will be topping best of the decade lists nine years from now.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Best of 2010: Songs

10. Rihanna – Only Girl in the World

A huge radio hit for a reason, this song features a colossal beat and fantastic production, just like most of Rihanna's songs. What separates it from her previous work is the strength of the vocal, which is a lot more raw and forceful than on something like “Umbrella.” There were a lot of big synth pop songs this year, but none was as huge as this one. Particularly notable is the techno influenced addition and removal of the bass line to make it even more impactful.

9. My Chemical Romance – Na Na Na

A lot of the track's initial appeal came from its stylish, Grant Morrison starring video, but the song itself more than holds up as a standalone entity. The anthemic chorus and massive riffs aim big, and give the track a very epic feel. The sheer amount of changeups, catchy pieces and two great guitar solos make it a world unto itself.

8. Goldfrapp – I Wanna Life

This track juxtpaosesAlison Goldfrapp's unique voice and great synth production in a way that makes it sound simultaneously 80s and utterly timeless. It's a haunting plea for excitement that doubles as a great dance track. The mid track keyboard solo is a particular highlight.

7. Chromeo – Don't Turn the Lights On

Chromeo's Hall and Oates meets French nightclub aesthetic finds a perfect balance here, with a track full of retro atmosphere, lush synths and a bubbling bass line. It's a great slow build that lets you just get lost in a moody disco world. The juxtaposition of the chorus with a subtle guitar line puts the song over the top, creating a great call and response feel. Throw a cheeseball talkbox sounding guitar solo in the mix and you've got a great song.

6. Bryan Ferry – Song to the Siren

“Song to the Siren” is already a modern classic, with an absolutely haunting version by This Mortal Coil. But, Bryan Ferry takes hold of the song with his dreamy, enveloping take. It's a song that feels absolutely transporting, a soundscape that draws you in and serenades you with his trademark silky smooth vocal, subtle strings and some great saxophone. I've been listening to a lot of Roxy Music this year, and this song recalls the absolute best of their output, from the Avalon era in particular. It has something of an 80s feel, but his vocal has the feel of a classic 40s crooner. To take a song that seemed to be definitively covered and just totally own it is quite a feat, but Bryan Ferry now owns this song.

5. Usher – Lil Freak

On the surface, this doesn't seem like a particularly notable song, and the first verse seems like fairly standard Usher stuff. Then, it goes to the chorus, backed by a huge orchestral sample, and this tale of trying to have a threesome becomes an epic saga. The Nikki Minaj verse is not “Monster” level, but still great, particularly the ending transition back to the chorus. Then, rather than a typical midsong slow down, everything gets dirtier with a clapping/bass breakdown and things close out with a string outro that I wish would go on and on.

4. Kanye West – All of the Lights

It's hard to pick one track as a high point of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy since it's such a cohesive work, and each piece gains a lot from its context in the album. But, I think the highlight for me is this epic song. It features perhaps the most ridiculous guest list of any single song in history, and everybody gets a nice moment to shine. But, what jumps out at me is the horn line and marching band drums, calling back the imagery of the “Runaway” short film. The best moment of the song is the breakdown with Elton John's piano work and the “Getting mine...” vocal a great contrast to the more triumphant opening of the song. Throughout, it's an epic with some of the biggest samples I've ever heard in a hip hop track, and is absolutely bursting with amazing moments. On the biggest hip hop album of all time, this track still jumps out as absolutely colossal.

3. Arcade Fire – Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)

Most of the Arcade Fire songs I really love are the huge, anthemic epics. This one's a bit more low key, fusing the traditional Arcade Fire aesthetic with an Abba influenced symphonic pop sound that shows off Regine Chassagne's gorgeous voice like no other song in their catalogue. The instrumental backing is lush and the repeating synth line propels the song forward through dreamlike motion and a fantastic instrumental breakdown. It's a great testament to the band that they can break out of their comfort zone and still produce a fantastic song that's uniquely Arcade Fire.

2. Scissor Sisters – Invisible Light

On an album filled with great songs, this one leaps beyond everything the band has done to date for a song that's simultaneously bringing the same danceable 70s influenced pop rock style as their best work and adding a veneer of mystery and intensity that turns it into something altogether different and strange. The video is a standout, but the song itself already had a mysterious, dark magic world on its own, aided by the fantastic Ian McKellen voiceover. It's amazing that the song can be creepy, intriguing and still be as exciting a pop song as anything they've ever done. A career high point for one of the best bands out there today.

1. Robyn – Dancing on My Own

I'm always partial to songs that combine huge dancefloor sounds with big emotional hooks, and this track is one of the best I've heard. The bass is massive, and contrasts with Robyn's high pitched, fragile vocal to create a song full of a tension between the emotions she's feeling and the surrender she wants. It's about the nightclub as emotional gauntlet, the desire to surrender to the music versus the pain she's feeling. All that emotion is conveyed not through the words, but through the music, and the end of the song feels triumphant, a pass through the night and emergence back into abandon.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods

If you haven't already had a chance to check it out, my film Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods has been released and is now available for purchase all over. I've had a great time screening the film all around the country, and have been thrilled by the really positive response the film has been received. You can see some of the reviews here, and for a quick sampling, here's some pull quotes...

"A bold, brave, and honest look at an artist whose life is worthy of this type of attention" - Aint it Cool News

"An instant classic" - Wired

"Don't miss it!" - G4's Attack of the Show

"The charismatic subject of this admiring portrait will intrigue the previously unconverted" - Variety

"A no-brainer if you're a Morrison fan, a Vertigo acolyte, or a comic book history buff" - io9

"Drop dead gorgeous...An absorbing film." - Bleeding Cool

"Beautiful to look at...There's just this air of coolness that exudes for the duration" - The Examiner

"I couldn't take my eyes away...interesting and entertaining for experienced Morrison scholars and casual readers alike."
- Comics Alliance

If you're interested in checking it out, I'd recommend ordering the film from the Halo 8 Store, since that's the cheapest price, and cuts out the middlemen, but it's also on Amazon and a variety of other outlets.

And, if you've already seen it, I'd love to hear what you thought and would be happy to answer any questions.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Best Albums By Year

I did one of these a while back, but I figured it was time for an update.

2009: Phoenix - Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
2008: Cut Copy- In Ghost Colours
2007: Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
2006: Belle and Sebastian - The Life Pursuit
2005: Junior Senior - Hey Hey My My Yo Yo
2004: Phoenix - Alphabetical
2003: Belle and Sebastian - Dear Catastrophe Waitress
2002: The Flaming Lips - Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
2001: Daft Punk - Discovery
2000: Phoenix - United
1999: Mr. Bungle - California
1998: Smashing Pumpkins - Adore
1997: Radiohead - OK Computer
1996: Belle and Sebastian - If You're Feeling Sinister
1995: Radiohead - The Bends
1994: Portishead - Dummy
1993: U2 - Zooropa
1992: Tori Amos - Little Earthquakes
1991: U2 - Achtung Baby
1990: Pet Shop Boys - Behaviour
1989: Madonna - Like a Prayer
1988: Morrissey - Viva Hate
1987: Michael Jackson - Bad
1986: The Smiths - The Queen is Dead
1985: The Smiths - Meat is Murder
1984: Prince - Purple Rain
1983: David Bowie - Lets Dance
1982: Roxy Music - Avalon
1981: Electric Light Orchestra - Time
1980: Bruce Springsteen - The River
1979: Pink Floyd - The Wall
1978: Bruce Springsteen - Darkness of the Edge of Town
1977: Pink Floyd - Animals
1976: Electric Light Orchestra - A New World Record
1975: Bruce Springsteen - Born to Run
1974: David Bowie - Diamond Dogs
1973: Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon
1972: David Bowie - The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust
1971: Led Zeppelin - Led Zeppelin IV
1970: The Beatles - Let It Be
1969: The Beatles - Abbey Road
1968: The Beatles - The Beatles
1967: The Beatles - Magical Mystery Tour
1966: The Beatles - Revolver
1965: The Beatles - Rubber Soul

Friday, October 29, 2010

Kanye West's 'Runaway' and Pop Avant Garde Music Videos

I've been a big Kanye fan for a while, his concert at the Nokia Theater is one of the best I've been to, and I've always enjoyed his blend of pop, accessible songs with more avant garde art and high culture influences. 808s and Heartbreaks is one of my favorite recent albums, but I still was not prepared for what he'd bring as director of the Runaway short film.

The thing about cinema is that so few people really understand how to fully make use of the medium. The greatest moments in most films are those elusive blends of visual, music and narrative context that become something transcendent. A lot of good movies never hit that kind of subconscious power, other than Enter the Void, I can't think of a recent film that made it there. But, Runaway features countless moments that are just dazzling. My favorite moment in the video is near the beginning a cut from the woods to a sudden burst of music and a silhouetted Kanye carrying the Phoenix away from a gigantic explosion. It's a really powerful image, made all the more powerful by its juxtaposition with the stillness beforehand.

I don't know that the film means that much, and you could argue that the dialogue is either intentionally stylized and unnatural, or just bad, but it's hard to deny the visual power of the film, and the wonderful dreamlike logic it uses to move from the fiery explosion in the woods to a giant head of Michael Jackson being carried forth in a parade. Other smaller moments, like the jam session with Kanye pounding out the 'Power' beat on a drum machine work equally well. I've watched the film twice now, and was dazzled both times. The production design is incredible, the cinematography is great and the music is top notch too. This was a really fantastic piece of work.

It also raises some interesting questions about the role of pop music as art object. So much of 'indie' music is about the departure from image based artists to ones known only for their music. There's certainly validity there, you can't listen to image, but the construction of a pop mythology, as Kanye does here, is an interesting artistic exercise in itself. It's frustrating that so many indie rock videos are either bland performance shorts, or ironic, jokey videos that often undercut the emotion of the song.

The most interesting videos, and some of the most interesting filmmaking I've seen all year, is coming from big videos from people like Kanye West and Lady Gaga. The sheer excess of Gaga's videos for 'Telephone' or 'Alejandro' gives the songs a gravitas they might otherwise lack. 'Telephone' the song doesn't seem that spectacular, but wedded to the grindhouse artsploitation video, it becomes a great pop object. In fact, it was the amazing video for 'Bad Romance' that helped lead a critical reevaluation of Gaga and earn her a lot more respect. 'Alejandro' is an equally successful video, fusing together a lot of Kenneth Anger and Warhol influenced avant garde pieces into an accessible pop fusion.

The video for 'Runaway' is similarly successful in pulling together various influences from art culture past and putting them into a more accessible mainstream package. Because it runs for so long, 'Runaway' is even more challenging than the Gaga videos, but I think it also makes it a more successful work. By sustaining that level of hypnotic imagery and dreamlike consciousness for thirty-five minutes, it makes the video an even more successful work. And, for a first time director, Kanye exhibits a remarkable strength of vision. I'd love to see him work on a full length feature and bring the same energy and innovation to it.

I should also mention a slightly less avant garde, but similarly exciting video coming out of the mainstream, My Chemical Romance's video for 'Na Na Na' The video initially drew my attention because of the Grant Morrison cameo, and he proves once again why he's such an iconic camera presence. But, beyond that, it's a great example of a pop act building an image for themselves to add to the impact of the music. The Black Parade album was a great example of using videos and ancillary promotional materials to create a very specific aesthetic that enhances the experience of listening to the music, and I love that this is a totally different approach.

I also like that the band switches so totally away from the previous image. Bands like The Beatles used to shift images and styles from album to album, but it seems like now bands usually stick with one approach and ride it to death. But, why just keep doing the same thing?

Unlike the Kanye video, which slowed things down to immerse you in the world, 'Na Na Na' is an overflow of information, cut almost like the trailer for a much larger story, and the low budget pop aesthetic works fantastically. It's superdense, and full of great images and moments, just like Grant's comics! It's also designed to lead into more videos chronicling the same struggle, which one day may cut together into something resembling the longer structure of Kanye's 'Runaway' short.

Ultimately, 'Na Na Na' just makes me smile. It's awesome to see Grant getting out there in something so mainstream, but it's also awesome to see something mainstream that feels so cult and specific and personal.

It's exciting to see videos like this getting out there and being successful, and being events, particularly in an era where it seems like every mainstream film is so dour and run down. I loved 'The Dark Knight,' but I don't want every big movie to be so heavy and nihilistic. It feels like mainstream film, particularly superhero stories, are in the late 80s grim and gritty stage of their development, and hopefully we'll see the avant garde and pop design influence come together to create cinematic works that jar the culture out of its love of faux serious stories and into a new day-glo age.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

New York Comicon Schedule!

It's been crazy times over here as I get ready for the theatrical release of Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods. The film will be screening nationwide in the next few weeks, here's a brief rundown of the schedule...

New York - October 9th at Cinema Village with Director/Producer Q&A (Ticket Info Here)

New York - October 10th at New York Comicon 20 Minute Film Preview and Director/Producer Q&A

San Francisco - October 8th - October 13 at the Roxie (Buy Tickets Here)

Philadelphia - October 15th with Director/Producer Q&A (Ticket Info Here)

Boston - October 17th with Director/Producer Q&A (Ticket Info Here)

Los Angeles - October 21st with Director/Producer/Special Guest Q&A (Ticket Info Here)

If you're any of those cities, come out and see it and support the film! If you're in New York, go here for a special $20 Screening Ticket/DVD bundle offer.

If you can't make it to the screening, swing by our panel at 12:45 in Room E201. We won't be screening the whole film, but you can get a preview. And, I'll be hanging out at the Sequart booth (#655) all weekend, signing copies of Our Sentence is Up, and the new Minutes to Midnight, an anthology about Watchmen featuring an essay by me.

And if that's not enough, check out the trailer for the second volume of The Third Age!

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Response to Alan Moore's Interview

I just read this new interview with Alan Moore. According to Moore, the medium was dying before he wrote Watchmen and he revived it, but everything since has been terrible, and now there's not even any "bottom-flight talent" in the industry.

And even though the Watchmen film was a financial failure, DC is scheming to get the rights to make sequels and prequels across all media because the Batman "movie films" are going downhill shortly, and DC has no other other properties to work off of, even though at Vertigo alone there's been an explosion of great creator owned stuff over the past twenty years.

Not to mention the fact that he can't understand why Marvel would reprint Marvelman when according to Moore it's one of the only valuable works in the entire medium, and objectively, it makes sense to have historically significant works in print. Why have Citizen Kane available when people should just be making good new movies.

And, all I've got to say is it's not a real thank you when you force someone to call to say "Thank you," and then refuse to speak to them ever again when they don't do so.

I still love his work, but Moore, not matter how justified he is on certain things, just sounds like a bitter, paranoid and dissolutely negative person.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

An Update!

Sorry for the slacking on blogging. I've been busy wrapping up editing on the Grant film, which you can pre-order from Amazon now. Here's a couple of very quick rundowns of some stuff I've been reading/watching lately...

- Mad Men's current season is the best to date, and has me really excited to see where the show goes in the late 60s, when the culture becomes even more tumultuous. The series' look at identity and existential issues is like nothing else ever attempted on television.

- I've read the first couple of issues of Blackest Night and its Green Lantern tie-in after getting the two hardcovers. I'm really liking it so far, Johns has a lot of flaws, but reminds me of Tarantino to some extent in that he's clearly a huge fan of whatever he's writing about, but also brings some real emotion and life experience to it. I don't care much for the back from the dead gimmick, but it's used in interesting ways, and the story feels huge and epic and tied into the overall universe in a way that Final Crisis never quite did. I'd argue it's because of the close ties with Green Lantern, I always love seeing different pieces of a story wind their way between titles. It's making me wish I had gotten the Green Lantern Corps HC too. That said, the event itself is nowhere near as good as Final Crisis.

- I'm loving the new Arcade Fire album. It took a listen or two to really get into it, but it's definitely the year's best album to date.

- I'm almost through Breaking Bad season two. It took me a really long time to get totally into the show, but the appearance of Saul Goodman brought it all together for me, and I'm going to wrap the season tonight. I still think that it was a mistake to stack up so much misfortune on Walt from the start (i.e. not only does he have cancer, his wife is pregnant, etc.), but the show is definitely coming together and has me hooked in a way it never quite pulled off before. I've got season 3 still on the DVR from when it aired, so I'll be able to watch that straight through as well.

- I'm excited about a bunch of fall season shows, but not sure what's going to jump out. Boardwalk Empire is a definite must watch, I also might check out Nikita, Lone Star and a few others. I'll see what the critical consensus is, then decide which shows to watch.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Comicon Recap and News Update

It's been a while since I've had a chance to blog. I've seen a few things that piqued my interest, Inception, the most recent episode of Mad Men and reading the last volume of Scott Pilgrim, but it's been mostly business these past few weeks.

The big event was my trip to San Diego Comicon, an amazing time for a variety of reasons. I was there for two main reasons, first was the panel for Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods. That was a huge success, we had 400 people in the audience, got a bunch of great audience questions and all our clips went over well. It was really encouraging to get that kind of response since the film has been in editing so long without getting that much feedback from the general public. Hopefully the finished product will go over as well.

It's pretty weird being a panelist, but I really enjoyed it and felt like there was a good rhythm between the audience and Jordan and I on stage. It was also really exciting to have Frazer Irving guest on the panel and give us some insights. Grant himself didn't make the panel, but I did spend all of Friday following him around and shooting stuff for the doc. We also screened the current cut for Grant at his house on Wednesday, which was a surreal, but exciting experience. He enjoyed it, though he did point out a few factual inaccuracies that we've got to take care of. That was definitely a life high point, to be sitting there talking with Grant about my film of his life and throwing ideas back and forth about it.

Other than that, I was shooting some interviews for the Warren Ellis doc, and a couple more pickups for Grant. You can catch part of that chronicled in Heidi MacDonald's report on the con, in which Jordan and I are given aliases to hide our food scavenging!

I can definitely sympathize with her exhausted sentiment about the con, but I was much better prepared this year than last, and in general had an absolutely awesome time. It's not every week that you get to have lunch with one of the artists from The Invisibles, trail Grant Morrison for four hours, and talk with one of the voice actors from End of Evangelion. I had a lot of really great conversations, and met a lot of awesome people. The stereotype is definitely the nerdy Comicon attendee, of which there are many, but there are also a lot of really cool, motivated people who are on their way up in various creative fields. So, I had a fantastic time and can't wait to get back out there next year. I even got into Hall H on Thursday and caught an awesome panel with Joss Whedon and JJ Abrams.

Speaking of Joss Whedon, I also got the chance to interview Amber Benson for the Grant doc, which was great. She's very cool in person, and told us of her crying during We3.

I also want to point to Sequart's recently announced Watchmen anthology, featuring an essay by me on the Watchmen film and what it reveals about the comic. The book features essays from a lot of great comics minds, and should be a really fun read. It debuts at Sequart's New York Comicon booth, where I'll definitely be hanging out, signing some books if anyone wants them.

Also, if you haven't picked it up yet, Our Sentence is Up, my Invisibles book, is now available on I'm really proud of it, and would definitely recommend it to anyone who's read the series.

The Grant film will wrap editing on September 1st, at which point I'll hopefully be able to blog some more, though I've also got to get into editing on the second volume of The Third Age, and work more on the Warren Ellis film. The Ellis film is going to be a pretty radical approach to documentary, very different from the Morrison one. That will likely be released in October 2011.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Grant Morrison: Talking With Gods Panel

I haven't posted in a while, mainly because I've been hard at work bringing the Grant Morrison documentary to a finish. We're having one of our biggest events yet today, a panel at San Diego Comicon! I'm out here already and had a great day today in Hall H and all around the con, then tomorrow it's down to business. Here's all the panel info, I hope to see you there.

Get a first look at the upcoming feature-length documentary chronicling the life and work of one of comics’ greatest writers, Grant Morrison. Featuring extensive interviews with Morrison himself as well as key collaborators, the film takes you inside Morrison’s creative process and explores how his life and work have become inextricably intertwined. Moderated by FJ De Santo (producer, The Spirit), the panel features Patrick Meaney (director), Jordan Rennert (DP/producer), and a special guest!

Monday, May 31, 2010

Rebuild of Evangelion 2.22: You Can(not) Advance

It's interesting to write about Rebuild of Evangelion as an American viewer since, what I'd consider one of the biggest film events of the year happens in a weird sort of vacuum. There's no hype for the film coming out, it just shows up online and you roll from there. Normally with a big franchise film, you have that collective rush of anticipation, but not for this one!

As longtime blog readers know, the Evangelion series and its subsequent film followup, End of Evangelion, were personal favorites of mine. However, the notion of 'rebuilding' the series to make a more coherent version seems to run against every strength of the series proper. The first Rebuild mostly revisited territory from the series in a slightly more focused way, this one branches out into new stuff, and generally succeeds. It rambles a bit along the way, but ends with a transcendent scene that makes up for most of the problems along the way and opens the door to something radically different in the final two films.

The first Rebuild film expertly focused on Shinji's internal struggle to deal with the duty thrust upon him, his father's expectations and his duty to the world. This one branches out a bit more, into an ensemble piece focusing on a loose love triangle between Shinji, Rei and Asuka, as they each struggle to reach out beyond their own issues and form connections with others. That's the emotional core of the film and it works really well.

However, it takes a little while to get into that. The opening introduces new character Mari, who doesn't do that much to distinguish herself in the film. She feels like a somewhat unnecessary plot device, though I'm hoping her larger purpose will become clear in the next films. She's a much more competent, seemingly untroubled pilot, and there's potentially interesting material in there, contrasting her carefree devotion to duty with the other kids' trouble adjusting to their role. But, without underlying emotional traumas to define her, she's out of place in the show's solitary universe, and her flitting in and out of the narrative means that she remains just a surface cool, not a fully developed character.

Once we get back to the main character, there's some strong material introducing Asuka, but it takes a while to really get going. One of the problems with watching the film version of the story as opposed to the TV series is that digressions feel much more out of place. A scene like the trip to the aquarium works better in a TV format, where you expect new stuff to happen every episode. Here, it didn't feel like the best way to forward the character relationships. I liked elements of the scene, but in general, it felt like there were a few too many goofy elements in the early going and not enough substantive character interaction.

Asuka was always my favorite character during the series, and I think she fairs pretty well in the film translation. The essence of the character is transferred, and you still get a sense of her relationship with Shinji. However, it was frustrating to lose some of the intense personal examination we got during the series. One of my favorite moments in the show is when Asuka is sleeping with Shinji and says “Mama,” the first moment when her tough exterior breaks and Shinji can see her vulnerability. The scene where they sleep together here works, but not as strongly as the original.

That raises the question of the artistic intention behind this project. Is it better to have something different than the series, even if it's not as good, just because the series already exists and we don't need to see it again? The moments that are taken directly from the series often don't play as well because they don't have the context of the series.

It's also frustrating to see the continued focus on exploitative angles and frequent random nudity for no apparent reason. It always felt awkward during the show to have fourteen year old characters depicted naked, and that continues here. It can work, as in the moment near the end of the show where Asuka sits in a bath tub depressed, but that's a moment that's about her character, not the audience being given an invitation to leer, and there's too many of those moments in this film.

The story picks up quite a bit once we get to the middle section of the film where Shinji and Asuka become a 'married couple,' and he plays the woman to all the women in his life. It's an interesting flip of typical gender roles, and I like the way that the simple act of cooking makes Misato, Asuka and Rei reconsidering their own cold attitudes towards the world. Asuka's jealousy is well played, she thinks that she's special when he makes food for her, but when she sees him serving Rei, she gets angry. I like that plot beat because it resonates with the way that small routine things can build up a close relationship, and a kind of possessiveness.

The Asuka/Shinji relationship in the series was an absolute favorite of mine, and we see hints of it here. It's very sweet when she is cooking, trying to reach out to Shinji in the same way he reached out to her. Shinji himself seems more uncertain. In the series he was always torn between women who represented various things to him, usually riffing on the desire he feels for his absent mother. Here, he seems more interested in his father than any female relationship. It feels like he's too damaged to open himself up to that kind of relationship with someone.

Rei's arc here is particularly interesting. After being saved by Shinji, she makes a conscious effort to open herself up and bring people together. She's the only person who can see how damaged both Shinji and Gendo are, and decides that she can use food to bridge the gap between them. Her decision to cook, rather than take the pills she'd typically taken, is an attempt to become more than just an Eva pilot, to become a person. The scene where she has dinner with Gendo is one of my favorite in the film, particularly the way Rei is juxtaposed with Yui.

The whole cooking plotline is a great example of the film bringing something new to the mythos. In the series, most of the characters wallowed in their own troubles, and made no effort to reach out. Here, they all make an effort, and for most of the film, things are actually fairly sunny. People are trying to define themselves beyond just their role within NERV, and to claim actual personal lives.

Of course, it all comes crashing down in the film's final act. The sequence with Asuka trapped in the malfunctioning Eva kind of worked, but didn't play anywhere near as visceral as the similar sequence in the series. Part of the reason is that in that moment, Asuka's story became subservient to Shinji's. I wanted to feel what she felt, and perhaps reprise one of the series' greatest sequence, the attack on her mind from Episode 22. Some of that subjective stuff with her may be dealt with in the next films, but I wanted to feel it here.

Instead it becomes another ploy in the battle of wills between Shinji and his father. The food based reunion is off, and instead their relationship totally breaks down. I loved the visual of Unit 01 standing on top of the pyramid, raging at NERV below, but the moment as a whole didn't totally work.

What did work beyond all measure was the final action sequence, in which Shinji reaches into the heart of an angel to try to save Rei. The reason this sequence worked so well was that it was one of the first times that the film abandoned literalism and moved into psychological subjectivity. The premise of the series never made much sense on a literal level, but as a Freudian psychological excavation, it's riveting. But, my biggest problem with the films prior to this, was that they never reached that transcendent place of pure subconscious, at least not until this final scene.

Shinji tears through the complex, then, as music echoing “Komm Susser Tod” from End of Evangelion starts to play, Shinji plunges into the angel, and the film becomes pure psychological vision. I love the visual of Shinji going through the tunnel of light, trying to reach Rei, who's alone in the darkness. At the same time, outside debri swirls and the sky opens to the Third Impact. It's a moment of pure visual poetry, like the best of End of Evangelion, and Shinji's dive into the abyss is the rawest emotional moment in the films to date, the first sequence that comes close to matching the series at its best.

If the last scene wasn't so strong, I'd classify the film as something of a disappointment. But, with that last scene, it opens up a whole new array of storytelling possibilities, and is evidence that Anno can still do the kind of intense subjectivity that made End of Eva such a great success. Hopefully that will be used more in the next two films.

What's particularly interesting is the final coda scene with Kaworu, which continues the idea from the end of the first Rebuild that this set of films isn't so much a restart as it is a continuation of what started in the first Evangelion. I'm thinking it could be a loop set to repeat until the characters finally become happy and resolves their issues. The first run through ended in an apocalypse and Shinji's personal transcendence (the series), the second ended in apocalypse, but hope that the Eva would still be out there. Perhaps this time the characters will integrate themselves and truly succeed. At least they are trying.

I'm not sure that interpretation will ever become more than subtext, but I love it, and when Misato said this is happening, just like fifteen years ago, I immediately jumped to the release date of the series. This film doesn't prove or disprove the sequel theory, and I'm still believing it.

I'll have to give the film another look before passing final judgment, but right now I'd call it mostly successful with an absolute stunner of an ending. But, it still can't match up to the best of the series or End of Eva. I want to see the more experimental Anno back in the next film. Let's hope he's still got something at End of Eva level in him.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Music Artist Rankings

In the tradition of my recent film director rankings, here's a similar list, this time for bands! You'll notice it's tilted more towards older bands, that's because I only did bands with at least four or five albums in their catalogue. One day the best current bands will be part of a similar list, but not yet!

1.The Album
3.Super Trouper
4.The Visitors

Aimee Man
1.Lost in Space
2.Bachelor No. 2
3.The Forgotten Arm
5.Fing Smilers

1.10,000 Hz Legend
2.Talkie Walkie
3.Moon Safari
4.Love 2
5.Pocket Symphony

Belle and Sebastian
1. Dear Catastrophe Waitress
2. The Life Pursuit
3. If You're Feeling Sinister
4. Fold Your Hands Child...
5. The Boy with the Arab Strap
6. Tigermilk

Bruce Springsteen
1.Born to the Run
2.Darkness on the Edge of Town
4.The River
5.Tunnel of Love
6.The Rising
7.We Shall Overcome
8.Born in the USA
9.The Wild, The Innocent and the E Street Shuffle
10.Human Touch
11.Greetings from Asbury Park
12.Working on a Dream

1.A Rush of Blood to the Head
2.Viva La Vida

David Bowie
1.Ziggy Stardust
2.Aladdin Sane
4.Scary Monsters
6.Hunky Dory
8.Young Americans
9.Diamond Dogs
10.Station to Station

1.The Last Broadcast
2.Lost Souls
3.Some Cities
4.Kingdom of Rust

Electric Light Orchestra
1.A New World Record
2.Out of the Blue
4.Face the Music
7.El Dorado
9.On the Third Day

Elton John
1.Madman Across the Water
2.Goodbye Yellow Brick Road
3.Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy
4.Don't Shoot Me, I'm Only the Piano Player
5.Honky Chateau

Elysian Fields
1.Queen of the Meadow
2.Bum Raps and Love Taps
3.Bleed Your Cedar
4.Dreams that Breathe Your Name

Fleetwood Mac
3.Fleetwood Mac
4.Tango in the Night
6.Heroes are Hard to Find
7.Behind the Mask

1.Head First
3.Black Cherry
4.Seventh Tree
5.Felt Mountain

1.The Blueprint
2.Black Album
3.American Gangster
4.The Blueprint 3
5.Reasonable Doubt

Kanye West
1.808s & Heartbreaks
2.Late Registration
3.The College Dropout

Led Zeppelin
1.Houses of the Holy
2.Led Zeppelin IV
3.Led Zeppelin II
4.Physical Graffiti
5.Led Zeppelin
6.Led Zeppelin III
8.In Through the Out Door

1.Like a Prayer
2.Confessions on a Dance Floor
4.Ray of Light
5.Like a Virgin
6.American Life
7.Hard Candy
8.True Blue

Michael Jackson
3.Off the Wall

4.Wait for Me
5.Everything is Wrong
6.I Like to Score
7.Last Night

1.Black Holes and Revelations
2.The Resistance
4.Origin of Symmetry

New Order
1.Low Life
3.Power, Corruption and Lies
5.Waiting for the Siren's Call

New Pornographers
1.Twin Cinema
2.Electric Version
3.Mass Romantic

Nine Inch Nails
1.The Downward Spiral
2.Pretty Hate Machine
3.With Teeth
4.The Fragile
5.The Slip
6.Year Zero

Pet Shop Boys

2.Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix
4.It's Never Been Like That

Pink Floyd
1.Dark Side of the Moon
2.The Wall
3.Wish You Were Here
5.The Final Cut
7.Atom Heart Mother
8.Piper at the Gates of Dawn
9.Saucerful of Secrets

1.Purple Rain
4.Around the World in a Day
5.Sign O' The Times
9.Planet Earth

1.OK Computer
2.The Bends
3.Kid A
4.Hail to the Thief
5.In Rainbows
7.Pablo Honey

Rilo Kiley
1.More Adventurous
2.Under the Blacklight
3.Take Offs and Landings
4.The Execution of All Things

Super Furry Animals
1.Phantom Power
2.Love Kraft
3.Hey Venus
4.Rings Around the World

The Beatles
1.Magical Mystery Tour
2.Abbey Road
3.The Beatles (White Album)
5.Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
6.Let It Be
7.Rubber Soul

The Flaming Lips
1.Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots
2.At War With the Mystics
4.The Soft Bulletin
5.Clouds Taste Metallic
6.Transmissions from the Satellite Heart

The Smashing Pumpkins
1.Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness
3.Machina: The Machines of God
4.Siamese Dream

The Smiths
1.The Queen is Dead
2.Meat is Murder
3.Strangeways, Here We Come
4.The Smiths

The Who
1.Who's Next
4.Who Are You
5.The Who By Numbers

Tori Amos
1.Under the Pink
2.From the Choirgirl Hotel
3.Little Earthquakes
4.Boys for Pele
5.American Doll Posse
6.To Venus and Back
7.Scarlet's Walk
8.Abnormally Attracted to Sin
9.The Beekeper
1.Achtung Baby
4.How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb
5.The Joshua Tree
6.All That You Can't Leave Behind
8.No Line on the Horizon
10.The Unforgettable Fire

Monday, May 24, 2010

Lost - 'The End' (6x17)

Let me start off by saying that just because the series finale was somewhere between weak and a total debacle, that doesn't invalidate the greatness of many moments throughout the history of Lost. I wrote up my ten favorite episodes, and the troubles in the finale, and the final season in general, don't invalidate the amazing things about those episodes. But, it also doesn't redeem the many mistakes that this episode makes, both in the final moments and throughout the hour. This is an episode that tries to use emotional moments from the show's past to mask the fact that it essentially abandons the narrative we've been following throughout the entire series.

I said in the first review of this season that the notion of going back to the supposedly 'character based' first season, and “bringing things full circle” doesn't appeal to me at all since the start of the circle was a pretty weak show. And yet, this episode hinges almost entirely on our fond memories of a show that was nowhere near as strong as it came to be. For me, Claire and Kate delivering the baby is an insignificant moment in the show's history, and Claire in general is a character who could walk off frame and not appear for a season without anyone caring. To just show us something we saw before, with flashbacks to remind us what was going on, is like a glorified clip show. Even if there was emotion in that moment, it's not that exciting to see it again.

That said, those reunions did work on an emotional level from time to time, mainly because of Giacchino's score and some canny editing. As you're mourning the loss of Lost the show, even the lamest couplings, like Sayid and Shanon, can gain a bit of emotion. When the characters actually did matter, as in the case of Charlie and Claire, it was great to see them come together again.

And, the episode's strongest scene was Sawyer and Juliet's reunion. That relationship was the emotional core of the series' final season and there was a cathartic pleasure in seeing them reunited. Juliet remains one of the series' strongest characters, and particularly in contrast to non-entity female characters like Kate and Claire, she's a strong, real person. It was a huge mistake to kill her since it took the show's heart away.

The problematic thing about those reunions is that even though they work on an immediate emotional level, they compromise the stakes of the concurrent island storyline. The problem this entire season has been how can people invest in two different versions of a character? When the prime-verse Sawyer has been going for five years, why should we care about alt-verse Sawyer? It's a question the show was never truly able to reconcile, most of the exciting moments in the alt-verse come from either powerhouse acting from the show's best cast members, or the thrill of seeing all the characters gradually coming together. It wasn't from me really caring about what would happen to alt-verse Jack or something like that. The only character who totally worked was Desmond, who was aware of the nature of the universe and acting with agency.

In this episode, the emotional stakes flip and I became more invested in what was going on in the alt-verse. That's partially because all the characters were remembering, tying the two universes together, but it's also because of what Desmond said, that they could all escape to the alt-verse by moving into the light. It implied that the alt-verse was 'real' and the island world was going to cease to exist. By doing that, it did a great job of making the alt-verse work emotionally, but it essentially short cut any emotional impact of the actual on island material. By choosing to reduce the on island story to just action with no emotional beats, it undercut the story that had been in the work for six years, and made for an utterly underwhelming conclusion to such an epic story.

One of the biggest problems with sci-fi stories is that they have no existing set of rules. In certain genre stories people can fly, sometimes people can read minds, sometimes bullets bounce off them. Part of creating a genre show is defining the rules, and though Lost mentioned the rules a lot, it never really established what was going on with the Smoke Monster. So, his death here ultimately feels arbitrary and the character we see here doesn't fit with the more sympathetic character from “Across the Sea.” The Titus Welliver Man in Black from “Ab Aeterno” and “Across the Sea” feelings like a totally different character with different motivations than the Locke version we've seen this year, and our lack of understanding of the island's rules means that his motivations throughout the season make no sense.

Based on this episode, it seems like Locke's plan was wait two thousand years for the right set of circumstances to come along so that he could kill Jacob, kill Jacob, then ask Sawyer to leave the island with him even though he can't leave the island, wait for Desmond to come to him then throw him in a well, decide to kill Desmond but not care enough to follow up, wait for the rest of candidates to come to him, trick them into leaving on a sub and kill them, reveal that killing them doesn't matter and that all he really needed was Desmond, also reveal that he doesn't want to leave the island but instead wants to destroy it, find Desmond again, destroy the island, and then leave on the same boat he had the whole time, irregardless of whether any candidates are alive.

Why didn't he just take Desmond to the cave when he first showed up? Did killing the candidates actually mean anything? Why couldn't he leave the island in the first place? Specifics of the rules, like why he was stuck in Locke's form, are nitpicky, but when your whole season hinges on the idea that Locke wants to kill the candidates so he could leave the island, why reveal at the end that that doesn't matter. This is basic storytelling, and it's a great example of the creators manipulating the “rules” of the island to serve whatever story they come up with, and extend the narrative in a way that doesn't actually add anything to the story. Smoke Locke's plan was so absurdly elaborate, it makes no sense, and we weren't given the understanding of the island's rules that we need to make sense of it.

Similarly, what kind of terrible plotting is it that the hero's big plan to defeat the villain is do exactly what the villain wants and hope that it works out good instead of bad. Maybe it's some kind of science vs. faith riff that evil and good will do the same thing, but good hopes that it will have a positive result and evil a negative, but typically stories benefit from conflict, and it's not too exciting for Jack and Locke to be talking about stuff while doing exactly what Locke wants. I liked the moment where Jack tells Locke that he doesn't deserve to wear Locke's face, but it doesn't make up for a failure on a very basic plotting level.

Similarly, why was Locke all of a sudden vulnerable at the end? Did it have something to do with the light of the island going out? Maybe, but it felt arbitrary and not earned. Why did he not turn into smoke form when fighting Jack? That fight was awesome, but you can't all of a sudden switch up the rules for no apparent reason and have it feel emotionally true. I liked that fight quite a bit on a visceral level, and visually it was epic and amazing, but it didn't feel appropriate to defeat this incarnation of epic evil by shooting him once then kicking him over a cliff.

Now, you may say, you can nitpick any story to death. There's similar plotting illogic in “The Incident,” but it's one of my favorite episodes. When an episode works in general, it's easier to elide weak plotting and focus on the positive. But, when the overall story isn't working, the flaws along the way stick out more and more.

And, the biggest flaw of this episode is abandoning the prime-verse as a space for emotional experience. There's no moment in the series where we mourn for the loss of the real John Locke. This is arguably the show's central character, but by bringing him back in Smoke Monster form, and then in the alt-verse, we never really miss him. The reason that death is emotional is because of its finality. You will never see this person again, their story is over and you have to move on. Normally, Jack's death would be an emotional moment, as would Jack and Kate's final parting, but any emotion felt by Jack and Kate parting on the island is killed by the fact that in the very next scene we see them together in the alt-verse.

The alt-verse seemed to be an attempt to give the viewers what they wanted, to bring back all the old characters who'd died and give us one last moment with them. The thing is, as Joss Whedon once said, you have to give people what they need, not what they want. We may want to see Juliet and Sawyer together again, but it kind of compromises the power of their parting to see them reunited. The same goes for Sun and Jin's death, if you want us to engage in the emotion of them dying, don't show them together and happy two episodes later. It removes any sense of consequence from the narrative if everybody gets a happy ending.

The end of the episode reveals that the entire alt-verse is about people coming to terms with their own death and rediscovering the people they were on the path to a higher plane. You could argue the entire alt-verse is a Mulholland Dr. like passage into death, with iconic moments from the various characters' lives presented in different, reconfigured ways.

My interpretation is that the characters we see in the church have a kind of pooled vision of the world, their own “table” in heaven so to speak, and that they're the only ones who “really exist” in the alt-verse. People like Miles, Charlotte, Pierre Chang, etc. are not really there, they just exist as the memories that people have of them. That makes the most sense to me, but it could also be that they have their own different “tables” in heaven, that's why Desmond tells Eloise that Daniel won't be coming with them.

I don't necessarily have a problem with this conceptually, but it doesn't do anything to redeem to explain the many terrible alt-verse stories we see over the course of the season. I feel like, if the point of these stories was supposed to be the characters coming to terms with and accepting death, you could have told some really powerful allegorical stories before revealing the true nature of the universe in the final episode and tying everything together.

But, in practice, the stories were all over the place, ranging from positive to tragic. You could read it as the characters having to go through the process of awakening and realizing that they're going to die, as in Donnie Darko, but the first ten episodes of the season did not deal with that at all. Technically, they brought the characters together and made them deal with certain traumas, but not in a way that feels any more than arbitrary for the final revelation. I don't think the idea of the alt-verse, in light of what's revealed here, is inherently flawed, but I think as executed, it was a total debacle and structured so as to provide cheap emotional punches in the finale after fifteen episodes of stuff that didn't really work.

And, I think centering so much of the emotion in the alt-verse really deprived the island story of a satisfying resolution. Yes, the people get to leave and that's fine, but we have no idea what really happened to the characters beyond dying. It felt like the mysteries of the island were back burnered, to the point that I wonder why they even developed the Jacob mythology at all. As I said after “Across the Sea,” there's nothing we learned about Jacob this season that really added to our understanding of his mission, it only muddied it. The scenario set up in “The Incident” was so simple and elegant, and this season has convoluted without complexifying it.

The story choices made with the Jacob character, or with Richard in “Ab Aeterno” just don't work. They take epic mysterious characters and reduce them to boring motivations of “my wife died” or “my mom doesn't love me.” And, the problem with Richard is that after that episode he did nothing. He could clearly leave the island when he wanted, so it wasn't a great satisfaction for him to depart here. I suppose there's the beat of him starting to age, but wanting to live. But, I think he's a character who would have been better left dead at the end of season five and remained something of an enigma.

Ben is another character ill served by this season, and his arc this year makes no sense. Last episode he killed Widmore in cold blood and said he was going to kill more people, but that wasn't touched on at all this episode. His arc makes sense if you remove last episode, it's just boring. But, the sudden swerve here doesn't make sense. You could argue that he wanted revenge on Widmore then gave up his killing ways, but that's not how it played last week. Maybe he was tricking Locke, who knows? Why did he wander into the castaways' camp to begin with and pretend to be Henry Gale? Unknown.

The creators love to talk about how the show is really “character centered,” but unfortunately this finale confirms their worst tendency in character creation, the notion that all we are is a product of past traumas/experiences, and we can't grow and change in the present. We watched fifteen episodes of alt-verse stuff just to find out that none of it mattered, it was all a path for people to remember who they really were, go to a church and disappear. That means that anything they do in the present doesn't matter, it's just about finding out who they were. That's all too often the case on the island as well, they assume that developing Richard is showing who he was, not turning him into who he will be. That was the flaw with the flashbacks from the beginning. It should be character development, not character excavation, and this finale is way too much about the latter.

We have no idea how people are resolved in the real world, no moment of reunion between Desmond and Penny, no catharsis for Kate losing Jack, who's apparently her true love. Presumably she lives for many years afterward, but what kind of life? Why would any of these people be happier now than they were before going to the island, or during the flash forward era? Maybe they weren't, maybe that's why they all go to the church and think back to the island years, since they were always unhappy otherwise, but I want to see that, I want to feel the desire to reconnect, I want to miss the characters and have the church be a great catharsis.

It didn't feel that way for me, and the frustrating thing is, I think it could have been amazing conceptually. The beauty of the fifth season for me is the fact that the characters finally seemed to realize that they belonged on the island, that being on the island was better, and the ending reinforces that, but it's a message that's obscured by the whole alt-verse storyline, which I will reiterate does nothing at all and is pointless because it's resolved by all the characters realizing that the world we've spent so much time in is NOT REAL!

I also think it's incredibly reductive to have almost every character be returned to a moment of romantic love, when relationships were never the center of the show. Were Sayid and Shanon soul mates? I don't think so, he wasn't begging the Smoke Monster to go to a world where he could with Shanon. Maybe the whole thing was just Jack's fantasy, who knows, but that detail didn't make much sense.

Ultimately, I wanted the finale to do something a bit more unexpected. There were no real twists until the final moments, everything played out as you'd expect. The Smoke Monster got killed, the characters in the alt-verse remembered who they were and everyone died happily ever after. I wanted to see something crazy and audacious and that just wasn't here. It was sappy at times, emotional at times, but never surprising or particularly exciting. I wanted more.

In the end, the show was always a mixed experience, with two amazing seasons, two seasons that ranged from amazing to terrible and two weak seasons. This was one of the weak ones, and to be honest, I think the show would have been better off with it never existing. But, what happened happened and at least we got the great moment of Jack being weirdly electrocuted in the island bathtub cave. That was one to remember.

Lost - 'The End' (6x17) Placeholder

It had a few moments, but on the whole, one of the weakest finales of a sometimes great show I've ever seen. Full review tomorrow!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Lost - 'What They Died For' (6x16)

Tonight's Lost was definitely one of the better episodes of the season, and particularly during the opening sequences with Ben and Widmore, I was reminded of the show at its peak, with all kinds of machinations and scheming from two of the show's most exciting characters. After that, it was a mix of mythology payoffs and frustratingly slow moving alt-verse stuff that made for a great episode, but one whose schizophrenic intensities made it hard to build momentum going into the finale.

Let me start off with what I felt didn't work, specifically, once again, the juxtaposition of the alt-verse story with the island stuff. In the season's most consistently exciting episode, “The Last Recruit,” there was a great sense of momentum as all the Oceanic survivors came together in chaotic situations, mirroring the intense island action. Here, even though the survivors were still coming together, the intensity wasn't there. The primary reason for that is that we still, one episode from the end of the series, don't understand the stakes of the alt-verse story.

It's clear that Desmond is bringing all the characters together for a reason, but nobody except for Desmond, and now Hurley, has any agency in the story. It's always exciting to see Desmond in the alt-verse because he's doing something. The others are just being manipulated into certain situations. For a show that is supposedly “character-centered,” it makes no sense to have all your characters having no agency whatsoever to keep a mystery alive. That's what the terribly misguided alt-verse structure has done, and it's not only made for weak scenes on its own, it totally undercuts the feeling that everything on the island is coming together to a close. Even if you're totally engaged with both stories, they don't compliment each other.

It's implied during most of the season that Smoke Locke leaving the island creates the alt-verse, so presumably the characters in the alt-verse must come together to defeat him. But, if him leaving the island is so bad, why is the alt-verse not that bad? The Desmond episode implies that the world there is false in some way, devoid of real love, but this episode has a lot of warm, sweet moments. So, how are we supposed to feel about that? If they're going to fight to destroy this world, are we seeing scenes like Ben's just to make us feel bittersweet about that world being destroyed, or perhaps sad at seeing who Ben could have been? But, in a world without love, why would Ben be a better person than in the main verse?

These are interesting questions, but they're ones that preclude being really engaged with the story. I did love a few of the alt-verse scenes this week. The Ben and Danielle scene is really powerful, particularly when juxtaposed with the killer Ben we see on the island. But, what does it mean in the overall context of things? That's key to adding that extra layer of meaning beyond just what is inherent in the scene itself.

The best scene in the alt-verse was Locke finally going to Jack to get “fixed.” We witness Locke going through the same journey he went through on island, going from a skeptic to believer and in the finale, we'll probably see him walk and become like the Locke we saw on the island at the beginning of the series.

Presuming that the alt-verse was created by Locke escaping the island, I feel like it would have been much better to play the first fifteen episodes of the season out without any alt-verse, have Locke escape, then do two full episodes of alt-verse and compress the stories we saw across the season into one episode. Generally speaking all those stories were based around surprise at seeing how things were different, so compressing them only makes them stronger. Then, we'd presumably return to the island proper in the final episode.

The big question then is how does the detonation of the nuke relate to the alt-verse. The whole nuke story has gone unmentioned for a long time, but it's still presumably related to the creation of the alt-verse. I had assumed that the alt-verse was a result of the island being destroyed in the 70s, leading to the different world we see, but if that's the case, then why did Ben Linus and Pierre Chang survive the detonation of a hydrogen bomb? Did the bomb ever actually go off? This is all hazy stuff that's a pretty big logical gap in the series, and hopefully it'll be addressed next week.

The island story has a bunch of interesting developments, including the return of a character who's been missing from the series for nearly two seasons, Ben Linus! After being neutered and sidelined for much of the past two years, he's back on the forefront, with the same ambitious scheming that made him the series' driving engine for much of its run. While I love some of the Ben material from last season, his character has generally been getting dragged around by various groups for two seasons. I always loved when he was on his own and had tricks up his sleeve, so it was great to see his mysterious closet back, and to see him in control.

The beauty of the character in season two was that he was always in control, even when he was imprisoned in the hatch. In season six, there was a briefly touched on redemption arc, but that never really went anywhere, so now we've got a Ben working to take control of the island again, or at least I'm guessing that's what's happening, it could be a double cross. Either way, there's not much island to take over considering everybody on it has seemingly been killed.

I love Widmore and Ben because they allude to a much larger world, a far reaching struggle that is different from the somewhat limited world that our main castaways inhabit. I love how they go on and off island, and I love the spy movie feel of their interactions. The big difference between them and the castaways is that Ben or Widmore always have agency, they always are after something and they actually do things. That makes for better drama than people being confused and not asking questions.

So, even though this side of the story doesn't really reveal anything. It's already implied that Desmond was a “last resort,” but the scenes work because of the wonderful shock and catharsis of Ben shooting Widmore, and taking control of his own destiny. The callback to Alex works, and resolves the cliffhanger from way back in “The Shape of Things to Come.” Why do the rules no longer apply? Who knows, but I don't really care since the scene works. The whole scene had me wishing that this had happened earlier to give the show's two best actors more chances to play off each other.

Who else does Ben want to kill? That's an unknown at this point. Is he going to try and kill Jack, who's tried to usurp his role as island protector? Perhaps he's going to kill Richard for withholding Jacob from him for all these years. Either possibility is interesting, and it's great to have Ben back in the mix.

Though Richard was taken out by the Smoke Monster, I'm assuming that he'll play a part in the finale, as will Miles who conspicuously ran wildly out into the woods. That's another character who finally got some good material and killed it. Claire is also out there, so there's a lot of last minute rescue possibilities. Perhaps she's already teamed up with Desmond?

The other big development is Jack accepting the role of Jacob. This is something I predicted a while back, and flows logically out of the character development we've seen for him this year. He's stepped into the role that Locke had claimed for himself and come around to believe in the power of the island. I like the callbacks to the wine ceremony from last episode, though this entire episode has me feeling like last week's episode didn't really add anything we didn't see explained here more concisely.

That said, I wouldn't be totally shocked to see a left field Jacob turn from Hurley who notably mentioned how relieved he was to not be Jacob. The stakes are in place for the final battle, the protectors of the island versus the Smoke Monster who's trying to destroy it. It's taken a while to get here, but it seems like a nice setup for the finale.

That said, there's still a lot of questions about the series in retrospect with the decision to make the Smoke Monster's motivation be leaving the island. I preferred the idea of him and Jacob as embodiments of good and evil, and Jacob using the island as an experiment to see if people could not destroy themselves and be good. If the light at the heart of the island is human goodness, wouldn't all these failed experiments indicate that we already live in a bad world?

It's a very Christian feel, as Jacob struggles to atone for an original sin that unleashed this great evil force. It pollutes the world, and now they're fighting to keep that sin bottled up so that the world is not corrupted. This is a logical thematic thing, and fits with what we've seen on the series to date. The idea is presumably that no love exists in the alt-verse because the Smoke Monster escaped the island and the light went out. That's why all the glimpses of the prime-verse are colored in that glowy yellow shade.

We also find out that the people were chosen to come to the island because they were alone before. That explains to some extent why the flashbacks were used in the earlier seasons, and why they were all so depressingly similar. That said, I don't think we needed to see that stuff to understand it, we could already see it from the way the people behaved on the island. It seems to be up to our characters now to end the cycle of violence and destroy the Smoke Monster, using Desmond's powers somehow.

The notion of this cycle existing far before Jacob pushed his brother into the cave complicates things a bit. Did the evil they're trying to stop begin in that moment, or was it always present in the island, along with the good? Is that why the temple water infects people, and why Jacob's adopted Mother killed his birth mother. That would make sense, that the source of darkness is the same as the source of the light. It's all hard to reconcile, and I feel like it makes a lot more sense if Jacob is even older than is alluded to here. Is Jack destined to destroy his “brother,” perhaps Sawyer, to keep the cycle going.

There's a lot of questions, and the alt-verse really complicates it all. Let's hope it all resolves itself in a satisfying way with the finale. This was a really strong episode in a lot of ways, and has me excited for the finale. I think a really strong end is within reach, but it's going to require a quicker pace and the creators to finally stop messing, and resolve this alt-verse stuff on an intellectual level so we can feel it on an emotional level. I'm eager to see it all come together at the concert and perhaps see the return of the Locke we once knew. And Juliet too! I'm feeling better about the finale than I did before the episode, but there's still a ton of stuff to do and not much time left.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Lost: The Ten Best Episodes

Since I've been pretty harsh on Lost this year, I wanted to go back and write about my ten favorite episodes of the series, going into the end. Since I watched it in a pretty compressed time frame, it can sometimes be tough to remember what happened in specific episodes, but I did my best to break them out and find my ten favorites.

10. Orientation (2x03) - This episode finally resolved the three episode long Mexican standoff that opened season two, but that's not why it's memorable. To this day, no moment on Lost has been as astonishing for me as the 16mm Dharma Orientation film, which raised so many new questions and ideas, ideas that took four seasons to fully pay off. That film was such an astonishing piece of world building, even after a season long flashback to the 70s, I still want more background on Dharma.

9. There's No Place Like Home (4x12-4x14) - Though less goundbreaking and game changing than any of the previous three season finales, this episode still has a bunch of killer moments. This is the end of the line for an era of the show in which Ben was the main character motivating the action and he goes out with the incredible high point of moving the island through the frozen wheel device. It's a moment of almost religious power, and ties in wonderfully with the emotional hit of Sawyer abandoning the helicopter and washing up with Juliet. The rest of the episode is filled with great moments, including a key Jack/Locke confrontation, but those two moments linger.

8. The Shape of Things to Come (4x09) - Alex's death was one of the most shocking moments in the series, and Ben unleashing the Smoke Monster one of its best action sequences. As I mentioned above, this was an era where Ben ran the show, and he was never better than here, his emotional attachment to Alex contrasted with his power hungry nature. It also featured a great off island story, with an exotic James Bond feel. This was an era where the show's world was expanding, and the island was just one piece of something larger.

7. Some Like it Hoth (5x13) - I really loved all the 70s era stuff, but this is one of the high points. It hits on a comedy level, with Hurley's attempts to write The Empire Strikes Back, but also has some of the most spot on emotional content of the entire series, as Miles finally comes to terms with the father who he believes abandoned him as a child. Science fiction devices can be used to literalize emotions in a way that isn't possible in reality, and the scene with Miles watching his father tending to a younger version of himself, and seeing that he did love him does that perfectly. And, unlike every other character on the show, Miles gets to confront his parental issues and come to terms with them. Miles was already a great character, but this made him even stronger and deeper. It's a shame they gave up on developing him this year.

6. Through the Looking Glass (3x22) - The end of an era for the show, this episode is best known for the shocking flashforward revelation at the end, which was great and integral to the series' evolution. But, it's also got a great fight with the Others, the chaotic promise of rescue from Naomi and the freighter, and the fantastic action setpiece in the Looking Glass Dharma station. The emotional high point is Charlie's death, and the classic “Not Penny's Boat” scene. A really fantastic, epic finale.

5. Greatest Hits (3x21) - But it's topped by its precursor, this incredibly sweet episode that goes a huge way to redeem Charlie from his season two “Darth Hoodie” era, and earn him serious fan affection that continues to this day. Charlie and Claire worked really well as a couple in late season three, and this episode solidifies that family. It's also the farewell to the beach camp era of the show, sending the flashbacks out on a high note. The emotional stakes of the finale are so high because of this episode laying the groundwork.

4. La Fleur (5x08) - The show's most ambitious gambit, sending all our characters to the 70s for half a season, begins here, and it opens up the show's most rewarding era. This episode gives us the series' most satisfying romantic relationship, Sawyer and Juliet's. Those two characters had both grown to be favorites before they got together, but together they're each matured and grow in really interesting ways. It's a great example of showing character change through action happening in the present, in a subtle, but revelatory way, rather than explaining it through pop psychology. I love the world they build here, I love the three year time jump and I love just seeing our characters happy and engaged in this world. To be totally honest, I'd rather have seen an entire show about the Dharma Initiative than the Lost that we got, and that's thanks to episodes like this.

3. The Incident (5x16) - This episode had some off elements to it, notably the fluctuating motivations of Juliet and Kate, but it's also perhaps the series' most successful fusion of its scientific and religious mythologies, all wrapped up in an emotionally intense, riveting hour. After three seasons of buildup, the episode finally introduces Jacob, and manages to make him live up to the hype. We get a better sense of his character and motivations here than in all of his season six appearances, and even the could have been out of left field idea of the Fake Locke fits perfectly with what we've seen before. Other highlights include the Rose/Bernard farewell scene, the Jack/Sawyer fight, and of course the series' single strongest emotional moment, Juliet's fall down the hole and Sawyer's raw emotion as he struggles to hold her. This one's a winner all the way through.

2. The Man Behind the Curtain (3x20) - Just as “Orientation” was a massive download of information that opened up infinite story possibilities, this episode gave us an entire world to explore through his flashbacks to Ben's experience with Dharma as a youth. I love the world they built here, and no episode contains the density of information we get here. In addition to our first glimpses of the Dharma world, we find out that Richard is immortal, and also see the massacre that wiped out the Dharma Initiative. It's one of the show's most shocking, brutal moments, and something that I'd have loved to return to before the series ended. Still, talking about answering questions, this one resolved a lot. It also featured one of my favorite scenes in the series, Locke and Ben's trip to the cabin to see Jacob. The scene is creepy and has a strange aura of mysterious power about it, going right to the subconscious. Ben's backstory is one of the greatest 'answers' the show ever gave.

1. Live Together, Die Alone (2x23) - While I obviously tend towards the later years of the show, no single episode has topped what this one did. I'm sure people are wondering why “The Constant” is on here, and I do really like that episode, but even more dazzling is how efficiently the Desmond/Penny love story is set up here. Desmond solidified his status as one of the show's best characters here, and the flashbacks in the Hatch are some of the strangest, most disturbing the series ever did. That stuff alone would make this a classic, but we also get the great confrontation between the Others and Jack/Kate/Sawyer and the first appearance of the mysterious statue. But, the high point is the incredible sequence in which Locke decides to not push the button and Desmond is forced to detonate the hatch. This is a sequence with a religious power, and watching it, I was just in it emotionally. It's the series' greatest moment, and the show has never quite matched the apocalyptic swirl of power this episode contained.

See, I don't hate the show! And, I'd love for one of the final two episode to join the list here. Other than the dreadful first season finale, which, while not the series' worst episode by any stretch, is its most disappointing and exemplary of what makes show frustrating, they've never failed to nail an ending. So, I'm keeping the faith and eager to see how it all plays out. Until then, these are the series' finest hours.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Lost - 'Across the Sea' (6x15)

I'm a bit late on this one, been traveling this week, but I just saw the episode and while it's quite interesting on its own terms, I think it's also symptomatic of a lot of the problems of the show throughout its entire run.

The discussion surrounding the show has often been consumed by questions and answers, the need for people to find out the answer to the various mysteries set up over the course of the series' run, and the creators' often frustrating refusal to resolve mysteries in a timely or satisfying way. For me personally, the mysteries don't really matter as an end to themselves. What has always frustrated me is that the show dwelled on mysteries for such a long time, at the expense of real narrative and character progress. And now that the series is winding down, it's clear that a lot of the questions that really interested me over the run of the series will never be answered.

So, it's frustrating to see an episode of the show that is ostensibly about providing answers, but doesn't really tell us anything new. Sure, it's nice to know that Jacob and the still unnamed Smoke Monster character were brothers, but it's a case where the relationship was so well sketched through actual character action on the island that it seems pointless to add in all this Oedipal trauma backstory, which begins by outright saying we're not going to answer any real questions because that only leads to more questions.

That notion is key to the series as a whole because it demonstrates the creators' basic misunderstanding of story structures. The notion back at season two or three was that there wasn't enough story to last for a lengthy run so they had to parse it out in small bits, but coming to the end of the series, I see countless stories that interest me that will never be addressed. I'd have loved to see more of Jacob's interaction with island inhabitants over the ages. I'd have loved to get a better understanding of his dual god and man nature, and also more of the Smoke Monster's motivations.

The decision to withhold this episode until the end of the series is frustrating because everything was already implied, and if this information was out in the open, we could have engaged with it more and actually used it to build new stories instead of as a retroactive explanation for stuff we already figured out. The genius of the opening scene of “The Incident” was that it was rich with portent and feeling, all the tension and drama of this episode played out in microcosm. It didn't frustrate me there to have these two characters come out of nowhere because they felt totally organic to the world and so important.

But, both this episode and “Ab Aeterno” feel redundant and turn what felt like an utterly epic and spiritual conflict into something more mundane. Would I rather not know who Jacob is? Probably not, but what I really wanted to know was how does Jacob, a god like figure, make decisions. How does he engage with the world and experience things? In “The Incident,” you had the sense of a being with a vision that transcended space and time as he weaved the various threads of the characters' lives together to prove the Smoke Monster wrong.

So, it's frustrating to take this omniscient, otherworldly character and bring him down to the same Freudian psychology that motivates every other character on the show. Not every single action in human history has been motivated by bad parenting, and to reduce Jacob to yet another victim of parental misguidance strips the character of so much of what made him special. You can either make Jacob a god beyond our understanding or a real human being. What we see here explains to some extent his actions later on, but not why he started this quest to prove that humans are good, or how he's able to leave the island to get Jack and co.

I feel like this episode suffered a bit from Phantom Menace syndrome, in that it ends at the point where things are starting to get interesting. I think it was interesting on its own terms, but there's so much more interesting Jacob stuff I'd have loved to see, and this didn't answer any of the really interesting questions, the ones that aren't about abstract concepts and ideas, but instead actually pertain to the characters and show we've been watching for the past six years. I don't think anyone really cares about who Adam and Eve are, since that's not a question that leads to more interesting stories, but finding out what the interaction between Jacob and Ben, through Richard, was like would at least give us a better context for the often convoluted and mysterious motivations of the Others in the early days of the series.

The same is actually true of “Ab Aeterno,” it took an entire episode to tell what should have been the first five minutes of the story. The reason this Jacob stuff feels disconnected from the series is that it is, but it doesn't have to be. “The Incident” worked so well because it put Jacob into the world of the series, and retroactively tied a lot of things together. This episode just tacks on a story that basically says these things happen because they happen and they'll continue to happen.

What about the episode itself? I admire the audacity of doing something so outside of the show's normal world, and barely even showing any of the regular characters, and I think the basic story worked, but felt emotionally simplistic.

Ultimately, I think this whole season would have been vastly improved if this Jacob material was threaded throughout the other episodes as the cutaway story, tracking from Jacob's origins to the plan that brought the characters to the island. That would remove the pointless alt-verse stories, and have given a chance to resolve a lot of confusing points from the past, while also reinforcing the notion of the island as an eternal struggle to protect this essential human goodness.

But, that was not to be. As it is, I'm still really excited for those final few episodes, but I'm increasingly feeling like the series peaked with years four and five, and this ending is not going to satisfy. And, that's not because of the answers issue, it's because this season has had no character development at all for anyone but Jack and Sawyer, so it'll be hard to make us care about whatever happens on anything but an intellectual level. Lindelof and Cuse say the show is about characters, not mysteries, but if that's the case why didn't anyone get real, meaningful development this year?