Sunday, December 30, 2007

Best of 2007: Top 10 Songs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Sweeeney Todd

Tim Burton’s Sweeney Todd is a comeback for Burton, not quite matching his late 80s to early 90s golden era, but it’s easily his best film since Ed Wood. For most of his career, Burton has making musicals in one form or another, the fantastic Elfman scores for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns turn them into operas, but this is his first full fledged live action musical, and he handles it well.

I’m a huge fan of musicals. Film is inherently unrealistic, and it’s odd that people will buy giant monsters, ridiculous action sequences, but a character singing is too much. It’s inherently melodramatic, but some stories have emotions that big. As we watch Benjamin Barker’s story unfold in the past, music building, I needed to have a big emotive moment from Todd, and his songs provide that. If anything, the music doesn’t go quite big enough sometimes. I wanted something absolutely massive, and in its best moments, the film achieves a sinister grandeur, the beautiful songs shadowing its darkest moments.

While Depp is indisputably the lead, Helena Bonham Carter steals the film. She’s the one you leave the theater talking about. I love her total lack of morals, and hilariously sinister nature. Not having seen the original show, I may not be the best judge, but I thought she nailed all her songs, as did Depp.

Burton styles them both to look like live action stop motion characters. The exaggerated pale makeup and dark eyes are striking, echoing the film’s almost black and white palette. Visually, the film is stellar. The only misstep is the awful CG effects in the opening travel through London shot. The trip through a city over opening credits is a Burton staple, but the CG in this and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is just appalling. It’s like watching a cartoon, and that takes you out of the film. However, once the film starts, the design is fantastic. The actors and sets and integrated and everything is stylish. I particularly like the incongruous trip to a beach scene, which manages to give even a sunny day some goth visual flair.

There’s not that much to say about the plot. It’s a simple story, and as in most musicals, is generally besides the point. There’s a fantastic tension in the buildup to Sweeney’s killings, every time that straight razor goes near a neck, you’re fearing and anticipating a gush of blood. The most shocking, and probably best, moment of the film is when Sweeney hurls Mrs. Lovett into the pie oven. It’s a crazy visual, and the film’s most over the top moment.

The major issue with the film for me was that there wasn’t a really coherent emotional build. While it was fun that the characters were so unaffected by the murders they do, it also means the characters have basically no arc. Sweeney killing his wife was a bit contrived, and didn’t hit on a particularly emotional level. It’s tricky to bring humanity to something so over the top, but I feel like a deeper emotional engagement would have made the end emotionally devastating, instead of just shocking. It’s only in the kid’s story that we get a sense that what is happening is real and matters. Part of that may be compression from the stage show, but I would have liked to see either Sweeney or Lovett exploring the issues that arise from what they’re doing.

But, the film still works and is full of wonderful, exciting moments. The songs are generally stellar, the performances are great, and the film is visually dazzling. Burton still hasn’t matched the open wound emotion of Edward or Batman Returns, but this is a definite step up for his recent work.

Side note, was it just me or did the kid in this film look exactly like McNulty?

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Best of 2007 and The Future of the Blog

Over the next week, I'll be putting up all my lists for 2007. You'll be getting...

Top 10 TV Shows
Top 10 TV Episodes
Top 10 Songs
Top 15 Albums
Top 10 Movies

Along with this, there'll also be a 2008 preview, exploring what we've got to expect next year. Unfortuantely, the strike is throwing everything into question, shows like Dollhouse and True Blood won't premiere when expected and no previously unannounced movies will pop up for a while. In film, 2009 will probably be hit harder, but TV is going to be sinking quickly next year, the only thing I've got to look forward to is the new season of The Wire.

In terms of the blog's future, you've probably noticed I haven't been posting as much the past few months as in the past. The reason for that is that I'm working full time, and it's hard to blog during the week. Part of that is that I just don't have the time to watch as many movies or TV shows to write up.

I've only been writing up stuff that's worthy of a really deep look. I'm not going to write a review to say I kind of liked something, or that it was pretty good. I'm writing up about stuff that I love and demands analysis, like The Wire, or about stuff that doesn't quite make it, to explore where it fails and succeeds, like There Will Be Blood. There's so many people writing their opinion, but how many people online are really delving deeper into a work, to examine not just where something fails or succeeds, but why. People don't necessarily want to approach works in that way, if they did, John From Cincinnati would probably be a bigger hit. But, I don't read reviews until I've seen a movie, and after I've seen it, I don't need to know if it's worth seeing, I want something deeper. Hopefully the reviews I do provide that, at least it's something different.

But, 2008 will bring week by week Wire writeups, and more on whatever I come across that's worth writing up. I'm sure there's plenty of good stuff waiting out there.

Best of 2007: Top 10 TV Series

10. 30 Rock
Best Episode – Greenzo

The second season was a bit uneven, but this show was still anarchic and hilarious in a way not seen since Arrested Development. It’s comedy was occasionally stupid, but always in a smart way, and the cast is consistently stellar. And, David Schwimmer’s guest appearance in “Greenzo” was better than the entire run of Friends.

9. The Office
Best Episode – The Deposition

Another show where the year started out uneven. The goofy race episode nearly killed it for me, but the abbreviated season ended very strong with the devastating “The Deposition.” This episode is the closest the American version has gotten to the original’s blend of dark, dark darkness and uncomfortably funny humor. For me, the darker the show gets, the funnier it is and the more emotionally affecting it is. So, go darker like that episode, not goofy.

8. Flight of the Conchords
Best Episode – The Third Conchord

The best new comedy of the year, Conchords never failed to entertain thanks to the fantastic songs in each episode. The songs were both goofy and funny, and genuinely good songs, surveying a variety of genres over the course of the series. Some felt awkwardly shoved into the episode, like “Frodo, Don’t Wear the Ring” and “Bowie’s in Space,” but generally they fit well. And, on top of that, the non-singing parts of the show were fun, if a bit repetitive. I’m not sure how well it will hold up in year two, but this year was a lot of fun.

7. Gilmore Girls
Best Episodes – Lorelai? Lorelai?

The show was far from what it was under the Palladinos, but Lauren Graham is such a strong presence, she, and the actors surrounding her, keep the show entertaining. Lorelai is the series, and even though I’m not a fan of the season on the whole, it was nice to see her get a happy ending. This wasn’t an X-Files level collapse, even slightly off Gilmore Girls is still strong.

6. Big Love
Best Episode – Take Me as I Am

The first season of Big Love had its moments, but didn’t ever really click for me. The second takes a big leap, going deeper into the characters’ lives and exploring the darker side of what it means to polygamist. The stuff at the compound is still hit or miss, but Barb’s arc, Rhonda’s arc and Ben’s arc all more than made up for it. The show grew a lot, and I’m eager to see where they go in season three.

5. Battlestar Galactica
Best Episode – Crossroads: Part II

This calendar year was not a particularly strong one for BSG. We got a bunch of weak filler episodes after the stellar opening run of year three. However, the two part season finale was amazing, primarily because of the final ten minutes, as bizarre and invigorating as anything I’ve seen on TV. The spiraling camera shots and surreal battle to “All Along the Watchtower” made up for what had come before, and even as I pondered the nonsensicalness of the cylon revelation, I was awed by its execution. But still, they’re going to have to do better next year. A great season opener and closer does not make up for phoning it in the rest of the year.

4. Friday Night Lights
Best Episode – Mud Bowl

If the show had not been picked up for a second season, it might be ranked even higher. The end of year one was fantastic, particularly the emotionally devastating “Mud Bowl” episode, as powerful as anything I’ve seen on television. However, the second year fumbled a lot of that opportunity with some really poor writing. The Landry murder plot is the most obvious target, but there was a lot of other lazy plotting along the way. The cinematography is still some of the best in TV history, and the acting’s stellar, but the writing is going to have to get better. Still, there are moments in the show that are almost unspeakably beautiful, the aforementioned mud bowl, the team’s trip to Dallas stadium in the season finale, and Lyla’s baptism in the season premiere. That baptism was at a Malick level of beauty. Why not tone back on the meth dealers, murders and underage relationships and get back to telling simple stories about a football team and the town it inspires.

3. Mad Men
Best Episode – The Wheel

The loss of The Sopranos left a big hole in the TV landscape, where would we find the adventures of a morally conflicted hero who cheats on his, gets drunk with his male coworkers and has many unresolved psychological issues? If HBO was smart, they would have put this show on after The Sopranos’ finale, not John From Cincinnati. The show picks up on much of what made The Sopranos great, the barely there stories which exist primarily to bring character tension to the surface, and the marvelously subtle characterization. There are so many fantastic performances here, Jon Hamm as the inscrutable Donald Draper, Christina Hendricks as the gorgeous manipulator Joan and my favorite, January Jones as the psychologically disturbed housewife Betty. The show really grew on me as the season went on, each episode adding more layers to the world and characters. The evocation of period look, and sensibility, is unlike anything attempted on television, and I’m eager to see the show move forward through the 60s and the change it will bring to our characters. There are certain shows you enjoy in spite of the fact that you know on some level it’s not good, this is not one of those, it’s challenging art all the way through.

2. John From Cincinnati
Best Episode – His Visit: Day 6

It’s been tough to watch this show pop up on countless worst TV of 2007 lists. While it might not be for everyone, JFC was a challenging work that showed how much wonder and joy can be found in everyday life. Milch continued the work he began on Deadwood, showing how social networks and community can be built, but added in the spiritual component, which took everything to a new level of philosophical interest. In future years, people will be analyzing JFC in universities, writing books about it and generally hailing it as a lost masterpiece. If you take the time to understand the series’ cosmology, it’s not that hard to understand, and along with this philosophical stuff, there’s some fantastic character development. Butchie’s transition from selfish junkie to caring man is inspiring, and the supporting cast went deep with great performances. I loved this show, I loved its message and I loved its execution. Give it a look when it comes out on DVD, it’s Milch’s masterwork.

1. The Sopranos
Best Episode – Walk Like a Man

It’s indisputably one of the best, and most influential TV shows of all time and this final nine episode run was probably its strongest season. Say what you will about the finale, the four episode run leading to it was the show’s strongest run. There was a crushing sense of doom hanging over the entire season, which delved deeper into Tony’s psyche than ever before. In the twin tales of his two ‘sons,’ Christopher and AJ, we recognize simultaneously how warped Tony is and how ordinary he is. The beauty of that last scene for me is that it takes Tony out of the mob world and puts him into the everyday world. Those people at the diner aren’t all potential killers, they’re people like you and me, he is part of everyday American life, and the blood it takes to uphold that dream is quickly forgotten if it’s spilled in the service of ‘family.’ My favorite arc of the year was Christopher’s dissolution, captured most wonderfully in “Walk Like a Man,” which sends him on such a spiral that his death in the next episode is a mercy killing. The season is a masterwork, and a perfect conclusion to one of the greatest TV shows of all time.

Monday, December 24, 2007

The Wire: Season Four: Part Two

The other major plot thread this season was Tommy Carcetti’s ascension to Mayor of Baltimore. When he first appeared in season three, you got the sense that Carcett was power hungry, but did have a legitimate desire to help people. However, in the third season finale he sold out Hamsterdam to the press, and used it as the opportunity to give a speech condemning Royce’s handling of crime in the city. That was the moment when Carcetti died for me, spitting hollow words about the desire to change things when he had just shut down something that was working to change everything.

In the early days of this season, Carcetti is simply obnoxious, whining like a child as he’s shuttled between campaign stops. It’s interesting to compare this view of campaigning to something like The West Wing, which holds that essentially good people rise to the top and the political process works. Watching this show, it’s clear it doesn’t. In our system, people need money to win elections, and with money comes obligations. There’s also a vast network of influence, by making concessions to them, you can win elections, but also prevent your ability to change things. Royce is irrevocably corrupt to outside eyes, but he’s really just doing what he has to do to survive.

All the bureaucratic structures in the series are self sustaining. People will reinforce the status quo because that helps to rise to power. People who really mess with things, like McNulty or Colvin, wind up ostracized and powerless. In theory, it all leads up to Carcetti, he has the power to change things in Baltimore, but the system is constructed to prevent real change. Carcetti has so many groups to satisfy, he can never do the right thing, he has to do the thing that will offend the fewest people.

When Carcetti is running behind Royce, he has no faith that he can win, but a skilled performance at the debate changes that, and sets him on the path to victory. One of the things that’s implicit in the presentation is the fact that most people don’t watch the debate, they just hear the media coverage after. That one sound bite of Royce waffling on how to deal with the murdered witness is going to get replayed endlessly and doom his campaign. We are now more about political theater than real political coverage. Al Gore sighing during the debate gets more played than the actual issues discussed, and we can now see where that kind of media coverage gets us.

Another really effective scene along those lines was Carcetti’s refusal to speak to the media at the witness’s funeral. He’s ostensibly doing it because he doesn’t want to turn the scene into political theater, but in this case, not saying anything is much more powerful than anything he could say. He gets political points for going to the funeral, and also gets political points for not being ‘tacky’ about it. Is this what makes a good mayor?

When Carcetti does become mayor, he rapidly falls further and further from anything resembling good government. It all goes back to the idea someone planted during the campaign, that he could run for governor in two years. In the later episodes of the seasons, becoming governor becomes the primary motivation for everything he does. His ambition goes to his head and gets in the way of the fact that he can actually do good things in the present. His advisor Norman tries to council him, but the man is already gone. The saddest moment is Carcetti hearing from his wife that she knows he’ll do the right thing, right before he does the completely wrong thing.

Carcetti goes to beg for money in Annapolis at the same time as Colvin goes to present his findings. Whereas he would once have done anything Odell Watkins wanted, now he’s already gone, psychologically and literally in Annapolis instead of running his city. Colvin’s plan goes unheard, rejected because it would look like tracking and play poorly in the suburbs during an election. Carcetti rejects the money from the state because that would look bad in the election. Rather than take a political hit to help kids, he prioritizes his own career, with the misguided reasoning that he’ll be able to do more good for Annapolis. Didn’t he shut down Hamsterdam because he’d be able to do more good as mayor? When will it end, will he sell out Maryland to become president?

I can certainly understand why Carcetti can’t govern well. As the old mayor says, he has to eat shit from so many people, he can’t help but think about what it would be like to be in a position of more power. However, the more power he has, the less freedom. The reason Colvin can do something like Hamsterdam or the corner class is that he’s out of the spotlight. No one hears about Hamsterdam for months, but if Carcetti was to try something radical, it would come out immediately. The thing is, sometimes doing the right thing is more important than political success. If he decided to just do the right thing, he might not get elected, but he could make a big impact. However, the definition of the right thing is very nebulous. Was Hamsterdam the right thing to do? In some ways yes, but it also had a lot of downside. Things are not so easy as right and wrong, but one thing’s for sure, Carcetti is placing his own ambition ahead of the city.

Elsewhere, this season was arguably the most devastating for Bubbles. The worst moment for him was when McNulty doesn’t understand he’s trying to get clean and basically forces him back onto drugs in season one. However, the repeated beatings get pretty close. He had found a kind of equilibrium on the streets. He may not be thriving, but he’s got his cart and is at least earning a living. However, his financial success makes him a target.

On the street, the only law is violence. He can’t turn to the police to stop this guy because they don’t care about him, and approaching them might get him in even more trouble. Basically, Bubbles has to take it. He is not strong enough to stand up to this guy and he’s either got to give him his money or get beat.

The whole season sends Bubbles on a really hellish journey. He attempts to help Sherrod get at least some basic knowledge, and one of the saddest scenes is when we find out that Sherrod doesn’t even know how to read. The way I read it is that Bubbles came from an at least somewhat stable family, and went through school until he got hooked on drugs. The drugs pulled him down, away from the life he once led. We get a glimpse of what that was in season one when he goes out to his sister’s.

He’s clearly a smart, charismatic guy, but the drugs pulled him down, and now he sees Sherrod going down that same path. Bubbles is one of the few people on the show with a high level of self awareness. He knows he’s just a dope fiend, and selling stuff from the cart is an attempt to at least own that and take control of his destiny. He doesn’t want to beg. However, as long as he’s on the street, as long as he’s using, things can’t go well.

He’s also a victim of Herc’s campaign of fuck ups this season. One of the most interesting pieces of the season is watching what power does to Herc. After rising to sergeant because he caught Royce getting a blowjob, he uses his power to fuck over everyone he comes into contact with. He’s a user, he uses Bubbles for information then lies about his plan to help him. It’s hard to watch the scene where Bubbles thinks he’s one step ahead of the guy, only to watch Herc ignore his call and doom Bubbles to another beating.

The sad thing is Herc doesn’t even realize he’s done anything bad. To the end, he’s ranting about how he was the one who got screwed during the season. We got a sense of how bad Herc could be during the Hamsterdam stuff, when he leaks Colvin’s experiment to the press to try and shut it down. He doesn’t understand this kind of policing, he’s all about the rip and runs, not considering the human damage left in his wake. The end of the season implies that he’s off the force, but I’m sure we’ll see him doing something next season.

Things go even worse for Bubbles when, predictably, inevitably, Sherrod ends up taking the ‘hot shot’ and dying. At this point, Bubbles is completely broken and just needs to get out. He’s lost another friend and wants off the street, even if it means going to jail. So much happens in the finale, it’s easy to forget about the opening, but the Bubbles interrogation is a perfect dance between humor and total sadness. It may be Landsman’s finest moment, as we watch his usual cynicism completely crack when he sees Bubbles’ hanging.

This leads to one of the most painful scenes in the series, when Walon goes in to talk to Bubbles in the detox facility. As a viewer, I’m right there with Kima, unable to go in and talk to him. He is completely broken at this point and it pains her to watch, even from behind glass. I was really surprised to see Walon back, but it was a great touch and is a good way to bring things full circle. It’s a devastating end of the season for Bubbles, and another year of absolutely incredible acting from Andre Royo.

Looking at the fifth season promos, it seems that we start with Bubbles in NA. Will he kick drugs? I think everyone watching the show wants it to happen. I know I do, but at the same time, will the show give us that? Would the world give us that? Some people do get out, and I like to think that Bubbles will. In the past few seasons, he seems less addicted than before, drugs have lost their allure for him, and the lifestyle has worn him out. I think he’ll really try this time, and with the proper support, hopefully he can make it. But, it’s hard to say.

It’s a testament to the writing that I can think about the character in terms of psychology more than as just a pawn to be moved around by the writers. They’re not going to do what’s most shocking or pander to the viewers, I think they’ll give the character the ending he would have in reality. It could go either way, but recovery from drugs is something we haven’t seen yet on the series and I hope we get it.

On top of all this goodness, we’ve got what’s ostensibly the main plot of the series, Marlo Stansfield’s bodies and the struggle to discover them. I still don’t think the Marlo crew can match what Avon and Stringer were to the series. Those two characters absolutely owned last season, and were what held my interest during the uneven second season. When I saw Stringer die, I was wondering why it had to happen, couldn’t he stick around? There was plenty more story for him. I still think that’s true, it would have been fascinating to watch Stringer rise up through the ranks and become more a part of the legitimate political game. The fanboy in me would love to see a parallel universe what if story in which Clay Davis doesn’t screw over Stringer, and Stringer eventually becomes a city council member or something like that.

However, it’s perhaps the highest testament to the show that they can lose the two most compelling characters and still deliver arguably the best season yet. Marlo still isn’t that compelling, the real attention grabbers on that storyline are Chris and Snoop. Snoop is just off the wall, I love her accent and distinctive style of speech. Any scene with the two of them was fantastic, and despite her frequently comedic antics, they never lost their menace. I don’t know what’s scarier, Chris’s total intensity and commitment to what he does or Snoop’s seeming indifference to the murders.

Either way, the murders in the vacants are visually fantastic, and offer a perfect mystery for our crew. From the hilarious opening scene where she buys the nail gun on, Chris and Snoop are professional in a way that puts even Avon’s season one organization to shame. For the show to work, the MCU needs a foe who’s just as skilled as they are. One of the problems with season two was the fact that Frank Sobotka was so incompetent, there was no question he was going to get either caught or killed. With Marlo, it’s harder to say, and even though the bodies are eventually found, and Freamon knows who killed them, it’s impossible to prove it.

As I was talking about earlier with Bodie, Marlo is a different breed of gangster. His entire crew loves the violence. With D’Angelo, and even Stringer, you got the sense they respected the police, they understood it was all part of the game and would only go after someone they knew had flipped. Marlo changes things by killing anyone who’s even touched by the police. He knows his weaknesses and is not going to let any of them be exploited. However, his total coldness causes problems for the everyday guys out on the street.

I suppose Marlo is trying to create a network of people he trusts. He feels the Barksdale guys are soft, and that’s why he’s eager to take out Little Kevin or Bodie. He’s building up his network from the bottom by buying the loyalty of the kids on the street. If he pays off the kids, and kills any witnesses, he’s going to create a mix of loyalty and fear that will allow him to run the community how he wants it. After killing Bodie, he puts his own man on that corner. Marlo is like Wal Mart, coming into the community, wiping out the mom and pop stores and exerting central control over every aspect of the game.

One of the most brilliant things they did by focusing on the kids this year is that those four kids’ stories function as the hypothetical backstories for many of the kids on the show. Looking at Bodie or Poot, we can imagine they were like Dukie, brought into the game because it was convienent, and then they wound up spending all their lives there. Avon or Stringer were probably part of a similar street crew, moving up from hoppers to run everything. The most obvious parallel was Chris and Marlo, both victims of childhood abuse, and we get a disturbing view of Michael’s potential future in Chris’s total soullessness. It’s a cyclical thing, all the hopes and the dreams of these kids get crushed along the way, leaving them on those corners with no hope of ever leaving. Bodie died on his corner, do we have any reason to believe things will be different for Dukie?

Along with Marlo’s rule on the street, we his involvement with the co-op. It’s always a joy to get more Prop Joe, the smoothest talker on the show. Prop Joe is working a whole bunch of deals at any time, and I’m thinking he’s going to be taken out by Marlo next season. Marlo joined the co-op for Prop Joe’s connections. He’s going to learn everything he can from the guy, then kill him and take over his organization. If the theme of the show is generational change, the older guy’s got to go and Marlo’s got to ascend.

However, the wild card in all of this is Omar. After getting set up and sent to prison by Marlo, Omar’s got a reason to target him. The end of the season implies that he’ll be leaving Baltimore, however, I’m assuming he’ll be back and will likely feature in the campaign to take down Marlo. This season, Omar filled in for Freamon, doing long term surveillance, piecing together the nature of the co-op and ultimately robbing them for a couple million dollars.

The season leaves us with three major players outstanding: Prop Joe’s co-op, Marlo’s crew, and the Greeks. I was shocked to see Spiros back, but bringing the Greeks in would be a great way to take everything full circle, and clear the way for a truly apocalyptic battle. Marlo wants to circumvent Prop Joe and go through the Greeks himself, but it’s unclear if they’ll be up for that. Simon said that this story was a two season story, so we’re basically at a stasis point here, nothing is resolved and next season’s going to have a whole bunch of story to go through.

And, going up against all these drug dealers we’ve got the Major Crime Unit, which is now back in action, thanks to the efforts of a newly empowered Daniels. Daniels is being groomed for the commissioner spot, and his lunch with Carcetti in the closing montage is a clear indicator where things are going. Daniels buys into Carcetti’s “morning in Baltimore,” and the question now is whether Daniels is going to be able to take power without getting corrupted by it. Every other authority figure on the series has lost their sense of right and wrong when given the opportunity to advance politically. Will Daniels revert to season one bureaucrat mode, or is he going to continue to fight the good fight?

Most of the police characters don’t have much to do this season. Kima and McNulty continue their parallel character tracks, even though they’re separated this year. Both have essentially given up on trying to make a difference and decided to enjoy life rather than obsess about the job. In McNulty’s case, he’s barely on the show, popping up in about half the episodes and staying in the background most of the time. The implication is that the policing and his alcoholism are the same addiction. He goes cold turkey on both, and is able to create a happy homelife with Beattie.

However, the end of the season puts this health into question. He’s drawn back into action, and next season, he seems to be on the job and off the wagon. I’ll be happy to see the crusading McNulty back. After season one, he didn’t seem like an essential character, but I loved seeing him and Bunk working together, and I want to spend more time with him. The same is true for Kima, I hope their partnership from season three is revived, and they can help each other keep their lives together.

Freamon and Bunk are still Freamon and Bunk, always fun to watch, but not really changing. One of the things I love about the show is the way the characters really care about what they do, but they treat it as a job. If Bunk can solve the case, fine, if he can’t, he’ll still walk off and have a beer and go about his business. I saw Zodiac a few weeks ago, and the portrayal of police work felt totally false next to The Wire. There, we got the same old clichéd detective, or cartoonist, who becomes so obsessed with a case, he loses touch with his life.

Now, you could argue this was the same arc we saw with McNulty and Kima last season. But, the difference is, the case and their catting around were wrapped up in one inextricable union. The case was freedom from domestic bond, and that was the addiction, not some need to solve the case in and of itself. It’s refreshing to see people in fiction who treat their job like a job, not an obsession. Zodiac was just so clichéd when you look at it next to The Wire. Watching the show makes you realize how much of what we see in fiction is genre shorthand, people who behave like they’re in a movie, not like people in the real world.

So, that pretty much covers the season. It did a wonderful job of setting up the final year, with all kinds of factions moving around, trying to take each other down. It’s tough to speculate, but after watching this season, I’m confident they’ll deliver something spectacular. The show’s scope has continued to expand as it’s gone on, and the addition of the schools gave this season a really special, deeply emotional impact. The season finale in particular was full of one overwhelming scene after another, it’s a work that lives up to the unbelievable level of hype circling around it.

Probably the only issue I do have with the series is David Simon’s slightly condescending tone when talking about it. Listening to the commentary on the last season, it gets a bit warying to hear him talk about how they’re not doing what a ‘tv drama’ would do. Yes, the show is better than pretty much everything else in television history, but it still is a TV drama. The Wire and Heroes may be worlds apart, but being a TV drama isn’t inherently bad. What I do like is hearing him talk about what he’s doing couldn’t be done in a film, and that’s he’s consciously aware of the power that four seasons of backstory gives to the show.

TV may have its issues, but we’re in a golden age right now, and even those TV dramas Simon cracks on are much better than their equivalents twenty years ago. I really hate it when people say I don’t watch TV, or ask why TV sucks so much now. People, you don’t say I don’t read books because the National Enquirer or Us Weekly exist. Reality shows and shitty formulaic dramas are as removed from The Wire as those aforementioned pieces of writing are from Dickens. And, I really hate it that people treat reading a book as somehow inherently superior to watching a TV show.

Cinema is the medium that most accurately reflects our world, it can capture in a lens the full range of senses, and when used properly, it can do things that no written word can. Sadly, so few people take advantage of what the medium can do, we’re led to believe that books must be better. The Wire is a defining work of our time, and one day, will be canonized as such, along with its fellow longform TV series like The Sopranos, John From Cincinnati and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’ll be blogging season five episode by episode as it airs, and am really excited to see it. Having a new episode of something like The Wire every week makes it a lot easier to get through the work week, it’s like having Christmas once a week for ten weeks. So, get the RSS feed ready, I’ll have more on The Wire soon.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Wire: Season Four: Part One

NOTE: This covers the whole season, it's just broken into parts because there's so, so much to say.

The Wire’s first season was a masterpiece, a near flawless season of television. After watching it, I wondered, how much better could the show get? But, these past two seasons have completely annihilated the first season with a startling ambition that’s unmatched by anything else that ever aired on TV. With the Barksdale storyline wrapped up, the fourth season shifts focus to a new set of gangsters, drug kingpin Marlo Stansfield and Baltimore mayor Tommy Carcetti. It’s more of a slow build than season three, but watching the final two episodes of the season last night was an overwhelming experience, absolutely devastating in a way that feels earned and not at all manipulative. I’ll need a few more days to place the season in terms of TV history, but both this and year three rank with the best seasons of all time. You could make a very strong argument that this two season run is the strongest any show has ever done.

With so much going on this season, I’m going to break out things by character and delve in from there. Things will all overlap, but there’s seriously so much, I could go on and on and barely scratch the surface. One of the most astonishing things about the show, despite Simon’s insistence that it’s about story, not character, is that at least thirty characters have significant growth and change over the course of the season. Even people who are off to the side, like McNulty, have very significant and motivated stuff happen to them. The act of doing nothing is significant in and of itself. That’s good writing, making everything serve the show rather than just struggling to give people something to do.

The Kids

Let’s start it off with the kids, the new addition of the season, and the hinge on which everything else turns. I’d heard a lot of raves about this season before I watched the show, and knew the basic structure, that it would follow four kids over the course of a year. First, the performances are all amazing, more real and believable than almost any other child actor performance on record. The only reason these guys are getting Emmy nominations is because people just assume this is who they are, that Simon pulled them off a corner and started rolling the camera. But, it’s not like that, and that makes this all the more amazing. People rave about Jodie Foster in Taxi Driver, but even there, there’s an artifice that’s lacking from these kids. They go through so much and it almost never feels false. Even younger kids, like Kennard, sell it perfectly. The show is so realistic, you forget that these are actors, and that’s the best compliment I can give to the performances.

This season, more than the previous one, takes a bit of time to get going. It takes a few episodes to really understand who these kids are, and the world they’re living in. We’ve seen the corners, so it’s not shocking to see kids running wild on the streets. It wasn’t even shocking to see the chaos in the schools. The stabbing was extreme, but felt a bit false, so over the top, it becomes unbelievable. Maybe stuff like that happens, but it feels more like the action of one psychotic girl than a systemic problem. You expect the schools to be anarchic, and you expect Prez to struggle.

What’s not expected is what goes on with these kids at home. We’ve never really seen what it’s like once the kids leave the corner and go inside. Seeing Dukie’s brother, and his awful home life, gives you so much more appreciation for the struggles he goes through. The same is true for Michael, who is a father to his brother and his mother, the only person in the family with any sense of what needs to be done to survive. His mother is actively undermining his attempts to care for his brother, and that’s hard to watch. He has to grow up so fast, with all that to deal with, can we really expect him to try and do well in school?

But, the most shocking family was Namond’s. Seemingly the most well off, his mother is actually the biggest enabler. She has money and a comfortable, middle class house, but rather than using the wealth Wee-Bey is jailing for to give him a chance at a better life, she’s forcing him to follow in his father’s footsteps and go out on the corners to sell drugs. She is probably the best example of the warped moral universe the characters in the show exist in. For them, ‘the game’ is the only option, people who work real jobs are suckers, and never going to make any real money, and, looking at the schools, these kids are struggling to read, they’re not going to be able to go to college and escape.

This ties in with one of my favorite arcs over the course of the season, Bodie’s fall. Bodie is the everyman character on the streets, our window into the drug world for the entirety of the series. After season one, I was surprised to see him back in action, but each year, he’s been at the focal point of what’s going on. Bodie is someone who’s bought into the system, and believes that he can make a good living dealing drugs. It might be work, but it’s what he does and he’s happy to do it. That’s what he talks about when he meets with McNulty in the season finale, that he hasn’t shorted the count, he’s gone by the book and it’s gotten him nowhere. He may run a corner, but that’s still just a corner, next to people like Marlo, he is completely powerless.

What dooms Bodie is his loss of faith in the system. All the characters on the show are part of a system, and labor under the belief that they can change things. Sadly, they are almost always proven wrong, and have to come up with justifications for why they keep doing whatever they do. Carcetti can’t save Baltimore as councilman so he runs for mayor. Once he’s mayor, he decides he can’t save the city until he’s governor, so he justifies keeping things the same as they are because in the future, he’ll be able to do something.

Over the course of the season, Bodie grows increasingly frustrated with the way Marlo is running things, killing people for frivolous reasons. When he finds out that Little Kevin got killed because he was taken in by the police, even though he didn’t talk, Bodie is broken. This brings up a lot of old issues, mostly guilt over killing Wallace back in season one. What Marlo has done is a dark mirror reflecting himself. Seeing Marlo, he realizes just how brutal he was. Poot’s return from jail also reinforces the fact that nothing ever changes, you go to jail, you come back, you’re still on the corner. He no longer believes that anything will change, eventually he’ll get spit out the game and wind up either dead or in jail.

Bodie is the spiritual successor to D’Angelo. D’Angelo lost faith in the game and was ready to talk to the police, but his loyalty to his family prevented him from testifying. That’s the same thing Namond was dealing with, this false belief that loyalty to the family equals being a part of the family’s criminal enterprise. Bodie echoes to D’Angelo’s pawn speech to McNutly, now realizing that he can never make it to the end of the board and become a king. He’ll always be in the same place he is now.

I really love the way Bodie is aware of everything around him. He is able to get one over on the police after Hamsterdam because he knows how their system works, the rules that prevent them from making random arrests. The younger guys aren’t smart enough to realize that they can use the system to their advantage. Bodie seemed doomed from the moment at the end of season three when he walked alone on Marlo’s streets, hoods up, trying to stay alive.

By the fourth season, he’s eating with McNulty, recognizing that McNulty has no particular interest in busting him, he wants to take down Marlo for the same reasons that Bodie does. McNulty told D’Angleo that it’s the bodies police want, they don’t care about drugs, and D’Angelo told Bodie that. He doesn’t have that adolescent no snitching mentality that lead him to kill Wallace in the first place.

It’s hard to watch Bodie’s rage when they pull Little Kevin’s body out of the tenement building. Watching all the bodies pile up, he realizes just how awful Marlo is. These are people he knew, all dead now, and it doesn’t have to be that way. There were a number of moments where I just felt this incredible frustration, mirrored in the characters. Bodie is full of rage and takes it out on the cop car, he just needs to let it out in some way. Speaking with McNulty, he has an almost zen approach. He’ll talk to the police because it is the best thing for the health of the streets. It’s not even about moving away, like D’Angelo wanted to, it’s just about making it safe to walk the streets. This is his home and he has no desire for anything else, but Marlo has made him lose faith in what he’s devoted his entire life to.

Bodie says he feels old, the Barksdale generation is gone, the game is more fierce and it’s not for him anymore. I feel like he’s reaching the same place Cutty was at last season, where what he once just accepted feels alien and wrong. It’s not so much the morality of his actions that troubles him, it’s the fact that he knows he can’t ever be anything more than this. The American dream is the belief that with hard work, you can become something better. He’s worked hard and is all the same. He has lost faith in the system, and that’s why he’s willing to do something that so flagrantly violates the world’s code.

His death scene is not as epic as Stringer’s, but does soar above the show’s usual anchored realism. As he shoots out into the dark, he really doesn’t care if he lives or dies, he just wants to once again assert control over his domain. This is his corner, and he won’t let Marlo take it from him. I see Bodie as a mom and pop shop standing up to a giant chain. He’s doomed, but he’s not going down without a fight. It’s a stunning close for the character, and it’s so hard to watch him lying there, dead on the ground. For him, the entire season had a looming sense of doom, the feeling that his time had passed, and now in the end, it has.

This brings us back to the kids. Bodie is who they will be. If they stay on the corners, eventually they’ll realize that this is a hollow dream and won’t get them where they need to go. It may end like Bodie, dead on the corner, it may end like Stringer, screwed by an even bigger criminal, or it may end like Wee-Bey, in prison, but either way, it won’t end well. That’s what De’Londa doesn’t understand, and it’s why she may be an even worse mother than Michael’s. Michael drifts into drugs because he feels he has to, it’s the only way to gain control over his life. Namond is actively pushed by his mother to go out there on the corner, to go to prison, to do violence to others, and yelled at when he won’t.

Namond in some ways is the most childlike of the kids. Michael and Dukie had to grow up fast and take care of themselves, Randy is innocent, but a bit more self sufficient. Namond reminds me of kids I knew in middle school and high school, acting out and calling attention in that same way. Bunny takes him into the ‘corner kids’ group because he acts out the most, but he doesn’t have the soul for it in the way that Michael does. Namond is more reminiscent of the showy Barksdale generation while Michael is the new generation, committed to quiet violence. I couldn’t see Namond killing someone without going through some radically life changing experiences. If he hadn’t been taken in by Bunny, then maybe he would have reached that place, but the person we saw over the course of the season doesn’t have it in him.

That’s what’s made clear as the season progresses, primarily by contrasting him with Michael. Michael is strong, but so internalized, unwilling to let anyone in. During the early episodes, I was really hoping that they wouldn’t make Cutty into a sexual predator, I liked the character too much and the vibe with him and Michael was hard to watch. In retrospect, it’s clear that Michael is too scarred to accept any sort of affection from authority figures. He can’t go to press and he can’t go to Cutty, they both want to help him because he clearly has so much potential, but he won’t let them in.

There are two critical scenes for Michael, one is when he almost tells Prez about his stepfather’s return. He’s thinking about it, moments away from confiding, but ultimately decides not to. The sad thing is that, in light of how things go over the course of the season, the choice he made will probably work out better, at least in the short term. The system consistently fails these kids, what can Prez do to help him, send in social services? They will put him in a group home, take him away from his brother. That’s the fear that stops him from acting in a potentially better way, the risk of losing what little security he has.

The other critical moment is when Cutty goes after him on the street. We want Cutty to save him, instead he’s shot. Once Cutty gets shot, Michael recognizes how much this guy wants to help him. But, Cutty sends him away, I’m guessing he didn’t want Michael to get put in the system, to have to explain why he was hanging around and what happened that led to Cutty getting shot. He’s trying to protect him, but in pushing Michael away, he leaves him with no one to turn to but Marlo. Cutty tries his best, but ultimately he doesn’t know what the line is between bothering the kid and helping him. Maybe one more push and he could have gotten through to Michael, but as it was, he gave up and just let things go.

One of the most powerful scenes in the entire season was Chris’s assault on Michael’s stepfather. This is the one killing that he becomes emotionally involved in, it’s not business, it’s a chance to get back at whoever it was who abused him years ago. He and Michael have this unspoken connection, Michael never needs to actually say that this guy abused him, Chris knows, even as Snoop remains hilariously clueless. Chris is the only older male figure around who Michael can actually identify with, and he’s the one who ultimately wins his allegiance.

The change in Michael becomes evident when Namond’s out running his ‘crew’ on the street. Namond’s lieutenant is Kenard, a kid who looks about ten years old. He has to have such a young kid as lieutenant because he can’t get the respect of people his own age, he doesn’t have the gravity of a leader. Kenard winds up selling out the stash, presumably because he knows Namond isn’t going to do anything about it. Namond’s heart isn’t in the fight, but Michael’s is. Michael understands the game, and becomes a soldier because it seems like his only option. He gets his own apartment, he can watch over his brother and be self sufficient. He has everything he always wanted, and the saddest thing is that he’ll never have more. Having his own home, something that he should have gotten from his parents, cost him his soul, and from now on he’ll become more and more like Chris, enmeshed in the violent world until he’s eventually destroyed by it.

While Michael has the strong mentality of a soldier, Namond just isn’t cut out for it. His mother was able to give him luxuries and protect him from the worst things in the world. This very protection is what makes it so hard for him to go out on the corner. What ultimately saves Namond is that he’s been shown an authority figure he can have faith in. Arguably the show’s most noble character is Colvin, who consistently tries to alter the system, even at his own expense. The fall of Hamsterdam at the end of season three was excruciating because we had seen Bunny pour all his life’s work into this one creation, watched it start to work, and then had to watch it get torn down around him.

This season, he invests in a different kind of program, trying to save people before they get out on the streets. What Colvin does that the system won’t is engage with these people on their own level, working with the reality of their situation, not with unrealistic expectations. The people in the system would say that the people should just stop using drugs, or that these kids should just do the work, they don’t understand that the system keeps them down and locks them in these roles. They have no role models outside the world on the streets. The trip to the restaurant is a really effective scene because it shows just show skewed their view of reality is, they’ve never been to a place like this and have no concept of that world. It’s notable that the questions on the state test are about how much to leave for a tip, while Bunny has to work just to show these kids how to order at a restaurant.

Colvin is positioned as a midpoint between the conservative, immobile institutions and idealistic liberal academics. Neither group completely understands how things work, but Colvin is able to come up with something that can work in practice. The class he runs isn’t perfect, but it does help these kids. In his class, they learn how to learn. They learn the manners and rules that they never got from their parents, and are given strong authority figures who won’t back down when confronted with even the most extreme behavior.

Looking at the issue of tracking is interesting. I went to school in the suburbs, a world away from what we see here. There, the smarter kids were tracked up, I had virtually every class with the same fifteen or so people for the last three years of high school, and it was a lot like this. We were taught what we needed to know for the AP tests, to get the results the school wanted. They did not care if we really learned the material or engaged with it, the entire year was about learning what would be on the test and practicing for that. Not learning European history isn’t the same as not learning basic reading and writing, but I experienced that same focus on test results at the expense of all else.

Talk about juking stats, on our eighth grade New York State Regents tests, the teacher went around and ‘checked over’ our answer sheets, tipping people off about wrong answers. In ninth grade, two people taking the test asked the teacher to come over and check their work because they got different answers to a question. That’s one thing that wasn’t even brought up here, I’m sure the teachers are being encouraged to cheat, everyone looks good if you get higher scores, the administrators like it, the parents like it, the kids like it, but at what cost? Do you want to teach kids that it’s ok to cheat, that getting a good test score is more important than knowing the material? I’d hope not, but that’s the message we got.

I never really liked school until high school. I always did well, but it came pretty easy, and didn’t engage me. In high school, I had two English teachers who let us write essays on pretty much whatever we wanted. This was part of preparing for the AP and regents tests, but what it did was engage me with writing in a way I had never been before. I was really surprised when I went to ninth grade and was told I could write an essay about any character I wanted, not just ones from the books we had read in class. I wrote about Luke Skywalker and had a lot of fun doing it. As the very existence of this post shows, I love to write about stuff, but I like to write about what I like to write about, not necessarily the stuff we read in class. I just have a sort of adverse reaction to what most authority figures in school tell me to do. I find there’s a lot of arrogance in the academic world, be it in high school or college, but there were a few teachers along the way who taught me a lot and really made an impact.

But, throughout it was engaging on my level that made me interested. If I could write about movies and the stuff I liked, I’d put more effort into it, and learn more. And that brings us back to Bunny, who recognizes that it’s all about engaging the kids on their level, and getting them to talk about what they know. People always want to feel like the experts, he makes it so that the kids are teaching him about their lives, and in the process he’s able to understand what they need to know. Because he lets them express themselves, they have enough respect for him to listen to what he’s saying and actually engage with what’s going on in the class.

I do think some of those class scenes bordered on sociological lecture and were less dramatically engaging, but there were enough good moments that it worked on the whole. It’s a huge testament to what Bunny did when Namond calls him after he gets busted by the police. Colvin has made himself into a benevolent, but tough authority figure and earned the respect of Namond. When things go bad at the end of the season, Colvin returns to help him again.

Namond’s breakdown in the gym is a really tough moment to watch. He’s been rejected by his mother, with nowhere left to turn, and the weight of that overwhelms him. Namond basically disappears after that as we watch Colvin bargain for his soul with Wee-Bey. That scene, much like the McNulty/Bodie scene is a really fantastic piece of work. For someone like Marlo, just getting captured by the police is reason to murder someone. He’s brash and young, like the guys who attack Randy for being a snitch. As people age, they recognize that police or dealer, you’re part of a system and just doing your job. Colvin and Wee-Bey can engage with each other because they’re from the same streets and understand the world in the same way. They also both know that there’s no future on the streets, and time in prison has forced Wee-Bey to reassess his view of the world.

That fantastic scene is echoed in Wee-Bey’s verbal smackdown on De’Londa. De’Londa still wholeheartedly believes in the game, and it takes Wee-Bey to make her consider that maybe it isn’t the best idea for her son to be a soldier. The line that lingers for me is Wee-Bey asking why Namond should be a solider when he could be anything else. I don’t think any of these kids really believe that they could be whoever they want to be, they don’t hold on to that piece of the American dream. They’re going to be on the corners, that’s the only option. Wee-Bey recognizes that if Namond can get a way out, he should take it.

Also notable in this scene is De’Londa feeling like Wee-Bey will stop caring about her if Namond leaves. This explains some of her behavior earlier in the season. She thinks that Wee-Bey would want his son to be like him, and if she raises a weak son, it’ll disappoint her husband. Her role in the game is to give him kids, and without a kid, what role is left? That’s how warped her worldview is, and it’s only in that last scene that she’s forced to question her belief in the game.

Anyway, Namond gets probably the only happy ending in the entire season. He’s got a family that cares about him, and gives him a home life and structure that encourages him to do well in school and advance in life. Colvin is an expert at knowing the right people to get things done. Where all the other characters fail to protect their kids, he saves Namond from the street. The implication of the last scene is that Namond may miss the street, in the same way that Wee-Bey and Colvin nostalgically look back on their younger days, but he knows that he’s in a better place now.

You can’t say the same for the other kids. Both Randy and Dukie have just awful troubles at the end of the season. Dukie’s is a bit less overtly awful. Things are looking up in the last episode. He’s living with Michael, and even though Michael is very different from the kid we saw at the beginning of the year, he’s still loyal to his crew. That loyalty never slips, even when Randy’s called a snitch, Michael still fights for him. And, when Dukie comes to him in need, Michael helps him out.

In a twist only The Wire could pull off, Dukie’s success in the system sends him up to high school and away from his friends and everyone who made him successful. In the eighth grade, people had his back, now there’s no one there to help him, and the thought of going through school without his crew is too much. He gives Prez a present for helping him, but lavishness of the gift, and Dukie’s unconvincing explanation for why he’s not at school tells him everything we need to know.

One of the single most devastating images of the series happens during the season ending montage, when Prez sees Dukie on the corner, dealing drugs. This scene is a wonderful example of the show’s restraint. Prez has just been told that there’ll be another Dukie next year, he can’t save all the kids. Prez from the start of the year would have been out to talk to Dukie and try to save him. Now, he has become a part of the system. He’s still a good teacher, but he recognizes that he can’t do everything for these kids. He has to drive away and let Dukie be, I’m sure it kills him inside, but what can he do?

For Dukie, a life on the corner seemed inevitable. The sad thing is that he clearly had so much potential. We see that in all these kids, through the eyes of their adult mentors, the person they could be. But, those adult authority figures can only do so much. Michael’s the one looking out for Dukie, he gives him a house, and he gives him a job. They were part of a crew early in the season, they are part of a crew now, it’s just a different kind of crew.

I’m really curious to see what happens to Dukie and Michael next season. Michael seemed exhausted during the montage, the weight of his first murder weighing heavy on his conscience. But, when Chris speaks to him, he seems to perk up. My guess is that Michael is gone, he’s a part of Marlo’s crew. He’s not someone like Bodie. Bodie was a drug 9 to 5er, it as a job for him, for Michael, it’s a life. I think he buys into Marlo’s crew as an extended family, and Chris is the brother watching out for him. For the first time, he has that security of someone caring for him, and it’s a relief. That moment in the car is the first time we see him really relax, in that moment he feels safe.

But, where can he go from here? Will he and Dukie be peripheral characters in the background, or will their allegiance to the street be called into question. While I’d love to see someone try to help Dukie, the view of the show, and of reality, is that once you’re on the corner, it’s not easy to get off it. Everyone who’s thought about leaving has wound up dead. I can’t say for sure, but I think Dukie’s going to be a guy like Poot or Bodie, never a leader, he’ll just do his thing and play things by the book. It’s sad, but that’s what fate has given him.

That brings us at last to our final kid, Randy. Much like Namond, the presence of an adult authority figure in his life makes it easier for him to be a kid. But, things quickly go bad when he encounters institutional authority figures. Much like the police do, Donnelly forces him to ‘testify’ against someone in order to save himself from punishment. Things don’t get really bad until he encounters Herc.

Herc this season is a force of awfulness, leaving broken people in his wake as he cuts corners and abuses his unearned authority. Randy is one of his major victims, his testimony first ignored then repeated to Little Kevin to try to sting him. Herc is the one who dooms this kid because he’s bad police. He thinks only of himself. It’s interesting to look at the stolen camera storyline, which starts out as a goofy comedy plot, but eventually destroys two of the series’ most vulnerable people.

The real drama of Randy’s story comes in the last two episodes. Carver is trying to look out for him, but there’s only so much he can do. The people working under him abandon their detail and let Randy’s house get attacked. It’s a really sad moment, and Carver’s guilt only mounts as he tries to look out for the kid. He promised he would save him and there’s nothing he can do. One of the most haunting moments of the season is Carver walking down the long white hallway of the hospital as Randy asks him what he’s going to do to save him.

The sad thing is Carver is one of the most noble cops on the show, someone who’s grown up so much over the course of the series. In season one, he and Herc are an essentially comic duo, who are also potentially dangerous. However, after working under Colvin on the Hamsterdam project, he sees the capacity of police to actually make a difference in peoples’ lives. At the beginning of the season, we see him dealing the kids in a way that the ‘rip and run’ crews could only imagine.

But, along with a belief that one can make a difference comes disappointment when he fails to do so. He believed in Hamsterdam and it was tough to see him watch it destroyed. Here, he sees the chance to do something good for this kid, and just can’t cut through the layers of bureaucracy. At points in the last episode, we’re led to believe that all these kids might get adopted and get a good home. Carver finally steps up and offers to care for Randy, but the system once again shuts him down. The three month waiting period was made with good intentions, but in this case, it winds up dooming Randy to an awful life in a group home.

A central tenet of the series is that bureaucratic systems prevent people from doing good, and exist only to sustain themselves. Attempts to change things are dismissed for a variety of reasons, and it’s the individuals who suffer. Systems don’t allow for exceptions, but in real life, there are so many unforeseen circumstances, flexibility is needed. Hamsterdam is a perfect example of something that was working, a total reimagining of what the ‘drug war’ could be, but it looked wrong to people used to having things a certain way so it was quickly shut down. People don’t care if something works, they can’t support ‘legalizing drugs.’ It’s the same kind of broken thinking that enmeshes us in Iraq, we can’t admit to ‘losing’ this war when the reality is the war itself was completely misguided from the beginning. You can’t win a war on drugs and you can’t win a war on terror with violence. Those wars are only won by creating support structures that remove the desire to do violence in the first place, and that’s a near impossible task. But, the quickest way to win the war on illegal drugs is to legalize them. Why can’t anyone see that?

Anyway, Carver brings Randy to the group home. The saddest thing about this scene is that Randy isn’t even mad, he thanks Carver for trying so hard. This is a kid who’s so used to things being fucked that he’s thankful that someone just tried, the same someone who instigated all these problems in the first place by turning Randy over to Herc. I think that makes Carver even sadder than he would have been if Randy had yelled at him because it shows what a good heart this kid has. However, that good heart will quickly be broken down as he struggles to defned himself against the kids at the group home. In the montage, we see him throw the first punch. It certainly won’t be his last.

But, Carver is left there to think about what he could have done to save this kid, and the frustration just pours out during his attack on the car. It’s a scene that would feel over the top out of context, but in that moment, I wanted him to just pound that fucking car. Much like Bodie at Little Kevin’s death site, the rage at what’s happening pours over and you need some catharsis from the character. Carver has tried so hard and been unable to save this kid. The system is so flawed, he can’t do anything. But, at least he’s trying.

The nature of the system is illuminated again in Colvin’s meeting with the ‘mayor.’ Colvin has once again tried to change the system, and come up with something that’s not perfect but is better than what was. However, it’s promptly rejected because it’s tracking, and doesn’t fit with No Child Left Behind. An entire season’s work is gone in that one moment, because parents might complain, and we can’t endanger the reputation of Mayor Tommy Carcetti. It’s interesting to watch Colvin’s inability to connect with people in this world. With Wee-Bey, he was able to smooth talk his way to anything, but at the mayoral mansion, he just can’t do it. In his own way, Colvin is just as removed from ‘polite society’ as the kids he’s teaching were.

Leaving the mayor’s office, Colvin wonders when this is going to change, the question pretty much everyone on the show is wondering. Things are spiraling and getting worse, every good idea rejected in favor of business as usual. Parenti says that at least they’ll have some good research and get attention for his paper. I think this is the moment when Colvin realizes that maybe the best difference he can make is not systemic, the institutions are so broken he can’t do anything to change them. However, if he takes in Namond, he can at least save one kid, and that’s a start.

Assuming this is it for Colvin on the show, he’s chosen a similar way out as McNulty last season. He’s given up on trying to save the world and conceded that the system has won. But, he can still be happy, and maybe that’s enough. I loved the character over these past two seasons, and I hope he at least shows up for a cameo in season five. While Hamsterdam will be his biggest legacy to me, this season also had some fantastic stuff for him.

I think this is already the longest post I’ve ever written for the blog, so we’ll take a break and return tomorrow with part two, which will include, among other things, the total bastardization of Carcetti, the sad tale of Bubbles, the crazy exploits of Chris and Snoop, Omar’s surveillance ops, Marlo and Prop Joe’s delicate dance and, oh yeah, isn’t this a cop show or something, so some stuff on the old MCU. Stay tuned.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Final Crisis and the Fourth World

Today, DC released the first art and some new details on Grant Morrison’s upcoming Final Crisis. From what Didio says, the New Gods are going to have a big role to play in the series, something that makes me very happy. I’ve been reading through the Fourth World Omnibus books, and loving them. Kirby’s work is bursting with crazy ideas, and an overarching central narrative that’s rich with subtext and relevance to today’s world.

After Seven Soldiers, Grant was supposedly working on a big New Gods project. It seems to have been folded into Final Crisis, which has been widely speculated to feature the birth of the Fifth World, and the ascension of the current DC heroes to God status. This concept was introduced by Grant during his JLA run, when Metron said “We have shown you the shape of the world to come. Now you must find the way there.”

Now, the question that comes up is how final the Crisis is. The DCU is now a multiverse, so they could in theory end the stories on Earth 1, and spin stuff off to different worlds for the future. I would love to see Grant get the opportunity to write the end of the universe as we know it, to send the characters off to their final destiny and leave that as the testament for his recent DCU work. Every longform series Grant has written, except for JLA, has ended in such a way that you don’t really need more stories. Whedon’s X-Men feels like fanfic because it is continuing a story that didn’t really need to be continued. After Return of the Jedi, you don’t need more Star Wars, you could make some and it might be good, but the story is over. That’s how I feel about X-Men, Animal Man and Doom Patrol.

However, his larger DCU work remains largely incomplete. Seven Soldiers ended with one of the greatest single issues of all time, but I would still kill for more Zatanna or Mister Miracle. 52 also left me wanting to follow the characters’ exploits further. Final Crisis could be an opportunity to synthesize everything he’s done since JLA into one massive statement about the fictional universe, and the New Gods will likely be a major part of that.

But, the major question now is, what are Grant’s New Gods going to be like? In the current DCU, the New Gods are apparently getting killed. However, Didio makes it clear that death for gods is only temporary. I think it’s poor storytelling to undermine the narrative credibility of a story by saying that death doesn’t really matter and is obviously going to be undone. But, I don’t care about the DCU as a whole as much as I do about what Grant’s going to do with it. I’m assuming he’s aware of what’s up with the New Gods, and their death will fit into his story.

Grant’s most extended take on the New Gods was Seven Soldiers: Mister Miracle, which took Shilo on a crazy journey through a world where the New Gods existed only as homeless people and crazy handicapped old men. Mister Miracle was my least favorite of the minis the first time from through because it was the most disconnected from the overall narrative, and virtually incomprehensible on the first read. However, on the reread, it really shone, and I’m looking forward to going back once I finish reading all of Kirby’s Fourth World stuff.

The central question of the work is whether any of it really happened, or if it was just a hallucination Shilo experienced while trapped in the black hole. It’s been a while, but as I recall, the myriad realities he passes through were hallucinations brought on by Darkseid. He was made to question his faith, his belief in the New Gods and the power of humanity to become something better. He confronted the anti-life equation and overcame it, coming out the other side an empowered being.

This would imply that the New Gods are in fact real, it was only in the alternate reality generated by the black hole that they weren’t. I’m hoping that Final Crisis will continue to explore what started in Seven Soldiers, this revisionist take on the New Gods and the power of light to overcome darkness. The series ended with Mister Miracle bursting forth from the grave, his power overwhelming the anti-life equation. Will we see the final destruction of anti-life and the birth of a new Golden Age? I don’t know, but either way, the shot of Metron has piqued my interest. Final Crisis is looking good so far, Morrison remixing Kirby concepts and hopefully bringing in stuff from his JLA and Seven Soldiers, all illustrated by JG Jones. That’s gold right there.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Daft Punk's Electroma

Daft Punk made my favorite album of all time, the pop epic Discovery. To me, it sounds like someone from a hundred years in the future trying to make music that sounds like the 70s and 80s. It’s simultaneously kitschy and totally sincere, never more so than on the standout track, “Digital Love.” Ever since Discovery, the band has been a bit frustrating. Taking four years to do a followup album, then boasting about how they made it in only two weeks, Human After All was something of a disappointment to everyone. I don’t think it’s so much what the album was, as the fact that it wasn’t like Discovery, it didn’t try to please an audience, it just did its thing.

I always liked the album, but it’s only in 2007 that it’s become clear that Human After All is a small piece of an expanding media empire for the band. They put on one of the greatest live experiences of all time, and have now produced a film that explores the themes of Human After All, and the band’s self created mythology in a really interesting way. This film is an assured piece of work, one of the most idiosyncratic and challenging debut features of all time, complimenting their recording work and, much like their albums, existing in a nebulous 70s/future state, somewhat retro, somewhat future, but certainly not anything like the world we live in today.

The precursor to this film is the three videos Daft Punk directed for Human After All. The first, Robot Rock, introduced the new look of their robot characters, black leather motorcycle outfits replaced the more colorful Discovery era look. Technologic expanded things, with the weird organic robot creature that spit the song’s lyrics. The best by far was “Primetime of Your Life,” a work that on the surface should be somewhat campy, a girl whose family is all skeletons feels she’s too fat, turns into a deeply disturbing work. It’s almost hard to watch the video, watch her literally tear herself apart. The album was minimalist, but the videos expand the song’s scope, in the same way that the live work does, reappropriating the pieces of Human After All as the base elements to support the more poppy hooks of their first two albums.

The final piece of the experiment is Electroma, a work that doesn’t actually feature any of their music, but still feels utterly of the universe they created in their recent work. The film feels a lot like Gus Van Sant’s recent death trilogy, rambling and minimalist, at times testing the audience’s capacity to engage with minimal images, and a non-narrative structure. Like in Van Sant’s films, the lack of plot allows us the engage more directly with the images and emotion of the moment. There’s no dialogue in the film, but we can still understand what the characters are feeling, and that’s a triumph of filmmaking.

Visually, the movie is consistently surreal and dazzling, recalling the varied sights and digressions of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain. By putting everyone in the film in robot helmets, ordinary scenes take on a menacing, otherworldly quality. The film’s first act is mostly about setting up this universe, showing the robot people going about their everyday lives, while our two main characters look on with trepidation. The filmmaking has a consistently slow pace, letting us dwell in the images before moving on. In that sense, the town scenes have a tableau quality, the people feel deliberately staged for us.

From there, we shift to the white room, where the two robots are remade into crude humans. Visually, this scene is amazing. The attendants wear pure white outfits, and blend in with the background. So, when they reach out to the robots, they it appears like an arm coming out of nowhere. When they carry stuff later on, the item seems to just float through the air. Here, the robots are given crude human faces, out of nasty flesh colored slop and false features. It’s a striking birth scene, simultaneously the most alien place in the film and the most relatable. Throughout, this film just hits so many visual motifs I love, a white room, robots, weird looking desert, cool leather jackets, this is the kind of stuff I like to see in movies, and Daft Punk created a movie with all of it.

One of the interesting things about movies is that the least respected movies and the most respected both rely almost exclusively on visuals. Big budget action movies are criticized for being nothing but eye candy, while at the same time, the arty crowd hails people like Malick and Wong Kar-Wai for making lush, visual opuses. I think the difference is that the big budget films don’t create any emotion in the visual, they just stick a CG effect out there and expect that to wow you on its own. With the WKW or Malick films, the visual dazzle is about creating an emotion. With Malick’s best works, it’s a surrender to a spiritual experience. The New World begins with an incantation to the gods, and the rest of the film is a trip back in time to a place and moment that once was.

Electroma is a similar kind of visual experience. This is a film where every frame is interesting to look at. The props are aesthetically interesting, and the visual composition striking. If I like looking at the images, it makes it a lot easier to enjoy a film. I love movies that focus on making images that pop and are fun to look at. Even a movie like Irreversible, horrifying as it is, is so visually striking, you can’t look away. The problem with classical Hollywood conventions is that they focus exclusively on telling a story and ignore the joy that can come from a great visual. When things are working well, the visuals contain in them emotion and thus enhance the story.

In this film, the images are meant to lull you into a trance, where you get lost in the rhythms of what’s going on. The story exists to provide additional emotional context for the images, but what we’ve got here is really just three silent short films where everything you need to know is in the visuals. The first of these was the trip through the town, the second is the robots’ experience with their human masks.

Wearing the human masks, they wander through the streets, getting odd stares from the townspeople. Read on an allegorical level, this film, like 2001, is about evolution. The robots go into the white room and come out changed, a new form of existence. However, this is a world that’s not ready for change. They want to be human, but only the surface is changed, not the soul. The human masks do not give the confidence of true humanity, instead they’re a caricature. It’s a robot’s attempt to be human, not the sincere thing.

The most disturbing section of the film was when their faces started melting and they were chased out of town. The camerawork here was very cutty and handheld, an obvious choice, but still effective. The really disturbing section was in the bathroom, as they tore the human masks off their robot faces. It’s the grunginess of the bathroom that makes it work. This isn’t the clean sci-fi space of the white room, it’s a nasty public bathroom, the dreams they had in the spirit-space quickly breaking apart when they come into contact with reality. That’s a central piece of the film’s thematic message, the dichotomy between the dreamspace of the white room and the real world. In the white room, the facial prosthetics look utterly convincing, when brought into the real world, they seem grotesque. For all we know, there was no white room, it was just the robots doing the makeup themselves.

Next up, they retreat into the desert, the section of the film that seemed to cause problems for most people. Yes, it’s a lowkey part, without much narrative drive, but it still works for me. They don’t push things as far as Van Sant does, there’s always something interesting going on, be it in the visuals or soundtrack. Throughout, the sound design and music are impeccable. I was disappointed when I heard Daft Punk weren’t going to be doing music for the film, but the soundtrack they’ve chosen is fantastic. Most of the songs have a 70s feel, and listening to them, you can hear the roots of Discovery. These songs are a bit softer though, with a couple resembling artists like The Carpenters. I always enjoy that 70s soft rock, and it’s often unjustly maligned. I don’t want a world where every band sounds like The Carpenters, but listening to them every once in a while is great.

The sound design, aside from the music, was very effective. There were odd, disconcerting tones creating a weird mood. Thomas Bangalter did the score and some sound work for Irreversible, and this film features some similar work, with the sound deliberately altering the way the audience views the film. Watching this movie makes you realize how little most films actually do with sound.

During the desert sequence, we segue into an interlude set to Linda Perhacs’ “If You Were My Man.” It’s a gorgeous 70s soft rock song, and while it plays we get helicopter shots of desert hills and mountains, which gradually segue into a shot of a naked woman from the ground level, positioned so that you’re not sure if it’s a woman or more mountains. It’s a really pretty sequence, and a succinct encapsulation of the film’s themes, the tremulous borders of humanity. What is humanity and how do we exist in relation to nature?

The film raises a lot of philosophical questions, but doesn’t delve too deeply into them. It’s more interested in what the visuals can do, and letting you bring your own meaning to the visuals. The lack of dialogue helps the film avoid the pretentiousness that could come with people talking. It’s a really relaxed movie, with a sadness hanging over all of it.

It’s interesting to me that Daft Punk chose to explicitly put their logo on the robots’ jackets. The robot characters they made were a fantasy personality put on to separate them from the press, to separate personality from the music. As such, we speculate not on how the film comments on their own lives so much as its relation to the mythology they constructed. Working in electronic music, there’s always this issue of where the ‘reality’ of their music is. The samples aren’t theirs, but they made them their own. In many ways, the film parallels I’m Not There in its exploration of false identities and the mythology surrounding a beloved musical artist. The closest we get to seeing the real humans behind Daft Punk are those grotesque masks. But, the film itself implies that they are not human, the robot beneath is the truth, no matter what they try to do.

The desert sequence eventually leads to despair as silver helmet robot decides to kill himself. The self destruction was a beautifully poetic sequence, the ticking clock setting us up for a stately demise, only to be jarred by the explosive death. This is where the film reminded me most of Jodorowsky, it hit the same spiritual place his work dwells in, the open desert a lonely and desolate place which tests man’s souls. There’s a deliberateness to the sequence, but it works. Once you’re in that headspace, you don’t want things to move faster.

The second robot’s attempt to kill himself is hard to watch, his inability to reach the self destruction switch. This leads to the gorgeous, haunting final shot of the robot on fire moving through total darkness. It’s a striking image, the total blackness of the surroundings really making it work. I wasn’t expecting the film to end there, I thought they would eventually meet some real humans, but end it did, and in retrospect, it would have been a betrayal of the story universe to have real humans.

Ultimately, this movie did what a film should, it presented astonishing images and put the viewer in another mental space. Movies like this are frequently rejected with the claim that you should only watch it under the influence of drugs. For me, the movie itself is a drug. It puts you in another mental space and lets you get lost and wander around there. The sights are breathtaking and beautiful. It bothers me that all children’s fiction is about wonder and strangeness, but once we get older, people want to reject that fantasy in favor of something more “real.”

Reality is not interesting in and of itself. I live the most realistic movie ever every single day and it’s not that exciting. But, representing those same conflicts and feelings in an allegorical genre space, as this movie does, basic conflicts become something extraordinary and wonderful. This movie is powerful and made with care and enthusiasm. Though it’s their first film, Bangalter and Homem-Christo have an innate understanding of how movies work. There may be some rough patches, but films are not about being polished and smooth, they’re about fire and excitement, and that’s what this movie has. This is a movie unlike anything else I’ve seen, and it’s easily one of the best movies of the year. It’s the kind of movie I want to see a lot more of.

EDIT: Here's an interview with Daft Punk about the film. It's rare they do interviews at all, so it's nice to hear them talk about the film. Hopefully they'll do a full commentary and give us some more background on the DVD.

There Will Be Blood

I caught Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film, There Will Be Blood at a press screening a few days ago. Anderson is without a doubt one of the best directors working today, Magnolia is my favorite film ever made, and his other three films are varying degrees of brilliant. Coming off Magnolia, he said “I have a feeling, one of those gut feelings, that I'll make pretty good movies the rest of my life. And maybe I'll make some clunkers, maybe I'll make some winners, but I guess the way that I really feel is that Magnolia is, for better or worse, the best movie I'll ever make.”

His follow up to Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love further develops the magical realist strain present in the former, and does some really interesting things with film form. So, I was excited to see where he’d go next. Unfortunately, There Will Be Blood is easily Anderson’s worst films, a move towards conventional filmmaking at the expense of the unique voice that shone through in his first four films. It’s not a bad movie, but it doesn’t ignite a fire in me the way his other films do. Watching those other movies, I’m awed at the power of what cinema can do, here, there’s some great moments, but the film never quite gets it together, primarily due to the lead performance by Daniel Day Lewis, which ultimately sinks the film.

One of the film’s greatest strength is its physicality. In the opening sequence, we see Lewis’s Daniel Plainview fall down a mineshaft, and the sound and impact of the scene is painful. We’re right there with him as he hits the ground, and the death of a derrick worker later in the film is similarly effective. In those moments, you really get the sense of the danger of this work, but also the sense of discovery. Plainview begins the film as one man in a hole, trying to find wealth, and that pain he feels will be vindicated later in the film.

The film’s strongest material in its first half. We quickly get a sense of who Plainview is, and are able to segue into the film’s central set piece, his creation of a new Little Boston, a town so rich with oil that it’s literally seeping out of the ground. I love watching works like Deadwood or The Wire’s third season that detail the creation of a new civilization. In those works, we understand how a singular vision can lead to vast changes in the lives of all involved. I was feeling a McCabe and Mrs. Miller vibe, with the wealthy industrialist coming to build a town that would make him money.

The film’s most successful bits center around Plainview recreating the town in his image. There’s an interesting moral position here, on the one hand he is exploiting them for their oil. But, if he builds a school and makes them all wealthy, where’s the harm in that? The opening of the derrick is a moment for celebration, and watching the town gathered, we understand the impact this will have. The quiet moments where Daniel and his son, HW, hang out with the locals are some of the film’s most successful, capturing a kind of Days of Heaven utopian feel.

And, this is where the film’s central conflict works best. Daniel and Eli Sunday are rivals throughout the film. In the beginning of the movie, that rivalry sears the screen with its intensity. When Daniel passes over Eli to bless the well, you just know shit is going down. Eli is steaming, but can’t say anything, and Plainview is laughing beneath his genial mask.

Things build to the film’s strongest visual setpiece, the fire at the well. This is another visceral moment, with H.W. nearly getting blown off the derrick by the force of the oil. There’s some beautiful shots of men running to put the fire out as burning oil gushes into the air. The sequence is intense and a wonderful piece of visual spectacle. There are few sights more dazzling than that fiery oil erupting into the sky as the derrick burns. When Daniel abandons his son to go back to the derrick, we know everything we need to know about him. His great accomplishment in the town is burning, everything seems to be falling apart.

At this point, I was liking the film, but not loving it. It was in a position where a strong ending could make it into a masterpiece. Unfortunately, nothing late in the film comes close to matching the intensity or visual spectacle of the burning derrick sequence. That should have been the end of the film, as a visual symbol of Plainview’s destruction, it’s perfect, we don’t need to see any more, that should have been the ending.

The rest of the film is a series of events that don’t really build to anything. Stuff happens, but I never got the strong sense of forward momentum that the film had at the beginning. This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if the characters were interesting in and of themselves, but they’re just not. The biggest danger when making a period film is to treat the characters like an alien, unknowable people. These characters are bound by artifice and I have no sense of them as people like you or me. They exist in a kind of mythic world that doesn’t feel emotionally real.

The best period films, like The New World or Marie Antoinette, manage to make the characters emotionally relatable. In The New World, the filmmaking itself conveys the universality of the emotions. The shots cut through the artifice of period speech and bring emotion to the fore. Here, Anderson’s style is less overt than what he used in his previous films. I love the breaks from realism of his previous films, the singing sequence in Magnolia, or the lens flares in Punch Drunk Love. They are not real in the sense of something that would happen in our world, but they let us engage with the characters in a way that just showing events cannot.

This film is well shot, but it doesn’t do a good job of making great cinematic moments. Much like No Country for Old Men, I can’t really fault any of the cinematography, but it didn’t hit me like a good movie should. The film flirted with Malick’s style a lot, even using Jack Fisk as production designer, but comparing the movie to Malick makes its failures clear. Malick creates an intensely subjective cinema, one where you’re absolutely drowning in feeling and beauty. Here, you’re always at a distance from the emotion, the filmmaking doesn’t draw you in.

The score is at fault here too. I heard a lot of hype about how unconventional and effective it is, but it sounds fairly straightforward to me. There’s no anachronistic elements, nothing that jumps out at you, it’s just dissonant, buzzing strings and other similar sounds. It’s nothing like Jon Brion’s Magnolia or Punch Drunk Love scores, which provide momentum and additional aesthetic beauty to those films.

I’d suspect Anderson wanted to go minimalistic for this film, to prove that he could make films without “gimmicks.” But, is Malick a gimmicky filmmaker? Is Wong Kar-Wai a gimmicky filmmaker? Those are the guys that Anderson matched up to in his past two films, creating these emotionally immersive, wonder filled epics. Here, he’s making a much more straight ahead film, and it really bothers me that people are calling it more “mature” or a major leap forward. This is exemplary of a bias in film criticism which holds that movies set in the past are somehow inherently more worthy than present day stuff. This movie doesn’t feel alive in the way that his others do, unfortunately, mature is frequently a euphemism for more conventional. But, as Alan Moore said, reality is much less interesting than fantasy, and the lack of stylistic flourishes hurts the film for me.

My guess is that Anderson felt Day Lewis would provide the film with all it needed, and his goal as a filmmaker was to just stay out of the way and let Lewis do his thing. Unfortunately, Day Lewis, in my opinion, is not a very good actor. Now, that may be blasphemy to some, so let me explain. For me, acting should be about becoming a character. The best performances are the ones that don’t feel like performances at all, where you assume they just found this guy on the street and put him in the film. However, critics and awards organizations don’t usually award those performances because they’re not showy, if a person seems just like the character they’re playing, it means they’re not acting right? That’s probably why The Wire hasn’t got any acting awards.

Anyway, Lewis is a frequently awarded actor, and has this mythology about his total commitment to every role. This is the guy who sat in a wheelchair for three months for My Left Foot, lived in the forest for a year killing deer for Last of the Mohicans, and apparently he actually took a time machine and lived in 1911 for this role. That’s devotion, right? But, it’s this very devotion to the role that distances me from his work. He always seems to be so intensely into the role, I think more this guy is acting up a storm than just looking at Plainview and thinking, huh, this is a troubled, nasty guy. The performance itself becomes a kind of spectacle, the intensity is so powerful that critics mistake that for good acting. But, to me, the intensity is such that I’m taken out of the film, it’s an extratextual intensity, not motivated by what’s in the film. I never get the sense of Plainview as a human being, Lewis may stay in character all the time on set, but no one in real life stays in character all the time. We shift and change depending on the situation, and I didn’t feel that capacity for varied emotion from the character.

This didn’t really become apparent until the film’s final scene, when Lewis goes so far over the top, I got completely taken out of the film and started watching a guy yelling and going nuts. Should Lewis not prepare so thoroughly, should he be less intense? Not necessarily, obviously the performance works for a lot of people, but this just isn’t a kind of acting that works for me. Anderson’s gotten some phenomenal performances in his previous work, from all kinds of people, and I feel like he lost control of Lewis here. Compare Lewis’s performance to Adam Sandler’s in Punch Drunk. I felt more genuinely scared by Sandler’s intensity because it boils beneath the surface the whole film, only coming out in occasional spurts. There’s no room to be over the top, but we’re always worried he’s just going to lose it. Because Plainview has essentially no foils and no limits, there’s no danger in him completely losing it.

In the case of the last scene, I guess we’re supposed to be worried about Eli Sunday, but Paul Dano is such a non presence in the film, I don’t really care. The problem with his character is that the moment where he sells his soul doesn’t feel weighty enough. It’s a sadistic act by Daniel, but I never emotionally engaged with Eli, so I’m distanced from the whole scene. Daniel has changed a lot over the last sixteen years, Eli not so much, or at least not that I can tell. He has become more like Daniel, but only in one scene do we see that in action.

I think what Anderson was going for was to show us the pain Daniel feels at HW betraying him taken out on Eli, but knowing what he was going for doesn’t excuse the failure of that scene. I think he was going for a Kubrick style almost comedic ending, but it just doesn’t work. Lewis’s performance in that moment kills it for me. It’s already an underwritten finale, and I feel like he’s trying to bring this film to a close by himself if it kills him. There’s an intriguing bizarreness about the scene, and who knows, maybe on another day the ridiculous over the topness would have worked me. But, on this viewing, it didn’t. I wanted something stronger for the ending, I wanted a moment that matched the burning derrick, but nothing ever came close to that. There’s a few good scenes in the second half, but on the whole, we get no sense of what Daniel did to the town, no sense of how the lives were changed, and no real sense of the man himself. For all Lewis’s bravado, Daniel remains essentially unknowable. Perhaps it’s a bold choice not to let him open up, not to show us his feelings, but it leaves me distanced.

I wouldn’t call the film a failure, it’s a solid three of four stars, but from Anderson, it’s a major disappointment. It’s not a step backwards so much as it’s a step away from emotionally real, cinematically dazzling storytelling, towards a more traditional period epic. People have hailed the film for recalling classic Hollywood epics, but most of those movies weren’t good ones. They weren’t as strong as the intensely personal epics that Anderson crafted with his previous three films. There’s no moments in this film that come close to the manic “Jesse’s Girl” scene in Boogie Nights, pretty much any scene in Magnolia, or the gorgeous color flood kisses of Punch Drunk.

Now, you may say I’m criticizing the film simply because it’s different from those other films, doesn’t live up to what I want PTA to be. To that, I say, if this movie wasn’t by Paul, I probably wouldn’t have written half as much. I want to understand how such a great director could misstep in this way. In some ways, it reminds me of Tim Burton’s Big Fish. That was a good, solid movie, but it lacked the personal spirit that infused his best work. People really responded to it, but I don’t know that anyone loved it in the way they loved Edward Scissorhands. Who knows how things will go? Perhaps this will mark the ascent of Paul Thomas Anderson, beloved Oscar winning epic filmmaker, or maybe it’s just a palette clearing exercise before he returns to more personal work. Ultimately, I can only say how I responded to the film, how I responded to the Day Lewis performance and where the film succeeded and failed.