Arctic Monkeys played “Cornerstone” off their latest album, Humbug last night on Craig Ferguson. Emily Tartanella praised the “gorgeous balladry of ‘Cornerstone’ that feels like pure brilliance.”
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True Blood season two wrapped up over a week ago, but I was a little behind on the episodes, so I just finished watching the finale the other night. And I think it’s worth discussing the high points and low points of the season on what has become HBO’s most popular show. Obviously, when talking about the season in total, major spoilers will appear throughout. So if you’re waiting for the dvd release, I’d recommend you skip this entry.
While the first season of True Blood started off slowly, with a few too many “Look, we’re on HBO and we can show explicit sex!” scenes, it gradually rounded into form and became a highly entertaining, engaging show. Season 2 started off intriguingly, as Sookie and Bill dealt with new teenage vampire Jessica, Jason was recruited by the Fellowship of the Sun, and Tara continued to spend most of her time with the mysterious benefactor Maryann and Eggs, a fellow recipient of Maryann’s generosity. On top of that, Lafayette was revealed to be alive, but trapped in a dungeon underneath the vampire bar Fangtasia. And at Merlotte’s, Arlene was getting over the death of her latest husband by cozying up to Gulf War vet Terry while new waitress Daphne was showing herself to be maybe the worst waitress the bar had ever seen.
The most important battle in any science fiction effort rarely takes place between two feuding lifeforms, on the surface of a hostile extraterrestrial planet or in the dark vacuum of space. Instead, creators routinely wage war with producers and studios over tone, direction, ambitions, and audience demographics. Naturally, they fear such specialized material won’t result in a mainstream moneymaker. In most cases, the situation is resolved through a kind of cinematic diplomacy, a backwards variation of the classic “too many cooks” conceit. Yet there are times when you can almost see said conflict bleeding through the chosen media.
A clear example of this aesthetic clash and compromise comes with the speculative CGI epic Battle for Terra. On the inside, there is an inspired story about friendship, courage, and the age old maxim about putting the needs of many before the needs of self. On the outside, however, is a hodgepodge of ideas - some successful, some specious - that sacrifice seriousness and invention for the same old George Lucas-lite look at man vs. alien interaction. It’s a dichotomy that even director Aristomenis Tsirbas acknowledges in the new Blu-ray release of the film.
In his story, Mala and Senn are two best friends living on a remote planet where aggression doesn’t exist and life is a celebration of tranquility and symbiosis with nature. While primitive in its religious and civic make-up, the land is serene and at peace - that is, until a wayward starship enters its atmosphere and dispatches several survey vessels. When Mala’s father is captured by one of these fast-flying craft, our intelligent young heroine gives chase, forcing one of them to crash.
She soon finds herself befriending a belligerent space pilot named Jim Stanton. He is one of several hundred remaining humans, the last vestiges of life on Earth. A massive war destroyed the planet, and the survivors have been traveling in an ‘ark’ ever since. Mala’s homeland seems like the perfect place for resettlement. Now, with the despotic Gen. Hemmer defying orders, an army of invaders is preparing to take over the newly named Terra, and turn it into a place fit for mankind - and unfit for any other ‘inhabitants’.
Based on Tsirbas’ celebrated short film and in development for over six years, Battle for Terra does have its high points. It looks gorgeous - especially when given the high tech polish of a complete HD makeover. It offers some impressive voice acting and musical accompaniment (the score is by Polish composer Abel Korzeniowski). The character design, while rather basic and blocky, puts us in the necessary otherworldly mood, and Tsirbas keeps things moving both sentiment and storywise. But overall, the film suffers from a struggling schizophrenia, unsure of whether to tie its filmmaking fortunes to old fashioned sci-fi like Fantastic Planet and Silent Running or the suped up space operatics of Star Wars and most kid-friendly animated attempts.
To hear Tsirbas tell it (on the accompanying commentary track), Terra was supposed to be a much darker and far more serious film. It was definitely designed around the current political clime, providing an allegorical insight into the sordid situation we find ourselves in. We are supposed to see the ark as America, brazenly confronting other countries with a ‘like it or lump it’ sort of attitude. It’s the War on Terror taken extraterrestrial. There was also to be insinuations of genocide and unsettling experimentation. Sacrifice and death were big items on his agenda and in the end, he hoped to show that via conciliation and mutual understanding (not threats of war and destruction) there is hope for something resembling harmony.
Desperate for a PG-13 rating and a shot at an underage fanbase, the studio said no. Thus began a back and forth that found many scenes toned down, original concepts (live action with computer generated inserts) scrapped, and some of the meatier material deemphasized for more cute robots, space stunts and explosions. Battle for Terra really suffers when we enter these long, drawn out dogfights, Tsirbas and his screenwriter Evan Spiliotopoulos unable to bring anything new or different to such standard action elements. It also distracts from the far more interesting ideas here - the Terrin society, their ocean-like existence high in the clouds, their own internal intolerances, Mala’s coming of age, etc. Thankfully, the voice talent (including a wonderful Evan Rachel Wood and a heroic Luke Wilson) helps overcome such struggles.
Thanks to the Blu-ray as well, we get some of this missing material back. The deleted scenes, while clearly unnecessary in this version of the film, hint at the bigger picture Tsirbas was pitching, and the intriguing Making-of featurettes show that, even in a less than Pixar capacity, it takes an awful lot to realize (and render) one of these titles. It’s also fun to hear the director dish on his favorite genre efforts, to highlight the homages and differentiate between his concepts and similar sounding stories that came before. Indeed, what we learn about Battle for Terra is that it doesn’t mind looking back. It wears its influences patiently and proudly. Without the direct interference from those convinced they know better, this might have been a work of unqualified wonder.
As it stands, Battle for Terra is a cinematic seesaw - up one moment, dragged down by derivative facets the next. There are parts here that will leave you gobsmacked. There are other sequences that never really gel. Since there are more winners than losers the overall movie really does work. You become invested in these characters and are eager to see the bad guys - on all sides - get their necessary comeuppance. It’s just a shame that Aristomenis Tsirbas and Evan Spiliotopoulos didn’t get to make the movie they really wanted to. They should be happy with the results here, but on some level, Battle for Terra does feel like a watered down version of something far more substantial and original. Even in this less than perfect form, however, their imagination and ambition shine through.
The new video for Octoberman‘s “Thirty Reasons”, from Fortresses begins naturally enough: a man with a guitar sits outside and sings a plea for somebody to come back home and settle down. His reasons are numerous—though we never hear the specifics—but ineffective, and the singer knows it: “But I know / the thirty reasons you / have to break away / and set out on your own”. Are pleading lover songs ever really about winning somebody back? Isn’t that sort of an outlandish expectation?
The natural vibe breaks when a woman comes on-screen with a bounce and a stolid two-step and a backing band appears with snaps and harmonies. The cracks and strains of frontman Marc Morrissette’s voice evoke an acute longing-for-longing’s-sake and it becomes clear: the song is an end in itself, a small bit of “peace of mind”.
In belated recognition of the recent release of Beatles CD remasters, I thought I should briefly discuss my favorite Beatles song.
“Dear Prudence” is the second track on the group’s 1968 double album The Beatles (more commonly referred to as “The White Album”). It was one of several songs the band members wrote during their early 1968 trip to study meditation under the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India. John Lennon wrote the song about attempts to get one of his fellow meditation students, actress Mia Farrow’s sister Prudence, to come out of her room after suffering a panic attack. During recording sessions for “The White Album”, Paul McCartney played bass, piano, and drums on the song, the latter the result of the temporary resignation of drummer Ringo Starr from the group.
The most distinctive aspect of “Dear Prudence” is its ethereal, almost foreboding quality, something which is quite uncommon in the Beatles’ discography. The song’s sound is partially due to the fact that the group recorded it on eight-track equipment. However, the arrangement of much of the song is intentionally sparse; after the upbeat power-chord Beach Boys homage of album opener “Back in the U.S.S.R.”, “Dear Prudence” wafts onto the record like a gentle breeze. At first “Dear Prudence” seems nothing more than low-key ballad wrapped in sadness; its strength lies in how it builds up to a fantastic finish that banishes the negative atmosphere just like the sun breaking through on a cloudy day.